“So much of this is made of books, this Commonplace book….”
– Robert Black, Commonplace Book, June 5th, 1919, Providence #1, p. 32
This article is strange for a few reasons. First off, it’s about a comic written by Alan Moore heavily inspired by Lovecraftian lore and strange is as appropriate a term to use as are the words eldritch, squamous, gibbous, and foetor. Lovecraftian word association aside, the other reason this writing is going to be different is because I thought I was done with writing about Providence: at least officially.
It’s true. Even though I find myself writing and contributing comments to The Facts in the Case of Alan Moore’s Providence more than I ever thought, especially since the series isn’t even over yet, I believed that three articles would be more than enough. But as I was perusing more online information about the comic series, I came across a comment at some point. The commenter stated that they always had an issue with Alan Moore bringing foreign languages into his works that he doesn’t bother to translate, and that they couldn’t read the Commonplace Book back-matter of the Providence comics.
I’ve had similar difficulties with his language segments too, in his other works. In fact, I’ve commented as much on my own Mythic Bios Blog post Contains Language: Reader’s Discretion is Advised. It seems to be a hallmark of some literary traditions, potentially modernist ones, to use a language or a term and leave it to the reader to either learn those words, or find a suitable translation elsewhere: hence the reason for annotative sites such as Facts. I mean, seriously, does anyone out there know how to speak Martian on their own initiative?
But I have been able to read the Commonplace elements of Providence. It’s what I’ve done with The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series, along with the mixed matter inside of Watchmen. I can see the challenges, of course. Like I’ve mentioned on my various chapter impressions of Jerusalem, Alan Moore’s prose is dense, heavily cerebral, and multi-layered. When you add the affectation of Jacen Burrows and the letterer Kurt Hathaway into the mix, you really have to focus on what seems to be the protagonist’s personal writings. Yet I’ve done it. I do it because I am genuinely interested in how this prose adds to the plot and depth in the comics narrative with which Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows present us.
What truly got me, however, is that the commenter I’ve been talking about admitted that they stopped attempting to read the Commonplace Book back-matter and have only been reading the comics segment instead. This took me aback. My immediate response was that they would be missing so much from the narrative if they just focused on the comic. But then I remembered my Mythic Bios Blog post and how someone can interpret the use of jargon or language without translation as a form of either expecting a more active role from the reader in researching or engaging in those terms, or just another form of elitist literary snobbery. And then these thoughts and impulses made me pause again. I started to wonder if it can be interpreted as a failure, in a comic, if you can’t communicate all of your ideas in the illustrated panels you are given – the old “show and don’t tell” conceit, if this is the only expectation of the comics medium between reader and creator – while, at the same time, I started thinking about the pastiche and epistolary nature of Watchmen and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: of how different media are mixed together to form something of a realistic or perhaps period whole.
Then I started to actually wonder what it must be like for that commenter, or for anyone like them, to only read the comics segment of Providence. What do they see? How is their experience different from mine? For that matter, what would it be like for a reader if they just read the Commonplace Book part of Providence: went through and just read it like one long short story?
And these thoughts were the beginning of my experiment: my Providence Experiment. Essentially, I’m going to give you my impressions of Providence if I just read the comics narrative, and then my perspective of the same story if I’d just read the prose part. Don’t expect this to be too exhaustive. Not only am I sure that I’m going to miss several vital areas, but my Experiment is already biased and affected by my experience reading both comics and prose parts at once with every issue. So I will do my best to offer some possible points of view, if nothing else.
Phase One of my Providence Experiment, if you still want to call it that (I just really think it sounds cool) was reading the comic only in its panelled narrative. I tried to look at what I would see as a reader and viewer from the images and words alone. Coincidentally it’s interesting to think about how many people who read Alan Moore’s Lovecraftian narratives “The Courtyard,” “Zaman’s Hill” and “Recognition” probably had the opposite problem: remembering the stories as prose and attempting to adapt to them in the comics forms created by Antony Johnston, Juan Jones Rip, Jacen Burrows and others, but I digress.
What I found in reading only the comics portion was that I really had to pay attention to specific cues in order to figure out what was going on. Again, it really doesn’t help my case that I already knew what was going on from a previous reading or that close reading and viewing is important to understanding Providence regardless, but without any other assistance what you see is pretty much what you get. Basically, what I saw when looking at the comics element is our turn of the century journalist Robert Black blithely and oblivious to anyone else’s feelings stumbling from one eerie situation to the next until he gradually realizes his “delusions” are real and he kills himself. We see his flashbacks to his lover and family, with an insinuation that there is something driving him away from them and that he either can’t really talk about, or it’s not made apparent to us at first.
When I was in Grad School a few years ago, my Thesis adviser brought up the idea of perspectives in both film and comics. He said something to the effect of how novels utilize different narrative points of view – first-person and third, and sometimes second – while film and comics generally use third-person. Film has used first-person in an experimental manner, but he told me it wasn’t common behind art films I believe, and that he hadn’t heard of comics narratives attempting this at all. In Providence, however, it’s clear that the comics narrative almost always focuses on Robert: even to the point of cutting out the perspectives of other characters. Hannah Means Shannon’s I Have Read Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’ Providence #1 And It’s Eerily Inclusive in Bleeding Cool, aside from having its own perspective on how a first-time reader perceives Providence, states that its narrative is not unlike a first-person “video game perspective”: giving us a sense of “agency” in the form of Robert Black to relate to his world and his experiences.
I’m inclined to agree with some of that idea. Robert is, for the most part, and at the beginning of Providence (on which Shannon wrote her article) our view and experience in Alan Moore’s Lovecraftian 1919 American world. At the same time, he can be alienating to those of us that don’t have those experiences or, I would imagine, even some of us who have in our own time period. If you go purely by the comics, you will only gradually realize through looking at flashbacks in the first issue with regards to his parents, Lily confronting him about hiding his religion, mentioning his grandfather studying Kabbalah in his youth to Robert Suydam, comments from Shadrach Annesley, he and Boggs observing the swastika outside of St. Jude’s Church and the Friends of Oannes, and the dream sequence in Salem where he responds to his birth surname Schwartz that Robert is Jewish. Those are the connotations you need to pick up on.
This isn’t even mentioning how the reader pieces together Robert’s sexual orientation. You have the clues in the beginning that his former lover is tearing up his love letters: barely. When Jonathan Russell is pronounced dead by his fellows at The Herald, you have to really take a look at Robert’s body language and face as rigidly and shockingly drawn by Jacen Burrows. The fact that green ties and red bowties are supposed to be tells for the turn of the century gay subculture to identify each other isn’t exactly common knowledge now, and it is something even Alan Moore had to research (green ties being hilarious in a lot of ways given how this is a Lovecraftian story and Cthulhu is all about the emerald).
But you can see it if you really look. You can hear the hints of it when Robert says he won’t be having “women trouble,” or how his boss wonders why Russell killed himself as “he didn’t have women trouble.” You can see it in the way that Tom Malone’s hand lingers on Robert’s own and the abashed way that he looks at him while they are waiting at the cafe for Suydam to show up. And certainly, Dr. Hector North’s double entendres in his exchanges with Robert at St. Anselm College and Manchester scream flirting and sexual tension. Of course, these subtleties are blown away by Issue #9 when we see Robert and Charles Howard verbally circling around each other and then flat-out copulating in the ruined church where the Stella Sapiente’s secret chief resides. And just listening to H.P. Lovecraft talk about how disgusting homosexuals and Jews are to his new friend Robert, not knowing he is both, hits you real hard and makes you feel tremendous empathy for the man who greatly respects someone who turns out to be both a homophobe and an Anti-semite at that period in his life.
Certainly, by the end of Issue #11, where Robert is so broken that he even admits to his formerly hated coworker Dix that he’s “queer,” hits home the idea to the reader that all that hiding, all those aspirations to become something more and navigate a world hostile to him, all he lost because he was afraid of others finding out who he is, and perhaps also scared of who he is himself, amount to nothing as he just reveals that part of himself that doesn’t seem so bad, or the consequences so great anymore considering that his sense of reality has been completely and utterly violated for all time.
I found myself paying a lot more attention to body language and facial expressions, along with words specifically stressed in bold font. I’m tempted to say that watching Robert go through and gradually realize that he is in a non-human world that he’s also helping to usher forth is much more of a slow visual burn without the prose. At the same time, without the Commonplace Book, you only see glimpses of the Kitab al Hikmah Najimiyya and excerpts from what people are saying about it. There are also gaps in time and actions between issues that you won’t know any details from unless you’ve read the Book: not unlike that one period between Issues #5 and #6 where Robert literally loses track of time – specifically three weeks of it. Certainly, you will miss any mention of Robert letting Lovecraft borrow his Commonplace Book: perhaps the most penultimate moment in the entire series thus far.
Also, you really need to know your Lovecraft or geekery to understand the otherwise jarring ending sequences of Issue #11 as Robert finally dies. It also should be made clear that if you don’t even know the specifics of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories, or even read Alan Moore’s Lovecraftian comics that the end parts and the transition to the upcoming Issue #12 might prove to be very inaccessible to a reader unfamiliar with the rest of it.
So, at the end of Phase One of my Experiment I can say that in my case I had to pay even more attention to how the visuals and words linked together. Strangely, it made my experience of the comics reading and comprehension stronger for all of that, but it also left Robert as a scared and rationalizing man with little personality or depth.
And then, a day later for Phase Two of the Providence Experiment, I read through each part of the Commonplace Book segment successively. What I found was the “underground” or lower layer of the story. Here we find a first-person narrator, Robert Black, who is equally self-effacing and shallow as all hell. He snips at his former coworkers and even lovers. You realize that Robert doesn’t remain celibate after Lily/Jonathan’s death, though in no way does that take away from his tremendous guilt over the other’s suicide and the fact that he can’t even attend the funeral without potentially blowing his heterosocial cover.
Robert, here, presents himself as a mess that still enjoys life, intellectual pursuits, and basically still continues to live. You get to see him develop story ideas – which is what the Commonplace Book is for, to record his story ideas and writings down – along with his dreams and his interpretations. He is always rationalizing and sometimes rather arrogant, even if he has moments where he admits he doesn’t know nearly as much of a literary or occult aspect of something as he should.
It also becomes clear that he can’t even bring himself to be honest about his sexuality or identify his lovers in print, always calling them “they” or “she” or labels of “brunette” and such, but he does give himself away with how he gushes about Tom Malone’s physical profile, how he wouldn’t mind it if Shadrach Annesley did “eat” him, or his thoroughly enjoyable time with Charles Howard in Providence. Robert is not a lurid writer, and tends to understate matters but you can also read between the lines.
But the Commonplace Book – if you can read past the aesthetics of the handwriting, and the dense writing and extremely intellectual style of Alan Moore in this narrative – is an excellent example of a good modernist epistolary narrative. You get to see Robert as presented so far explaining how he wants to understand the cults and traditions hidden in America so he can talk about the life of the gay subculture: using the supernatural and its customs as something of a literary beard as it were. But you also get to see his mental gymnastics at work when he truly encounters the uncanny and attempts to rationalize those situations all away.
Sometimes you even get breaks in his writing to introduce one of Robert Suydam’s pamphlets talking about the history of the Kitab and the beginnings of the Stella Sapiente (the name of which you won’t discover until later if the series if you don’t read this section), a pamphlet about the religious services, history and practices of the Oannes tradition from the Innsmouth analogues at St. Judes, poor Leticia Wheatley’s childlike drawings about her pregnancy by Yog-Sothoth and her invisible eldritch child John Divine, and even a chart of the Aklo alphabet and a more detailed series of excerpts taken from Hali’s Booke by Robert himself.
Most of all, you get to know the working title of Robert’s novel – the one he went to great lengths to give notice at his job and vacate his apartment for – called Marblehead: An Undertow. Towards the end of the Commonplace Book, you see that he has created an introduction, outlined some ideas, named a main character after his new literary mentor and his late lover Jonathan Randall, came up with a plot about Randall’s childhood trauma losing a boyhood friend, and him roaming around America gradually realizing what happened in his past while encountering more supernatural occurrences and groups. Robert even has an idea as to what happens to the childhood friend, but he never writes it down because he doesn’t want Lovecraft to see it: as it isn’t fully developed yet and he is lending him his Commonplace Book. Unfortunately, we never know what happens either as not long after that, the book trails off into a short series of sentences denoting trauma and horror.
The irony of the Commonplace narrative isn’t lost here. Much of Robert’s writings are about creating a believable weird or horror story like it is a good hoax: a familiar sentiment if you know Lovecraft’s own works. Even Robert’s digressions on a “new American mythology,” the nature of a horror, or a “new form of horror” he wants to create in comparison to Dracula and others read like H.P. Lovecraft’s 1927 essay Supernatural Horror in Literature. But in his attempt to create a horror story, Robert’s Commonplace Book becomes that tale: an epistle with missing words, blotched out writing, heavily crossed out writing from extremely traumatized sections, hints of something more in other sentences and the crushing denouement and even a punctuation-less sentence at the end of the book. It looks like a realistic horror tale, an amateurish or a proto-Lovecraft story about a thwarted Künstlerroman – a narrative about an artist’s personal growth, though this one obliterated by malicious and impersonal cosmic truth and madness – with the added irony of it actually telling true things. I mean, doesn’t every story in some way tell about true things anyway?
I can imagine Robert’s Commonplace Book becoming seen as something of chain correspondence, or an attempt to mirror it and truly being a tremendous piece of horror literature on its own. In a way, while it is no Marblehead: An Undertow, he writes the Book he seeks and all it costs is his peace mind and his ultimate damnation. In a lot of ways, I really like just reading The Commonplace Book as something of a novella and seeing it as exactly that. Unfortunately, what that means is we don’t know what happens to Robert after the book is finished, if we just go by the prose of it, or what occurs after his death as well.
There are also gaps in time and events that happen in the comics that don’t make it, at least even fully, into the prose of his book. Reading the Commonplace Book in its entirety can be an incredibly intimidating read, though not by any means one of Alan Moore’s more inaccessible writings if you have some literary interest and background, like Lovecraft, or sometimes have access to Google.
So that is my impression of Phase Two of my Providence Experiment. Phase Three was looking at my notes and immediate observations as I went along. I think the best way to describe this experience is to look at Alan Moore’s interpretation of the Plateau of Leng. While Leng, in Lovecraft’s stories, is a desolate physical plane either somewhere on Earth, another world, or even in the Dreamlands, Moore sees it as a state of mind between dream and reality, an angle of space-time where you can see another dimension of interaction. Perhaps it’s the fourth dimension. At one point Julian Darius, when he was coining the term “sequart” in The Sequart Manifesto, mentions that film and comics are made of sequential cells but that film possesses multiple variations of frames forming and becoming a moving image. It’s no coincidence that whenever Moore and Burrows create the Plateau of Leng sequences in Neonomicon and Providence that these are the multitude of frames in between a few panels: illustrating yet another level or medium – some hybrid form of both – of reality, perception, and consciousness.
What it comes down to is that I feel like you can still enjoy Providence reading just the comics or the prose, but without reading both it’s kind of like trying to understand Aldo Sax in Neonomicon talking in Aklo to the FBI agents and, while appreciating the situation, not getting the whole story. It would be like reading The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen without reading the stories at the back and having a limited view of Alan Moore’s shared literary public domain universe, or reading Watchmen without looking at the newspaper, essay, and autobiographical excerpts: or perhaps going so far as skipping the Tales of the Black Freighter mini-comic segments. So many things can exist, or never come to the fore if you don’t read them.
Perhaps the Plateau of Leng is a lot like Neil Gaiman’s “backstage” or “behind the scenes” to this regard and in the case of Providence it is formed by how the reader links both the comic and prose elements together in their mind. It is the metaphoric bridge image seen in Robert Black’s Commonplace Book, the “invisible art” of association Scott McCloud defines made visible if you take the time to find that “angle” in existence. There is so much you need to know, to prepare for or look through, when reading Providence. You need to know Lovecraft’s stories or at least understand the gist of their messages. You have to know about the history of 1919, particularly in America, and the turn of the century. You need to know about the gay subculture of that time. Your knowledge of any of these element will affect how you experience Providence.
This is still not an insurmountable task. You can read up on all of this. This knowledge is not hidden by any secret or hermetic elitist cult. Perhaps it is easier to think of Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’ Providence, if I creatively paraphrase the analogy of a friend of mine, not so much as the Miskatonic University that restricts its library like it does with “The Dunwich Horror’s” Wilbur Whatley, as it is more of a lighthouse to all sensitive people, knowingly or not, who search for the reality-warping dreamer Cthulhu.
Of course, even this just touches the iceberg near the Mountains of Madness. This is another thought to consider: that of the comics medium itself. I look back at my simple Experiment and know that other readers will have even more differing experiences due to different editions. For instance, Avatar Press has already released different Acts of the series in trade paperback books. Eventually, they will probably want to publish the entirety of the series in one book. I wonder how they will be able to do it. The Commonplace Book is at the back of every comic issue. Whether they use these parts as interludes, or make their own prose book will determine how the reader understands the story. And this isn’t even counting the epigraphs on the back of some – just some – of the covers of each separate issue taken from Lovecraft’s own letters about geographical locations. I myself didn’t always get the right cover editions and lost out on those epigraphs. Are they included in the trades? Will they be included in the larger Collected Edition as interludes as well?
It makes me think, you know. It makes me wonder just how the early readers of Watchmen and League experienced these works compared to me and my love of collected trade paperbacks. It also makes me realize I will have to get the trade paperback of Providence just to see what they do with it: just to sate my undying curiosity. How many layers of reality do we all see from one book, from arguably two books if you count the Commonplace Book, or even more if you include Alan Moore’s other Lovecraftian tie-ins, and then Lovecraft’s own works and those that influenced him like The King in Yellow and Ambrose Bierce’s stories, and even the fictional books that he and Alan Moore and so many others all made up?
My conclusion, after all of this, is that I’ve realized that when I look back on a conversation I had with Debra Jane Shelley again long ago at the Comic Book Lounge and Gallery in Toronto that while Miracleman may have been mine – and others’ — “white whale,” Providence has become my Watchmen: my book that I feel like I have somehow been in participation. Just as Watchmen changed how people saw comics, including comics readers, Providence changed how I see myself interacting with a comics or a work of prose. I mentioned Walter Ong and secondary orality in my last article “Down a Dark Path of Bibliomancy”: how there is a form of writing or media that accompanies oral culture in the form of images and participation. And it’s only now, writing this current article, that I realize how much this truly applies to my continuing experience with Providence, my Sequart writing, and even commenting and interacting on the Facts site.
As such, I feel like even as I draw this article to a close that the writing, the process started by Robert Black in the Commonplace Book, by Providence, is still happening, is still a dialogue, is still an extension of the things and people we are before us, is still a journey through books, and all the different elements that I know I’m still missing and going to miss as I complete this paragraph. In the end, sometimes, in order to correlate the contents of one’s mind you need to take them and it apart first, in order to see something else altogether.
About long passages of text in comics: To put it bluntly: if I wanted to read prose, I’d buy a
novel ;) But – it actually wouldn’t be so bad if not for Moore’s prose writing style, which is as unreadable as his comics are a joy.
Fair enough. His writing style is very dense, I can definitely agree with that but I know that when I take the time to actually read through it there is so much that gets revealed and can be utterly fascinating. Right now I am rereading the back-matter story in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Volume II.
And soon I will be reading Jerusalem again I hope. :)