When Words Collide

Tue, October 20th, 2009 at 12:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

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PROMETHEA, ABSOLUTELY

Absolute Promethea Cover Detail

I suppose "Absolute Watchmen" started it all, at least for me. I never even glanced at "Absolute Authority" or "Absolute Danger Girl" on the shelves of my local shop, but with "Watchmen," well, here was a comic that deserved the oversized $100 hardcover treatment. "Watchmen" was already larger than life by the time it was released as an Absolute Edition, so it wasn't difficult to justify the cost of that particular volume.

It deserved a space on my shelf, and Dave Gibbons's art never looked so good.

I'll admit it. I became an Absolute junkie. Though I never ventured into the second-hand markup market to get those Absolutes I missed (well, that's not completely true, as I tracked down an out-of-print "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" volume, but since I got it for well below cover price, I can hardly count it as a "markup"), I picked up every Absolute volume that came into sight after "Absolute Watchmen."

From "Absolute Crisis on Infinite Earths" to "Absolute Sandman Vol. 4," I overloaded my shelves with enormous, slickly-reproduced art books that used to be comic books. And make no mistake, it's the art that matters here, whether its Frank Miller's formative experimentation in "Ronin" or Jim Lee's chiseled figure drawing in "Superman: For Tomorrow," these Absolute editions -- with their large pages and heavy paper stock and luscious reproduction quality -- these things are all about the art of the comic book story. The narrative is important, but you can get lost in these pages, and that provides a new experience to enjoy.

I'd consider myself somewhat of an expert about these Absolute Editions after reading so many of them, and a bit of a snob too. I want all my hardcover collections to read like Absolute Editions, and when they fall distinctly short, I'm less tolerant than I might have been if the bar hadn't been set so high. Are these Absolute Editions worth the (very) high price? I think they are, almost without reservation.

Yet I didn't pick up "Absolute Promethea" Book One when it first came out. It's not that I don't like Alan Moore and J. H. Williams III's magical, not-so-mystery tour. I suppose it's that I was trying to be a bit more thrifty with my comic book purchases these days, what with other family expenses taking priority (and rightly so). "Absolute Promethea" is a book I assumed I'd get someday, maybe over the holiday season, when I could splurge a bit and throw some extra money at a book that would make a nice addition to the shelf.

But the stars must have aligned, and the karma must have been in the right, uh, quadrant (I'm really bad at these mystical metaphors, as you can see), because Wildstorm sent me a review copy of "Absolute Promethea," and now I get to share the joy with all of you. It's more joyful for me, I realize, but in telling you how great this book is, you'll get some kind of vicarious thrill, right? No? Well, then use your imagination. Because that's where the magic lies.

THE BOOK: THE THING ITSELF

A Panel Detail

Yes, "Absolute Promethea" more than deserves a space at the table of Absolute Editions (and no, I won't pick on "Absolute Hush" when I say that, because every family needs a crazy cousin who talks a lot about he exploits and doesn't really come through in the end), and I would go so far to say that it's one of the best-looking Absolute Editions ever. Oversized J. H. Williams III trumps just about everything, and even though the first 12 issues of "Promethea" as collected in the Absolute volume are relatively conservative compared to where the series ends up, we still get page after page of incredibly ornate (but with symbolic meaning!) layouts, decorative panel borders that are integral to the story, and shifts ins style to suit the narrative.

J. H. Williams is more than good, as anyone who's read his work knows, and to see his stuff reproduced this well, at the Absolute size -- it just makes me embarrassed that I even hesitated to pick up this volume for even a second. If the Absolute series of books are a series of art books, and they truly are, then it wouldn't be much of a collection without a representative sample of J. H. Williams III. "Absolute Promethea" simply looks amazing.

Though issue #11 is admittedly annoying to read in this format, with its landscape-formatted pages. This book needs to be rested somewhere while you're reading it. It's fine for the other issues, where you can rest its spine on the table, or on your lap, or on your chest (whatever you're into), but you can't do that when the pages are printed sideways. You either have to hold the book aloft, letting the pages hang down (which is a difficult act to sustain when the thing weights fifty-seven pounds, or what feels like fifty-seven pounds to those without extensive weight training) or you have to lay the whole book flat on the table and hover over it -- maybe climbing on a stool or something to peer down upon it.

Issue #11 is the worst of the bunch anyway, with a simplistic monster attack plot and uninspiring widescreen layouts on almost every page. So it's little harm. Little foul.

Because did I mention that the book looks amazing, otherwise? It surely does.

And it even forgoes the dust jacket, featuring just a laminate cover (with a gorgeous Williams III illustration) sliding into a slipcase. That's a bonus, as far as I'm concerned, because I never understood the need for a slipcase and a dust jacket on these Absolute Editions, and what usually ends up happening is that the dust jacket gets folded or chomped at the edges as you slide the books back in to their cases. And it's all kinds of overkill. So, good call, "Absolute Promethea."

THE STORY OF ALL STORIES

The Tarot as History

If for some reason you have never read "Promethea," this is definitely the format in which to read it. You get a greater ratio of J. H. Williams III art compared to Alan Moore story (proportionally speaking, if the story is exactly the same and the art is 33% bigger, well, you get more), and since the art is the star of the show, you might as well enjoy it at this immense scale.

But this isn't one of Alan Moore's lesser works by any means. It's a very different kind of work, different even than his other work in the America's Best Comics line. "Absolute Promethea" Volume One (with two more volumes to follow, presumably), gives us the beginning of Alan Moore's narrative essay on magic and imagination.

That might sound boring. It's not.

Instead, Moore tells a story about Promethea, a character who amounts to a goddess of the imagination, attaching herself to a human host every generation or so. It's, I suppose, his version of a Wonder Woman archetype, but instead of the pantheon of Greek or Roman gods as her backdrop, he uses the "Immateria," which is the land of imagination.

The story begins in a relatively simple manner, though the artwork is jam-packed with details that make it look more complex than it really is. Still, since this is a series largely about visual symbolism and the meaning behind the symbolism around us, it's appropriate that it's so visually dense from the very beginning.

Sophie Bangs, a student researching a term paper, becomes the new Promethea, or Promethea becomes Sophie Bangs, depending on how you look at it. So it's Wonder Woman as filtered through the Shazam effect, you might say, but Moore isn't interested in telling anything close to a traditional superhero story in this series. You'll find the trappings of such a series, and the popular science heroes, "The Five Swell Guys" play the background role of the typical superhero comic book characters, but Moore uses Bangs and Promethea to explore the history and power of magic.

And it's the kind of magic that anyone who's interested in reading comic books can relate to, because it's the magic of words and images. The magic of pictures and symbols and ideas. It's the magic of imagination.

The first eight issues as reprinted in this Absolute edition seem to indicate that Moore's exploration of magic will be part of Sophie's larger story about good vs. evil, about a young woman learning the ways of the world. In other words, it seems like an amazingly well-told, but conventional, story. A bildungsroman with supernatural trappings, like demons and goddesses and super-powers.

Issue #1 Original Cover

It comments upon itself in more than one way, by having a straight-faced Alan Moore introduction (originally presented as back-matter in the original series) which places "Promethea" in historical context, yet is totally fabricated. By having the "historical characters" from that introduction appear as characters in the comic itself. By having subverted archetypes and a world in which Weeping Gorilla is the most popular comic book of the time, though all he does is cry and think about sad things. So even within its "conventional" story, it plays with the genre, and plays with its own form.

But by issue #9, Moore begins shifting away from traditional narrative and toward almost complete exposition. It's not an immediate shift, and issue #11, as mentioned, features a diversion into monster-land, but the last few issues reprinted in "Absolute Promethea" Book One are, overall, quite different from the first few. They are more about telling the history and significance of magic and symbolism than about showing. And though its Sophie Bangs who's being initiated into the mysteries of the world, it's really the reader who's on that journey. It's the reader who is being initiated, through the erudition of Moore's words and Williams III's powerfully evocative images.

If you can settle in to Moore's more essayistic style in the latter part of this book, then you'll be ready for the rest of the series. If not, then at least you can enjoy the first dozen issues of "Promethea" for what they are: a brilliant showcase for one of the best artists in the business.

"Absolute Promethea" Book One is a superior addition to the Library O' Oversized Hardcovers, and unless a magical Wildstorm pixie drops a copy of the book into your lap, you're going to have to shell out quite a few bucks to get one for yourself. But it's certainly worth it. It's five-star stuff in more than five-star packaging.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" (which explores "Zenith" in great detail) and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen every day at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

Follow Tim on Twitter: gbfiremelon

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TAGS:  when words collide, absolute promethea, wildstorm, alan moore, jh williams iii

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