Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

21 December 2010

Promethea, Books 3 and 4

Collects: Promethea #13-8 and 19-25 (2001-2, 2002-3)

Released: May 2003 (Book 3) and May 2005 (Book 4) (DC / ABC)

Format: 160 (Book 3) and 192 (Book 4) pages / color / $14.99 each / ISBN: 9781401200947 (Book 3) and 9781401200312 (Book 4)

What is this?: Sophie Bangs, embodying the legendary and semi-mythical warrior Promethea, explores the nature of reality, which isn’t as exciting as it sounds.

The culprits: Writer Alan Moore and penciler J.H. Williams III

To celebrate the week leading up to Christmas, the commonality of the books I’m reviewing this week is … penciler J.H. Williams III. And lesbians, I suppose. I’m not sure how that relates to secular or religious Christmas, but that’s what we’ve got.

In any event, I was going to write separate reviews for Promethea: Book 3 and Promethea: Book 4, but they are so similar I found it hard to think of a way in which I could write something different about them.

Promethea, Book 3 coverFor those of you who aren’t a big fan of symbolic journeys, please stop reading this review now and use your time more productively. If you read this, it will be a gigantic waste of your time, as the majority of both books is Promethea, controlled by college student Sophie Bangs, exploring the nature of reality and fiction, the divine and the profane, with a previous bearer of the Promethea identity. There’s a great deal of kabbalah, tarot, language of magic, numerology, and deities involved. Come to think of it, those things might be a red flag for some readers as well.

The symbolic, highly subjective landscapes give Williams a great deal of room for creativity, and he comes through with a number of excellent layouts that are both intriguing and eye-catching. They take more thought than most comic book panels to take in, with readers frequently having to stop and admire (or decipher) his double-page spreads. Although I usually don’t mention such things, colorist Jeromy Cox has a lot to do with the success of Williams’s art (as does inker Mick Gray). It would be easy to muddle or bury the pencils under bad inks or a bad color job, given the amount of detail on the page, but both come through admirably. Cox has an additional remit: Moore often uses a single color for an issue, and working with hues of blue or (the more difficult) red seems like a difficult challenge. Cox comes through with flying, er, colors.

As I mentioned, the detail and symbols in the art can stop the reader cold as they take it in. That normally could cause trouble for the story, which should flow without having to take breaks for art appreciation. Unfortunately — or fortunately, depending on how you want to look at it — there’s not much of a story here. There’s a lot of lecturing from Moore, but I’m not sure enough happens in the two books to fill an entire trade paperback. If you are fascinated by magic or cosmology or ancient mythology or philosophy, then this will not bother you. You will be able to sit back and drink in Moore’s explanations on how the universe really works, beyond the coarse world we see from day to day.

Promethea, Book Four coverFor the rest of us, however, it can get quite tedious. Moore is teaching the readers a lesson, divulging to us his personal philosophy, while the story of Promethea and Sophie’s development is dripped out to us without a lot of action to accompany it. For one book, that would be fine; for two — a year of comic book releases (or two, actually, since the book was delayed) — it’s a bit much. The bloom is off the rose of the book’s background details and jokes, such as the Weeping Gorilla and the city’s science heroes and mayoral difficulties (although I enjoyed Williams sneaking himself, his wife, and Moore into the foreground of a panel in Book 3). The replacement Promethea (a combination of a previous Promethea and Sophie’s friend, Stacia) provides the real fun of the book, but she’s on page far too little, even as she tries to wrest the title of “true” Promethea from Sophie. A simmering subplot emerges fully at the end, but still … it’s not enough.

I don’t know … I get the feeling I’m being too shallow. Moore is discussing the big questions of life, and I’m complaining about the lack of explosions and admiring the pretty pickchurs. But I know that no writer or text should be able to guilt me into thinking my interpretation is not worthy simply because I didn’t enjoy the “deep” message that was given unto me, so I’ll have to stick by my complaints. Besides, if you’re going to be didactic in fiction, it’s usually more effective to use the fiction as the candy coating to make the teaching go down more easily; Moore melts all but the thinnest patina of sweet, sweet plot before handing us the philosophy.

The art sure is pretty, though; until I read these books, I had no idea the J.H. Williams everyone was drooling over in Batwoman was the guy who had illustrated Promethea. It should have been obvious, really; innovative layout, occasionally confusing flow, with lovely drawings that lend themselves to expressive and inventive uses of the color palette. It’s the same M.O., even down to the strong female protagonist who likes to hang around with other strong females while being hunted by female antagonists. Looking at Wikipedia, it appears Promethea and Batwoman’s run in Detective Comics are Williams’s two longest runs in his comics career, which began in the early ‘90s.

It’s fortunate, though, that the plot gets going again at the end of Book 4, making it virtually certain that readers (myself included) will have interest in finishing the series’ final volume, Book 5. Since I enjoyed the more plot-heavy Book 1 and Book 2, I’m still looking forward to the finale, in spite of Moore’s philosophies and only partially because of the art.

Rating: America’s Best Comics symbol America’s Best Comics symbol (2 of 5 for both Book 3 and 4)

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