Greek mythology is, it almost goes without saying, full of characters who incur the wrath of more powerful gods by violating their arbitrary rules. Most of those violations amount to stepping outside of the proverbial box (yes, including Pandora) and reaching above their station. It’s interesting to note how those crimes tend to result in humans acquiring more power, or knowledge, than they’re supposed to have. Prometheus is a great example, and inspired by Peter Paul Rubens’ “Prometheus Bound”, Locust Moon Comics has assembled some of the most innovative modern comics creators to revisit the character, his fate, and the ideas his story brings up. It’s a handsome and diverse collection of comics art, and it also touches on important issues concerning power and freedom.
Prometheus himself was, the story goes, a man who stole fire from the gods and brought it to people. That “fire” of inspiration, or science, or technology, or whatever metaphor one chooses to use, is clearly something that the gods, particularly Zeus, do not want humans to possess. So, Prometheus is sentenced to be chained to a rock and have his liver pecked at by birds for all eternity – a fairly grisly punishment. And one can’t help but thinking whether it fits the crime. The Greek pantheon does come off, at least in this story, as a rather insecure bunch. They’re gods after all, and yet what they fear the most is humanity acquiring some capacity for rational thought? This could be read several ways, including the obvious interpretation that if people were to start thinking rationally, they wouldn’t necessarily believe in gods anymore, and thus in some important way, the gods would cease to exist. As a metaphor for the way powerful people in society depend on submission and blind obedience from the general public to cling to their position, one could do worse. That reading makes Prometheus a martyr on the altar of skepticism and free-thought, which, combined with Rubens’ violent and graphic rendering of the hero’s fate, makes him into quite a rock and roll figure from ancient mythology, not to mention all the resonances to the Genesis story (the book, not the band) and other related myths and historical stories concerning those people brave enough to challenge power.
The original Rubens painting
In short, there’s more than enough in the original myth and its interpretation by later cultures to inspire any number of works of art. Prometheus Eternal collects nine short comics on this theme, and as usual for this sort of collection, there’s a lot of diversity but an interesting unified feel to collection.
The first story, by Grant Morrison and Farel Dalrymple, casts Prometheus as a straight-up superhero, costume, cape and all. Prometheus, in this telling, has both flames for hands and chains around his waist, but neither affects his capacity to inspire humanity and give us hope and creativity. Prometheus is announced in classic comic book superhero fashion (“Prometheus the MAN GOD!”) and gets the conventional power-panels with exaggerated perspective lines. The super-heroic tone keeps up right until the last panel, which juxtaposes Prometheus’ power and heroism with his sad and painful fate. The message seems to be that, even in defeat, Prometheus retains his dignity and his demeanour. He might be chained and pecked of liver, but he still presents himself with the deep-voiced confidence of The Tick.
“Prometheus Unheard”, by Dave McKean, is the next story and it takes a much darker tone, with Prometheus himself recounting his tragic tale with the sad tone of a Gothic fable. The final panel is fairly horrifying, a close-up on our hero’s eye, a tear oozing from it, repeating the unfinished phrase “My father is…”. McKean doesn’t shy away from presenting the heroism of Prometheus, but he certainly also dwells on his pain, and the price he paid. The notion of a character sacrificing themselves for humanity, ending their life tied to a solid piece of earth being tortured, can’t help but recall the Christian story, and deliberately or not, McKean succeeds in conjuring those Gothic tones.
Andrea Tsurumi turns the story around slightly in her contribution “Challenge the Gods: Rubens Becoming Rubens”, telling the story of how the Dutch painter created his vision of Prometheus. In contrast with the previous story, Tsurumi adopts a lighter tone, featuring modernized conversations between Rubens and some of his contemporaries, pointing out to us, the reader, how innovative some of his technique was, and how original his image seemed in the early 1600s. Presenting serious history in comics form is always fun, and this piece definitely brings some smiles, such as when Rubens shrugs off a suggestion with the comment, “Whatever, man, I was focusing on the abs.”
David Mack’s contribution is the most stylistically extreme of the comics presented here, featuring an effective collage style and very little text. But there are some very powerful single-panel images here, including that of an arm morphing into a tree, reaching up to heaven, and doesn’t skimp on the wry comics sense of humour, with the last text being, “Sorry about the eternal bird issues.”
“The Gift of Fire”, by Josh O’Neill and Lisk Feng, tells the most involved story over five busy pages, tracing the story of a vaguely European or Russian man being inspired by a visit to a local mountain to take his family to Hong Kong in search of someone known only to him. The story is told from the perspective of his young daughter and is all the more effective from it. Upon arriving (on horseback) in Hong Kong, the man searches furtively around the city before ultimately (and poetically) becoming ill with liver cancer. Though he never articulates directly what this quest was about, and what power he hoped to gain, the haunting ending, with the young girl and her mother lighting a match for her late father on his birthday with the words “Why don’t you light the flame,” brings us once again back to the main theme of the Prometheus myth. The father in this story is inspired – by what and to what end, we’re not told. But he is inspired, and he passes that general inspiration on to his daughter, at the expense of his own life. It’s a different and very interesting take on the myth.
“The Messenger” by Paul Pope and “A Portrait of Prometheus Sans Titan” take the clearest route from start to finish, each piece knocking out the whole Prometheus story in one splash-page, the first showing the result of an unbound imagination (to good and bad ends – one image is of a mushroom cloud), and the second showing a ball of fire chained and pecked. The question these pieces pose, and this is consistent with the others, is that knowledge and freedom need to be governed with discipline or risk terrible consequences. Or, to put it on comics terms, “With great power, comes great responsibility.”
James Comey’s witty and innovative “Foie Gras” ends the collection with a single, panelled page, featuring a conversation between the bird-torturer and the chained Prometheus. In an echo of the two previous single-page pieces, this last comic once again drives home the danger of knowledge. Prometheus exclaims in the midst of his torture how he wonders how many countless glories his gift of fire has brought the human race. The bird, adding insult to injury, cites several not-so-great examples of technology and innovation, before distracting Prometheus with a smart-ass comment and diving back into his liver.
Prometheus is perfectly suited to the medium of comics, being a visual metaphorical myth, simple, but clearly, based on the evidence here, containing deep complexities. All of the artists here are clearly responding to the themes of the paradox created by a species as unwise as ours being blessed with such unimaginable power. Robert Macnamara reflects, in The Fog of War, how the ability to end civilization as we know it lies within the power of one human being, and if we allow that everyone makes mistakes, it’s inevitable that that one, single, simple, non-divine, non-superhero, mortal human being will make a mistake. That’s just one of the legacies, in the modern world, of what Prometheus brought to us, and the balance between power and wisdom, between freedom and responsibility, mixed with a strong sense of physical beauty, informed Rubens and all the other contributors to this comics collection. It’s the kind of story our favourite medium excels at telling, and is a welcome piece of art, added to the long legacy of classical western reinterpretation of this myth.