Watching a Serial of Strange Aeons:

Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’ Providence

A lot of people, and I do mean a lot of people, are writing about Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’ Providence and have been for quite some time. You can look at Joe Linton, Robert Derie, and Alexx Kay’s site Facts in the Case of Alan Moore’s Providence as prime example of the work involved in identifying all the annotations referring to the research Alan Moore has put into this sequential narrative. And Sequart is no different with Dave Whittaker’s reviews and analyses of the comic. Some are even going as far as calling it something along the lines of Alan Moore’s “Lovecraftian Watchmen of our times.”

And here is where Dave Whittaker and I will be going our separate ways with regards to discussing Providence. While he primarily focuses on the comics themselves, ten issues of them so far as of this writing with a look at Issue #11 along the way, I want to bring another perspective into it. Dave Whittaker does talk about how the comic touches on parts of his life, knowledge, experience, and apprehensions – especially in his last article at this time The Universe Doesn’t Care. This Is Not Punishment, But Rather It Is Appreciation…” Celebration, Commiseration and Concern in Providence #10.

But Dave has me at something of a disadvantage, and I know he’s not the only one. Much of the intertextual matter that Alan Moore alludes to in Providence – the occult and literary references – has been read and even practised by other readers and writers. And then there another fact: many of these same individuals have also been following Alan Moore’s works serially for much longer than I have.

I’m going to admit something here as a reader and as a fan. For the longest time, I’ve never really collected single comics issues since childhood. Usually, I wait for the independent issues to be collected into trade paperbacks and it’s only then that I read them. This has changed in recent years and you can thank, in no small part, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman: Overture, Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro’s Bitch Planet, Matt Fraction and Christian Ward’s ODY-C, for me rejoining the ranks of serial comics readers as an adult.

And of course Alan Moore dealing with H.P. Lovecraft, one of my favourite creators examining one of my favourite writers, helped a lot in my decision. I mean, here is the man who created From Hell using his immense research and writing abilities on the life of Lovecraft: or at least that was how it was presented in some of his early interviews on the comic. For me, Watchmen didn’t really enter into it or a lot of Moore’s other work. This is fair, of course, because Providence is its own marked Beast slithering towards Bethlehem, but I also saw it as something a continuation of The Courtyard and Neonomicon. I was just fascinated with seeing more “Moorecraftian” prose and works: some of which he touched upon in the prose back matter of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, as well as Nemo: Heart of Ice.

I’ll also admit something else. I actually fell away from reading Alan Moore’s work for a while. Part of it had a lot to do with the fact that I’d almost burnt myself out on researching Voice of the Fire for a section of my Master’s Thesis. Another reason is that I didn’t really relate to his newer works such as The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century and some of his later books. In my mind, it was beginning to feel like he was repeating himself. Certainly, his rape as plot device tropes weren’t helping, even though they always show the evil and repugnancy of these depicted violations: which is more than some of H.P. Lovecraft’s own earlier work and letters where he normalizes his racism, classism, and bigotry.

Still, I waited for Alan Moore’s Jerusalem to finally come out and Providence, but I mostly just went on with my life. I actually rediscovered Alan Moore before Providence came out when an acquaintance at Toronto’s Suspect Video and Culture made me aware of his work Crossed One Hundred. I didn’t think much of it at the time and it was only when I found it collected into trade paperback, and saw that Avatar Press had published it, that I remembered Moore’s world-building ability through his play at language. Imagine being able to tell a story set in Garth Ennis’ pre-existing world with insane cannibalistic people and adding an element of evil to it that was sophisticated and terrifying in its complete and utter betrayal while making a whole new post-apocalyptic language reminiscent of and in the same literary league as Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker. It was a small taste of what I recalled loving so much about his horrific, dim view of a humanity that he still humanizes, if that makes any sense.

And then Providence happened.

Suffice to say, I never had a chance. A few years ago, there was a woman named Debra Jane Shelly who was a brilliant part of the Toronto comics and geek scene in Toronto. It was at the Comic Book Lounge and Gallery and somehow, just having met her, we ended talking about Watchmen. I recall her speculating what it must have been like on a zeitgeist level to see something like Watchmen happen serially in DC after years of superhero comics: how this was one of the stories that completely changed how some comics readers saw their medium. But what I remember the most about that night now is thinking about how many people, including those I’ve been alluding to throughout this article, actually saw and had to wait for Alan Moore’s comics to get published serially.

Again, what I’m trying to say in another very long-winded and tangential manner is that this is my first experience following one of Alan Moore’s works serially and it is a monumentally different experience from collecting it all as a trade paperback: especially something at the level of Providence.

In a lot of ways, watching Robert Black come to the terrible realization that he is the Messenger of the Great Old Ones and meet H.P. Lovecraft to sow the seeds of what will become a Mythos paradigm in Alan Moore’s fictional world is like experiencing my own Watchmen the way many others have. And it’s made all the more poignant by the fact that, apparently, Alan Moore is going to be retiring from comics. I know, it feels like Hayao Miyazaki constantly retiring from making animated films especially given that most of Moore’s life has been writing in comics, but it is a significant shift and if this is his one of his last long-form comics writing works, it will definitely leave its mark.

I guess I’ve never had this experience, or a few others for that matter. But I have experienced H.P. Lovecraft. The long and short of it is that many years ago now, after realizing that he didn’t in fact write erotic literature, and functioned as his own Yog-Sothoth – his living Gate – between the realms of horror, fantasy, and science fiction in the form of weird fiction, I fell in love with his eldritch, non-Euclidean ideas like the living “Yuggoth Fungi” or if you prefer given our theme “Yuggoth Cultures and other Growths” that they are. I’m obviously less enthusiastic about his antisemitism and other discriminatory views, particularly those that he had been more vocal about earlier in his life, but there is something in his works that Moore captured extremely well in his own way.

It’s hard for me to talk about either Moore or Lovecraft without it interlacing with my own life at the time I discovered them. I will be brief as possible: at the time I started reading Lovecraft, I was lost. It had been the end of a five year long relationship, I quit my creative writing program, my original five year convocation from Undergrad came to a halt, and many of my friends had moved on with their own lives. During this time, Lovecraft’s work became something of a refuge for me, minus his disgusting “Red Hook” comments, perceived “Anglo-Saxon superiority mythos” and the unfortunate name for the protagonist’s cat in “Rats in the Walls.” It’s a similar struggle to what I had reading Friedrich Nietzsche’s work with its philosophical poetic-prose and misanthropy verses its misogyny and other prejudices.

But the rest of Lovecraft jived with me: the academic environment and language, the rational discussions, the philosophy, alchemy and science, and even the strange and utterly indescribable depictions of monsters and non-human entities. Through what my former creative writing program called “heightened diction,” Lovecraft attempting to describe an impersonal and hostile universe beyond human senses and went as far as trying to put it all into olfactory senses or smell.

It was a strange, almost ascetic world devoid of explicit sex and even for the most part the female gender that – at the time of my insecurities and immaturity – I actually felt safe in and could mentally regroup. This was a place where there were friendships seemingly without physical expectations and intellectual camaraderie before everything dissolved into the horrible nihilism that was “what humanity was never meant to know.”

And, of course,  years later Alan Moore blew this setting – this illusion – even further all out of the swampy water buried underneath it all and made any subtext all context: all in the light, and more complex and rewarding for it. He exposes the patriarchal hypocrisies of Lovecraft’s own time and even some of the cults dedicating themselves to the Great Old Ones. Even before Providence, he takes apart antisemitism in the form of FBI agent Aldo Sax’s growing enlightenment or madness in The Courtyard, and humanizes the non-human while illustrating how repugnant human beings can be in Neonomicon when you look at how a cult treats Agent Brears and a Deep One in a dehumanizing rape-orgy. Moore actually succeeds at times in getting you relate to the Lovecraftian creatures even when they attack humans, and it makes you question who the “monsters” really are.

This is especially true in Providence. Robert Black is a closeted gay Jewish man in 1919 New York. He is the “Outsider” even in this relatively liberal period. The sexless protagonist in the Lovecraftian mythos is subverted again by Moore by putting possible subtext to the fore and illustrating that someone hiding their sexuality from a heteronormative culture might seem to lack desire and only care for rationality. Due to the social constraints of that time, based on homophobia and antisemitism, Black is constrained in what he can do. These constraints, both external and internalized, cost him and the life of the person he loves Lily Russell.

It is Lily’s, rather Jonathan Russell’s, suicide by exit garden vis-à-vis influence from Robert Chambers’ “The Repairer of Reputations,” that galvanizes Black to leave the newspaper job he detests to begin writing the novel he’s always been talking about: one that will use the metaphor of ancient cults and supernatural mysteries as subtext for the gay subculture in America. He keeps all of his thoughts, observations, and research in a Commonplace Book left in the back matter of the comic itself: a book provided to him by the man he loved and betrayed due to not wanting to “out” himself.

Dave Whittaker and others go into further depth about what Black experiences and doesn’t understand and how he realizes that some metaphors are actually quite literal. But one image that sticks out at me is when he and Tobit Boggs, the Providence analogue to the prominent Innsmouth citizen Obed Marsh encounter graffiti in the latter’s part of Salem, Massachusetts. Both of them commiserate with each other, for even though it’s an Elder Sign – a swastika – that’s scribbled there against the Dagon analogue Oannes, Robert sees it as similar to an antisemitic attack that he always has to fear. It is also with this same Innsmouth analogue that we see a human man who actually seems to be in a reciprocal loving relationship with his Deep One-human hybrid wife: who other than having “the Innsmouth look” actually seems nice and not at all repulsive. It’s knowing that their city will eventually get attacked by the FBI’s predecessors and that they will all be rounded up and exterminated in camps due to “eugenics” and actions that human beings are just as culpable of enacting that really hits home the fact that humanity is not always in the right and that the monsters we see aren’t always monsters.

I also appreciate how Alan Moore manages to create analogues with H.P. Lovecraft’s characters in Providence by almost reverse-engineering them as concepts into different people, sometimes more than one at once, and leaving room for Lovecraft himself to create new names for them while keeping some of their old characteristics for his stories. Once again Moore’s mind slithers like his Roman serpent puppet god Glycon through lines and cracks between the intertextual and the metafictional, the historical and literature itself. But what really gets me is what happens to Robert Black.

It’s no secret that most Lovecraftian protagonists die, are mutated, or go insane towards the end of a Mythos story. Some of them even seek out enlightenment, wisdom, or a perfect dream before the grim horror of reality completely undoes them. Robert Black is a lot like the protagonist from “The Quest of Iranon” and Randolph Carter of, among many other stories, “The Silver Key”: the latter of which is amusing as there is a Randall Carver who is Moore’s analogue of Carter. I have many favourite Lovecraft stories, but these struck me the most during my Undergrad years.

“The Quest of Iranon” is about an eternally young golden-haired wanderer who seeks the great city of Aira where he was its prince. “The Silver Key” is the story of Randolph Carter attempting to recapture the eroding magic and imagination of his lost youth, failing to do so in occult studies and modernism, and finding a magic key that might give him the answer.

Robert Black ends up finding out that all the myths and cults – all the traumas and horrors he has experienced – are true. He finds the Lovecraftian reality underlying America and the world. He is just at the point of beginning to want to write his novel Marblehead: An Undertow before he loses everything: his dream to write something about his life, his promise to the man he betrayed, and the world that is ultimately more false than he thought possible. Even Robert Black’s world of hiding and escape, of wanting more, is a lie: and as of Issue #11 it destroys him utterly.

Just as Iranon finds his birth place and realizes he had been a delusional beggar child always ranting about “Aira,” aging rapidly at the realization and wandering off to die in the desert Robert Black has one last Prohibition swig of alcohol with an old colleague, admitting and no longer caring that he’s “queer” and eventually going off to die in the same exit garden that Lily disposed himself inside. Like Randolph Carter, he doesn’t find solace but only terror in occult research (if “The Statement of Randolph Carter” is anything to go by) and the modern world but the only dreams he will lose himself now aren’t of a rosy past or bright vista of the future, but dark eternity instead … if he’s lucky.

And this brings me to the last part of this article: perhaps the most important part. In Providence, especially when you look at how Lovecraft fictitiously comes up with his ideas for future stories by reading the Commonplace Book that Robert lends him, you see that ideas are the seeds of living things. They are memetic forces that infiltrate and implant themselves into the minds of those who read, see, hear, and speak them. Often, they are, as Aleister Crowley would put it and Alan Moore quoted in another work of his “A Disease of Language”: a symptom of words and ideas affecting the world through action called magic.

In addition to Robert Black’s own experiences, he studies and takes notes from the Kitab Al-Hikmah Al-Najmiyyaon: Providence’s equivalent of the Necronomicon. In issue #11 of the comic, we get to see those ideas taken from the Commonplace Book, translated into Lovecraft’s stories, disseminated into other works and becoming something of a much greater culture. The language grows and it changes. There are no banishing rituals included in subsequent magical works based of the Mythos. Humans become aware of the sleepers, the Great Old Ones, and the latter become aware of the fact that they are aware of them.

Providence becomes a work of sequential art specializing in dissemination of eldritch ideas helping humanity to create, or recreate a whole other dream across their small bubble of reality in a didactic manner similar to, but not breaking story or character development like, Promethea. It feels jarring in Issue #11, especially after all the momentum in the ten other issues with Robert Black as its unwitting focus. But it says a lot about how a small group or clique of people with their own unique language and knowledge can affect a larger popular culture by creating it: even as the meaning changes over time. It is reminiscent of a recent Kickstarter boardgame called Dialect: A Game About Language and How it Dies: looking at the creation and development of a language and way of life in a particular environment and watching it change and eventually die as elements of that place change. Yet the intent stays the same.

In waiting for each issue of Providence to come out and participating in The Facts in The Case of Alan Moore’s Providence comments section, I have felt a part of this process in a way that I never have in any of Alan Moore’s other works. Perhaps this is, like in the comic, something of a mass ritual of our own. Certainly, this level of correspondence not only jives with Lovecraftian protagonists and their academic discussions, but also bears in mind H.P. Lovecraft’s own interactions with his literary circle with his extensive exchanges of letters: the original “elder geeks and nerds” as turn of the century writers are.

But there’s still that image of magic. You can’t escape participatory magic when it comes to Alan Moore. Ideas are seeds that seep into the unconscious of people. Some have compared Providence and thought of its possible conclusion in Issue #12 to be a twisted version of the end to Promethea: where humanity’s next renaissance, instead ushering in another era of enlightenment will herald madness and the destruction of that humanity. Or perhaps, again, like another Watchmen, leaving an open ending with disturbing possibilities.

Yet if we are going to make more Alan Moore literary parallels, perhaps The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen might be another good example: that the ideas of the Commonplace Book will ultimately get the attention of humanity and the Great Old Ones. The philosopher Berkeley once said “to be is to be perceived.” Words and language are ideas that infect an unconsciousness over time, but create existence in those that remember them. Ideas are a memetic virus. Perhaps Robert Black, as the Messenger, isn’t dead: or are the other characters in Providence.

Perhaps as long as the Great Old Ones remember those ideas and if memetic ideas are places, things, and people, they might live on in a darker version of the Blazing World.

As such, there is one more observation that I want to make clear. It all goes back to zeitgeist, or “the spirit of the times.” Dave has already touched on this in his last article on Providence, but I want to go about this another way. In his introductory essay for Leslie S. Klinger’s The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, Alan Moore explains that Lovecraft was unique in that he was sensitive enough to tap into the collective fears underlying American culture and society: of xenophobia, a challenge of privilege, and an erosion of rationality. It is eerie, looking at Brexit and North America now, and comparing them to the events in Providence: to the rise of the then-governor Coolidge during the police union strike in his State, to the rise of extremism in Europe and America, and the rise of darkness in general.

Ezra Pound once said the artist is “the antennae of the race.” Alan Moore argues this point with Lovecraft in America and shows this to similar with Robert Black and, perhaps by extension, himself. I’ve touched on a lot of these points in comments on Sequart and The Case of Alan Moore’s Providence, but these are definitely things to keep in mind: that even non-Euclidean art, especially non-Euclidean art, imitates life as it truly is.

In meantime, we will have to see if there is hope or oblivion awaiting us in the twelfth and last issue of Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’ Providence: whenever it will eventually come. In participating, I will have to what many other older long-time fans have done. I will have to wait, I will wait and sleep, just like everybody else until that point when “with strange aeons, even death may die.”

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Matthew Kirshenblatt is a graduate from York University, Toronto, Ontario, and is a writer and blogger living in the city of Thornhill. He is a comics and mythology fanatic; having written his Master's thesis, "The Spirit of Herodotus in Gaiman and Moore: Narrative Spaces and their Relationships in Mythic World-Building," he also contributes science-fiction, horror, and revisionist short stories to Gil Williamson's online Mythaxis Magazine. Nowadays, he can be found writing for G33kPr0n, and creating and maintaining his Mythic Bios: a Writer's Blog, in which he describes his creative process and makes weird stories, strange articles, reviews, overall geek opinion pieces and other writing experiments.

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  1. BK Munn says:

    Thanks for reminding me that this series exists.
    I did read Swamp Thing and Watchmen as they were serialized. I remember feeling like I was experiencing something special and startingly groundbreaking for superhero comics, and it sort of ruined the genre for me in terms of the dense “meatiness” and sophisticated, ironic approach I expected from those kind of comics afterwards. Unfortunately, Moore’s influence on superhero comics has been largely for the worse. The long-lived grim and gritty trend has killed comics for kids from DC and Marvel and Moore pastiches and “Watchmen-lite” continue to dominate, while few have followed his principled stands on creator rights. Luckily, there were many more and differently-exciting things happening at the same time and following in U.S. and Canadian (and UK and NZ and …) comics, with similar serial-related joys to be had, especially in the burgeoning “alt” literary field. These days, I do have a nostalgic attachment to Moore and to Lovecraft, but I return to their work rarely and cautiously.

    • It wasn’t just Alan Moore that began the trend towards what some, especially Julian Darius on Sequart, calls comics revisionism. Certainly, early Frank Miller and his The Dark Knight Returns comes to mind in establishing that deconstructionist momentum in the superhero comics genre. And there are a lot of subsequent creators that simply aped the aesthetics and trappings of that revisionism and not necessarily the story and third-dimensional character aspects.

      That being said, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that these developments ruined comics for kids. There are other works out there, superhero and otherwise that children can still enjoy and they still do to this very day. But I am glad you still have comics that you visit and revisit. I agree as well that approaching Moore and Lovecraft cautiously is a healthy attitude to have all things considered, but that also being said — at least for me — it doesn’t lessen my overall enjoyment of them.

      • I also like to revisit these comics, despite some of their darkness. I think revisionism tended to be dark, but it wasn’t always. Moore’s Superman stories were certainly revisionist, but “For the Man Who Has Everything” wasn’t all that dark. Baron’s Flash was revisionist and kinda dark, but also quite fun. Gaiman’s Sandman can be understood as late revisionism.

        I think that while revisionism tended to be dark, it was more trying to write realistic and maybe literary comics. But revisionism gets a bad name because it’s most remembered by Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns. And I think the urge to write more realistic, literary stories isn’t a bad one, even if its initial flowering was a bit dark.

        Thanks for the comment, and thanks to Matthew for these excellent articles! (And for the shout-outs!) :)

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