Misprision and Feeling Mystical
Over the last few years of me reigniting an obsession with superheroes and superheroines and crossover events and cosmic crises and time travel and kung fu skills (etc. etc.), I keep coming back to a certain sort of comics creator. Generally, they are occultists, from the British Isles, and have some sort of iconic hair situation. And by these writers, I mean Alan Moore, Grant Morrison Neil Gaiman, and Warren Ellis. This interest has led me into a new approach to my own work (the work of writing poems, I mean) and has colored my engagement with the world of texts outside of my head. Here’s the beginning of a several part series about mysticism, superhero universes, the imagination, and misprision.
Part One: Entering the Immateria
I’d read Watchmen years ago and somehow avoided the grand wizard who wrote it until last year. Watchmen is impressive, obviously so, and I was attracted initially to the sordidness of it. But looking back, it also put me off comics for a while, and I was a generally unhappy person while reading it and for a time afterwards. I think this might have been the point. So coming back in to comics over the last four years, I missed a lot of the Alan Moore oeuvre and didn’t know much about him or his work. As I was planning my superheroine syllabus (about this time last year), a friend lent me the first three volumes of Promethea.
Promethea looks like a Wonder Woman knockoff, the kind of superhero(ine) that indie publishers have drawn either to capitalize on the success of another character (see Captain Marvel and Superman) or to revise/honor/parody one (see the 1980s until now). If she’s a knockoff, she’s in the second camp and is a misprision of not only Wonder Woman but of the potential of superhero comics as a whole.
OK, so misprision is a term Harold Bloom uses to describe what writers do when they write: they misread the works that have come before them. Strong writers do this in such a way that their misreading asserts its authority and replaces the anterior text.
If you’re interested in how Promethea functions as a misprision of superheroines of yore, I suggest you read Geoff Klock’s How to Read Superhero Comics and Why, which is a phenomenal study of revisionary superhero comics until the early 2000s. It’s also more or less how I taught Promethea in my superheroine class, although we didn’t use the term misprision, which I really didn’t consider until reading this book a few weeks back. What I’m concerned with Promethea is how it makes a strong (mis)reading for the mystical potential of comic books.
Promethea’s super power is imagination, meaning that it’s anything. In the course of the book, she fights a couple of side villains, but the meat of the work is when she learns ritual magick and journeys up the kabalistic Tree of Life, wherein all of the universe is revealed to be organized according to archetypal Sephirot. That’s not really new. Jewish mysticism has existed for thousands of years, and organizations such as the Golden Dawn began using the Kabala outside the context of the Jewish Religion since the 19th century. In fact, you can trace Alan Moore’s own belief system back to the Golden Dawn, especially how that system is laid out in Promethea. What’s interesting here are the implications it has for comics (and all creative work).
Moore introduces the concept of the Immateria as the realm of the imagination, where we each have our private spaces “But the territory outdoors belongs to everyone” (“Weapon for Liberty” 11). This outdoor territory contains the multitude of our symbols and stories, which are fueled by shared imagination.
There’s definitely something magical in the idea that something that one person thought up can be transmitted to another person (who will misread it) and then it can completely escape the control of the original creator. You see echoes of Baudrillard’s precession of simulacra here, how symbols can replace physical realities. But that theory doesn’t really address how these symbols reincarnate themselves into the material realm (we’ll get to that another post), and it carries more than a little snobbery about mass production of symbols and stories. I used the term “egregore” when discussing with my students to partially explain this concept. I wrote a post on their class blog describing it, but for our purposes, it means the collected attitudes and “spirit” of a faith community which takes on a life of its own.
What are superheroes today than such a phenomenon? Batman exists in people’s mind as a fundamental mythos. Same with Superman and a lot of the top characters at DC and Marvel, so much so that most people will reach their adulthoods in the U.S. being able to tell Batman’s story regardless if they have seen a Batman movie or comic or not. And Batman is a misprision of Sherlock Holmes, Doc Savage, and The Shadow, all of which can be further traced probably until texts are taken over by oral tradition.
In this way, then, superheroes today are still the same old gods. Gods made better by misreading and misinterpreting their stories. Gods sometimes made worse. The creation of these characters and how they are embedded into our minds (whether it is organic or a factor of market forces) is truly magical. Also, participants in popular culture (either willingly or unwillingly) form a type of faith community bound by the same symbology, a litany of archetypes, narratives, and morals that allow us (and sometimes force us) to continue to create new stories and songs and poems and pictures. This is what Promethea teaches. That the stories are all true. That something doesn’t have to be physically real to be both true and potent in the physical world. And that we can have a hand in shaping what’s true.
And this is where I began to re-evaluate my relationship to words.