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Promethea – a LimboInteractive review

August 17, 2011

tl;dr Version: Bu-bu-but, it’s a freakin’ comic book, you weirdo! What’s so interactive about that?! And where the heck is the Epic Mickey review?!

‘Splain, Lucy Version: The thing about the Promethea comic book series, written between 1999 and 2005 by Alan Moore with the art team of J.H. Williams III, Mick Gray and Jeremy Cox (not to mention a handful of distinctive guest artists* used to tell the back stories of a few of the classic Prometheas—Prometheia, I suppose—to clearly delineate them from the main story), is that some readers, and quite a few critics, were quite vexed and confounded by the complex and somewhat non-linear plot, as well as the insertion of a great deal of exploration of mysticism that more than a few people found inappropriate for a funny book. To the latter I say, “Who told you this was a funny book?”. But to the former, I suggest that perhaps, just perhaps, not all stories are meant to be told on a straight and narrow path.

Boring Version: What that has to do with you folks reading these reviews for insight into interactive storytelling in video games may not be immediately obvious. I shall now attempt to enlighten.

When I first discovered Promethea back around 2000 or thereabouts, I was already several issues behind. And of course, when I finally got all caught up, naturally, Alan and company were still a few years off from completing the story. I guess one could argue that I got to enjoy a passive form of interactivity with the unfolding plot even then. It certainly influenced my writing and art ideas at the time. Concepts I’d had involving split narratives (what I tend to think of as multi-track narrative; I’m also a musician with recording equipment, if that explains my metaphor) were a little difficult for me to sort out in my head until I stumbled across Alan’s work in Promethea and a few other of his ABC titles, and in particular certain early issues of Tom Strong. Other writers were sticking to the plot, even if they were throwing out complex and sometimes indecipherable plots like Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles or Elaine Lee’s Starstruck (both brilliant stories, BTW). But Alan was using tools to reeducate readers and show them that linear narrative and flashbacks were far from the only ways to deliver a story.

That’s not to say that Alan was telling a story that had branching plots—like we see in ‘game books’, IF and certain experimental video games—or non sequiturs like the works of a number of writer/artists** who are best known from the pages of Zap Comix, Metal Hurlant and Heavy Metal Magazine. The kind of non-linear plot progressions that we saw in sequential art between the 60s and early 80s are quite fascinating in their own right, but often left readers of North American comics confused and slightly offended. Alan has a big head, and is famous for making classical linear narrative jump through hoops, but he has a deft hand and an Anglo sensibility about it that jibes much closer to how North American audiences take in sequential plot. He keeps us guessing, but he does build and resolve plot conflict in ways we are comfortable with.

What sets Promethea in particular apart from a number of his previous genre-bending exercises*** is that, in Promethea, the narrative thread not only goes forward and backward, but also sideways and, arguably, up and down. My old buddy, drummer, composer and record producer David Jones, once told me about how sound engineers, even working in stereo, would deliberately pan and EQ specific tracks to inhabit sonic space not merely to the left and right, but above, below and behind you, in an illusion of what modern engineers use 5.1 sound mixes for****. The thing is, those sonic illusions are largely dependent upon where you are positioned within the sonic space, based on speaker placement and chair height. However, when all is in readiness, and Venus is aligned with Mars, you get a musical experience that far surpasses the expected result. Nearly forty years of Dark Side of the Moon fans can attest to this.

I use the allegory of soundscape to illustrate how Promethea doesn’t merely inhabit the pages in front of you but the space around your perceptions. Scott McCloud***** refers to this phenomenon as ‘closure’, and gives simple examples of how closure works in comics: We imagine the continuing shapes of objects that are cropped away by the picture frame; we imagine lesser and greater lengths of time lapse between panels, based not only on the amount of dialogue and action within the panel, but also on the width of panel borders and the spaces—called Gutters—between them; and we use our knowledge and interpretation of the symbolic details of the scenes before us enables us to discern for ourselves how the situation feels, sounds and even smells. The canniest comic writers and artists use these effects to enhance the reader’s experience of the story.

Alan takes it a few steps further. First off, the old theatrical convention of ‘breaking the fourth wall’ is used occasionally to enable certain supernaturally-imbued, cosmically aware figures within the story to be aware not only of what is happening around the protagonists, but in the dimension of the reader. It’s that bit where Puck turns to the audience at the end of Midsummer Nights Dream and apologizes for the artiness and pretensions of the play, bidding them a good night. Only, the figures in Alan’s play deliver more apt messages, and sometimes warnings. It’s a slight trick by modern standards, but Alan generally uses it sparingly, and to great effect.

But he as often as not doesn’t acknowledge the audience at all, but merely moves the perception of the environments around in such a way that you aren’t merely reading but feeling the story on a more intimate, perhaps primal level. We read stories from front to back, but Alan, not content to give you a mere linear plot to illustrate his point, gives you two stories—one visual and one verbal—and a sequential word/number puzzle, all arranged carefully on the same pages, to express both the theme and the principles of the story, as well as the story itself. And all of this is done to explain the significance of the Major Arcanna of the Tarot deck, both for the benefit of the protagonist and the audience, who will be needing said information to follow the story arc to come.

What we come to next is a series of stories taking place on the various spheres of the solar system; not as mere planets but as planes of mystical reality. Each of these individual stories outlines both the overarching plot of the series as well as the undercurrent of mystical significance that follows the plot, informing and explaining it to those patient enough to follow. He makes us flip the book round and around and upside down to read every part of dialogue within the panels, making us decipher clues to  understand what is really happening. He doesn’t punish us for not getting it on the first try, but the tricks he uses to illustrate his points bear closer scrutiny upon revisitation to see if you’ve figured it out now. Nowhere else but in comics can you achieve the effects he uses. Not even video games, with their more obvious forms of gameplay interactivity, can make you turn the monitor upside down to continue following the story******.

Doesn’t sound like much fun, does it? But that’s just it, you see? Sophie Bangs, the human counterpart to our titular heroine, is just an average, if clever and slightly bookish college student with problems very reminiscent of our own lives, or surely of some friends we know. Her mundane problems escalate, accelerate, until we arrive at the concluding arc of the series, where she’s actually left town and gone into hiding from the FBI, who are intent on arresting her as a potential terrorist. So you see, the main plot and all of the character-driven sub-plots are very much down to Earth, even though they take place in a rather futuristic alternate Earth that not merely predicts but sublimates various mass media and technological innovations and takes them to certain ridiculous extremes that could only seem normal in a comic book about a mythical heroine of the realms of imagination coming back to life to instigate the end of the world.

And yet, Sophie is us. Most emphatically just us. No super powers, no super brains, no super anything. She tries to do the right thing, but it often blows up in her face. She tries to be good to the people she loves, but invariably gets them in deeper and deadlier trouble. She’s unremarkable in just about every way. She doesn’t even have one of those unbelievable fantasy heroine figures we are all conditioned to expect from comic book protagonists in North American comics. Truthfully, she’s a bit androgynous, thus compounding the notion that she isn’t merely a role model for disaffected female readers, but for all of us. And when the chips are down and everything goes wrong, she runs away and hides.

Alan engages, informs and entertains us on so many levels, it gets easy to forget that we’re reading a mere comic book. When you get to the end of the series, do you stop to wonder what became of the Five Swell Guys, or the Painted Doll, obvious though cleverly handled pastiches of classic superhero book characters like the Fantastic Four and The Joker? Well, Alan tells us about them as well, but in the build-up to the finish line, their stories seem almost incidental, when you look back on them. And in a way, that’s part of what Alan was trying to get across. I don’t think he was suggesting that the central plot is superfluous, but what he does manage to do is draw your attention to the greater dynamic forces working behind the scenes—and beyond the pages of the book—to bring about an ending that could just as easily been told in a matter of a single issue or six-issue arc (for easy graphic novel binding and marketing later), but without any of the narrative weight a shorter, less-immersive telling could. A single movie might be able to cover the salient points of the story, but you would lose all of the magic used to tell it in this form.

So, am I saying that Promethea is interactive storytelling? Yes. Not as we think of interactivity in games, to be sure, but another kind of interactivity, where the writer challenges us to dig deeper and try to really understand the implications of the plot, not merely as spectators but as full participants. By the end of the story, we are almost invited to feel as if we are in the story ourselves, even as he draws to a close the whole of his efforts with ABC Comics. He bids us farewell, but makes it clear that the story, much like our own lives, is not truly over. The end of the world is not what we’ve been taught to believe it to be, but is merely an ending of old things that were overdue. Could he have made this point in a less esoteric fashion? Perhaps, but would you have cared as much if he hadn’t found a way to drag you, more-or-less figuratively and literally, into the story yourself? I’m betting not so much.

And that’s where it succeeds on so many levels, including that of interactivity. The final issue is a sort of epilogue, but it’s designed in such a way that you are encouraged, even required, to basically dissect the book and reconstruct it in whatever fashion you need to decipher the message. It might seem a bit overindulgent, but Alan clearly wants you to realize the importance of what you’ve been reading. He disguised his grimoire—although in this case more of a magical primer than a proper spell book—in the trappings of a science/pulp fiction, and encouraged you to find your own understanding, but he doesn’t allow you to merely be a spectator, like so many other comic stories are forced to do as you turn the last page and put the book away. For a static medium with no blinky lights, animations or musical cues, that’s not a bad trick.

I’m sure there’s a lot more I could say about this, and this article could surely use some visuals to enhance the experience, but I need to take a shower and go run some errands, so I hope you’ll pardon me and allow me to revisit this article later. I guess that would make this an interactive review, too.

Particularly if someone actually decides to comment for a change. 😉

NOTE: Next Redefining article coming very shortly. It’s almost done.


* Memorable guest artists from the series include Charles Vess and Jose Villarubia, as well as a couple of truly great Winsor McCay homages done in the ABC annual specials, as drawn by Eric Shanower.

** I’m thinking especially of Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud and Alan Kupperberg, but I’m sure there are a few comics creators I’m forgetting. I’ll edit this bit later, when I remember their names again.

*** Alan is famous for writing such brilliantly unconventional graphic novels as V For Vendetta, Marvel Man, and of course, Watchmen. But he also really challenges his audience in From Hell and Lost Girls. All of these, however, are still relatively linear narratives, with perhaps a dash of flashback, parallel narrative and especially juxtaposition to make certain wry comments on other parts of his stories.

**** In the 70s, engineers and producers like Alan Parsons were also experimenting with a new music format called Quadrophonic Sound, which involved placing not two but four speakers around a room, to create a greater sense of three-dimensional placement in the soundspace. Of course, it was a bit before its time, and while audiophiles of the era were quick to adopt it, it never really caught on industry-wide, due to the lack of home systems that could faithfully reproduce quad sound.

The concept didn’t really find traction until the ‘Cocooning’ trend of the 90s, when middle-aged home owners no longer wanted to go to the theater or concert venue to experience shows, but wanted the immersion effect thereof, by having a big screen and surround sound in their own homes.  This necessitated a different system than the old quad sound setup, owing to most TVs having their own center channel. Thus, 5.1 Surround was born.

***** Scott McCloud, Scott McCloud, does what few comics creators can. Spins a yarn, teaches us, using cartoon images of himself. Look out, there goes that Scott McCloud (yeah, I know it doesn’t rhyme. You try rhyming McCloud with anything involving teaching comics theory using comics).

****** Well, I suppose you can if you own a PC tablet or iPad, but I still haven’t got one, so I’m resentful and refuse to acknowledge you guys until I get one, too. I’m waiting until colour e-Ink readers become available in Canada. I DO have one of those widescreen monitors that can be turned 90 degrees vertically, but you can’t really flip it all the way around, so that still doesn’t count.

One Comment leave one →
  1. August 17, 2011 5:47 pm

    I really should read that sometime.

    (There, a comment for you!)

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