1-2 Punch Review: Avatar’s Providence
“Moore believes that we as a society have become “far too comfortable with Cthulhu,” and he plans to put a stop to that with this series.“
Providence #1 & 2
Publisher: Avatar Press
Writer: Alan Moore
Artist: Jacen Burrows
by Syd Williamson
(Editor’s Note: Welcome to our new review column 1-2 Punch! Basically, we’re going to occasionally tackle book reviews where we combine the first and second issues of a title together for a deeper look at new projects. Enjoy! – Steve)
With much anticipation, comic book and literature nerds alike have impatiently waited for Providence to hit the shelves. Alan Moore has once again teamed up with artist Jacen Burrows to deliver unto us tales of a Lovecraftian nature. Prior to creating Providence, Moore and Burrows worked together on The Courtyard and Neonomicon; both titles were combined to form a trade paperback, Neonomicon, that contains the story in its entirety, and if you haven’t read it yet, it is well worth your time. Replete with references to Lovecraft’s work, it is a treat for aficionados of literature, and also a treat for horror fanatics, with a plot that drips with terror and spells out certain tentacle-y doom for humanity. Providence, however, takes a more scholarly, and less bloody, approach to resurrecting Lovecraft’s works.
There is a lot of hype surrounding the title. Prior to its release, Avatar Press had produced a number of interviews with the creators that got everyone salivating over the concept. Admittedly, the sheer quantity of research fueling the project is enough to excite even the calmest of Lovecraft fans. Not only are Lovecraft’s works being taken into consideration, but also his personal life and history, right down to the physical geography of his hometown (it ain’t called Providence for nothin’). It only takes a few pages of the first issue for all of this to be made evident.
Moore dauntingly intends to inform a perspective on Lovecraft’s work, and indeed the man himself, that communicates the startling aspect of his original literary intentions. Moore believes that we as a society have become “far too comfortable with Cthulhu,” and he plans to put a stop to that with this series.
Set in New York City in 1919, the story centers around Robert Black, a journalist for The New York Herald. Black and his colleagues are in search of a story to fill out a page in the publication, and their best option seems to be a piece on a fictional book “Sous le Monde” that reportedly drove its readers to madness and suicide. Black leaves the office in hopes of interviewing a Dr. Alvarez, who had written an essay on the subject. It turns out “Sous le Monde” was based on The King in Yellow by Robert Chambers, a collection of horror stories admired by Lovecraft, elements of which were later incorporated into the Cthulhu Mythos.
As Black travels to the home of Alvarez and conducts the interview, the narrative is interspersed with bits of Black’s past, and a parallel arc featuring a young man entering a suicide chamber. We learn that Black left his home in Milwaukee to pursue journalism, and that he recently ended an affair with one Lillian Russell. Back at 317 West 14th Street, Robert learns that Alvarez has a rare health condition that requires him to stay at a near-freezing temperature, so he employs an ammonia cooling system to keep his apartment frigid. This is a blatant allusion to Lovecraft’s 1928 story “Cool Air,” and our Dr. Alvarez is a replica of Dr. Munoz from the original story; the two are identical right down to the address.
(Author’s note: if you haven’t read “Cool Air,” do so now. The entire text is available online, and without it, a holistic understanding of this issue is impossible. Also, you’re missing out on a lot of puns. That in itself is reason enough to read the short story.)
Black accidentally discovers that Alvarez is sleeping with his landlady, which leads the doctor into musing on love; it’s importance and nobility, how it goes uninterrupted by death (Hahah, go read “Cool Air”). The two eventually discuss “Sous le Monde” and Black learns that the deaths attributed to the title are a scam, thus sinking his story. However, Alvarez gives him quite a bit to think about as he discusses his peculiar perspective on the world, much of it eerie in its Lovecraftian implications.
Our protagonist arrives back at the Herald to find that the page has already been filled. A young lawyer named Jonathan Russell had ended his life in one of the “exit gardens,” the suicide booth we caught glimpses of before. Black suggests that Russell’s death could be related to “Sous le Monde,” though he probably said that to prevent the staff from digging any deeper and discovering his relation to the departed. The issues end is then supplemented with an excerpt from Black’s commonplace book, a glorified diary that is reminiscent of Rorschach’s journal. We learn that the deceased Jonathan Russell is in fact the Lillian Russell of Robert Black’s affair – Robert is a closeted homosexual, who ended the relationship in fear of being discovered by his colleagues. Distraught over his lover’s suicide, he wonders if the “concealed America” that Alvarez speaks of might be the perfect metaphor for what he really wants to write about; the secret lives of himself and his friends that he dares not reveal to his peers.
It seems that Moore’s masterful prose has laid the groundwork for something monumental in coming issues. The first issue of Providence is mainly exposition, with most of the driving action occurring just at the close as we learn of Russell’s suicide and Black’s secret life. Burrows art is elegant in its precision, remaining historically accurate from depictions of characters and their clothing, to the locations and appearance of New York City monuments. The comic employs excellent use of color. The flashbacks can be noted by their muted, sepia tones in contrast to the vibrant hues of the present, and even characters are framed in their corresponding pallets, as with frigid Dr. Alvarez for instance, who is always framed in pale greens and sickly blues. The creators continued the use of the four-panel grid they used in Neonomicon, so each panel is expansive and saturated in detail. Light and shadow help to direct the eye towards the important action, and as always, Burrows displays an academic understanding of foreground and background that gives the comic such richly detailed realism that it is nearly unbelievable. Every aspect of the artwork is truly meticulous, from the fallen moth outside the exit garden to the glowing red eyes of the owls atop the Herald.
Issue 2 opens with Robert leaving The Herald and New York to seek out Robert Suydam, the importer through whom Dr. Alvarez acquired his copy of the Kitab Al-Hikmah Al-Najmiyya. Upon arriving in Brooklyn, Roberts first rendezvous is with Tom Malone, whom Lovecraft fans will recognize as the strapping New York detective driven to a crippling fear of tall brick buildings by the events in the short story The Horror at Red Hook. Black is clearly smitten with the detective, due in part to his statuesque jawline and his knowledge of Guillot and Jung. Malone shows Black the dance hall church that is home to Suydam’s occult lectures, noting that they sound more like covens or orgies. He shows him the basement flat kept by Suydam in Parker Place, and the two men delve into conversation about how such places – basements, caves, cellars- correspond to the subconscious mind. They share coffee and what Black interprets as flirtation as they wait for Suydam. It’s the small details of this project, like the homosexual protagonist and how he stutters and stammers when he meets a well-read detective, that really give you that stupid blithe grin you only get from something ridiculously good.
After intercepting the importer, Suydam invites Black back to his home to discuss the Kitab and the occult brotherhood that orchestrated its import into the states. Suydam reveals his supplier of such artifacts to be a gold refinery in Salem, before the conversation turns to the Kabbalah and the demons it is home to, namely Lilith, ruler of the realm of dreams. Their conversation is interrupted by Miss Cornelia Gerritsen who informs Suydam that a shipment of unripe fruit has arrived for his inspection (Readers of Lovecraft’s original short story will know that it is most certainly not fruit that been received). Suydam takes his leave, and directs Black to see himself out after he has perused his pamphlets to his satisfaction.
Rather than leaving, Black wanders into Suydam’s basement despite being warned about a gas leak therein. The basement bears occult markings on the walls and a dark staircase leading to an enormous underground cavern. Black traverses the rocky landscape by flashlight, encountering a golden altar and what appears to be human bones, described by Black later as ‘suspiciously small.’ Just past the altar he stumbles across what appears to be an underground ocean, stretching far beyond the beam of his flashlight. Jutting from the black water are many carved pylons, glistening sinisterly in the dark cavern. Stunned, Black stands on the shore in disbelief, until he hears an eerie cooing behind him. At about this point, the art of Jacen Burrows demands applause and reverence in his translation of H.P. Lovecraft’s vision and Moore’s scripted sequence. Approaching Robert Black is a glowing, naked, clawed demon with sagging breasts and sunken, skeletal eye sockets (the “naked phosphorescent thing” of Lovecraft’s story). The demon chases Black along the shore until he slips on a rock, and all goes black as she strikes down at him with a gnarled, clawed appendage.
Black wakes in the basement, being chastised by Suydam and Gerritsen for ignoring the warning of the gas leak. The occult markings and the staircase are gone, and all agree that he must have been having a nightmare. Amid his ramblings of the subconscious reasons for his “nightmare,” due no doubt to his recent discussions of Carl Jung, Black inquires whether he was wearing a hat when he entered the home, and his hosts deny that he was. The hat in question was lost on the underground shore as he fled from the ghastly figure, certain to return to in future issues as a horrendously premeditated detail.
As with the first issue, the second ends with a hand-written excerpt from Black’s notebook. The text supplements the comic in a good old Watchmen style. Black pens about his experience of leaving New York and the ‘horrific nightmare’ that took place in the basement. Most importantly, he considers writing a story in which the subconscious world of dreams and desires is actually solid and literally underground. This is truly exciting considering that this was without a doubt Lovecraft’s literary accomplishment. He gave substance to our bad dreams. He turned nightmares into reality. He blended our waking world with our worst imaginations and dammit if he didn’t do it with style.
The amazing thing about this series isn’t that it’s a grand amalgamation of Lovecraft’s stories and history but that it never once seems like one. Allusions to ancient texts and Lovecraft’s personal biography are woven into the exposition so seamlessly that it reads like an original work of fiction. And partly, it is. The original storyline is in and of itself intriguing, but the fact that it is a front for an enormous recreation of Lovecraft lore, Lovecraft’s life and the poignancy of his personal affairs makes this tale all the more astonishing.
Richly colored and intricately detailed, Burrows’ art excels much like his previous works; the subtle nuances of facial expressions and body language are the sort of details that make you giddy because…yeah, you’ve felt that way, you’ve made that face, you can fucking relate.
Moore must be reclining in a claw-foot armchair somewhere in England just chuckling to himself. I mean how did he even do this? Every single word has at the very least two meanings. Not a phrase is uttered that can’t be traced back a work of fiction or a point in history. I mean the man dares to make PUNS about some of the most horrifying fiction ever to be published. Is this even legal? Is he really human? Does he in fact put his pants on just like the rest of us? I have my doubts.
(Editor’s Note – Can you tell that Syd reeeeeeeally likes Providence? I know I can…and I think the book is pretty amazing, myself. Be sure to grab Avatar’s Providence #3 on 8/12/15.)