In 1999, Alan Moore began America’s Best Comics. Moore had already had an amazing career prior to his creation of this new line of comic. His involvement in American comics had already lasted almost two decades. Included in this span was one of the greatest and certainly most acclaimed comic series of all times, Watchmen. However, Moore’s last business venture had failed. He had hired on to revive a sputtering line of comics. Despite widespread changes and critical acclaim, the line failed commercially. There were some that argued that the super hero comic was dead, and this was merely the proof. After all, if Alan Moore could not have revived the super hero, no one could. Moore did not believe that the super hero was dead; at least not the basic ideas behind the formation of super heroes. Henceforth, that is what he began to look for in his new project. In an interview with Moore on Salon.com, Sridhar Pappu stated, “Essence was what he was interested in here -- taking just the plain nub of what makes super heroes appealing and fusing it with a progressive sensibility -- something that can be retrograde and avant-garde at the same time. So you get the best of what comics were, sort of distilled in some way to make the fuel for what comics will be” (“Salon”). Moore felt that he had to save the super hero comic.
This explains why America’s Best Comics was drawn by many great industry talents, but it does not explain why Moore could only trust himself to write them all. Not only did he write each one, but also each book was to be an all-new character invented by Moore. After all, the only way to truly add to the medium was to come up with something new and original, and he felt that he merely knew what he wanted to achieve and if it failed this time, he knew he could completely blame himself. For the first five books in the line, Moore chose The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, a book about a sort of team of heroes made up of characters from late nineteenth century British fictional characters, like The Invisible Man, Captain Nemo, Dr. Jekyl, etc. Tomorrow Stories, an anthology of four short stories; Top Ten, a book based upon “NYPD Blue” or “Hill Street Blues” only set in a place where every resident has some form of super powers. His next was Tom Strong, a book in the vein of all the pulp novel and adventure reel heroes of the early twentieth century. The last of the five is Promethea. Promethea, drawn by J.H. Williams III (the penciller) and Mick Gray (the inker, which are terms explained later) is the story of Sophie Bangs, a college student who has decided to do a term paper on an obscure fictional character, Promethea, that had been embedded in the culture and stories of America. Eventually, through an elaborate set of circumstances, Sophie is forced to invoke Promethea, who turns out to be the living embodiment of stories. By writing about her, Sophie at the same time merges with and channels Promethea. Sophie must now cope with being part-goddess, fighting off all of Promethea’s many enemies, and dealing with the stories of all the women and men who have channeled Promethea previously. That may be the basic gist of the plot, but the plot is not what makes Promethea such an interesting book. What makes it unique is its uses of literary ideas in its presentation. It is a very good example of a metafictional novel and is very concerned with the use of archetypes to express its point. What that point is exactly is a very intriguing question, and deserves to be framed as a proper question; how and why does Promethea use archetypes to define its relation to and impact upon both literature and the roles of women within literature?
Promethea is a very contemporary novel, as the collected edition came out just this very year, 2000. Therefore, it is impossible to find any scholarship upon Promethea, and there is no real graphic novel to compare it to. Instead, in order to explain the ideas of Promethea, we will be using two contemporary metafiction writers who also use archetypes extensively in their work. By explaining how those two works fit into the larger picture, then we can use that framework to examine the importance of Promethea. Before that, however, two things should be explored, what is an archetype and what does it mean to be a work of metafiction?
What are archetypes?
What is an archetype? The answer to that question is not that simple, in fact, it is the complexity of the meaning of the word that brings real interest into archetypal theory. The meaning of the word, like the texts that it has been used to observe, has gone under a great deal of revision in the minds of critics. In fact, even now, by looking at even a current definition of the word one can see the limitations of the word’s meaning. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, the definition is:
1. An original model or type after which other similar things are patterned; a prototype: “‘Frankenstein’ . . . ‘Dracula’ . . . ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ . . . the archetypes that have influenced all subsequent horror stories” (New York Times).
2. An ideal example of a type; quintessence: an archetype of the successful entrepreneur.
That is not a useful definition for literary purposes at all. This is because this particular definition of archetype does not lend itself to criticism. When the term “archetypal theory” is brought up, it is not in reference to prototypes or examples per se. Those ideas are present in the theory, but certainly do not define it.
Archetypal theory proper began with the works of Carl Gustaf Jung. Jung derived the term from the Greek word, split up as: archi, a beginning or first instance, and typos, a stamp. If one were to sum up Jung’s extensive idea on what archetypes are in one sentence, they would be doing complete injustice to his work; that being said, if one were to sum up Jung’s idea of archetypes it would be “as primordial forms in that they spring from the preverbal realm of the unconsciousness, where they exist inchoate and indescribable until given form in consciousness” (Annis Pratt, Archetypal Patterns in Women’s Fiction, 3). This summation really does not deliver exactly why the study of archetypes is fruitful. Simply knowing that they are primordial forms that spring up into the consciousness lacks any real weight when one does not know what they do when they get there. However, Jung believes that the point of having these primordial forms in one’s mind gives everyone a beginning stamp to work with, or an archi-typos, archetype. In her study on the works of Jung, Complex/ Archetype/ Symbol in the Psychology of C.G. Jung, Jolande Jacobi stated that “there is no important idea or view that is not grounded in primordial archetypal forms. They are primordial forms that arose at a time when the conscious mind did not yet think but only perceived, when thought was still essentially revelation” (50). Therefore, according to Jung, these primordial forms influence everything that people do in their lives, every thought they think, but only when they are actually expressed, until then they are relegated to stay unnoticed in the unconscious. This is a very over-generalization on Jung’s part, and the limitations of this belief will be detailed later on. When Jung says that these forms are universal, he means that, for instance, all children are born with the primordial idea of what a mother is, and they therefore already know how to respond to their mother. It is only when the mother actually appears that this image in the back of their brains is given real form. In this manner, if a child never had a mother, it does not mean that he or she does not contain within their mind the mother archetype. It just means that they cannot express the idea. Since there is an archetype for each major idea, there are good deals of archetypes at work in Jung’s studies. In their primer on the works of Jung, Calvin S. Hall and Vernon J. Nordby give a sampling of the archetypes Jung developed; “birth, rebirth, death, power, magic, the hero, the child, the trickster, God, the demon, the wise old man, the earth mother, the giant, many natural objects like trees, the sun, the moon, wind, rivers, fire, and animals” (41-42). Hall and Norby focus in on what they feel are the four main archetypes that Jung especially stresses in people: the persona, the anima and animus, the shadow, and the self (42). These four archetypes control, respectively, one’s interaction with others, one’s interaction with the opposite sex, one’s interaction with the same sex, and one’s interaction with oneself. These are the main focal points of the study of Jung’s work with archetypes as it relates to psychological matters, but that is not what Jung is studied most for now. Like Freud, his work seems to have become studied less as a work of psychological theory, and more as a literary theory, as the ensuing study of archetypal theory bears out.
Archetypal theory, as a literary practice, is closely aligned with the psychological study of archetypes. What is different is the manner in which they are applied. While psychological archetypal theory has to do with the study of how the mind affects everyday life, literary archetypal study has to do with the study of how the mind affects the works of literature people produce. A field of literary study that is very much interwoven with the archetypal process is Myth theory. In fact, just as Jung was beginning his study of archetypes, James Frazer was finishing up his work, The Golden Bough, which was essentially the beginning of myth theory. In that work, Frazer demonstrates the closeness the two fields of study share:
We need not, with some enquirers in ancient and modern times, suppose that the Western peoples borrowed from the older civilization of the Orient the conception of the Dying and Reviving God, together with the solemn ritual, in which that conception was dramatically set forth before the eyes of the worshippers. More probably the resemblance which may be traced in this respect between the religions of the East and West is no more that what we commonly, though incorrectly, call a fortuitous coincidence, the effect of similar causes acting alike on the similar constitution of the human mind in different countries and under different skies. (386)
Effectively, what Frazer tells the reader here is that the peoples of both the West and the Orient share certain inherent ideas and these ideas are expressed in their Gods. Frazer may have a different phrase for it, but what this can accurately be called is shared archetypes. Therefore, it should come as no surprise when literary archetypal theory becomes most concerned with dealing with the ideas of gods and goddesses in literature, or in other words, myths.
Myths, like archetypes, are very difficult to pin down with a specific definition. In his text, Myth and Literature, William Righter speaks to this very inconsistency: “’myth’ has become a kind of intellectual shorthand which has gained acceptance as standing for an elusive, almost unanalysable amalgam of beliefs, attitudes and feelings. The very unapproachability of the content has created the utility of the term” (10-11). However, while speaking to the difficulty of such an effort, William K. Ferrell attempts a definition in his work, Literature and Film as Modern Mythology, “myths are (1) a fanciful and entertaining verbalization of tribal superstition; (2) the literal translation of a ritual or the creative story enabling a ritual; (3) the transcendental creation of a primordial archetype by the subconscious mind; or (4) poetic/ metapoetic explanation of an objective reality” (3). That third definition directly ties the study of myths in with the study of archetypes, and rightfully so. What the co-mingling of archetypal and myth studies is founded upon is the idea that all writings are based upon what has transpired before them. This is a specific use of Jung’s broader ideas. Righter points out the belief of the theorist whose work helped this mode of thought become popular, Northrop Frye, “[W]hat is implied is something closer to what Northrop Frye describes as the dependence of literary works on the formal properties of their predecessors” (34-35). This is a theory that Righter later describes as “the belief that through myth one touches upon primitive energies, captures elements of the unconscious and sub-rational qualities of the human situation, mingles strangely with the antiquity of inherited form” (43). That is exactly where the archetypal theory affects upon the study of myths. Jung himself described this impact as, “Myths and fairytales give expression to unconscious processes, and their retelling causes these processes to come alive and be recollected, thereby reestablishing the connection between conscious and unconscious” (180). The use of this idea is the fact that if myths and fairytales are based upon archetypes, and all works of literature are based upon myths, then it must follow that all literature is based upon archetypes.
This idea is backed up by the theories of mythologists such as Joseph Campbell. In Campbell’s work, The Hero of a Thousand Faces, he establishes the theory of the monomyth. The monomyth is the basic path that is followed by almost every myth. Campbell describes the story of the monomyth as “A hero ventures forth from the world of the common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man” (30). Just as Jung felt that his archetypes were universal in the minds of everyone, Campbell believes that the story of the mythical hero is universal. This archetypal hero is manifest in all societies, in all myths, in some ways. As Campbell himself liked to point out in his later years, even works as disparate as the famous film Star Wars, in its attempt to form its own mythology, followed closely the paths laid out by Campbell.
Therefore, the reason that it is fruitful to study archetypal images in literature is the idea that if our stories are based upon the myths of the past, then so too must our beliefs be based upon those same myths. Of course, it must be understood that this is essentially a Western examination. That is an instant specification of the study of myths. When one argues that if we can understand those myths and the way that they relate to our own stories, then hopefully we can therefore identify the meanings of our own ideas, then one is arguing for basically a Western understanding. That is the only understanding that we can attempt to understand. As Jung said, “A primordial image is determined as to its content only when it becomes conscious and is therefore filled out with the material of conscious experience” (79). Therefore, one must realize the consciousness of the idea before they react to it and that is the importance of studying archetypes – they are the consciousness that gives the content to be studied. However, as prior stated, the whole usage of archetypes is based upon the fact that the usage is unconscious. The only way to study the importance of the archetypes is to become conscious of all the archetypes, but once one becomes conscious of the archetypes, then it is no longer the same. Once you tell people that you are studying them for specific reactions, they will most certainly react differently than if they were not informed that you were studying them. Therefore, this leads to the fact that it is impossible to study the unconsciousness in post-Jungian literature, or at least it is impossible to study it with significant scholarship. For once you inform writers that a certain idea is influencing their work, they change their work in respect to that idea. Therefore, the works that have dealt with archetypes after the idea of archetypes became known have done so with a conscious not present prior to those writers. These approaches generally came in two different types. One is in a comparison between the past and the present, like T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” and the other was writing characters as mythological characters, like in Joyce’s Ulysses. The importance of both was the point that they each now knew what importance archetypes had upon their consciousness, and they were trying to express that in their work. As stated previously, both of these approaches concern themselves only with the impact upon Western culture.
Brighter gives an early indication of what could possibly go wrong in the study of archetypal theory when he stated, “Myth has a vital role in Jung’s picture of the mind, and as such has lent itself easily to the students of the unconscious levels that may be found in literature – the ‘underthought’. Yet the collective unconscious’ is pure hypothesis of the sort which is inaccessible to empirical investigation” (18). What Brighter is trying to say here is that since it is inherently impossible to check up on the actuality of archetypes, it allows for too much guesswork for critics. The archetypes may be universal, but the way of looking at said archetypes is not, and it is this way of looking at things that affects people in society. This is especially true when it comes to archetypes and women’s fiction. Annis Pratt describes the plight of women in this area by her quote, “Women’s fiction reflects an experience radically different from men’s because our drive towards growth as persons is thwarted by our society’s prescriptions concerning gender” (6) and that is really all they really are – prescriptions. It is not a natural fact, it is an inference, generally based upon facts that do not necessarily make it so. A popular example of this is Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Both Pratt and Meredith Powers, in her book, The Heroine in Western Literature: The Archetype and Her Reemergence in Modern Prose, point out his beliefs towards women as far as becoming archetypal heroes. Essentially, Campbell posits that a woman cannot possibly become a hero, partly because “woman represents the totality of what can be known. The hero is the one who comes to know” (60). This is something that Powers picks up on and is certainly an important point if one were to look back upon the archetypal images that Hall and Nordby present. If one were to see the ones Hall and Nordby demonstrate, it would be clear that archetypes definitely work in pairs, in dichotomies and binaries. In that case, if women were categorized as symbolizing knowledge and men as coming to know, then, according to the heroic cycle, the coming to know will be highlighted. If the coming to know is highlighted, then knowledge must be put into opposition. The masculine defined himself as the opposite of the female, and if males were to be commended as heroes then females must have been ostracized. Which is exactly what happened, as men became heroes while women were written as monsters. Likewise, if certain considerations of archetypes were to be considered true than no matter how logical any contradictory statement was it would be dealt with harshly. Hence, there are theories presented like the idea that Daphne rejected heroism with Apollo.
Why does Campbell make this assumption? Well, if she was meant to be a hero, then the myths would have made her a hero, after all, these ideas are universal, and they therefore must work for all myths. It did not happen, so it must be presumed that she did not want to be a hero. This basic idea has at its core the principle that archetypes really are just repetitive ideals that have merely become ingrained in the public conscious over a matter of time. They do not have any actual merit of any kind; they are simply believed to be true because that is all these particular people have known for the longest time. Therefore, this demonstrates the weakening of the term “universal,” for the term does not seem to hold the weight it did when Jung first began to use it. This leads directly into the major criticisms of Jung and Campbell’s beliefs.
The criticism of both myth theory and archetypal theory are quite similar. In the case of myth theory, the largest problem comes from people like Barbara Walker. In her book, The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, she argues against the patriarchal system of mythmaking. Here, too, is an example of the inherent need to divide, to polarize. In myths, there seems to be an overwhelming desire to have things one way or the other, no in-between, and no gray area. At the same time, there is also an equally overwhelming desire on the side of the patriarchy to overthrow anything that gives women power. Therefore, Walker’s idea of the Great Goddess is certainly frightening to a patriarchy that looks at things in such a way that strong women must be a threat to them. Therefore, since strong women must be a threat, then good women are presumed to be the opposite, weak. This practice is symbolic of the patriarchal destruction of the voice of woman for centuries past. Women were no longer Great Goddesses; they were mothers or monsters, good mothers or bad mothers. That was the identity that was preserved for them, and that is the identity that has been preserved through time until even now. That is partly the problem with the study of myth. If one studies myth, one must realize that unlike almost any other medium, what is almost as important as the story is what the author chose to put into the story. If you know the stories well enough and know the contradictory stories, you can tell things about the storyteller based on what version they are telling. That is the biggest problem facing women. It was men telling the stories for years upon years upon years, and to no one’s surprise, the stories that were being told were the ones that had no place for female heroes, moreover, no place for female voice. It is incredibly jarring for female writers to have to deal with this fact, but to then have it be told that this situation is universal! That is far too much to handle for many female readers. That is really the main problem with archetypal theory; it presupposes so much that at certain times it does not really seem to be much of a literary theory. Rather, it seems more to be a belief that survives only because of the larger (patriarchal) society that perpetuates these ideas, and only because it is beneficial to the self-worth of the patriarchal society. Archetypal theory can be seen as simply reiterating the fact that women have had essentially no voice in literature for many centuries and actually justifying this practice. The patriarchal practitioners of archetypal theory are the same ones who would not allow Shakespeare’s sister to write as Virginia Woolf mentions in A Room of One’s Own. This is because there is no place for an archetype of the female as writer such as Shakespeare’s sister. That is the limitation of archetypal theory.
What is metafiction?
The terms that are used to discuss the works of Robert Coover, John Barth, and Alan Moore (the works that form the basis of this thesis) are multifold. This is because the basic premise of literary terms and definitions is highly problematic. It seems that for every item that one comes up with to describe a book, someone else has a completely different term to describe the same book. John Barth’s work has been called, other than metafiction; postmodernist, experimental, self-reflexive, narcissistic, and I am sure plenty of other terms that I have not come across. That being said, I do believe there exists a coherent definition of metafiction to be used that adequately explains the concurrent descriptions of Barth’s work (and through their relation to Barth, Coover and Moore’s). First off, the postmodern tradition is, according to literary theorist Niall Lucy, the idea that everything is a text; society, culture, history, literature all interact and merge together to form one text (viii-ix). Non-postmodern texts are those texts that do not agree with this key point, believing that literature exists separately from those worlds. Brian McHale, in his text, Postmodern Fiction, claims that postmodernism works almost like an all-encompassing term. He states that “there is John Barth’s postmodernism, the literature of replenishment; Charles Newman’s postmodernism [, etc.]” (4). Therefore, Barth’s work could be referred to as postmodernist while being diametrically opposed to the ideas of the other writers in the postmodern tradition. As long as Barth does agree with the key point of postmodernism, he can be referred to as a postmodern writer. However, metafiction definitely differs from most critics’ idea of the postmodern. Linda Hutcheon, in her notable text, Narcissistic Narrative: The Metafictional Paradox, feels that metafiction differs from these other postmodernist studies because metafiction, unlike other the other postmodern studies does not concern itself “with the psychological, philosophical, ideological or social causes of the flourishing self-consciousness of our culture” (3). Those are all things that could certainly come up in the metafiction of Barth; it is merely not the purpose of metafiction. Metafiction is strictly concerned with one particular facet of the postmodern study – that of literature. More specifically, as Hutcheon also mentions in her book, “the interest here is rather on the text” (3). This leads into the most familiar definition of metafiction, and the most simple of the definitions; that metafiction is fiction that is about fiction. While sounding simple at first, this, naturally, is much more difficult of a concept than one would think. After all, does this mean that every work of literature that is about writing is metafiction? Of course not, but why is this not the case? What sets metafiction apart?
The reasons that it is set apart is the very same reasons that some terms for Barth’s work in the past have been terms like experimental, self-reflexive, and narcissistic. Metafiction is experimental because it is seen that way. Much like how certain archetypes were seen as universal ideas merely because they were the ideas that lasted the longest and made its way into the public conscious, the metafiction tradition is seen as experimental because it comes as a direct reaction to the realist fiction that dominated novels through the nineteenth and most of the twentieth centuries. However, as both Hutcheon and Lucy claim, the metafictional tradition traces its basic model all the way back to Don Quixote. Metafiction was called experimental because of Barth’s belief that all fiction essentially comes from something before it, which was an idea that was certainly present in Don Quixote. However, in the years that passed since Don Quixote, the idea of “originality” and “realist” in fiction became predominant, so the style that Barth championed was seen as highly experimental. Metafiction, though, is not experimental in nature (this is not to say that experimental work cannot come out of metafiction, but it means that the experimental does not define the work as metafiction); rather, it is a continuation of the ideas first placed forth in Cervantes. It does this through the last two terms that are used to describe Barth’s work: self-reflexive and narcissistic.
These two terms are both encouraged by Linda Hutcheon, and they both essentially mean the same thing, that is, the self-conscious novel. Here is where one of the most important and confusing points happens when one is deciding what is and what is not a metafictional novel. A self-conscious/self-reflexive/narcissistic work is not, per se, a metafictional work. It is in how the author uses these, as Sarah E. Lauzen, in her essay “Notes on Metafiction: Every Essay Has a Title” calls them, “metafictional devices” (94). A metafictional device, going back to Lauzen, is “one that foregrounds some aspect of the writing, reading, or structure of a work that the applicable canons of standard (realistic) practice would expect to be backgrounded” (94). This belief is ratified in Luigi Cazzato’s essay on metafiction: “Hard Metafiction and the Return of the Author Subject.” In it, he uses Jakobsen’s semiotic model to show how “an addressor (the author) sends a message (the text) to the addressee (the reader), referring it to a context (reality), and using a code (the novel genre) and a medium (the printed word, the book)” (28). In other words, the author in a metafictional text is constantly referring his readers to the fictionality of the text that they are reading. He is taking the reader out of their comfort zone by showing them the ideas that they expect to be submerged in the text, not explicit in it. The result of this, according to Cazzato, is that the author “undermines the sacred fictional illusion of reality and makes it difficult for the reader to place him or her self in (or identify with) the world of fiction. This explains why metafiction is placed in a complete opposite position than the realist tradition, because the whole purpose of metafiction is to disrupt the fictive reality. One of the major ways that metafictionists undermine the fictive reality is to work with the archetypes of the stories. Archetypes, by definition, are very comfortable for readers. When an author undermines the reader's comfortability, the reader then takes notice of the ideas that the author wants the reader to notice. However, this does not adequately explain how metafiction differs from other texts that also use self-conscious/self-reflexive/narcissistic ideas. What makes metafiction different from those texts? The answer is proposed by Lauzen when she argues that the reason some texts that use these devices, such as John Irving’s The World According to Garp, are not metafictional texts. They are not metafictional because “every device used in those novels directs its energy toward the story or message (pathos) of a fairly traditional, non self-conscious sort” (95). Therefore, whenever one encounters a particular novel or story or movie or television show makes a self-reflexive reference or uses a metafictional device, one must examine the work as a whole. Was the device just a small reference in the middle of a traditional story? If so, then it is not metafiction. Metafiction, at its central core, does not care about the traditional elements of the novel. Plot is not the main point of a metafictional work, but rather, an afterthought. The main point of a metafictional work is the way that it addresses the process of fiction within its fictional borders. If the devices are present throughout the story, or if the story as a whole works in the aforementioned way, then it is in fact metafiction. Archetypes are one of the most powerful of the fictional processes to be used in metafiction.
CHAPTER 2 – The Middle
At one point in Promethea, Sophie encounters a situation where her friend remarks that it is as if she is “living in a fairy tale,” to which Sophie responds, “Yes…but I don’t know how to shut the storybook. Not before I get to the part with the wolf” (45). That statement fits in to a large part of Robert Coover’s metafiction. His fictions examine life in the fairy tale, but by rewriting the archetypes who inhabit the fairy tale, the part with the wolf is no longer what the reader my expect from a traditional fairy tale. Fairy tales are powerful narrative tools. They are the basic framework of the burgeoning imagination. When people are growing up, more often than not, their first exposure to the land of “make-believe” comes in the form of fairy tales and nursery rhymes. Beyond that, though, there is consistent discussion on the importance of fairy tales as social lessons, a point that Cristina Bacchilega brings up in her book, Postmodern Fairy Tales: Gender and Narrative Strategies. Bacchilega states that fairy tales “are thus produced and consumed to accomplish a variety of social functions in multiple contexts and in more or less explicitly ideological ways” (3). That is the problem some people have with the study of fairy tales. When they come to put their own particular spin on the tale, they fail to take into account that there have been different social ideas being placed upon these tales for lo these many years. In addition, like the myths, the spins that have been put on these tales have been a predominately patriarchal one. Still, even if one was not concerned about the social and ideological ramifications of the fairy tale, it can not be denied that, later on in life, fairy tales become such a part of one’s culture that phrases like Sophie’s are extremely common. It is not unusual to hear about people waiting for their “Prince Charming” or hoping for their “Fairy Godmother.” These characters and ideas are so familiar to everyone that they are safely embedded inside the collective consciousness, which we have learned is simply what we told that we all believe. Robert Coover understands this problem, and uses it to his advantage in his fiction.
Robert Coover’s treatment of fairy tales (as well as fables and scripture) makes up a good portion of his fiction, but it is exemplary in his collection of short stories, Pricksongs and Descants, and his novella, Aesop’s Forest. The first of the two, Pricksongs and Descants, “takes the designs and familiar stories and attenuates the ambiguities or metamorphic nature of their every detail” (Gordon, Robert Coover: The Universal Fictionmaking Process, 87). While this is true, there is also a more pragmatic structural advantage to working with archetypes. The familiarity of the characters and plots allow Coover to make points in his narration without having to explain himself. For instance, when Coover introduces the reader to the situation in “The Gingerbread House,” the reader’s prior knowledge of the Hansel and Gretel story lets Coover play games with the story without having to fill the reader in on what is happening plot wise, much like Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guilderstern or Gardiner’s Grendel.
In the first story in the collection, “The Door: A Prologue of Sorts,” Coover starts with an instant demonstration of the very specious nature of fairy tales. It is not a coincidence that there always seems to be an adage or saying to back up whatever point one cares to make. Is it the thought that counts, or is the road to hell paved with good intentions? The fact is, fairy tales have very tenuous meanings. If one were to examine the plots of some fairy tales, they would be surprised at what is being taught. Are readers being told to simply do nothing and just sleep until your prince saves you? Better yet, make a deal with a fellow to weave you gold, break the deal when you have gotten what you wanted, beg for an opportunity to resolve the conflict, then cheat to find out his name and win. Many of these ideas were not always attached to their particular story. As Jack Zipes says in the introduction to his collective work, The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood, “Charles Perrault fixed the ground rules and sexual regulations for the debate [of the meaning of Little Red Riding Hood], and these were extended by the Brothers Grimm and largely accepted by most writers and storytellers in the Western world” (7). Henceforth, it just so happened that one interpretation of the fairy tale became popular, and suddenly that was the definitive meaning of the fairy tale.
This sense that the ideas that readers think they are being taught by the tales are not the actual ideas at all is present in “The Door.” Granny in the story finds herself married to “a Beast, only my Beast never became a prince” (16). There is no wolf in this odd mixture of “Jack and the Beanstalk” “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Beauty and the Beast” but Coover tells us that that is exactly the point. There does not have to be a wolf because Jack himself is the wolf. He is the wolf, the woodsman, and the Beast, just as the Granny is Little Red Riding Hood and the Granny, in an unending circle. They are living an unending cycle of stories. In each story, Little Red Riding Hood will come, so will the wolf, and so will the woodsman. The underlining theme is the sexual narrative. Jack opens up the story trying to cut down his stalk; his phallus. He thinks about his daughter, and thinks about the stories he has told her; his “mythic fiction of innocent love” (Jackson Cope, Robert Coover’s Fictions, 11) and he realizes that he has merely set the story into play by denying the narrative’s power. The Granny does not underestimate the power of the sexual narrative. She realizes that he has “got her giddy ear with his old death-cunt-and-prick songs” (16). Little Red Riding Hood attempts to argue that this is a new generation, but Granny knows otherwise, that this is a story that lives on forever. That is what Coover realizes in his fiction. He knows that the Prince Charming archetype is one that is embedded in the culture of women, especially that of Western women. He uses that to demonstrate the situation it puts women into, always waiting for their hero archetype or their “Prince Charmings” to save them, and therefore constantly being lied to by the Jacks of the world to believe that the romantic love exists, but always ending up with the Beasts. Granny tells the seemingly universal story of women when she says that “I have been split with the pain and terrible haste of his thick quick cock and then still itchin and bleedin have gazed on as he leapt other bitches at random and I have watched my own beauty decline my love and still no Prince no Prince and yet you doubt that I understand? and loved him child loved the damed Beast after all” (17). When Little Red Riding Hood goes off into the forest, she is really going off to explore the truth of sexuality. However, it is impossible for Little Red Riding Hood to learn the truth of sexuality because it is being told by the Jacks of the world. The Granny believes her story to be universal because it is constantly ingrained into her mind that it is. If Granny believes it to be so, and she is the only person in the position to give Little Red Riding Hood an honest appraisal of the situation of women, then how can Little Red Riding Hood possibly understand sexuality?
That is exactly the conclusion the characters in “The Gingerbread House” find themselves in later in the collection. In this selection, as well as “The Door,” Coover takes, “the motifs of folk literature and explode them into motivations and revelations” (Robert Scholes, Fabulation and Metafiction, 121). “The Gingerbread House” is a retelling of “Hansel and Gretel,” telling the story of the their father bringing the two siblings to the above mentioned Gingerbread House of the witch. The revelation of “The Gingerbread House” is the same as its motivation, the boy and the girl, (Hansel and Gretel) are being taken on a trail leading to sexual discovery; the same sexual discovery that Little Red Riding Hood finds for herself at the end of the Woods. As earlier stated, Coover uses the framework of the original Hansel and Gretel for this story, only the Witch has a much different role, much like the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood. Here, she appears almost exactly like the Granny in “The Door.” She is there to instruct the children in the loss of sexual innocence. The father in this story acts much like Jack in “The Door,” the ubiquitous patriarchal figure lying to his children, except his lies to his children seems to be done with a bit more of an edge about him than Jack did. Jack seems to be almost half-convinced himself in the “truth” he tells his daughter. The father in “The Gingerbread House” knows what is going on exactly, and still he takes his children down the path. The path leads to the gingerbread house, a house where the boy finds a “peppermint-stick chimney” which he “comes sliding down in a rainbarrel of vanilla pudding” and they both marvel at the door. This door is “heart-shaped and blood-stone red, its burnished surface gleaming in the sunlight. Shining like a ruby, like hard cherry candy, and pulsing softly, radiantly” (75). The gingerbread essentially is a “garden of sexuality” (Scholes, 121). The children even realize that this is a place where children may arrive, “but, they say, none leave” (65). After dropping them off, the father has a change of heart, and uses one of the wishes he has in his possession to send them back to the beginning of their journey, hoping their can be a different ending. This, of course, is all for naught. One cannot stop the natural progression. The father and Jack may conspire to keep their children young and innocent, but they must know that at the end of the woods in the gingerbread house, there awaits a Granny/Witch for all of us to be sent to the next stage in our development. This is the motivation that Coover discovers in the fairy tales he rewrites in his fiction, and that is what he brings out in his work.
Another point in Coover’s work on fairy tales matches something that Moore brings up in Promethea; that is, the importance and authority of the narrator and the position of the reader, or rather, whom the story is being told to. Cope mentions how all these stories are being told by “the voice of authority,” and therefore it is that voice of authority, and the child’s “absolute abdication to that absolute authority” (19) that gives these archetypes their power. The child who is hearing these characters and ideas for the first time is hearing them straight from the mouth of authority, and that adds something powerful, something magical to the ideas. As stated earlier, fairy tales are the first major stories that work their ways into a child’s imagination, so their reactions to these stories are much different than any other stories they will ever hear, because these stories are untouched. When Promethea enters into Immateria, she encounters “the big bad wolf” and finds herself incredibly frightened. Her companion, Little Red Riding Hood, explains that this is “because you’re facing the unvarnished idea, without any adult defenses like distance or irony or whatever. You’re seeing it like a child sees it” (68). This demonstrates the power that archetypes have upon the consciousness of readers, and this is why Coover has such great success rewriting the archetypes in his stories. He realizes that certain archetypes, deep within the recesses of a reader’s mind, carry certain responses.
This idea of a certain archetype resulting in certain responses is evident in both Coover’s “The Elevator” and Coover’s “The Babysitter,” two of the more contemporary archetypal fiction present in Pricksongs and Descants. Each one of the stories are evidence towards something readers are thinking about more and more when they read – how the story they are reading relates to a movie or television show they have watched. In “The Elevator,” Coover uses these ideas taken from visual media to tell different stories in the mind of the narrator in “The Elevator,” each one using the framework of a popular type of movie or television fiction. “The Elevator” is about a man, who is, essentially, a loser. Every day he shows up for work and takes the elevator with everyone else, and he dreams up scenarios that might happen on the elevator. Whether it be a horror story or a sappy love story, Coover shows how these different forms of stories merge together to form what we call life. The narrator of “The Elevator” has many different moods, and just like “normal” people, he displays his moods by things that he can relate to, like a horror story or a love story. In a way, he is acting like his own Jack, distracting himself with stories, while continuing on the path to his ultimate demise. He may be on the elevator ride to death, but he will at least entertain himself with other, more interesting lives, a modern day Walter Mitty.
In Coover’s work, “The Babysitter,” however, visual media plays a much larger part in the story. Different, too, is the fact that in this case, the main character herself is a contemporary archetype, or if not an actual contemporary archetype then at least a version of the woman-as-victim archetype with a specifically contemporary twist to it. One can tell just by the way the husband, the two boys, the children, and the wife look at her. There are certain ideas of the babysitter that have entered into the collective cultural consciousness, which is, to say, the public consciousness created by generations of patriarchal writers. This is especially evident in the rash of urban legends being told about babysitters in the 1960s, soon before Coover wrote Pricksongs and Descants. The most popular involves a babysitter who is busy watching television when the phone rings. The voice on the other line says, “I’m upstairs with the children, you’d better come up.” She ignores it, but after the second time, she calls the operator, who asks her to hold on the line so they can trace the line. She does, and after he calls again and hangs up, she receives a phone call, warning her that the calls originated from inside the house! After making her exit, the police arrive to find the murderer upstairs along with the two, now dead, children. This tale is essentially, what Coover uses as the background for his story, “The Babysitter.” At the time, most people must have been familiar with the story, so when they would read something about a Babysitter, the story must be at least in the back of their minds. The telling of the story is in the manner of, as Gordon says, “the ultimate pricksong” (120). The father and the boys are constantly creating their own fictitious events for what will happen with the babysitter. Coover mixes the imaginary events of their minds with imaginary events from the television, showing how neither is any more real than the other is. In fact, the two are actually intertwined, as when the mother, encountering the most sordid ending imaginable (her children dead, the babysitter raped and murdered, and her husband vanished) she merely responds by asking, “Let’s see what’s on the late late movie” (239). At this point, the mother would rather the imaginary environment than what she encounters, which is not all together real in of itself, as the entire story is made up of imaginary contrasting fictive elements. In overall message, however, it is in keeping with the previous Coover stories, as it is about a progression. This progression is controlled by the patriarchy. The story’s features deal with the insecurity felt by adolescents as they are required to accept increasing responsibilities while making the transition to adulthood as well as the awkward sexual transitions. This is a story with no Jack, just a young Beauty and plenty of Beasts, who wish to be like Jack by transforming their sordid ideas by inventing storylines that involve the Beauty being a willing part in their pricksong. As long as the patriarchal system is intact, the pricksongs will have precedence. The final story in Pricksongs and Descants that really deals with archetypal characters is the third of the “Seven Exemplary Fictions,” “The Brother.” This story is important in the sense that is demonstrates the other type of archetype that Coover examines. The first batch of stories all deal with the true motivations that lie behind our popular fairy tales and urban legends. Those are all stories that seem innocent, but have hidden motivations. Coover sees the Bible, however, as an archetypal storybook in which the stories are blatantly problematic. Coover asks the reader why do we embrace “the foolish if not self-destructive lives we have modeled after them” (Gordon, 88). The Noah myth is one that has been embraced by many, however, Coover asks if this is a story that we should be following at all. “The Brother” is the best example of this idea because it asks how can God knowingly destroy these people and how can Noah simply go about it because he was a member of the “elite” that God had chosen to live? In order to illuminate this point, Coover introduces Noah’s brother, who helps Noah build the ark, only to be left behind with his wife to die when the rains come. Is this the great Noah that we embrace in ourselves? He who let his fellow man drown because God asked him to? Coover forces the reader to reexamine their beliefs merely by telling a familiar story in a different light. That is the significance of the plain-speak style he uses. Bob Dylan used much of the same style in his song, “Highway 61 Revisited,” as he rewrites the story of God and Abraham. Dylan writes, “God said to Abraham, ‘Kill me a son,’ Abe said, ‘Man, you must be putting me on.’ God said, ‘No.’ Abe said, “Wha?’ God said, ‘You can do what you want Abe, but the next time you see me coming you better run’” (Dylan). This familiar, and undoubtedly accepted as laudatory Bible tale is suddenly given a facelift so that the archetypes one had always presumed as being one way are now seen in another way. Coover essentially asks his readers to constantly question the authority of the writer, and not to let any archetype be accepted without an introspective look.
Coover’s novella, Aesop’s Forest, works very well as a bookend to the questions of authorship that Coover had established decades earlier in Pricksongs and Descants, especially “The Door.” In Aesop’s Forest, Aesop is yet another Jack. The story details the end of both Aesop and by extension the forest full of animals that inhabit his fables. In the story, just as Jack represented the wolf, the woodsman, and the Beast, Aesop represents himself, the lion, king of the jungle, and the fox, the trickster of the jungle. Aesop, like Jack, is trying to become a myth-killer, but unlike Jack, by killing the myth, Aesop is also killing himself. Coover uses Aesop here for two reasons, one, for the historical value of Aesop as a writer who was killed for his writing and two, for the importance of a writer who created many cultural archetypes.
That is a very important distinction, as it is something that John Barth later addresses in one of the stories in his book, Chimera, “Dunyazaid.” In the “Dunyazaid,” Barth extols upon the virtues of Scheherazade, the teller of the The Thousand and One Nights because she is the epitome of storytelling. Well, so then is Aesop, as he is an actual person (or better yet a fictional creation designed to encompass many writers, which would only make him more interesting to use) who created some of the most important archetypes known to man. That is what Coover addresses in Aesop’s Forest, in the relationship between writer and archetype and the essential let down that seems to accompany any close study of archetypes. For example, when the tortoise is falling from the sky, (25) he remarks to himself that all he needs to do is be persistent, because, after all, did not Aesop himself state the importance of such a virtue? This is also tied into Aesop’s treatment of the lion. Aesop reflects on how he would often teach the lion humility with a thorn in the paw or something else. Essentially, then, the author of these stories has in effect total control upon the meanings of their lives, and the meaning of their lives is essentially, as the fox, said, shit (39). It is shit because it is merely coming from some hunchback named Aesop. In fact, to take the theme even further, Aesop remarks on why “when we shat, we so often turned around to examine our turds” by explaining that it “is to gaze for a moment in awe and wonder at what we’ve made – it’s the closest we ever come to being one with the gods” (16). All of the fables of Aesop, then, are looked at through this viewpoint. They exist only as an extension of Aesop because that is essentially what Coover believes the point of archetypes are, they are merely extensions of the beliefs of the writers. Their meanings are not inherent to their value, but instead are directly dependent upon an author to infuse in them meaning. In other words, a story about an eagle dropping a tortoise has no real meaning until someone like Aesop comes along and infuses it with the idea of what that story “means.” That is why Coover has chosen a character such as Aesop for his focal point. Here was a writer who was put to death for his very attempt to read meanings into certain stories, they were merely the wrong meaning of the Delphian society at the time, and so he was executed for his “incorrect” meanings. Coover has shown a clear delineation from his work in Pricksongs and Descants to Aesop’s Forest. He has traveled from the essential beginning of storytelling, fairy tales, to what he shows in Aesop’s Forest to be an end of storytelling, but all the while, from beginning to end, he consistently stresses the power of narrative. Coover realizes in his fiction, especially those that involves archetypes, that who is telling the story, who is the voice of authority, is the most important aspect of the story there is. Coover looks at the voice of authority from two angles, both of which demonstrate the power of the voice of authority has upon narrative. The first angle shows the effect that the voice of authority has upon men and women, making men into Jacks and women in Grannies. The second angle looks at the voice of authority himself (because it is clear in Coover that it is a patriarchal authority) and shows how fallible this seemingly infallible authority is, in stories like “The Brother” and “Aesop’s Forest.”
When Sophie encounters Margaret, the second being to be known as Promethea, she is shown part of Immateria, the land where imagination exists. This land is described by Margaret as, “The moonlit realm of dream and fiction, sexual fantasy and the unconscious mind” (Moore, 69). At one point, Margaret demonstrates the power of this idea by showing all the archetypes associated with war, which J.H. Williams III shows in a wonderful two-page spread. (Moore, 118-119). Nameless and bodiless helmets with legs marching against each other on a ground composed of skulls, dark ravens, cockroach helicopters, international flags, a giant American flag, a bloody hammer and sickle, Williams III visually represents the feelings of fear and disgust involved in war all in one bloody depiction of imagination. This imagination is one that exists inside all of humanity, “yet many people only notice the solid world they have been conditioned to think of as more real… while all about them diamond glaciers creak and star-volcanoes thunder” (Moore, 116).
One of the people who certainly notices the diamond glaciers and star-volcanoes around him is John Barth. John Barth is one of the most prominent metafictionists alive today. Not only is he one of the most noteworthy metafictionists in his total work, his individual fascination with the archetype in metafiction posits him as a perfect comparison to Promethea, as well as a good companion in study with Robert Coover. He works especially well with Promethea when the idea of Immateria is presented, as that is an idea that is not at all foreign to Barth. When Margaret says that “humans are amphibious…they live in two worlds at once: matter and mind” (Moore, 116), Barth would totally agree. In fact, in their book Understanding John Barth, Stan Fogel and Gordon Slethaug suggests that Barth believes that, when it comes to matter and mind, “language and life have a much more mixed relationship” (8). Barth believes in the idea of a free-floating land where ideas exist. In fact, in his short story, “Life-Story,” he even demonstrates this belief by having a character discover/believe that he is in fact a character inside of a story. This discovery/belief merely starts the collapsing of the dominoes that ultimately leads one to believe that all of life is a fiction, and it is only what we choose to believe that is “real”, which is very similar to the ideas brought up in the discussions on myths. Walker and others bring up the idea that myths are not always what they appear to readers today as, but rather as what they have been made into after revisions by a patriarchal society thousands of years ago and kept that way until today. The study of archetypes also bring up the same belief that definitive meanings come not from a universal idea, but rather what we are all forced into believing is a universal idea. These ideas are much like those posited in Promethea.
Therefore, while it is clear that Barth’s overall work is very much interested in the same ideas as Promethea, his entire literary catalog is quite extensive. So, rather than glossing over all of them, I am choosing the text that most clearly represents the ideas that are being discussed in the work of Moore and Coover, that is, the use of archetypes in metafiction. The text of Barth that I would argue is most representative of this is Chimera.
Chimera is a novel that is really three separate novellas, combined together to form one overarching “novel.” The three parts are “Dunyazaid” “Perseid” and “Bellerophoniad”. Each of the stories is a retold tale from a famous mythic story. They are The Thousand and One Nights, the Perseus myth and the Bellerophon myth, respectively. The first part of the novel, “Dunyazaid” does what is typical of Barth’s fictions, and that is, as Stehaug states, “reveal[s] the stylized, fictive, relativistic dimensions of mythology” (13). Barth does not merely regurgitate the myths, nor does he use the myths to make comparisons with himself. These are terms that he feels are used by other authors, and he is not impressed with what they have done. The authors he speaks of, he believes, do not fully understand the concept of myths. Barth believes that these authors, such as Eliot, put myths on an unreachable pedestal in the sense that they dare not to criticize the classics. Myths were designed to show the gods looking down upon human daily existence, and Eliot and to a lesser degree Joyce allow that distinction to remain. Barth does not. He certainly admires the classics, perhaps as much as Eliot, but Barth is willing to bring the myths down to his level. Barth takes a clear look at exactly what the myths say, and uses that to make a statement about everyday life, or at least the part of everyday life that affects him personally. He does let his awe of the myths he is using interfere with his examinations of them, or, if he does, he hides it well. This is just like Coover, in that they both alike show how there is no absolute truth when dealing with something fictive like myths, for those malleable mythopoetic narratives can be used to express many a point. Coover mainly deals with the mythic archetypes to express ideas about the loss of sexual innocence. The loss of sexual innocence is touched upon by Coover, but Barth uses the archetypes to express much more than just that idea. The plot of “Dunyazaid” mirrors that of the story that it is based upon. A king, King Shahryar, had been taking a virgin to bed every night and killing her in the morning. Finally, his chief vizier’s daughter, named Scheherazade, goes to bed with him, but enraptures him with a post-coital story without an ending. He must keep her alive in order to find out how the story goes. She continues her story for a thousand and one nights, until he finally frees her and everyone lives happily ever after. Like a good rewriter of stories, Barth focuses in on a minor character in the original story, Scheherazade’s sister, Dunyazade, and makes her the focal point of the rewritten tale. He does this by having her tell the first part of the story, and by stressing the fact that she is probably the best storyteller of them all. After all, she has stayed with her sister every day and night, and has learned a thousand and one stories and a thousand and one sexual encounters; she is the depository for the best literary knowledge and the best erotic knowledge. In Barth’s vocabulary, where he treasures stories and sex, it should be clear the importance Dunyazade would have had for him.
Barth is dealing with two major archetypes when he writes “Dunyazaid” the archetype of the writer and the female archetype. The writer archetype is one that has great interest to Barth, as the time that he was writing this was the same time that he was going through a great case of writer’s block. Therefore, when Fogel and Slethaug tell the reader that “Dunyazaid” is a story in which “telling tales is a matter of life and death” (136), he is not only speaking about the characters in the novel, he is talking about Barth. Then again, it quickly becomes clear that the two may be the same. The character of the genie seems familiar to Barth, about as familiar as “a light-skinned fellow of forty or so, smooth-shaven and bald as a roc’s egg” (8) can be. This commonness is because the reason behind his writing Chimera at this particular point in time reflects the way that he got past his writer’s block. He went back to the texts that inspired him, that were a part of his life, and the block was lifted and he was “transported,” much like the genie into the lives of Scheherazade and her sister. While the story tells the importance of the mythopoetic stories to Barth, it also relates the difficulties in working with these very same mythopoetic archetypes. Barth has the Genie describe it in terms of:
a kind of snail in the Maryland marshes – perhaps I invented him – that makes his shell as he goes along out of whatever he comes across, cementing it with his own juices and at the same time makes his path instinctively toward the best available material for his shell; he carries his history on his back, living in it, adding new and larger spirals to it from the present as he grows. (10)
This is the problem that is presented to the postmodern writer: when so much has been written before, how does one create new art? Barth is especially cognizant the way that writers use archetypes in their work, and he does agree with it. He does not merely evoke archetypes, he rewrites them. Therefore, “Dunyazaid” is Barth’s story as much as any one else’s. At the beginning of the story, he feels he is merely one of the writers who use the mythopoetic archetypes in their work without adapting them, therefore, merely adding layers onto his shell. Nevertheless, by the end he has changed it. He has interacted and rewritten the very stories that he loved, and so he has created something new, rather than just recycled. Part of the reason that he is able to feel this way is because he has rewritten the story by adding the background part of the story that he has come to the past (as the Genie) to deliver to Scheherazade the very stories that she is going to beguile King Shahryar with. Barth picks a perfect time to encounter “Sherry.” She is busy trying to come to grips with the concept of being a writer, or a teller of tales, when she realizes the power of words, something that is very important when one is dealing with the archetype of the writer. “Sherry” points out that “[i]t’s in words that the magic is – Abracadabra, Open Sesame, and the rest – but the magic words in one story aren’t magical in the next. The real magic is to understand which words work, and when, and for what; the trick is to learn the trick” (7). Of course, any writer realizes that the magic words are the words that are used to compose the story, and it is very amusing when the Genie appears, because he appears due to the fact that both “Sherry” and the Genie were writing the same sentence, “the key to the treasure is the treasure!” (9). This is very important to Barth’s work, for this demonstrates what I mentioned earlier about Barth’s attempts to use the classics to break his writer’s block. By having Scheherazade and himself crossing in the Immateria at the same time, Barth enables himself to feel better about his work and move past his block with the knowledge that he is part of a larger fictive whole that includes the writings of one of his heroes, Scheherazade.
Similarly, in relation to the importance of the writer in Barth’s work is the idea of the perfect reader. When the Genie first appears, he bemoans the state of postmodern readership. Dunyazade and Scheherazade are told by the genie of how, “at one time…people in his country had been fond of reading; currently, however, the only readers of artful fiction were critics, other writers, and unwilling students, who, left to themselves, preferred music and pictures to words (which is partly what makes Sophie Bangs such an interesting character, when the rest of her class is interested in things like music or popular culture, she chooses to do her thesis on the fiction of Promethea)” (9). Barth then spends the rest of the story positing Dunyazade as the perfect example of a reader. She is such an example because she is such a great listener. As the Genie tells her, “You’ve had the whole literary tradition transmitted to you – and the whole erotic tradition, too! Who can tell your story?” (32-33). This idea of the literary and the erotic traditions intertwining to form a new story ties directly into the other main archetype in “Dunyazaid.”
The other main archetype that Barth deals with in “Dunyazaid” is the female archetype. He does this by totally tying the two archetypes, writer and female, together. This is achieved in sexual dialogic terms. The Genie describes reading and storytelling as “literally ways of making love” (24). In this way of looking at storytelling, then, “the teller’s role, he felt, regardless of his actual gender, was essentially masculine, the listener’s or reader’s feminine, and the tale was the medium of their intercourse” (25-26). Of course, as in the case of any good metafictional writer, Barth does not mean this to be the exact truth, for there is an intertwining of ideas at work here. For instance, Barth the Genie is the masculine storyteller to the feminine “Sherry”. However, the stories he is telling her come from The Thousand and One Nights, which he has read, as the feminine while it is “Sherry” who is the masculine storyteller in that instance. This is taken to an even further extreme when Dunyazade stands before Shah Zaman and tells the first part of the “Dunyazaid” to him. This brings up a point of Jung, as he states that “a man is often incapable of truly loving a woman until he has begun to come to terms with the feminine component in his own psyche” (qtd. in Harris, 134). She is clearly the masculine entity there; a point driven home by the fact that she has a razor to his penis, threatening to emasculate him in more than just metaphorical terms. Therefore, according to the plan, she can force him like Scheherazade was supposed to do to King Shahryar, to become a better person. Quickly, though, he counters this situation by telling her a story, and the roles are totally reversed – he now has the power despite the fact that she still holds a razor to his genitals. He turns out to be a benevolent despot, but a despot all the same, never actually coming to terms with his “feminine counterpart.”
In fact, the very last statement is a major part of both the “Dunyazaid” and Chimera as a whole. That is, the fact that our society, and the one shown in “Dunyazaid” is a patriarchy. Therefore, anything a writer does with a female archetype, he must do with this idea in mind. That is why critics refer to Chimera as Barth’s most socially conscious book. He is clearly conscious of the problems that face the modern woman. He realizes that women have had essentially no literary voice. He attempts to address this in his rewriting of the archetype within the “Dunyazaid”. Early on, he describes Scheherazade as “an undergraduate arts-and-sciences major at Banu Sasan University. Besides being Homecoming Queen, valedictorian-elect, and a four-letter varsity athlete, she had a private library of a thousand volumes and the highest average in the history of the campus” (5). This description serves the purpose of both humor (since that is probably what someone of Scheherazade’s talents would be like nowadays) and also as a way of positing the situation of the women in The Thousand and One Nights, to show that the situation is not even that unbelievable in the context of the real world. He goes even further with this when he gives a geo-political explanation for how the raping and killing of hundred of virgins can be tolerated. In fact, it is interesting to note that these contemporary words and phrases are, in many ways, the magic words of our time. Moreover, the buzzwords of today are essentially the same as the magic words of yesteryear. When we want to explain things clearly, we simply use slang to achieve our purpose just the same way Ali Baba used Open Sesame for his own purpose. For instance, terms like “friendly fire” and “acceptable losses” are ways of explaining things that really defy explanation. That is how raping and killing of virgins can be explained away. The discovery of these phrases that describe a situation in such a way that previous words could not is, in and of itself, magical. It is interesting, then, to see how Dunyazade and Scheherazade both doubt the Genie’s descriptions of the true love that he feels will exist with himself and Melissa, his fiancée. They do not believe him because they do not have words to describe what he feels and he cannot adequately state for them what he feels; yet his feelings are most adequately summed up by Shah Zaman. This only further drives home the point that in a patriarchal society, even two men who have totally different outlooks on life share certain ideas together, a certain bond that all men in patriarchal society share.
This sign of patriarchal society is a heavy influence in the next installment in the troika of novellas of Chimera, “Perseid”. This is dealt with in the novella in how Perseus comes to terms with himself as a mythic hero. The novella opens with Perseus greeting the reader much like the host to a midnight movie with the opening, “Good evening. Stories last longer than men, stones than stories, stars then stones” (59). This is a very interesting opening, not just for the fact that it is a provocative leading paragraph, but because as we the reader find out soon enough is that Perseus is all three of these things; story, stone, and star.
For the sake of the unacquainted reader, I will give a fairly condensed version of the Perseus myth. The version of which Barth was basing his on was Robert Graves’ version from The Greek Myths. The story of Perseus essentially falls directly into the heroic pattern that Joseph Campbell spoke of in The Hero With a Thousand Faces, which tends to help later in the “Bellerophoniad,” when Bellerophon and others posit Perseus as the perfect example of the mythic hero. The pattern that Campbell as mentioned before was one of separation, initiation, and return. The separation part of this pattern is not just meant to be separation from family or home, although that is quite common, but a separation from mortals – making the hero distinct. This is achieved in the Perseus myth when King Acrisius of Argos is told that his grandson will someday kill him, so Acrisius locks his daughter up in a tower, where Zeus impregnates her. Acrisius sends away Danae and her child in a chest until they are rescued by a fisherman named Dictys in the land of King Polydectes. During the separation part of the pattern, the gods must look down with favor upon the hero, which both Athene and Hermes do, as both Athene and Hermes bestow upon Perseus gifts that will help him in the next piece of his pattern. This next piece of the pattern is the initiation phase, as Perseus must go through the initiation of performing labors to prove his worthiness. Inside this part of the pattern, Campbell details a very important point. It is in this phase that the hero must confront the “Woman as the Temptress” (Campbell, 36). In the Perseus myth, the role of the Woman as Temptress is played by Medusa. Medusa was one of three Gorgon sisters and was raped by Poseidon in Athene’s temple. Athene took affront to this, and made the beautiful Medusa turn to stone anyone who looked upon her. Perseus finished this component of the pattern by beheading Medusa using a trick Athene taught him. On the way back from his labors, Perseus met and married the princess Andromeda. Finally, Perseus followed the last piece of the pattern, the return. The return is the most difficult of the three parts of the pattern for the hero to become accustomed to. For once the hero returns from his labors and has successfully fulfilled them, he must settle down to living the rest of his life as no longer a hero of myth, but now as the ruler of a kingdom.
This is the life that Perseus believes that he has to live up to when the story starts. Perseus narrates the novella to Medusa, and he begins telling of the middle point of his life, which is essentially the mid-life crisis for Perseus as he tries to come to deals with his status as a mythic hero. It is here that Perseus seems to evoke the spiral idea that he brought up in Dunyazaid to evoke the problems of the post-modern writer. The “heaven” that Perseus ends up in is “a couch or altar, a velvet gold rectangle with murex-purple cushions, more or less centered in a marble chamber that unwound from my left-foot corner in a grand spiral like the triton-shell that Dedalus threaded for Cocalus” (61). Just like the spiral in Dunyazaid, this represents the large amount of stories that have already been written, and just like how the post-modern writer has to deal with the fact that they have to figure out how to just not simply add to the spiral, Perseus at this point in his life has to deal with how he can have a life without just simply adding to the story of Perseus. In this respect, Barth is tying himself to Perseus. I stated earlier that I do not believe that Barth is a writer who is interested in having himself stand-in for archetypal characters, in fact, I do not believe the name he chose prior as the creator of the shell is a coincidence. The Dedalus that he speaks of there can very easily be considered a reference to Joyce’s Stephen Daedalus, the example that Barth gives of how he does believes archetypal figures should not be used. Instead, in the example of the “Perseid,” he is busy rewriting the archetype of Perseus. If it is not consistent, than he can attach himself to the journey of Perseus, at least until the story ends and he can see what he can learn from what Perseus must learn. In the case of Perseus, it is a forty-year old man trying to move on with his life while Barth at the same time was a forty-year old man trying to get past a large case of writer’s block. I previously stated that Barth, as the Genie, got past his writer’s block by going back to the classics, to the books that he loved, as the impetus for his creativity. The same is true here, as Barth is once again the Genie, going back to the classics to gain inspiration. The way he does this is the same way that Perseus progresses, which is to embrace the female archetype. In the case of the “Perseid”, the main female archetype is that of Medusa. Medusa is the Scheherazade character of the second part of Chimera; she is the archetypal feminine ideal that Barth/Genie and Perseus hope to come to terms with in their psyche. However, before we show how Medusa shows these two the way, we must first see how the very archetype Medusa represents is problematic and anything but consistent through time.
Medusa is a prime example of how patriarchal society has conspired to keep the feminine voice down. Based upon Barbara Walker’s seminal piece on female archetypes, The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, the reader learns an incredibly different history about Medusa. Medusa means “sovereign female wisdom” in Sanskrit. She was imported from Libya, where she ended up becoming a facet of Athene, the destroyer aspect, to be precise. While this destroyer aspect is what has come to the forefront of studies concerning Medusa, this other, original benevolent side of her cannot be forgotten. Her name itself denotes what her archetype once stood for, female wisdom. While she is now the “nasty mother”, originally she was the nurturing mother. This was in keeping with how Graves believed Greek religion was ruled before Homer, by not “the familiar pantheon of gods and goddesses headed by Zeus, but by a single female deity” (128). It was not until much later, after the cultural revolt against the Great Goddess that a new way of looking at Medusa began to prevail. As Charles Harris points out, “many of the goddess figures worshipped during this early matriarchy were transformed by the emergent patriarchy into monsters” (135). This was a Medusa who was now split from Athene, no longer given any sort of actual mothering instinct, only negative influence. This was begun by Hellenic forces in 1290 B.C. when they invaded all shrines to Medusa and stripped all her priestesses of their masks, who “wore gorgon masks to frighten the profane from trespassing on her mysteries” (Harris, 128). Meredith Powers, in her discussion about the female heroine archetype in fiction, believes that these masks were significant, because the use of them by the Medusa priestesses “led ultimately to their appearance on stage and the birth of tragedy” (31). This is amazing to note that this destroyer goddess is responsible for something as creative as the usage of those masks indicates. However, now, instead of Medusa taking her place upon high, Athene, the Greek Goddess, now became the archetype of all that was positive among goddesses. How did Athene achieve this distinction? It is quite simple, really, she became the patriarchal idea of what womanhood should be. She is manly enough in certain warrior aspects, but she always has that subservience to the male ingrained in her mindset. For instance, she was not born of woman, but rather of a man, Zeus, himself. Athene was consistent in her searching out of men to become heroes. In fact, in the Oresteia, she directly rules in favor of men as opposed to women. She is completely split from the ideal that she once shared with Medusa. At this point, there is no such thing as “sovereign female wisdom.” There is only wisdom in relation to the male, patriarchal system. However, that is not even as far as Athene will go in order to degrade Medusa.
Even after being retroactively reduced to the level of mortal, Medusa was still a radiantly beautiful mortal. It is Athene, in fact, that transforms her from this state of beauty into her current state of hideousness. She does this because Medusa has the audacity to be raped by Poseidon in one of Athene’s temples, the temples that are places of utter virginity. So Athene changes Medusa’s loveliest feature, he hair, into snakes. If this were not enough, the people of the time were treated to a myth in which Medusa, and through her the voice of the common woman, was destroyed. Who did this destroying? No one else did the destroying but Perseus himself, under the strict tutelage of the goddess Athene. Amazingly enough, Athene sends Perseus on this journey to kill Medusa even though she knows that there is no moral purpose in Perseus giving Polydectes a present, as Polydectes has no intention in doing anything that he has agreed upon to do. Still, Athene encourages Perseus to do it. In fact, it is only her information (probably gleamed from the time that they spent together as one entity) about Medusa’s weaknesses that leads to Perseus’ victory.
One of the most interesting tidbits about the retroactive disintegration of anything having to do with Medusa in the Greek mythic history is a once followed piece of myth found by Robert Graves. In this original piece of mythology, the alphabet was first invented by Medusa. This is an amazing discovery, because it could possibly unravel a vast amount of deep-seated beliefs on sexual identity and language. As explained previously, the archetype of language and of storytelling is male, as its mythological descendant has always been Hermes. If we were, however, to suddenly presume that it was not, in fact, a man that invented language, but a woman, especially a woman such as Medusa, then that would turn on its head many notions of archetypes. That, however, is the problem with archetypes. One can go back and systematically prove that a certain basis for belief is founded upon false beliefs. It does not necessarily, in fact, it does not even probably follow that people will suddenly believe the new “facts.” Archetypes are not, as Jung once said, “definite mythological images or motifs” (87). Instead, they are based upon the culture that they are a part of. As long as that culture has a deep-seated tendency to believe in one side of the story, you can give indisputable evidence and they would not be swayed by it. For instance, years after his death, John Wayne has not only become an archetype for tough guys or cowboys, but also for staunch conservative racism. This is demonstrated by a recent “Simpsons” episode that showed John Wayne having a special spot in hell. You could go to the people of the world and show them undisputed proof that John Wayne was the most liberal man in the world. Odds are this will not change any one’s opinion. His archetype, like that of Medusa, is too ingrained in the popular unconsciousness to be changed.
Barth, however, is not the public. He is a metafictional writer. Not only that, but he is a metafictional writer who has based his “Perseid” on Graves’ accounts of the Medusa myth. Therefore, it should come as no surprise to anyone that he has taken into account in his novella the power that Medusa has over language. First, however, Perseus has to come to grips with Jung’s concept of the anima. As mentioned before, the anima is the feminine part of a man’s psyche that he has to come to terms with before he truly loves a woman. Until he reaches that point he will constantly project his anima upon the women that he is involved with, which will result in a great deal of frustration. That is the point that Perseus is at during the beginning of the “Perseid”, and it is slowly turning him into stone.
The first person that he attempts to deal with this idea of the anima is Calyxa. Calyxa is one of the major female voices that inhabits this text and is, just like Dunyazade and Scheherezade in the Dunyazaid, a wonderful piece of metafictional writing. She is a passionate reader who reads Perseus’ life very closely, hoping that in doing so she will become close to him. She tells Perseus that here, he has “always been a god, [...] All my life I’ve worshipped you” (96). When she says he is a god and she worships him, I believe it is more in the sense that passionate readers feel a great bond to the stories that inspire them. The connection that these readers have to the text goes beyond merely reader and text. The relationship is intertwined, much like the relationship Barth tells between himself and Scheherazade, where the mere boundaries of the page cannot separate them. While Calyxa is very close in type to Barth, but is closest in fact to Sophie Bangs I believe. Calyxa very much reminds me of the college student who is, just like Sophie with Promethea, becoming immersed in her thesis. What particularly strikes me as a comparison is the panels that she draws based on what Medusa tells her. The way that she uses numbers and subcategories to demonstrate Perseus’ life, it strikes me just as a writer making citations; I-B, II-E, II-F-I, it is all like a big works cited of Perseus’ life. Likewise, the questions that she asks are very much the sort of questions an inquisitive student makes. It is her pointing out of these inconsistencies in her letters to him that draws Perseus to Calyxa in the first place, as he is very much interested in anything having to do with question his life as a story, as a myth. It is interesting that she argues that she does not believe that she is good at scholarship, because all the evidence points in the exact opposite direction. Their lovemaking is just a way of demonstrating that Perseus has not yet come to grips with his anima. Before this point, he had not had the impotent experience, so he could not possibly come to terms with the fact that his relationship with Andromeda was one that was based upon his projecting of his anima upon her. It is not until he is in heaven and cannot perform sexually that he begins to question the reasons behind this. Meanwhile, the explicit sexuality and common language terms that Barth uses to describe Perseus’ relationship with both Andromeda and Calyxa is actually important. Besides the humor, it posits Perseus for the reader not as a mythic hero who the reader can not relate to, but rather, a man, whose problems, however out of the ordinary, can at least be expressed in definable terms. This way, he does not just demystify the classic text, but shows how these archetypal situations can be related to in a twentieth century atmosphere.
It is in this environment that Calyxa finally gets Perseus to the point that he can, if not easily, at least make an attempt at reconciling with Medusa. The Perseus that meets Calyxa at the beginning of the novel has no chance at all of reconciling himself with Medusa. The Perseus who leaves Calyxa, however, is in such a situation. She does this by giving a hard-nosed reader’s opinion on everything that Perseus says. When he tries to pull something over her eyes, she can tell, because she is a modern reader, she has seen all the tricks. Nothing can get by her. She knows that when Perseus came to her he was in the midst of moving from a story into a stone. All he wanted to do was go back to being a story; “All you want to be is twenty again,” said Calyxa. Calyxa actually manages to move him beyond that by making him realize that he does not actually want the past, he has just convinced himself that was the truth because he was afraid of the future. In fact, Calyxa herself is almost afraid of that as well, because she knows that she can be with him in stories, and maybe even in stone, but she does not believe she can follow him to the stars. Still, she sends him off on his continued journey with Medusa.
It is in his travels with Medusa, his second heroic cycle, that Perseus finally comes into contact with his anima, but not with ease. The difference between the first and the second heroic track is who is being represented in each one. In the first cycle, it is Athene that is being served, and therefore, it is the patriarchy that is being served, and if the patriarchy is being served, then the anima certainly cannot be embraced. In the second cycle, however, it is Aphrodite who is embraced. In fact, it is during the second cycle that Barth makes one of his own little mythological changes as well, much like the changed belief in who discovered language. While Perseus was away performing his labors, Polydectes was chasing after Danae. During this time, Danae and Dictys were forced to hide. When they did so, it was presumed by all that they hid from him in a temple of Athene. The reality of the situation, however, is that they were really hiding in the temple of Aphrodite, and this leads to the birth of Danuus, who was bound to draw Andromeda away from Perseus and set the last part of the second cycle into motion. Medusa became the gorgon beast for the first time in the temple of Athene, in her second appearance, Perseus believes she is in Athene’s temple, but it is actually Aphrodite’s. The major difference between the two cycles, however, is that in the first, Athene, patriarchal cycle, Perseus must look at Medusa as the nasty mother and destroy her. In the second, Aphrodite, matriarchal cycle, Perseus must look at Medusa as the embodiment of wisdom and follow her. This is not an easy road, as Perseus constantly tries to follow his believed “destiny” and fall back into the heroic spiral, but Medusa manages to keep him going ahead. Here, Medusa acts as the master of language as she shows Perseus the “correct” path to follow. She is the masculine archetype in this story. She is domineering to the submissive Perseus and she is the storyteller, all male archetypal traits. That is probably the main reason why she is able to transmit him out of his rut and into the heavens. This interaction between the male and the female is consummated by the so-called “escape clause” that Athene put into Medusa’s gorgonization that would allow her to be freed if Perseus would accept her as his anima. He does, and he therefore comes to terms with his feminine part and begins the third, and ostensibly final, part of his journey, that of the star. Here, Perseus lives in the skies with Medusa and all the characters of the Perseus myth, with Perseus and Medusa holding a special, higher place among the characters. This is a very interesting way for Barth to use an actual factual occurrence, the constellation that has Perseus next to Medusa, as a conclusion to a story. Like the events of the “Dunyazadiad,” the constellations of Perseus and Medusa existed before Barth got to work on them, so they are familiar to anyone who looks into the sky. But Barth is not making some glowing allusion to the stars in the sky, he is stating them matter-of-factly. That is simply where Perseus and Medusa are now staying. He is using the “Perseid” to bring the stars almost down to Earth while also allowing Perseus to transcend his archetype and become a star. By bringing the stories of Perseus and Dunyazade down to his own level, Barth/Genie is able to make himself feel better about himself as a writer and therefore transcend his writer’s block. He addresses the archetypes directly, not from a position of worship like Eliot or recapitulation like Joyce, but by using their mythical power to free both the archetypal characters themselves from their restraints and also the restraints that he subconsciously had upon himself as a writer.
Bellerophon is an archetypal character that has not slipped himself from the restraints of his character, and not even Barth can do anything about this problem. The main reason behind this is that Bellerophon is essentially a copy. In The Greek Myths, his story follows Perseus’ story almost to the word. This leads to Barth making some interesting comments about the state of the mythic hero. As established earlier in the section on the “Perseid,” it was established that Perseus followed Campbell’s Heroic Pattern almost perfectly. While this is true, it must be established that Perseus did so of his own accord, that is, he did it spontaneously. In the “Bellerophoniad,” Bellerophon sets out with the self-consciousness of what it means to be a hero. In fact, Bellerophon has a literal guide to being a hero, he actually follows the Heroic Pattern, to the letter. Of course, the problem is presented that if you follow an archetype perfectly, all you will be is a perfect copy, and that is what happens to Bellerophon. He never achieves the mythic hero status that he craves because all he does is copy the archetype of Perseus.
The problem of Bellerophon actually achieving mythical status takes on two major components. The first is the fact that he does not seem to actually want to become a mythical hero. He just seems to think he has to do it. The first half of Perseus’ life did not consist of debate over what it was that he had to do, but just impulse towards what he thought he had to do at the moment. Bellerophon does not have that opportunity, because he is constantly surrounded by thought. Barth demonstrates this when he quotes extensively from the section in Robert Graves’ The Greek Myths on Bellerophon. All this insertion does is to put more pressure upon Bellerophon as to having to live up to this perfect heroic ideal. The idea of over-thinking is the other problem that Bellerophon has with actually becoming a mythical hero. The mere fact that he studies and then follows the Heroic Pattern is bad enough, but there is more. For instance, when Bellerophon debates his culpability in the death of his father and brother, he breaks out Aristotle’s classification of human actions according to the degree and nature of the agent’s volition (175). Likewise, later on when Anteia approaches him for sex in order to produce a demigod, or at least a semidemigod (Barth’s little poke at the supposed serious god genealogies) Bellerophon responds by demonstrating a Mendel genetic chart that would explain the low percentages towards their sexual union having the effect that she desires.
The main problem of following an archetype blindly is based upon what was stated previously in my argument, that is, the idea that archetypes exist only in the unconscious. Once one starts to develop his or her archetype consciously, it only leads to trouble. Therefore, instead of becoming an archetypal life as well, it instead becomes a stereotypical evasion of real life. Perseus first discovered his problem by the fact that he was living a spiral life. Well, Bellerophon’s life is in a circle, so therefore, he never discovers the folly of his life. Barth is telling us that the only way to escape this endless (re)cycle is to go beyond the archetype, to rewrite it rather than relive it, as Bellerophon does. Bellerophon is doing exactly what Barth always says not to do, he is treating archetypes like they are something special, something to be looked up to. As long as Bellerophon is busy looking up to archetypes, he cannot possibly reconcile himself with the archetypes, and so he does not.
The main reason why Bellerophon cannot avoid looking up to the archetypes is because he cannot escape from the patriarchal system. He is inherently caught up in a patriarchal system. Unlike Perseus, he does not have a Medusa character, he does not have someone to let loose the shackles of his patriarchal existence. The closest he has to Medusa is the character of Melanippe, the Amazon that he encounters. It demonstrates the falsity of Bellerophon (BelleroPHONY?) that he decides to rewrite the character of Melanippe so that she does resemble Medusa, and then therefore attempt to give himself an ending similar to Perseus. Melanippe quickly shoots down this argument after Part One by quickly pointing out to Bellerophon that he is totally misrepresenting the facts. It is here that she is most like Medusa, as she attempts to push Bellerophon in the correct direction. She sends him off to encounter and embrace the Chimera, the example of the patriarchal devolving of the female, and he agrees, but he instead decides to fly off to Olympus and embrace Zeus and the patriarchy. In doing so, he also embraces Polyeidus.
Polyeidus, the trickster archetype, is a large obstacle in the way of Bellerophon becoming a mythic hero, partly because he lied to Bellerophon and partly because Bellerophon is really Bellerophon’s dead brother, Deliades. This is because Polyeidus, as the trickster archetype, is the representative of all that is fake and wrong about archetypal study. This is apparent when Polyeidus becomes a series of letters, each of which is a fraudulent, fake, or forged letter. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the son of such a man would become a fake hero. An interesting tie-in to the “Perseid” is the comparison that Polyeidus makes between himself and Hermes, inventor of the alphabet. As established earlier, it had been posited by Graves that it actually might have been Medusa who had invented the alphabet. It had also been established that Barth probably knew of this fact, so that it is probably very important that he has Polyeidus making this claim. It positions Polyeidus as the complete opposite of Medusa, the truth of one side versus the truth on the other, one of whom had to be correct. Bellerophon decides to follow the former at the end of the “Bellerophoniad,” and does not get what he ultimately wants. What he does get to become is very interesting, however. He gets to become the “Bellerophoniad” itself. Polyeidus describes the future life as the “Bellerophoniad” much like how Barth describes all of contemporary writing, “a certain number of printed pages in a language not untouched by Greek, to be read by a limited number of ‘Americans,’ not all of whom will finish or enjoy them” (307). Not the best of outcomes for Bellerophon, but what is even more fascinating is Bellerophon’s description of his fate as the “Bellerophoniad,” right before he agrees to become the story himself, “It’s not at all what I had in mind for Bellerophon. It’s a beastly fiction, ill-proportioned, full of longueurs, lumps, lacunae, a kind of monstrous mixed metaphor” (308). Essentially, then, Bellerophon at the very end of Chimera becomes the Chimera!
In essence, then, what Barth is attempting to prove with the Chimera is that the only way to go about things is by an embracing and intermingling of the masculine and feminine archetypes. The basis behind this is the repeated mention of treasure. Treasure, as read in myths, can very often be the women that the male heroes save. Therefore, when the point is made that the key to the treasure is the treasure, then it can be inferred that the key to the treasure is understanding women, and their interaction with men. For instance, in the two sections of the novel that have “happy” endings, “Dunyaziad” and “Perseid,” have said happy endings because of the interrelation between the masculine and feminine archetypes. That is why Chimera can often be read as John Barth’s most socially conscious novel ever, for in the novel, as in actual life, Barth believes in the importance of shared archetypal images between the two sexes.
CHAPTER 3 – The End
Alan Moore and Promethea
While writing the last Superman story prior to a large revamp of Superman in 1986, Alan Moore made a very metafictional statement. He placed alongside the story title “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” this addendum; “This is an IMAGINARY STORY (which may never happen, but then again may) about a perfect man who came from the sky and did only good…This is an IMAGINARY STORY…aren’t they all” (Superman 423, 1)? This marks Alan Moore’s work throughout his career. He is, as mentioned at the beginning of the essay, interested in the “essence” of the comic book hero, or what one could call the archetypal hero. At the same point, Moore is also interested in taking a metafictional approach to the comic book medium, as is evident with the prior statement from Superman. While almost all of Moore’s texts deal in some way with archetypes, his recent series, Promethea, is unique. It is unique in that it is one of his only works that is purely metafictional (many of his works, like the Superman pieces, use metafictional devices but are traditional stories). Not only that, but it is his only work that deals with the situation of women. Promethea rewrites archetypes in two ways that make it very useful for study. Promethea rewrites traditional cultural archetypes in the metafictional tradition as well as rewriting the popular culture tradition that makes up the background that Promethea exists in (specifically the role of women within this popular culture).
The introduction or “history” of Promethea that appears at the beginning of the collection was originally the text page of the first issue of the comic (one of the other conventions of comic books is the letter column, where readers voice their opinions on previous issues. In the first issue of a series, there is a text page instead). Moore acts like John Barth’s Jerome Bray, who Barth interjects into Chimera at one point to make “critical” points about the story. In the introduction, Moore uses the fake history of Promethea to give a little background on the character of Promethea while also deriding the condition that women held in the popular fiction of America, specifically the twentieth century. Moore also could be making some metafictional point about the reality of history as well, but if he is, it is not noteworthy. Most of all, what the history does is to draw the inquiring reader into the world that Moore writes of in his introduction. Names that have been lost to history like Margaret Brundage, Grace Geddie Drayton, and Winsor McCay are brought to the mind of the reader. As mentioned previously with Coover’s work, once one is familiar with the works that Coover is talking about, then Coover can do a number of interesting things with the stories. Likewise, if the reader is familiar with the history of popular fiction that already exists, then Moore’s reworking of those concepts is all the more impressive. However, Moore does have to introduce his readers to these concepts. His texts are unlike Coover’s, which use ideas that are so popular among most of the mainstream that Coover does not have to explain them and Barth’s, who expects a familiarity with the concepts that he is using. It is more fruitful if one knows of the people that Moore is basing his stories upon, but it is not necessary to read and understand Promethea. Instead, Moore’s introduction must explain to the mainstream audience the environment that Promethea takes place in. Even this straightforward introduction, however, pokes a little fun at the medium that Moore is working in. For instance, when he makes reference to the Apex line of comics going out of business, it is clear that it is a reference to Moore’s previous line of comics, Awesome. Likewise, the self-awareness of the introduction is evident when the introduction explains the cancellation of the Promethea comic book series. This is used as an example of the fact that comic books starring women do not sell; of course, this is printed in the first issue of an all-new comic book series starring mostly women.
Before moving on to the actual text of Promethea, it is very important to discuss the parameters of the medium of Promethea. If one does not understand that, then one is not going to be able to fully understand Promethea. The academic study of comic books is very difficult because of the simple fact that there has been little in the way of serious study of comic books as literature in the entire existence of comic books as an artistic medium. In order to better understand comics, I will explain the way that comics work and the way that they are produced, in order to better address the way in which comic books can be studied and compared to novels and other works of literature. After all, comic books are there own particular entity, and as much of a similarity one may choose to draw between comic books and written literature or comic books and motion pictures, there is a difference. It is only with the understanding of these differences that one may fully appreciate the peculiarities and strengths of Promethea.
First of all, the name of the medium itself is at debate. Just like the problems with literary definitions, the idea of coming up with one term to describe many different types of works is quite daunting. The term “comic book,” in its very name, signifies something that is juvenile. This is not surprising, as the majority of works done in the medium have been designed for the enjoyment of younger viewers. However, especially in the last quarter century, the medium has developed far beyond simple children’s stories, and this development has led to many mature, sophisticated, and very much adult works. If one were to refer to them as “comics,” it seems as though it is degradation, and serves only to dissuade those who have serious stories to tell from using this medium. After all, both the novel and the motion picture were also derided as mindless tripe not worthy of being seriously studied until both mediums found themselves with enough serious artists producing work within those two mediums that they could no longer be discarded. If comics ever wish to be on that same plane, it would help if there were an adequate term to describe them. The term “graphic novel” has been bandied about, and it has been most popular among those that teach comic books in schools. The problem with this term is twofold. The first is the fact that it is almost as misleading of a term as comic book; the phrase graphic novel essentially breaks down to a novel with pictures, which sounds like nothing more than a traditional novel with illustrations in it. The second is the fact that the term graphic novel may be okay for use when it is referring to a book-length comic or a collected book of a series of comics, but that is not what most comics are. Most comics are monthly, serialized works that generally run only about twenty-two pages an issue. That is hardly what one would call a “novel.” It is these comics that are the reality of the medium, not the longer works. Finally, the term that is most accepted when referring to comic books is a term that, in all seriousness, is not really a productive term either. The term “sequential art” was coined by the comic book artist Will Eisner and popularized by Scott McLoud in his book, Understanding Comics. Sequential art is a good term because it essentially just describes what the process of a comic book is, a process in which art is shown in sequences. Later in the essay, how exactly this is done and why it constitutes a particular form of art will be explained. But for now the question at hand is whether or not sequential art is an adequate term to describe the comic book medium. At this moment, the answer will have to be no, as the term sequential art, while describing very well the uniqueness of comics on the art side of the table, neglects to fully appreciate the writing, or word side of the table. Henceforth, although it is an unappetizing term, the phrase comic book, while juvenile, does at least adequately attempt to combine the two distinctive elements of the medium, the artist and the writer into one term in a more recognizably descriptive way than “graphic novel.” A typical reader understands how to read a comic strip, and it can be fairly easily explained to such a reader that a comic book is, in many ways, a long, book-length, comic book. While the term does not do justice to the medium, the original impetus for the term, the fact that the first comic books were essentially books made up of old comic strips, is still the most descriptive for this unique medium. At the very least, it is the best of what is available. This searching for terms, however, demonstrates that the comic book medium is one in which is searching not only for names to call itself, but is searching for a clear identity. The point is significant because if comic books are to be studied as art, they have to be able to be understood by the people who do the studying, and not just followers of the medium. That is why it is actually important for there to be a term that one can use to describe all works in the medium, and for now, comic books will have to do.
As I discovered earlier in the thesis, one of the most troublesome issues in dealing with the definition of comics is the fact that the method of comic creation is still unknown to most people. While I referred to Alan Moore as the author of Promethea, he is not necessarily the book’s only author. A comic book, much like a film, is generally not the work of just one man. It is a collaborative effort. First off, there are two people involved in the creation of the comic who, while playing a necessary role, are definitely the least important when it comes to the creation of the comic. These two people are the colorist and the letterer. The colorist is, simply put, the person who colors in the comic. Different colorists have different styles, and greatly differ in the overall tone of the comic, for example, whether or not the art is brought out from or is sunken into the page. However, this has increasingly become something that can be done digitally, and most comics are no longer colored by actual colorists. In the case of Promethea, the coloring in the first three issues was done by digital coloring systems, first Digital Chameleon, then Wildstorm FX. Starting with the fourth issue, however, Jeromy M. Cox became the colorist of the book. The letterer, on the other hand, while certainly not integral to the book, does lead much more of a particular voice to the comic. At least, a good letterer adds a particular voice to the comic, and Todd Klein, letterer of Promethea, is acknowledged to be the best letterer in the business. Whether by coming up with new fonts for Promethea’s voice, the voices of demons, or the TEXTure that runs throughout New York City, Klein brings a definitive feel to the comic. On a side note, which applies only to his work on Promethea, Klein also designs most of the covers for Promethea.
That leaves then, the most important people in the production of a comic book, the writer and artist(s). The writer and the artist comprise a most peculiar relationship. Which is achieved in a myriad of ways. I will innumerate the most popular. The most common form of this relationship is the writer coming up with a particular idea, and sending it to an artist called the penciller. The penciller takes the plot that the writer gives him and draws it. There are two different ways of an artist getting the plot. The one is the traditional method and the other is the “Marvel style.” The traditional method is the one that most comics have been using since the very beginning of comic books. In this system the writer writes out a full plot, just as if he or she is writing a screenplay, and gives it to the artist who attempts to make that screenplay come to life on the printed page. The “Marvel style,” however, is a much more symbiotic relationship. It, like most new inventions, came out of a desire for convenience. In the early days of Marvel Comics, Stan Lee was the writer on every comic that came out. Now this was doable when there were only two or three comics, but when the line expanded, Lee was not able to write full plots for them all. Instead, he developed a system in which he wrote a basic plot and gave it to the artist. The artist would then design the comic based on the basic plot in whatever way the artist would see fit. Lee would then take the finished art and script it. In both systems, the penciled art would not be the finished art that the reader sees, but a rough guideline for what the art will look like. That art would then be, for lack of a better term, traced over by another artist called an inker.
The purpose of the inker is to embellish the penciller’s work, to give it definition and detail. The inker is not supposed to detract at all from the penciled art. There are varying degrees of how much the inker adds to the penciled art. Most pencillers are fairly detailed on their own and their inkers do not have to add as much. In fact, in some rare cases, the penciller will actually ink himself, but those instances are quite rare. Other times there are artists who do what are called breakdowns, or extremely rough guidelines for what the art is supposed to look like. In those cases, the inker almost adds as much actual art to the picture as the artist. Most pencillers enjoy the way that a certain inker makes their art look, so they work with that inker almost exclusively. At this point, the penciller and inker can honestly be seen as one fully collaborative artist. This is the case for the art team of Promethea. J.H. Williams III and Mick Gray have been working together as one art team for the last several years.
If the two are collaborative then, unless there is one man doing both the writing and art, can there be such a thing as a single auteur in a collaborative work? In the case of Promethea, the answer appears to be yes, as Alan Moore can be accurately described as the one true auteur of the story of Promethea. The reasoning for this is explained in an essay by comic book writer, Joe Casey, as he deals with this very question:
Alan Moore is the ultimate comic book auteur, simply through sheer force of will and dizzying amounts of talent. Anyone who has seen his scripts know damn well they are like massive blueprints for some fantastic building, one you can picture in your own mind without having even poured the actual concrete foundation. He is such an auteur, simply through his writing, that when -- in the rare instance -- an artist does drastically deviate from what Moore has suggested in the script, the resultant story is actually worse off (to me, anyway). Moore is all for collaboration, but he seems to know beforehand exactly what and how his artistic partners will contribute to the story. (“Fandom”)
So, therefore, while J.H. Williams III certainly adds a great deal to the story of Promethea in his designs for all the characters and the environments that they interact within, it is clear that the driving force behind Promethea is Moore himself. Promethea is dealing with all the issues that Moore brought up previously in his interview in Salon.com. They are his issues, and moreover, America’s Best Comics is his line of comics. Traditionally, when writer and artist partnerships are decided, it is by the editor of the comic book. In the case of America’s Best Comics, Moore handpicked each one of his artists on each of the books. Therefore, while Williams III adds his trademark art style to beautifully depict the world of Promethea, he is doing so in a manner in which Moore must have felt that Williams III could achieve, or else he would not have bothered hiring Williams III. So, from here on in, while the instances in which Williams III made specific additions to the book will be referred to, Alan Moore will be considered for all intents and purposes, the author of Promethea.
There are a few more basic concepts about comics to be defined before delving into the actual text of Promethea. First, is the very serial nature of comic books. As stated earlier, hey cannot adequately be referred to as novels because they are fairly short and are serialized. There are other reasons why the serial nature of comics is important. The fact that comic books are serial leads to an acknowledged fact; unless the hero dies or the stories become unpopular, this is a narrative that will never end. Henceforth, any writer or artist working on the narrative must realize that they are limited by the constraints of having to continue with the story. That is why most of the serious writers and artists in this medium have come to work less and less on serialized comics rather than contained-length stories, mini-series, as they are called in the business. This gives the artist and the writer most of the freedom they need. One of the most acclaimed mini-series was Alan Moore’s first foray into reinterpreting the archetype of the super hero, Watchmen. If one were to discuss Watchmen, one would have to look at the work as whole, as it has a beginning, middle, and end, like typical novels. That approach cannot really be used on Promethea, as it is an on-going title.
Next, and possibly the most important of the concepts to understand is that of continuity. In serial, as well as self-contained comics, continuity is something that can be a wonderful thing. But to the serious artist it is generally seen as a burden. Richard Reynolds describes the three forms that continuity presents itself in comics in his book, Super Heroes: A Modern Mythology. The three types are Serial Continuity, where the stories that have happened previously must remain consistent with the current stories: Hierarchal Continuity, in which if Character A defeats Character B and Character B defeats Character C, then Character A must be able to defeat Character C as well; and finally, Structural Continuity, which is the idea that all texts from a particular comic company take place within one consistent “universe,” and any stories that do not jibe with this universe must be non-continuity stories, or “imaginary stories.” With these concepts in place, one can fully relate to the concepts that are being discussed in Promethea as well as the format for the discussion.
Promethea, as a comic book, is a visual character just as much as she is a literary character. Therefore, her visual appearance has just as much to do as her demeanor or her actions. Partly, this has to do with what Richard Reynolds calls one of the “crucial signs of super-heroism.” In his book, Super Heroes, he argues that “an individual costume is an example of parole – a specific utterance within this structured language of signs... a costume can be ‘read’ to indicate an individual hero’s character or powers” (26). This definitely holds true for Promethea, as her costume is a microcosm of her entire character. However, the symbols that exist in Promethea are, in many ways, just like archetypes. A symbol can be rewritten just as easily as an archetype, and Moore does so with the symbols in Promethea.
With the use of Barbara Walker’s The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects, Moore’s reasoning in choosing each symbol hopefully can be explained. On the surface, Promethea’s costume is a gold-plated Amazonian-like armor with a simple cape. She carries with her a Caduceus and has a tattoo of a Phoenix on her shoulder blade and another tattoo of an Ibis on her right leg. On her armor are an Ankh, Laurel-designs, and a Scarab. All of these are symbols that tie into the Greek and Egyptian tradition, specifically those of the Greek god Hermes and the Egyptian god Thoth. Some of the symbols can be translated simply, such as the Phoenix. The symbol of the Sun God is present all throughout the story of Promethea, and the Phoenix, with its relationship with both the sun and eternal renewal makes perfect sense to be part of Promethea’s design. The only slight caveat, is the fact that the Phoenix has what looks to be a Scarab in place where this is normally a blank circle. This, however, is probably a visual choice. In that same vein, the Laurel designs and Promethea’s hairstyle look like artistic decisions merely to invoke the dual Greek/Egyptian tradition, rather than any deeper meaning. The Caduceus, Scarab, and Ankh, however, all have one thing in common, and that is that they are all tied together with the idea of the power of life and of healing, which is all very traditional, and not rewritten in the least. Likewise, Promethea’s relation to Hermes and Thoth is very simple, as those two gods are the gods of the creative word.
However, this is significant because of the way that these symbols have been rewritten in the past, and presumably, Moore wishes to rewrite them again. There is a need for rewriting because of what was discovered earlier about Hermes, and likewise applies to Thoth. As mentioned prior, Hermes quite possibly stole the first alphabet from Medusa, and is not the rightful forebear of the creative word. Likewise, the original Egyptian deity in charge of the creative word was the goddess Maat, who lost her powers to her husband, Thoth. These two gods, then, are examples of the male stripping away the female power. This is seen in the Scarab and the Ankh as well. The Scarab was related to the all-important Sun god, only as long as the Egyptians believed that Scarabs were only male. Soon, upon the discovery of the falsity of this statement, they were rewritten as a nurturing, lunar symbol. Likewise, the Ankh was once a symbol of female power, as the symbol of the Great Goddess. Soon, however, it was rewritten as a symbol of life and stripped of any specific meaning. Therefore, Moore is certainly aware of the fact that Promethea gained her power over the creative word from two gods who, as Barbara Walker pointed out earlier, got their powers from matriarchal goddesses. This is then Moore’s way of bringing the feminine power back to the forefront – the gods may feel that they have the power, but Moore and the reader know where the real power actually came from. He rewrites the symbols so that what was once thought to be a masculine symbol is back in the feminine hands that it originally belonged to; and that rewriting imbues Promethea with the confidence that without said knowledge she certainly would have lacked.
While the edition of Promethea that is being studied is, in fact, one volume, it is necessary to remember that the volume merely collects into one book the first six serialized issues of the Promethea comic book. Since each character is meant to stand by themselves as well as being a part of the whole, the best way to study Promethea is by examining each issue (or chapter, if you will) of the text individually, in the chronological order that Moore presented them originally.
Throughout Promethea, Moore seems to choose three particular archetypes to rewrite. The three he chooses are the three main ones that have come up in the work of Coover and Barth. Those three are the female archetype, the writer archetype, and the hero archetype. The significance of these three is the fact that these are the three largest archetypes at stake in a patriarchally controlled society. The voice of authority that has been dealt with previously in both Coover and Barth is the establishment of the patriarchy positioning themselves as the writer of all stories. It is in this writing that the female archetype is thoroughly undermined. The two largest areas where the female archetype is undermined are in the situation of writing, as women have no narrative (and therefore no authoritative) voice and the situation of heroes, which have been written to include essentially only men. In Promethea, Moore attempts to take back the writer and hero archetype and tie them both to the female archetype that they had no real reason to be torn from in the first place. The title of the first issue/chapter of Promethea (from here on, they will be referred to as chapters, as the collected version is the version that is being used for reference) is “The Radiant, Heavenly City.” The term is important because that phrase starts and ends the story of Promethea, so that means that the entire first chapter is wrapped around that phrase. The phrase appears in the beginning where the first example of the writer appears. Promethea’s father is seen as a heretic, and there comes a Christian mob to kill him. Little do they know that their actions are not their own, but rather they are essentially being written by Promethea’s father. Since he is writing his own death here, there must be some significance to his dying words, “There, time claims him. Time, and the radiant, heavenly city” (3). This is most probably exactly what the characters in Barth’s Chimera were attempting to deal with, the goal that they will not merely end at some mortal point, but that they will live forever in time. The way that one may live forever in time in Barth is to live on in a story, and that is probably what Promethea’s father saw himself going as well. Note what he tells Promethea, that they will “see each other in the western lands, a-and” (2). That stoppage surely demonstrates that he was about to prophesize their later meeting in the land of stories, for the “western lands,” are defined by Moore in his introduction as meaning the imaginary land of Promethea. Her father awaits his reward in the land of stories. The young Promethea is encountered as she runs away from her dying father by the gods that he worshipped, Thoth and Hermes, who appear to Promethea as one combined being. They make her an offer to live eternally, as a story. She accepts the offer that her father helped provide for her. One of the questions that are posed in Promethea is whether or not Promethea’s father set her up to be a blessing to mankind or as a curse? In a more important sense, what Moore is setting up here is a situation in which Promethea becomes one in a long line of girls whose fathers influence the most important experiences of their lives.
The scene that directly follows Promethea’s father’s declaration of the heavenly, radiant city is another type of city. This is the New York City of 1999, as seen through the world of Promethea and the eyes of J.H. Williams III.
Williams III’s New York City is a gritty, yet futuristic version of the actual city. His New York City is not what New York City actually is, but rather, what New York City feels like. It is a land where even the most fantastic elements of the city, like the radical signs in the majestic skyline used to advertise pornography. The city, as it does in the hard-boiled detective novels that helped make up the pulp fiction market that is explored later in Promethea, is just as much a character as anyone else in the story. It does so by the way in which it is both a reader and writer to the denizens of its shores. The city is written by the people who make up its population, while at the same time, it writes them in the way that people who enter the city are drawn into its mannerisms and its rituals. If its people change the city, it changes the people who come into it later. The city in Promethea is the kind of city that could exist in almost any fantasy or detective story. Like the gothic staircase that Sophie climbs up on page 6 and climbs down on page 7. Also, it is a city that is very self-aware that it exists in a comic book. There were two comic book series printed by Marvel Comics that dealt with this same self-awareness. The first, Damage Control (1989), addressed the fact that every fight between a super-hero and super-villain seems to have resulted in a large amount of property damage. Damage Control is the insurance company that deals with the clean up after the battles.
The second title, Fantastic Four: Big Town (2000), deals with another reality of the comic book environment. In the world of comic books, fantastic devices are being introduced every other month. It is unrealistic to suppose that none of these incredible inventions ever trickled down to the common populace, and that is what Fantastic Four: Big Town is about. It shows how New York City deals with the instant infusion of new technology it gained from the inventions by all the brilliant comic book scientists, and the way that the city adapts. One can easily see this idea behind Moore and Williams’ New York City. The absurdity of living in a comic book city is underscored when Sophie runs into The Five Swell Guys, Moore’s mocking tribute to the comic book series, The Fantastic Four. They accost her in the street, wanting to know if she has had any problems, if there are “no extraterrestrial creatures bothering you? No government conspiracies, ancient demon cults, nothing like that” (10)? When a person inhabits a city like this, there is no doubt that the city has some effect upon their being.
The interaction early in the story between Sophie and her best friend Stacia is interesting to look at, because their conversations deal heavily in the power of writing. Their dialogues demonstrate the writing that goes on in a typical conversation, the way that a person reads the person that they are speaking with and writes themselves to be the person that they wish to come off as. Of course, the opposite of this is when the person with whom one is speaking with attempts to rewrite him or her. In this instance, Stacia and Sophie do this by calling each other names like “Slut” or “Gay” or “You Homo.” This ties directly to the themes brought up previously in the essay where the idea of woman was posited as bad. Here, Stacia and Sophie undermine each other by using negative female stereotypes to write each other as, such as “Slut.” Meanwhile, Stacia puts down Sophie’s interest in Promethea in a humorous way, by constantly misnaming Promethea, calling her Prostitutia, Prosthetica, and Prolapsia. As they separate, Sophie is seen to be saying one word in response – Promethea. She does not wish to have Promethea be renamed or rewritten. It is this deep-seated interest in Promethea that makes her a target for those that do not wish Promethea to exist. After Barbara Shelley turns her down for more information on Promethea, Sophie is attacked by a Semi-Mindless Elemental Entity, or Smee for short. As she runs from the demon, Sophie calls out to the demon, “What did I do? I haven’t done anything? I’m a college student! All I ever did was read books” (13). Of course, as previously demonstrated by Barth in his fascination with Dunyazade when someone is privy to a powerful story, as Dunyazade was, then that person can be more powerful than one thinks. Sophie, like a common person, derides reading as not being an active participant in anything. But all metafictional writers can tell you that that is not the case at all. Likewise, Sophie realizes this when the Smee throws her off the bridge with the retort, “Wrong books” (13).
Sophie is saved from the Smee by Barbara Shelley, the woman who was Promethea before Sophie. Promethea is a goddess that is channeled by whomever writes about her or, more generally, whoever becomes greatly interested in Promethea. She takes over the body of whoever writes about her uses as their muse. If someone is basing their writings upon themselves, then they become Promethea. However, Promethea can also be channeled into the body of the person who inspires the writer. In the case of Steve Shelley, it was his wife Barbara Shelley who was his muse during the time he was writing the Promethea comic book. The name Steve Shelley, a heterosexual man who is actually supportive of the Promethea phenomenon, is most probably a mixture of the names of Steve Trevor, Wonder Woman’s love interest in the comic book of the same name, and Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus. Barbara Shelley’s appearance brings up a few points of note in the discussion of the construction of character. Barbara Shelley’s Promethea is, to be nice, very plump – a distinct difference from the way Promethea has been portrayed over the years. This is because with her husband now dead, Barbara is forced to imagine herself as Promethea without his help. Alas, without his help, her self-image is that of how she “actually” appears and not how she appeared in the mind of her husband. This raises the point of the ludicrous figures that women in super hero comics generally have figures that are not realistic. At the same time, it shows what Barth demonstrated with the “Perseid.”
In that story, Perseus attempts to relive his own stories, only to realize that those stories have already been told and he is just becoming a pathetic, middle-aged man. That is the situation that Barbara Shelley is in, as she tries to be the Promethea of the past, she only shows what a shambles her heroic image is in. Like Perseus, she was living the “ever after” part of the story, the part where the hero grows old and complacent only to be drawn back into the fray. However, both characters are no longer the heroes of the stories that they once inhabited. As Barbara says, “Promethea’s been getting more like me. Can’t imagine her any different” (23). That is because, like Perseus, she is no longer the hero/ine of the stories, but an actual normal person. Likewise, like Perseus, she must eventually embrace her past life as a story and live forever in Immateria, as Perseus lives forever in the stars.
Once it becomes clear that the only way out of the situation is for Sophie to become Promethea, Sophie sits down to write about and hopefully invoke Promethea. The ensuing two-page spread (16-17) is a wonderful piece on both the part of Moore and Williams III. Their detailed work shows both Sophie’s true discovery of Promethea as well as some hashing out of the details of Promethea’s existence. In the poem, which repeats the phrase, “I am Promethea,” a clear indication that Sophie is engaged in the power of naming by naming herself Promethea, the reader is given a glimpse into how Promethea sees herself. This is a clear relation to both the “Perseid” and the “Bellerophoniad,” as the naming processes at hand in those texts defined what each character saw himself as. She takes her name from the god Prometheus, because Promethea feels that like Prometheus and his gift of fire, she is a gift from the gods to humans. She feels that she is beyond the reason of men and she is “the dream that waking does not end” (18). Williams slowly reveals Promethea by showing her in partially obscured close-up panels as the Smee attacks Barbara until her appearance on a full page of art on page 20. The speech that she gives as she appears, as she transforms from Sophie writing about Promethea to Sophie AS Promethea, not only gives a nod to her namesake, Prometheus, but shows how wrong Sophie was earlier with her remarks about books. Promethea announces, “I am Promethea, art’s fiercest spark...I am all inspiration...all desire. Imagination’s blaze in mankind’s dark...I am Promethea...and I bring you FIRE” (19-20). She demonstrates the power that is in all of mankind’s imagination and passion as she destroys the Smee in a burst of energy. As she picks up Barbara and starts to take her to the hospital, Sophie/Promethea remarks that “Now that I’m back, I have all the time that there is in the world. Time...and the radiant, heavenly city” (23-24). The last repetitious phrase of her father is spoken on a full page spread as Promethea flies away with the city in the background. One can read that as being an ironic phrase, but perhaps more accurately, it is Promethea stating that now that she is back, she is back to rewriting “reality,” and to Promethea, New York City can truly be a radiant, heavenly city.
The next chapter of Promethea opens up with a sly reference to the use of symbolic archetypes. Promethea is carrying Barbara over the New York City skyline, which Williams III represents by three narrow panels. The first is filled with the filthy inhabitants of New York City walking through the Promethea version of New York City’s red light district; the next with the Five Swell Guys on patrol; and the last with Stacia waiting for Sophie in a rock club. All the while, Barbara is inundating Sophie/Promethea with concepts of what being Promethea is like. The whole scene, dialogue and visuals together, is wonderfully confusing, until the page turns and the next page is one large panel with Promethea in front of the hospital, standing out like a beacon of light in a city of darkness with the symbol of the Caduceus on its side. Promethea remarks, “Don’t worry. Some symbols always mean the same thing...and the archetype of wisdom is eternal” (34). Of course, the metafictional reader knows that this is not the case at all, but a figure such as Promethea, who attempts to embody archetypes, would not know this.
The title of this chapter is “The Judgement of Solomon,” in reference to Benny Solomon, the magician who orders a Mafioso-style magical “hit” on Promethea. The scene when Solomon hires the two demons that will hopefully kill Promethea for him is very entertaining. Moore writes the demons in the complete style of hitmen, making them more accessible, much like Coover does with his story, “The Brother,” where he uses colloquial diction to make Noah’s brother more common, and thus, easier to relate with. The mainstream reader may not be familiar with the comings and goings of warlocks and demons, but the mainstream reader is undoubtedly familiar with the conventions of the Mafia genre. The first demon introduces himself as, “Marchosias, used t’be a dominion, y’know? In twelve hundred years, I hope to return to the seventh throne.” The second presents himself with, “My name’s Andras, and there’s thirty posses backin’ me up, sucker” (36). This talk demonstrates the two demons as two typical wiseguys. However, Williams III shows in the far panels on pages 36 and 37 the true faces of the demons. While the reader may be familiar with the colloquialisms, the bestial vestiges on the side show that these demons should not be treaded with lightly.
The next page introduces an incredible concept of Moore’s, and one that fits perfectly into the world of Promethea, that of TEXTure. In the world of Promethea, people do not listen to the radio, they read TEXTure (the style of the TEXTure captions by Todd Klein are impressive). This makes total sense in a world where reading carries so much power, that a device, which is constantly writing new stories, is where people get their news. Moore is probably making reference as well to the growing interest in hypertext in the writing community. In many ways, hypertext is as close as a normal reader can come to a sort of “Immateria.” Moore supplies the TEXTure with mostly snide jokes making fun of, in just the first two pages of TEXTure; the conventional super hero comic, “A firefight between...The Five Swell Guys and celebrity omnipath The Painted Doll. Early reports suggest that Marv has been wounded. Also, Roger and Kenneth are apparently no longer speaking to each other” (38); the condition of the city, “Weatherwise, expect these showers to continue throughout the night. Pathogen levels are tolerable to good” (38); and pop music, “The Limp’s ironically non-ironic lead singer Montellimar Sykes recently caused controversy by declaring new Limp album, ‘Fist & Shout’ as ‘More handsome than Jesus’” (39).
When Sophie/Promethea first encounters Stacia, she reacts in a way that is very reminiscent of the points brought up during the discussion of Coover’s use of popular stories. When Stacia sees Promethea, she makes a reference to She-Ra, a cartoon character. Likewise, when Stacia attempts to describe the situation that Sophie is in, she says, “I mean, you’ve finally got boobs and you’re all special effects and everything. It’s like you’re living a fairy tale,” which Sophie responds with “Yes, but I don’t know how to shut the storybook. Not before I get to the wolf” (43). The two characters define their situations in relation to stories that they have read, which only belies how powerful stories can be.
The demons next appear as they take a cab to catch up with Stacia and Sophie at the rock club that they are at, where The Limp is performing. While they are in the can, Andras demonstrates another example of how people both read others and write themselves when they interact. In this example, Andras reads the cabdriver and instantly knows all of his secrets and his weaknesses – all the bad things the driver has ever done. As he tells the driver, “Y’know, Wally, you’ve got quite an aura yourself. Oh you know...’Don’t, Grandpa. Please, you’re hurting me. Oh no, oh please don’t...’” (45). He then proceeds to write the man’s next move as he gives him a gun and tells him, “you know what it’s for, right?” (45) The gunshot that follows proves the power that someone can have if they have the power to both read others perfectly, or more importantly, the power to write others. The power they would have would be one of life and death, essentially the same power that an author has. This power is the kind of power that Coover shows was used for great detrimental behavior in the patriarchal society. By demonstrating this power, Moore further enlightens the reader to the desperate situation women reside in literature.
The confrontation between Promethea and the two demons takes place in the nightclub, with The Limp playing in the backgrounds. On pages 46-47, Williams III once again does a tremendous job fitting the art to Moore’s words. As the demons cry, “Listen, lady, let’s not make this any messier than we have to, okay? Nobody wants a big scene” (46-47). Meanwhile, as they say this, Williams III draws the demons as they actually are and they are tremendous and horrendous looking creatures. As the battle begins, The Limp continues to play, and Sykes pathetically ridiculous and pretentious lyrics are a wonderful backdrop to the battle that is going on in the club. He sings, “Make me dress up in my sister’s clothes, then attach electrons to my nose. Hold me down and have your wicked way, beat me like an egg by Faberge” (48). Moore, however, has a deeper point to make her other than just simple comic relief, as Sykes is the only other person in the club who can see the demons for who they really are. This presents an idea that will be developed later in Promethea as well. In order to have access to the power of words, one does not have to be a good writer, just be in touch with their imagination. Sykes is in touch with Immateria. He just cannot develop the ideas into anything worth hearing.
After defeating the demons, the second chapter ends with the cliffhanger of Sophie being dragged away to the Immateria. In the third chapter, Sophie must go to bring her back. She goes to the hospital to ask Barbara for help, where the Five Swell Guys are already there, recuperating from one of their endless battles against the Painted Doll, a battle in which the Doll is presumed dead, once again. Moore takes the first page to mock once again the conventions of the typical super hero adventure, as one of their members has taken three hollow point bullets to his chest, but he will be around for the next battle. Roger of the group even speaks to their conventions when he (or she, as the “new” Roger is in a woman’s body) states, “Keep out of this, Bob! You’re leader, I’m the muscle, Stan’s the mechanic, Marv’s the genius, and Kenneth is supposed to be our psychic” (54). It is perhaps this very conventionalist attitude that Moore mocks here that makes super hero comics, and to a larger extent, action movies popular. The reader, or viewer, knows exactly what to expect. There are certain rules that will generally be followed. The red shirt crewmembers will always die in “Star Trek”; the constancy of the rules can almost be comforting. Sophie/Promethea learns from Barbara that Stacia is in Immateria, or Misty Magic Land (also the name of the chapter), as the second Promethea, Margaret Taylor Case, named it. Promethea then projects herself into Misty Magic Land.
Misty Magic Land, or Immateria as it is referred to by all other Prometheas, gives J.H. Williams a chance to flex his artistic muscles. This is a land where imagination is reality. This is the land that Barth dreamed about in “A Life-Story.” It is a powerfully surreal place, a place that is, “like a recurring dream...or maybe she just dreamed she had that dream, or she dreamed it once, but in the dream she remembered dreaming it before” (67). Here she meets her guide on her journey, Little Red Riding Hood, or rather, Sophie’s Little Red Riding Hood, for as Coover has established, there is no definitive Little Red Riding Hood, for she is whatever each reader creates her to be. Sophie’s Little Red Riding Hood is based upon a drawing that Sophie once drew of her after Sophie and Stacia had seen Reservoir Dogs, a little doodle of Little Red Riding Hood with a gun saying, “Let’s go to Grandma’s” (69)! The doodle was not funny, and it was quickly thrown away, but as Hood tells Sophie, “She threw a piece of paper away, maybe. Ideas ain’t that easy to get rid of” (69). This is the land where all ideas live as actual things. In Immateria, Little Red Riding Hood is a foul-mouthed girl with a machine gun who quite appropriately in the land of stories, smokes Marloe cigarettes. There are actual solid things in the “real” world, but most of those things have ideas behind them, and in Immateria, those ideas are the solid things. The Dark Woods in fairy tales may represent all sorts of things, most of which probably have to do with sex, but in Immateria they exist as literal Dark Woods. In Immateria, the stories exist as well perpetually, so Little Red Riding Hood will always go into the Dark Woods to her Grandmother’s House, and the wolf will always come after her.
The encounter with the Big Bad Wolf also brings to light another important distinction that exists in Immateria. In Immateria, ideas exist as “the unvarnished idea, without any adult defenses like distance or irony or whatever” (68). Therefore, the Big Bad Wolf exists as he actually is in the actual story. He is an almost demonic figure in the story, but the story has taken on such a familiar character, readers cannot distinguish the actual figure of the Wolf from their “grown-up” view of the Wolf. That is why Coover tries to rewrite fairy tales, because he is concerned that readers are not reading fairy tales for what they are actually saying, but rather, for what the reader wants them to say. The reader wants the story of Noah to mean something positive, so that is the way that they read it. However, if one were to encounter Noah in the Immateria, in the actuality of the story, odds are the reader would not be pleased, as Noah is abetting in wholesale genocide. After the incident with the Wolf ends with both Wolf and Hood rushing to resume their predestined parts, Sophie/Promethea has to save Stacia from the Weeping Gorilla. The Weeping Gorilla has been a constant in Promethea up until now. In the Promethea world, The Weeping Gorilla is the most popular comic book in the world. The Weeping Gorilla is essentially, a weeping gorilla that spouts ironic catchphrases, much like the “Saturday Night Live” skit, “Deep Thoughts by Jack Handey.” However, if there is no context, if there is only the idea itself, then satire and irony can be very deadly things, because they are very sad and hurtful. In the case of The Weeping Gorilla, his catchphrases depress Stacia and Sophie to the point in which they are too depressed to leave Immateria. Eventually, Sophie manages to save them from the Gorilla by simply punching him and running. Still, even something as simple as a punch is not simple in Promethea, for along with the punch comes the sound effect SMACK (74), which is onomatopoeia, which is a literary term which suitably has power in the land of the story.
After escaping from the Gorilla, Sophie/Promethea and Stacia find themselves being chased by the wolf once again. Blasting him, Sophie realizes that she has no power over him. It is at this point that she realizes that the story of the Big Bad Wolf is probably a story that “goes back to the Stone Age” (76), so he is thereby an older story than Promethea and must be a more powerful story than Promethea. The only way to escape is to “write” about New York City, i.e. describe it, so that becomes more real to them than Immateria. That is the same strategy that Stacia uses when they come back to help Sophie turn back to herself from Promethea. She helps Sophie “write” about Sophie, all the while still referring to Promethea as Prosciutta, Pro-Lifea, and Propanea. When Sophie finally returns and collapses on Stacia, exhausted, all she can do is say her name, “Promethea” (80).
In the next chapter of Promethea, “A Faerie Romance,” Sophie and Stacia investigate the stories behind the previous Prometheas while the previous Prometheas sit in Immateria and watch her progress with interest. Sophie eventually comes upon the story of the first Promethea, the story of Charlton Sennet. Charlton Sennet is most probably an amalgamation of late 19th-early twentieth century poet George MacDonald (who even had a poem entitled “A Faerie Romance”) and late eighteenth century poet Thomas Chatterton. The pages of Promethea that are devoted to Sennet are drawn by a separate artist, Charles Vess. Vess is a very well established fantasy artist whose style lends itself well to the look of the eighteenth century. Sennet is like Montellimar Sykes in the sense that he, too, is not much of a writer. He spends his days in his isolated cabin in New England with his wife and their servant girl not doing much at all, except napping and daydreaming. It is in this daydreaming that he first encounters Promethea. She appears to him along with the other fairies, as the servant to the Queen of the Fairies, Titiana, a character Sennet lifted from Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (90). When he reads to his servant Anna when they are alone some of the work that she inspired, he finds himself channeling Promethea through her. His poetry, however, while it matches the style of the time, is awful (92). Still, it is this poetry that brings out Promethea and Sennet finds himself making love with Promethea/Sara for days on end. Promethea/Sara becomes pregnant, but upon the birth, they are astonished to see that the baby is half-human/half-story, in which case the baby cannot exist, and it disappears while Sara perishes. As Sennet looks back at his life over the last twenty years, only seeing fairies now when he drinks, he realizes that he did not love Sara, but his fantasy about her (95). This is very telling in what it says about the relations of people in general. This speaks directly to the problems that Barth talks about with the anima and the animus. When one is projecting an image on, or “writing,” the other, the other cannot help but pale in comparison to the image or idea that is being placed upon him/her.
When she is done reading about Sennet’s life, Sophie has an encounter with a figure from Promethea’s past, Jack Faust. Starting from his first appearance to his very name, Faust is a man who plays with words and is all the more powerful for it. Sophie’s remarks, “How...how did it get so dark? Where did everybody go?” are quickly turned by Faust into phrases that “would work nicely on a tombstone, wouldn’t it” (96)? He follows that up by singing a little song in reference to Promethea, then does a rhyme about Sophie and Promethea, and finally plays the Name Game with Sophie, which particularly shows that he is in control of the situation, as is anyone who controls the other’s name (97). He spins a tale of half-truths and lies until Stacia interrupts him, breaking his spell on Sophie. At this point, Jack seemingly reveals that he is Jack from “Jack and the Beanstalk,” when he says, “I coulda had things real sweet in that beanstalk kingdom if you hadn’t bitched everything up!” (103) This ties directly into Coover’s discussions, as once again Jack is causing trouble for the women in his life. Only this time it is not the Granny or Little Red Riding Hood, but Promethea. That reference to the problems that fathers leave their daughters is reiterated on the last page of the chapter when Barbara, viewing the whole scene from Immateria, remarks to the other Prometheas, “God, how many lives did Promethea’s dad screw up? In case its escaped the attention of you ladies, I’m the only person here that being Promethea hasn’t killed” (104)! As she says this, the chapter ends with her in her hospital “bed” (as in the world of Promethea, everyone in hospitals stay in C.A.R.E. pods) clearly near death, a death that Faust predicted only pages earlier. In any event, Barbara’s point remains clear, the action of the father affected not only Promethea, but all the women who became Promethea, once again showing how a strong patriarchal system can manage to affect women for centuries on end.
The next chapter, “No Man’s Land,” opens up with a battlefield at Ypres during World War I. A despaired soldier is calmed by the second Promethea, Margaret Taylor Case. This account leads into the revelation that Sophie and Stacia are still researching Promethea. This time, they are at their college, “School of Elevated Minds,” which Williams III playfully draws extended into the air on a long pillar. Sophie is soon drawn to Barbara’s bedside, as Barbara tells Sophie that she must carry on her journey and discover more about Promethea, so Sophie enters the Immateria again. This time, it looks much different than her trip in the third chapter. Where once it looked happy, like a fairy tale, now it looked almost grotesque. Sophie is quickly approached by little harpy-like beings that distract her with petty questions (112-113). Promethea/Margaret appears at this point and scatters the “Pandeliriums” (112) away from Sophie. She describes the Pandeliriums as “Gibberish, fluttering thoughts to lead the mind astray” (114), and in the land where thoughts are all that one needs, a distracted mind is of little to no help.
The second Promethea, Margaret Taylor Case, has a very complicated background. Odds are that she is a combination of Grace Gebbie Drayton and Winsor McCay. Grace Gebbie Drayton was a female cartoonist around the turn of the century that drew a childish comic strip called “Dolly Dimples.” While her work certainly was not groundbreaking, the fact that she was a woman was. She was the first successful woman cartoonist, and Moore is certainly making an homage to her with Margaret Taylor Case (even down to the three word name). Likewise, with Charlton Sennet, it seems as though Moore is choosing one person to base the history upon while another to base the actual work upon. In this case, the comic strip that Case draws, “Little Margie in Misty Magic Land,” is a direct homage to Winsor McCay’s very popular strip, “Little Nemo in Slumberland.” This accounts for the Margie character that pals around with the Prometheas in Immateria (a character who, by the way, Moore’s writing and Klein’s lettering nails the turn of the century comic strip character right on the head). That is only half of Case’s experience. The other half is the World War I angel side of Case’s Promethea. This is undoubtedly based upon the World War I legend of the Angel of the Mons who appeared to British soldiers during the war. This is particularly interesting, because it seems highly likely that the legend of the Angel of the Mons was based upon the fiction of Arnold Machens. Machens was also noteworthy because he was one of, if not the first, writer to interact with the characters that he wrote about.
Promethea/Margaret takes Sophie around Immateria, explaining to Sophie that Immateria is “The Imagination” (115). She explains that the Imagination is a shared place where anyone and everyone can have access to or, as Sophie began to say and Promethea/Margaret continues, “Every time anyone followed a trail of thought...they’d be walking a pathway in the Immateria” (115). Promethea/Margaret goes on to explain how the “great” ideas are found, as they are the ideas that are hidden further into Immateria, where no one but the best minds ever go (116).
Promethea/Margaret next explains to Sophie the reality of what Jack Faust had told Sophie about the fact that Promethea was designed to end the world. Here, the story that Promethea/Margaret tells brings to mind the great transformative power of story that Barth spoke of in both the “Perseid” and the “Bellerephoniad.” In the “Perseid”, it is a foregone conclusion that stories will last longer than men, and if one were to ask Promethea/Margaret, she would say the sooner men are done with, the better. The previously mentioned spread on pages 118-119 shows all the powerful systems and ideologies that have been spread merely for the sake of war. The most devastating facet of these ideas, according to Promethea/Margaret, is the fact that all these powerful ideas have been born by war, which is sadly ironic, because “war, all war and conflict, is naught but the failure of imagination” (120). The reason for Promethea’s being, therefore, is to be like Medusa in the “Perseid” and lead mankind like Medusa led Perseus to the transformation. At the end of her journey, Sophie finds herself thrown from Promethea/Margaret’s company, and finds herself on the island of Hy Brasil, the land of the third Promethea, Grace Brannagh.
The final chapter in the Promethea collected edition has two titles, “The Five Swell Guys in Firefight on Fifth Avenue” and “A Warrior Princess of Hy Brasil.” The first of the stories is more of a quick opening, as one of the Five Swell Guys reads the mind of his fallen comrade. It is interesting. As he slowly reaches into his mind, he sees multi-colored dots that eventually form yet another Moore parody of a traditional super hero comic book story. The art style is in the style of early Marvel Comics, as is the lettering. Even the title is straight out of a 60s comic book. Likewise, the Painted Doll is a clear homage to the classic Batman nemesis, The Joker. Especially with the way that the Painted Doll repeatedly “dies” but resurfaces later. Then Kenneth (the Swell Guy) leaves his friend and begins to read Sophie’s mind. At this point, as he slowly sees what is in her mind, he becomes a surrogate reader of the following comic, as he is reading the same thing that the comic reader is reading.
What the comic reader is reading is a store of Sophie and the third Promethea, Grace Brannagh. Brannagh is based upon Margaret Brundage, who made a name for herself in the pulp novel business for her wonderful painted covers for “Weird Tales” in the 1930s. Just about the only good thing about those stories were her covers to the magazines, and the same thing applies in Brannagh’s case. Sophie finds herself trapped with Promethea/Grace in one of Promethea’s old pulp novels set in the mythical land of Hy Brasil. Promethea/Grace saves Sophie early on from what Sophie calls “Lizard Men,” but whom Promethea/Grace quickly admonishes her and tells her in all seriousness that, “They’re called Manigators, darling. Not lizard men” (138). The disgust in Promethea/Grace’s voice as she tells Sophie this is wonderful. As Moore realizes that to a fan of these pulp novels, and certainly to the characters who inhabit them, this situation was very serious, and not one to take lightly.
Promethea/Grace teaches Sophie about “the sword” (138). The sword in this case, is another symbol, and it is important for Promethea/Grace has rewritten the symbol of the sword for her own good. For her, the sword stands for reason and for logic. That is useful, because Sophie and Promethea/Grace are fighting at this point a man who is the answer to a logic puzzle. They are fighting against Marto Neptura, the writer of all the Promethea pulp novels. The reason this is a logic puzzle is because Marto Neptura is an imaginary person, just a pseudonym for all the writers who ever wrote a Promethea pulp novel (140-141). Here then is the puzzle, in the land of the imagination: is not the most powerful person an imaginary writer? The answer is, logically enough, yes. Here, Marto Neptura is the voice of authority in the symbolic flesh. Later, however, Moore allows for the voice of authority to be torn down like it deserves by a combination of the female archetype, the hero archetype, and the writer archetype, which in this case, is Sophie and Promethea/Grace.
Sophie and Promethea/Grace manage to avoid him fairly easy because, as Promethea/Grace says that, while he can do anything he can think of, “He repeats himself awfully. He has few surprises up his sleeve...and frankly, you can see them coming a mile off” (141). While they fight their way to a confrontation, Moore, through Promethea/Grace derides the talent of the writers of the pulp novels, especially the sexist approach to her. For instance, Promethea/Grace remarks “All that drivel he wrote about my taut thighs and heaving bosom...I mean, I don’t think I can remember my bosom ever having heaved, has yours?” (143) At this point, Promethea/Grace feels she is being watched, and in a little piece of breaking the fourth wall, Moore has her yell directly at the comic reader, “Who do you think you’re spying on, you grubby little adolescent?” (143) Of course, Moore works it into the story that she is actually speaking to Kenneth, the aforementioned surrogate reader, but the sentiment remains there. The writer that Moore just derided for his sexist approach to pulp novels partially writes that way because that is what his or her audience wants, and that continues on to the comic book audience. The skimpy costume for heroines has been a given ever seen Wonder Woman first made her appearance in 1940. Moore took his little shot at that mentality by yelling at the audience who constantly asked for this kind of titillation.
The final battle between Neptura and Sophie and Promethea/Grace ends when Sophie essentially stops Neptura by deconstructing him. As with the onomatopoeia earlier in the third chapter, a literary term comes in handy in the land of the story. Since Neptura is so powerful here because he is imaginary, Sophie deconstructs him by critiquing each of the individual writers who made up Marto Neptura. Once she has turned Neptura from a fictional writer to a group of actual writers, Neptura devolves into five separate little Nepturas, who Promethea/Grace dispatches with quickly (147-148). As soon as she does, Promethea/Grace revisions Hy Brasil and returns it to its former glory, and then states that, as an artist, “We have a better eye than writer” (149). That is an interesting comment coming in a text that is formed between the combination of an artist and a writer. This, though, is the combination of the three main archetypes (female/hero/writer) all being used to usurp the power of the voice of authority. As Sophie leaves Hy Brasil to meet her next Promethea teacher, Bill, the scene shifts to Benny Solomon as he prepares for an all-out assault on Promethea next issue.
However, there is no next issue. The story of Promethea is ended pretty abruptly, but in a way, that is actually a little better for the purpose of this essay. As mentioned previously in the essay, one of the facets of metafiction is to break the reader out of their familiar fictive reality. Having the story end before the plotlines are resolved is one way to do this. It also highlights the very nature of comic book reading. Comic books are serialized and cliffhangers are accepted parts of the genre. The serialized comic never really ends; it just has an ever-extended end point. That is made clear at the end of this issue. Also, it ties Promethea to metafiction by the fact that it does not care about plot. It has enough plot for a random mainstream comic buyer to pick up an issue and tell that something is going on, but Promethea does not allow the plot of the story to override the more important metafictional aspects of the work. The plot can be stopped right in the middle of the story and not affect the story’s worth as a piece of metafiction.
On a metafictional level, what Moore consistently does throughout Promethea is tie together the three archetypes named previously. He mocks the conventional heroes that appear in the story, and sets up Sophie/Promethea as the ultimate hero. At the same time, he ties in the archetype of heroism with the archetype of reading. Meanwhile, he ties both of these into the feminine archetype. Within the text of Promethea, Moore rewrites certain archetypes, such as Tothos-Hermes all to one goal – the empowerment of women. In a way, like the gamma radiation that gave The Incredible Hulk his powers and the yellow sun that gave Superman his powers, Moore is metafictionally creating a situation where he gives women power. The situation is this; the women of Promethea who become heroes do so through their storytelling ability and their femininity. The two heroes that Sophie spends time in Immateria with, Margaret and Grace, are both “writers” who deal adversely with the interference of men, Margaret with the male-driven World War and Grace with the male-dominated pulp novel writing. They are the ideal forebears for Sophie to look to, not the male-dominated super hero system. Essentially, then, what Moore is doing is answering the messages of Coover and of Barth. Coover would explain how the popular culture system is one that is designed to degrade women. Moore answers that by rewriting the archetypes to show that the system was not always like that, it was merely stolen by the male-dominated gods, and he can now steal it back and give it to Promethea. If he does so, if Promethea can control the system of words then she can regain power. Barth uses mythological texts to tie together his message of the intermingling of the two sexes equally. Moore does this as well, only using the popular culture texts to achieve the same goal, for the only way to achieve this goal is if women are put on the same level playing field that they have been kept off ever since the destruction of the Great Goddess. Conclusion
In conclusion, what Moore tries to do with Promethea, and ultimately succeeds in doing, is rewriting the history of female characters within popular fiction. He does this by offering his text, Promethea, as the example from which all other future texts can look upon. As one feminist critic stated, “Promethea is what Wonder Woman should be.” As brought up at the very beginning of the paper, what Moore is intending to do with his America’s Best Comics line is to reinvent the super hero. In his desire to boil the super hero formula down to the essence, he first had to deal with all the past. After all, Moore is a fan of what has come before him. He sees the problems with them, but he is a fan of the pulp novels and the comic books that led to his creation of Promethea. Therefore, while he wants to rewrite the model of the female super hero, he wants to do so without separating the female super hero from her past, and that is what he achieves in Promethea, where the new super hero is clearly approved by all of her forebears. At the same time, while Moore presents a better superhero, he also presents the perfect place for literature. His Immateria, “the unvarnished idea,” is the land that all metafictionists dream of. Moore’s Immateria is where ideas live without all the biases of society to interfere with them. His is, in a way, the true collective unconsciousness that Jung spoke of before. Immateria is the place where all ideas are unfettered by constricting ideas of universality. The only thing that can hold back the “diamond glaciers” and “star volcanoes” of Immateria is the people who only notice “the solid world they have been conditioned to think of as real” (Moore, 116). With more works from authors such as Moore, perhaps the latter group of people will someday become nonexistent.
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