Bob's Comics Reviews February 2003 Arrows


This month: two rather different offerings that both feature archetypical Ideas made manifest, play off the allure of pop culture, and reference Winsor McCay.

Alan Moore, J.H. Williams, Mick Gray: Promethea
So. After so totally destroying superhero comics that no intelligent person could write a straight-ahead hero again, Alan Moore is now writing a slew of straight-ahead superhero comics? Ayup. Being Alan Moore, can he make them rock with great rocking? Ayup.

Sophie Bangs

A college student named Sophie Bangs writes a term paper on a recurring pop-culture icon named Promethea, who's appeared as a fairy queen in an 18th century poem, a comic strip similar to Little Nemo, a series of pulp adventure stories, and a long-running comic book. (All these, in case you're wondering if you missed something, are Moore's inventions.)

She soon discovers that Promethea is real-- or more precisely, that the idea of Promethea takes possession of the writers or artists who are interested in her, and enters the physical world through them. In fact, she becomes the latest Promethea-- she now has superpowers and really fine breasts and a number of deadly enemies trying to kill her.

As story, it's marvellous; Sophie is cute and game and scared; her enemies are interesting, and the former Prometheas are nicely diverse. The details are great-- I particularly liked the demons from the Goetia, who take a cab (rather than travelling as a swarm of wasps) just to see what it's like; the Weeping Gorilla, a comics character in Moore's alternative 1999 who speaks in sad pop epigrams ("that Tamagotchi trusted me"); the Five Swell Guys, bickering "science heroes" who could have stepped out of Watchmen. It's also pleasant, in the testosterone-soaked comics world, to read a comic with so many good female characters.

Now, a few years ago Moore decided to become a magician... not the type that does conjuring tricks (though it wouldn't surprise me at all if that's a sideline)-- the type that speaks to ancient supernatural powers. As Sophie learns more about Promethea, she hears all about the ten spheres and the 22 paths; the four magical weapons, the exalted female principle and why it smells of myrrh. At some level Moore actually believes in all this stuff... in interviews he mentions that he's chatted with Asmoday, and worships a Roman snake-god. Moore doesn't even want the rest of us to believe this (he explains that according to his research the god was a charlatan, anyway); for the reader, what all this means is that there's a rare depth of meaning and allusion to the comic.

Cheap fantasy is cobbled together from clichés and doesn't even hang together on the surface. Fantasy like Moore's or Tolkien's or Bourgeon's feel solid, trustworthy; you feel that you could pick up the books on the wall and read them, or turn the camera angle 90 degrees and follow some other story in equal detail. There are no minor characters in Moore; even those who appear briefly seem to have fully developed lives and ways of speaking.

The richness, mythmaking, storytelling ability, and even the humor are strongly reminiscent of Moore's pal Neil Gaiman. Promethea has the advantage over Sandman and Watchmen, however, in the quality of the art and color. It looks similar to whatever Big Comics is doing these days-- which initially put me off; I'll take Jaime Hernandez's clean, striking black-and-white any day over gaudy melodrama. But J.H. Williams III and Mick Gray are the perfect complement to Moore: the surface is stunningly drawn and dramatic, while the constant stylistic experimentation creates visual pleasures and reinforces the deeper themes. When we're reviewing past Prometheas, for instance, they imitate the styles of the times; a technology-gone-amok story is drawn entirely in long flat panels like a movie screen; panel boundaries morph on demand (and always appropriately) into picture frames, snakes, stained-glass windows, Art Nouveau curlicues. One notable two-page spread shows a floor of a hospital; the rooms are used as separate panels, while the corridors serve as a panel as well.

One issue is devoted to a whirlwind lecture on magic and cosmology-- the sort of thing Dave Sim illustrated by having a guy in a black robe walk around interminably on the surface of the moon. Moore's own dose of sugar is to deliver the lecture in rhymed couplets (and tell a few jokes); the artists create what is essentially a single 24-page painting. You'd have to buy two copies of the issue and cut them up to see the whole thing (and make sure to attach the two ends together, since the last page leads back to the first). You can spend a happy hour reading and re-reading this comic, tracing the visual variations. And if this weren't enough, each page includes an anagram of PROMETHEA which resonates with the pictured tarot card: APE MOTHER; O HAREM PET, METH OPERA....

If all this sounds odd, it is. Moore's mind is like a Victorian museum: overstuffed, antiqued, out of tune with modernity, but never dull.

Some kudos are due also to the colorist, Jeromy Cox... finally American comics can play with color the way French artists did 25 years ago. Promethea also benefits from the varied and evocative styles of Sandman's letterer, Todd Klein.

Kim (and Simon) Deitch: The Boulevard of Broken Dreams
Waldo Kim Deitch, a member of the R. Crumb generation, tends to get rave reviews of the "who'd'a thunk it was possible in comics?" school. He's not quite as accessible as (say) Maus or Ghost World, largely due to the busy, expressionist art; but the story is certainly impressive.

Broken Dreams is essentially a history of animation in this century, focussing on a third-rate animation studio called Fontaine Fables, and its star character Waldo, an id-filled cat. Waldo is the creation of star animator Ted Mishkin... or perhaps, rather like Promethea, he's an eternal Idea alternately inspiring and haunting Ted. Ted has more than his share of troubles: an unrequited love for fellow animator Lil Freer; a competition with his more well-adjusted brother Al, the studio's business manager; alcoholism; run-ins with Da Man: money-minded executives who keep wanting to Disneyfy the raunchy Waldo into something cute and stupid.

And if that weren't enough, there's Winsor Newton, based on Winsor McKay, to take the story back to the dawn of animation. As McCay performed a vaudeville act with his animated creation Gertie the Dinosaur, Newton performs with Milton the Mastodon.

I have to say, there's two things that prevent me from giving in fully to all of this. One is the art, which is more or less a cross between the labored '60s underground style and that of the animated cartoons of the '20s and '30s. Although this style works great for drug-induced visions or the madness boiling over inside Ted's head, it's a little tiring, and lacks clarity. (The sample doesn't show this; I probably picked it because its clean lines appeal more to my own aesthetics.) On the plus side, the fact that fantasy and reality are drawn pretty much the same way fits a story whose protagonist, after all, has trouble keeping them apart.

The second thing is that I just don't get the animus toward anything in animation past 1935. Disney was something of the Steven Spielberg of his day: for the real cinéastes, too popular to like and yet too skilled to dismiss. We're probably all too over-exposed to Disney characters, but watch any of the classic features and you'll very likely be entertained. But beyond this, if Deitch thinks that there was no room after Disney for wise-cracking and hilarious brutality... eh, what's up, Doc?

Judging from the bits of Waldo cartoons Deitch shows us, his taste runs to slapstick and whimsical musicals featuring funny animals and anthromorphic machinery. Well, mine doesn't; but animation is so expensive that none of us can really get all we want.

Still, it's not that I didn't like the book. It's told with passion, and we can always use more crankily obsessive art. And if you're interested in animation, the stroll through the last century is a lot of fun.

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