Hopefully you enjoyed Thanksgiving if you’re in America or an American elsewhere. If you’re not one of those things, you could have eaten way too much food last Thursday anyway, no one would have blamed you. What I’m saying, basically, is that Thanksgiving makes us all American, like St. Patrick’s Day makes us all Irish.
OK, all right, moving on. Have you heard of Alan Moore? I bet you have. He has an amazing beard, a history of being angry at companies, and oh yeah he wrote Watchmen. I once horrified a professor by saying I thought Watchmen was good, but kinda dated and not really the greatest comic book ever written — something the professor said unironically. It doesn’t help that I like Promethea waaaaayy more. So let’s talk about that comic instead!
The guy who runs the comic shop where I used to live said, when a friend bought the first volume of Promethea, that he read it and he’s convinced Alan Moore discovered the secret to the universe somewhere. The comic itself is absolutely about that sort of voyage into the inner- and outer-worlds of enlightenment. But it’s also about smart-slime and comic artists and poetry and acrobatic Joker analogues and science heroes and, well, everything. Its thesis is a simple one: a theory of magic is a theory of everything, because magic is the structuring metaphor-vision one uses to deal with the entire world while constantly restructuring the structure according to acceptable input.
Let me try to make sense of that. Magic is, according to various sources like Mike and Mack (the snakes on Promethea’s Caduceus), Jack Faust, and the long line of past Prometheas, the inevitable energy of life itself, structured according to our experience of life. Symbols gain meaning, gain momentum, through their constant use and reference, in the same way a magician creates a talisman by constantly running certain symbols, ideas, or thought patterns across it in his or her mind.
So, keep this in mind here — this is a comic about creating and manipulating images and symbols, generally about creating structures with meaning to the individual making the structure in order to empower themselves and others. Let me go out on a limb now and make the point that the comic functions as a spell itself, restructuring symbols in what Douglas Adams once called “a cunning order.”
Well, so what? The first volume of Promethea begins a lesson about tarot cards that finishes in volume two with a psychedelic journey through the major arcana, accompanied by a (fairly standard, and admittedly western European focused) history of humankind and a joke from Aleister Crowley. Twenty-two pages, twenty-two cards. There’s an obvious appeal of tarot cards in a comic, since both are visual storytelling devices. But comic books often tell their stories in similar ways. A series of images is laid out in a pattern, possibly different every page / spread. Each image relates to every other in a way that is spatial and atemporal. Every panel of a comic takes place at the same time. We impose the order on the reading, though with suggestions from outside sources (like habits of reading left-right or right-left). The act of reading itself becomes a magical act, as it is an act of creating meaning out of literally unconnected images we connect figuratively. All the technical stuff about making sense of a comic you can dig out of some of the middle chapters of Understanding Comics, this isn’t a world-changing idea here, but Promethea layers onto that a sense of the act of reading being magic — actual, practical magic, not “magic” in the Saturday morning reading is power thing (though, of course, by extension all acts of reading are the same practical magic).
Now, why does all this matter? So a guy who practices magic wrote a comic about magic, in which the comic itself is magic and the act of reading the comic is magic. The main character gets the ability to embody the spirit of human imagination, which she does by writing poems about herself becoming the spirit until it actually happens. Cool, fine, whatever.
But it’s significant because it promises an answer to the sort of serious philosophical questions that this shit is always about. I said at the beginning that Alan Moore apparently knows the secret to the universe. And he does. And he gives it to anyone who reads the comic. It’s simple, actually, because like all good answers it’s a method for reaching conclusions, rather than a conclusion itself. It’s not that the universe is made of magic (or science — note that both happily co-exist in Promethea, probably because both are the products of humankind’s mind and traditions, existing as much in the “Immateria” as Promethea does when not on the mortal plane).
The answer is to interpret. Nothing is fact, nothing is “real.” There is a reality around us, of course, but what matters is how we interface with it. The interface we use to deal with the world is a result of our experiences, our ideas, our mental habits, and our physical existence — not only the physical existence. Nearly all of those aspects can be manipulated, to make the interface whatever we want. There is a significant cyberpunk layer to Promethea, with TEXTure prattling on whenever the characters are in public, relating the latest news and gossip in a way that would make Spider Jerusalem tear his hair out (if he had any left). That’s because this interface, this way of interacting with the world around one, can be programmed like a computer GUI or a web browser. Just because your childhood gave you Internet Explorer doesn’t mean you’re stuck with it. You can get a different one, or if you’re really good at this stuff, break into IE and fix it (the analogy breaks down a little, I admit, since no one really ever does that to IE, but bear with me here). Magic, the stuff Alan Moore is specifically advocating, has turned in the twenty-first century into an active way to reprogram those internet browsers in our brains, influenced by psychology and neurology as much as by shamanism and wizardry. Many magical texts today read like therapy books. The only difference (in my experience at least) being that magic, using the traditional language of mysticism and such, says, with a sidelong wink, that there is real change you can make to the world. In the theory, of course, most writers reveal that the change one is making is to how one perceives the world, which effectively changes the world for the user, if not everyone else. Therapy might say the same thing, but it’s a bit easier to practice when the practical page of your textbook talks about what will change and the theoretical page deals with the perceptual changes in one’s own outlook and methods of dealing with the world. The method of magical practice is to figure out what one needs and then to bury that desire in a layered symbolism that won’t get in the way. It’s easier to respond to an image of a bull destroying the opposition (the “devil’s” horns in metal music were introduced by Ronnie James Dio, who got them from his grandmother, because they were the virile bull’s horns destroying the influence of the evil eye) than a long, rationalized thought that “he can’t really affect me, I am my own person and under no influence right now but my own.” The horns are way easier to throw up. Then all the other stuff appears in one’s subconscious, where it can effect more lasting change.
Let’s wrap it up before I nag your ear off. Basically, Promethea is a textbook for this stuff. It’s about itself, and itself is a method, not a conclusion. There are plenty of conclusions in the text as well, about the importance of art, of the imagination, and even adaptation, but what I always take away from the comic is the way — in a very Tao sense — that can be followed in many ways, but leads to the same place.