112th Annual Conference - Riverside Convention Center, California
Friday, October 31 - Sunday, November 2, 2014

This page is about the 2014 conference. For 2015 conference info, go to PAMLA 2015.

The Alchemy of Alan Moore: Magic as Narratological Device in Promethea

Tracee Howell, University of Pittsburgh, Bradford

I argue that Alan Moore’s Promethea is nothing short of alchemy: a radically instructive magical guide to the graphic medium. Read as a whole, the comic series forms a primer that teaches the reader not only how to decipher a culturally-abjectified text, the comic, but how to best navigate the mystical collaboration that Scott McCloud explains is “at work in the spaces between panels.”


In his comic theorization of the medium, Scott McCloud argued—and demonstrated visually—that comics are “more than” simply hybrid texts, that their juxtaposition of pictorial image and word creates a kind of “magic and mystery” (Understanding Comics 66).  For McCloud, it’s precisely the reader’s rather mysterious experience of movement in a comic, or what he calls the mystical “dance of the seen and the unseen”—the process of connecting word to image within individual comic panels, and making causal connections among panels, that lead to comprehension.  Comics and graphic narratives uniquely require their readers to actively participate in this magical process of reading both what is visibly presented in each panel, and what is invisible, such as the conception of narrative time, for example.  As Cloud writes, “No other artform gives so much to its audience while asking so much from them as well” (92). 

Where better to hunt such a mystical, magical phenomenon than in the work of Alan Moore, legendary deconstructionist and self-professed wizard?  Master of the multi-chronic, of un-logic, of lush and horrid fantasy, Moore is the loving creator of many intriguing graphic narratives to be sure.  But perhaps no comic delves more deeply into McCloud’s notion of compositional alchemy in content, form and style than Moore’s graphic series Promethea (America’s Best Comics, 1999-2005). 

In this paper, I will argue that—via Moore’s storyline, via the dynamic art and ink-work of J.H. Williams and Mick Gray, via the trio’s convention-busting approach to narrative pacing and paneling—Promethea takes us on a revelatory exploration of the comic/graphic novel qua magical imaged-narrative, along the way forcing readers into the kinds of existential “gutters” where more than the simple McCloudian blood may be found. Promethea, which ran as a comic series of 32 issues, is, in Moore’s words, “a protracted rant on magic”:

"The first 11 issues were a precarious balancing act, but by and large people were still thinking, 'Well, it could be a superhero comic, yeah, we'll keep buying it.' Then we got to issue 12, when we did all the tarot stuff?…" (Clarke) 

In the case of Promethea, I want to suggest that such Moorean magic, while certainly academically taboo, is indeed radically instructive.  Read as a whole, the comic series forms a primer that teaches the reader not only how to decipher a culturally abjectified text, the comic or graphic novel, but how to best navigate the mystical collaboration that McCloud explains is “at work in the spaces between panels”.  Promethea is a guide to literacy in the graphic narrative; in giving ourselves up to the text we learn how to read the text, and thus ourselves.  As Annalisa di Liddo points out, “a text whose protagonist is a story cannot but end up becoming a reflection on the ways stories are told and language is used” (Comics as Performance 95).  Since this text is one that is ultimately about the construction of the self—the divine self—or the imaginative, creative self that is for Moore at the core of the magic of human consciousness, Promethea forces the scholary reader especially to become aware, often uncomfortably so, of that continual process of collaborative narrative construction and of our role in this mystery.  

Daring in its radicalism, reveling in its abjection, and, thus, profoundly challenging to read, as a comic/graphic novel Promethea truly is a magical Pandora’s box of a text.  But perhaps this is part of the lesson, part of Promethea’s bewitching gift to humankind: there is never only one way of knowing, never only one story.