“Any magazine-cover hack can splash paint around wildly and call it a nightmare or a Witches’ Sabbath or a portrait of the devil, but only a great painter can make such a thing really scare or ring true. That’s because only a real artist knows the actual anatomy of the terrible or the physiology of fear- the exact sort of lines and proportions that connect up with latent instincts or hereditary memories of fright, and the proper colour contrasts and lighting effects to stir the dormant sense of strangeness.”
- H.P. Lovecraft, Pickman’s Model.
Though each individual work is different and worthy of appreciation on its own merit, Providence shares a sense of narrative pace with Moore and Burrows prior collaborations on The Courtyard and Neonomicon. Incidentally Anthony Johnston should also be mentioned when looking at The Courtyard in particular as he adapted the original prose form of that title for the comic form. Also let’s not forget the contributions of Juan Rodriguez and Kurt Hathaway whose respective colouring and letters lend to the wonderfully evocative quality of The Picture and indeed any other issue of Providence.
To continue, this is also a sense of narrative pacing found in Lovecraft’s work as well. As I have mentioned in my articles on prior issues of Providence somewhere around the midpoint of the story the protagonist experiences some kind of initiation crisis further enveloping them in the world of Yog Sotothery. In Lovecraft’s own work this would often mean a gradual descent into madness or even death. As his writing progressed however it often meant an, albeit traumatic, acceptance of a reality far greater, more horrific yet at times mores liberating than previously imagined.
Moore is of course playing with the conventions of Lovecraft, revising and infusing them with modern ideas and sensibilities, but he is not outright inverting them. Just as The Shadow Over Innsmouth ends with it’s protagonist joining his Deep One kin in the ocean, Neonomicon ends with Agent Brears accepting a wider reality wherein she will play mother to an entity that will usher in some new age of unspeakable blasphemy. The Courtyard ends with the previously hostile Sax fully embracing and sharing, with his victims, the knowledge he gains. We do not yet know Black’s seemingly prophesied fate, but it is continuously hinted that his end will not be a pretty one.
Both we and Black however have passed the halfway point and this issue begins with Black in a somewhat traumatised and elevated state. That said Black is still not quite ready to face this wider reality or indeed his own actions and role within it. Black cannot face the sexual assault depicted in the prior issue. At best he believes he may have raped a little girl. Whereas we, Black’s host for this issue, Robert Downton Pitman and indeed his compatriot King George, know the vastly more disturbing truth.
Black also, true to his nature, embraces the first plausible explanation for his experiences much in the same way he did in Providence’s second issue. The cosmic horror nipping at his heels is merely hallucination, a hypnotic prank or resurgence of repressed subconscious aspects. This last throwaway reasoning is actually very close to the truth. Again we are presented with the use of subterranean descent and ascent as respective metaphors for plumbing the depths of the unconscious and the apparently inevitable awakening of older atavisms. Of course we readers, and Pitman and King George to some degree, know this return of the repressed is very much a literal as well as a figurative idea.
Lovecraft was no doubt evoking ideas and notions along this line when he once wrote:
“The time would be easy to know, for then mankind would have become as the Great Old Ones; free and wild and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and revelling in joy.”
Scenes very much of this nature open the comic. The panelling depicts the consequences of the 1919 Boston Police Strike. No doubt forming similar imagery to that which springs to mind when you broach the subject of not just anarchism, but any left of centre politic with most conservative or supposedly liberal minded folk. Black even goes on to take on a wholly political interpretation of Pitman’s art and the conversation between him and a ghoul is tinged with political subtext on either side. Providence, like much of Moore’s work, is a many splendored thing. I cannot help but feel the political dialogue in this issue, though framed as somewhat naive, is Moore reminding how empowered we might be if we were a bit more united in ideals and purpose. The all too real dystopia we face is a consistent theme in my reading of not just Moore’s work but many others as well, and for me comics are our signposts towards, if not where we find, utopia itself.
If there ever was a utopia to be found in Lovecraft’s work one would argue that this is found in his Dreamlands. Though not entirely free of the malign influence of the Old Ones and their ilk, this equivalent to the astral plane is often more idyllic than the concrete everyday world. The definitive Dreamlands story penned by Lovecraft is unquestionably The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath. This issue of Providence ends with Black meeting Moore’s analogue for that story’s protagonist Randolph Carter. This ending had Comics Journal contributor Craig Fischer and I wildly speculating about the narrative direction Providence might take once Black steps inside Randall Carver’s home. Should the entire story indeed shunt into the Dreamlands this would give Jacen Burrows ample opportunity to indulge his rendering of that realms diverse flora and fauna. Indeed his visual interpretation of the race of ghouls in this issue is a delight in itself, as are his evocations of Lovecraft’s menagerie previously seen in The Courtyard and Neonomicon.
Another theme found in my reading of Providence and to some degree Moore and Burrows’ other works are the infusion of emotion into a Mythos, if not a genre, that is noted for it’s lack of sentiment. I also have tended to see an interplay of opposites. This issue is by no means any exception to these perceived conventions. The initial scenes of violence, rape and wanton destruction are contrasted with the kindnesses of strangers, taking us through harmonious interspecies interactions with more than a hint of tenderness and benevolence. The punchline to this particular issue’s non-prose content is wonderfully rendered in a way that both surprises the reader, and also homages the conclusion to the Lovecraft story it is modelled on.
In short this issue is contrast of the prior, being as uplifting and humorous as the prior issue was dark and disturbing. So much so that one cannot help but hope the narrative continues upward with some sense of opulent soporific delight. Sadly we will have to wait till April to find out. Till then we do have a preview of the next issue’s cover which can be found – alongside much much more- here at Facts in the Case of Alan Moore’s Providence.