Beautifully illustrated, epic in scale and an engrossing, frustrating reading experience, Absolute Promethea may very well represent late-period Alan Moore's finest hour. So why does it feel like there's going to be a test at the end?
Promethea was always the strongest of Alan Moore's turn-of-the-century America's Best Comics line; less throwaway nostalgia than Tom Strong, less full of indulgent parody than Tomorrow Stories and more regular than Top Ten, it was the series that seemed to have a "point" beyond simple entertainment. Reading the new oversized collection of the series' first twelve issues, the greater intent behind the entertainment becomes obvious - but also, when taken in one sitting, threatens to overpower the story more than once.
On the more straight-forward level, the story follows teenager Sophie Bangs as she investigates (and then becomes) the mythical heroine Promethea, who has existed for centuries, possessing those who were able to conjure her through literary means. And on that level, it's a very engaging, if slightly derivative, read; much of the fun from that story comes from the asides and injokes than the superhero antics Sophie finds herself in the middle of, especially given the Joker rip-off bad guy. But if Moore's source material seems a little too obvious there, it's because his real interest is in the other part of the series, which is essentially a magical handbook; as Sophie learns the history of Promethea and the earlier Prometheas before her, Moore repeatedly steps outside of the superhero narrative to teach her - and, by extention, the reader - his rules of magic.
How much this will be of interest to the reader depends on how interested the reader is in magic, and specifically Moore's magic; as the series took more and more of a diversionary direction into the more magical realms - the final issue reprinted in the Absolute edition is literally an entire issue of Moore explaining magic via talking snake heads - Promethea becomes a much more narrowly-focused book, with parts that (in retrospect) foretell Moore's own retreat from the mainstream with books like Lost Girls. For my part, I found it interesting enough to keep reading, but also much harder to genuinely care about; it was as if the series changed from a straight-forward narrative to a series of lectures from someone who didn't have the perspective on his subject to necessarily remember to tell newcomers why they should care.
Throughout the whole thing, however, artists JH Williams III and Mick Gray shine; even as Moore loses the narrative thread or falls into (self-)parody at times, the book continues to look amazing, with a sense of design and character that has only since been outdone by Williams' own subsequent work on Seven Soldiers and especially Detective Comics. While I'm unconvinced about the pricetag ($100) of the Absolute edition of the series - especially as it features no new material from the two much-cheaper paperback editions it collects other than an afterword by Brad Meltzer - the chance to see this artwork on a larger scale is very welcome indeed.
Absolute Promethea, then, is a difficult book to recommend. The series itself, much less so - although it's not for everyone, especially as it shifts from superhero comic to magical history textbook - but the high price of the Absolute edition genuinely makes me think that everyone who isn't buying the book solely for the artwork should seek out the paperbacks, instead.
Absolute Promethea is available in comic stores now.