Traversing the Plateau of Leng:

To Read is to Be Read in Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’ Providence

“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 tha