BY Gabriel Coxhead in Frieze | 05 MAY 02
Featured in
Issue 67

Myth Universe

Fired up by Promethea

BY Gabriel Coxhead in Frieze | 05 MAY 02

It's possible that Promethea (2000), the most recent offering from comics legend Alan Moore, was intended to rectify the damage done by Moore's best-known work, Watchmen (1986). While Watchmen intricately and remorsefully deconstructed the idea of the superhero (and by extension the dominant genre of superhero comics), almost two decades later Promethea is an attempt at reconstruction.

It's fitting, therefore, that its central theme is the indestructibility of ideas. Promethea is a kind of warrior goddess, the representative of Immateria - a magical realm that is essentially the collective unconscious of the human race. It's a place where myths are given form and ideas never die, where gods and monsters exist simply because people believe, or once believed, in them. Individuals in the real world who become possessed by the idea of Promethea also become magically possessed by the warrior herself. She is conjured up through art and the power of imagination - by an 18th-century poet, by an illustrator of a 1920s pulp fantasy magazine, by the various authors of a superhero comic from the 1940s to the mid-1990s, and, presently, by a teenage New York girl researching a paper on the perennial Promethea story. Different times interweave. The imaginary is real. Promethea is a living symbol, words made flesh.

With elements borrowed from Greco-Roman and Egyptian mythology, Jungian symbolism, shamanism, tarot lore and the Kabbala, Promethea is, Moore has admitted, 'a magical rant, seemingly disguised as a superhero comic'. But, as magical rants go, it's a damn sight better than a Herman Hesse novel. After all, who better than Moore to deliver such a rant: always the English eccentric, since 1994 he's been a self-declared shaman and mystic. It's difficult not to read Promethea as an index of Moore's own spiritual awakening, and the writing sometimes feels mildly didactic. Rejecting the dark cynicism and atheistic rationalism that pervaded his previous work, Moore stresses the limitless magic of the imagination and the power of myth. Or perhaps it's simply that Moore - after the dystopianism of V for Vendetta (1990), the political paranoia of Watchmen and the sheer morbidity of From Hell (2000) - just wanted to produce something lighter and more fun.

Hence the return to the superhero comic. It was, after all, the genre in which Moore first made his name as a writer, with Miracleman (1993), Swamp Thing (1987) and, of course, Watchmen. But the comics boom of the 1980s also led to the flooding of the market with carelessly written titles, and as readership figures fell, the superhero genre seemed in jeopardy. Recently, as well as guest-writing issues of mainstream superhero titles, Moore has set up America's Best Comics. It publishes not only Promethea but also three other superhero titles, with more forthcoming. Scripted by Moore, they seek to redefine, and therefore re-establish, the superhero genre. This is perhaps Moore's own heroic mission: to rescue readers from badly written stories, and to save mainstream comics.

Plus, of course, to have fun. And there are few things more fun than a beautiful young woman, scantily clad in gold armour, righteously zapping blue bolts of light into the faces of two sharp-suited, heat-packing hitmen from Hell.