Stop me if you’ve heard this story. A mild-mannered bespectacled journalist works at an American newspaper attempting to find a story, having to deal with a senior editor, a wise-cracking coworker, and a troublesome, opinionated woman who doesn’t leave him alone. In reality, however, this unassuming, quiet man — almost timid by nature on the outside — harbours a secret identity, and wants to use his abilities to show something to the world: to make others seen, and reveal something about real justice, truth, and the American Way.
So right. You would be totally forgiven if you thought I was talking about Clark Kent and the adventures of Superman, when he isn’t at The Daily Planet interacting with Perry White, Jimmy Olsen, and Lois Lane. What I’m describing isn’t the beginning of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s titular superhero, but rather the start of Alan Moore’s Providence, starring Robert Black as the aforementioned journalist, working at The New York Herald alongside Editor-in-Chief Ephraim Posey, Freddy Dix, and Prissy Turner.
H.P. Lovecraft, the writer and creator of the Cthulhu Mythos from which Alan Moore creates Providence, states that there is a mercy in “the inability of the human mind to correlate all of its contents,” in piecing together bits of disparate knowledge and facts that can reveal the true and terrifying nature of reality. There is always a gap of ignorance, of a lack of description where he doesn’t go, and he leaves his audience to put together. In the quote I paraphrased, he seems to think that this state of blissful unawareness is a good thing but this also comes from the same man who writes about how humanity’s greatest terror is fear of the unknown.
This is how I feel whenever I write something like this, when I consider how there is no proof that Alan Moore or Jacen Burrows took any visible inspiration between the story of Kal-El hailing from the obliterated planet of Krypton — or Clark Kent and his alter ego Superman — with Robert Black as the unwitting Herald of “a Vanquished Country” such as it is. Yet I feel compelled to write something about a possible parallel as my mind thinks in parallels and tangents. It is well known that Alan Moore, at least contemporarily, has a disdain for the superhero genre of the comics medium and industry which which he’s worked in for so long, and while this former love and latter disillusionment has informed his creativity, I’m not going as far as to state that it has left its resonance on Providence. If you’d like to indulge me, think of this, if you’d like, as — again — a parallel read of Providence, and an imagining of Robert Black as something of another Man of Tomorrow or, more appropriately given the circumstances, a Man of Yesterday.
Comparisons can be useful. Clark Kent was raised in Kansas, in the town of Smallville by a family of farmers. Robert Black came from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, that also had farmland and a smaller place for Robert’s ambitions and needs. Both characters are intelligent and have tremendous potential, with parents that want to do right by them. Martha and Jonathan Kent know about their adopted son’s abilities, and while they want him to exercise discretion, they encourage him to do good while also pursuing his own dreams and independence. The Blacks have their own ideas over what will work to Robert’s “own good”: particularly his father who wants him to remain in Milwaukee and become a doctor while raising a family. It isn’t clear whether or not Robert’s parents know about his secret, made so by social norms, but it is unlikely, and it’s this factor along with needing to go somewhere else to properly pursue his chosen field and career that influences him to go to New York against his family’s wishes.
Of course, Clark Kent goes to Metropolis — a New York City analogue — to also follow his journalistic dreams. It is fascinating to consider another element in this comparison: both characters utilize journalism as something of a means to an end. Clark is a journalist because he is interested in human behaviour, but also having access to information and perspectives that will allow him to pursue his crusade against crime and injustice. Journalism is his passion, of course, and he respects it even though in his Golden Age comics he always seems to intentionally operate below par in undertaking assignments so as not to draw attention to himself. In a way, Clark Kent’s career — and his identity associated with that — is something of a mask or a distraction away from his true calling. One might even say that Clark Kent is something of a “beard” for Superman.
Robert Black is a writer. He begins his job at the New York Herald in order to gain the resources, experience, and knowledge to advance his craft while using that employment to eke out his own space in Manhattan, and pursue the social connections that he requires to physically and romantically survive as a closeted gay man. Unlike Clark Kent, Robert hates his job — or has grown to do so — barely tolerating his employer and coworkers, having snippy and self-deprecating thoughts about them and himself, and desperately wanting to move on with his career. Only the death of his loved one, after following another journalistic lead taking him unknowingly to the edges of the Mythos, gives him the impetus to do so.
Arguably, if we go by the Golden Age then Clark begins his job at the Daily Planet before 1938 — around the time Siegel and Shuster get the character’s first comic published — while Robert starts his job at the Herald sometime before 1919 when Providence begins. Basically, Clark Kent is active as Superman — if we go by chronology — when there is unrest in Europe and Germany after the Great Depression and the Second World War is about to begin, whereas Robert Black hadn’t apparently passed the physicals to get into the American military during the First World War and his story begins a year after it’s over, presumably while the so-called Spanish Influenza is still ongoing and Prohibition is about to begin a year later. Both characters operate during times of social and cultural unrest, and the beginnings of radical change: and each affects their place and times differently.
It is already problematic to look at these two characters side by side. While they are both fictional, Robert Black is placed in as close a facsimile to our 1919 world as possible — with the exception of New York City’s Robert W. Chambers-derived “exiting gardens” and eventual world domes — while Clark Kent is already in a late 1930s world that is like ours with fictional cities. Then again, perhaps they are not that dissimilar in place, given how Lovecraft and by extension Moore and Burrows are using something of our world and adding fictional spaces into it just like Siegel and Shuster. It doesn’t take away from anything here.
What is fascinating, however, is looking at their internal monologues or processes. For example, when you read the Golden Age Superman comics, you see Clark almost exulting in knowing he’s better than most people, or hoodwinking Lois into thinking he is nothing other than bumbling Clark Kent when he is a virtual demigod. It’s been stated before, by creators such as Quentin Tarantino, that Superman almost uses the journalist persona of Clark Kent as a satire or critique of humanity. And the quiet and introverted Robert Black’s thoughts are laid bare in the Commonplace Book sections of Providence, in caustic, sarcastic, sometimes even self-serving prose by Moore. When you see how he acts around his coworkers or anyone else he runs into compared to what he thinks of them, it can be an interesting and sometimes unflattering commentary. But aren’t most private thoughts somewhat vain to that regard?
Those digressions aside, we have these two men — perhaps both Men of Tomorrow — one who wants to protect the innocent and fight evil, and the other who desires to say something about his world and become famous in his craft. They even have what seem to be romantic triangles: with Clark Kent being in love with Lois Lane, who has no interest in him but adores his other identity in the form of Superman, while the secretary Prissy Turner has attraction to Robert Black while Freddy Dix has feelings for her and — all the while — Robert has residual romantic feelings towards his former lover Lillian Russell or “Lily.” Clark Kent can’t pursue a relationship with Lois, who is a fellow reporter, because she might figure out that he’s Superman and not human — perhaps even endangering her in the process — whereas Robert Black ends his relationship with Lily because Lily is actually Jonathan Russell, and he knows Robert’s employer, which might lead to his outing sexuality in a particularly homophobic society where he wants to get ahead.
Clark Kent and Robert Black also have one other very important element in common: both men are the children of foreigners undertaking the immigrant experience in the United States. America’s main philosophy has always been that it is a land of opportunity, “the land of the free, and the home of the brave.” Clark’s true name is Kal-El and he comes from the planet of Krypton; his existence on Earth with its solar radiation gives him superhuman abilities. He has taken on an English or American moniker like many immigrants have done in order to fit in or “pass.” Robert Black is Jewish, and through some generations perhaps his family settled in Milwaukee along with an influx of German immigrants. At one point in the Providence miniseries when he is having a strange series of dreams, Robert recalls that his last name in German or Yiddish is basically Schwartz, and it wasn’t uncommon for Jewish families to anglicize their surnames as something of a shield against casual social racism.
While Clark Kent can’t reveal his true nature to Lois because he might endanger her and those he cares for, Robert is confronted by Jonathan in not being open about his religion or his sexuality out of a sense of cowardice. It would be easy to state that Clark’s motives are selfless, while Robert’s are selfish, yet I think there is interlap here in that Clark also wishes to keep himself from being discovered in order to pursue his own life, while Robert knows there are real dangers in being outed religiously and sexually, even in a place as relatively liberal as New York in the early 1900s.
There are definite similarities in how they both start. And then there is the survivor’s guilt aspect to consider in all of this, along with their own delving into dead and alien cultures. I will admit to ignorance becoming bliss at times in writing this as I know there are different iterations depending on which Age about how Clark finds out about his Kryptonian past and how he interacts with it. While I know he is more rough-edged and even kills some of his enemies in his Golden Age iteration, in subsequent depictions Clark Kent as Superman finds out about Krypton and his civilization and uses their knowledge that, in turn, helps him understand his powers to help others. While he never knew his biological parents, their deaths along with those of his culture does inform a part of his personality along with his Earth- and American-based upbringing. He uses what he learns to deal with human crime and both supernatural and alien assaults to protect America and all of the Earth which he has made his adoptive home. Clark doesn’t shy away from knowledge and information, and attempts to understand why something exists and how he can use it to help others without a need for personal gain. He knows what it’s like to lose one home and he doesn’t want to lose another — or for anyone else to lose theirs. He deals with an inherently challenging, sometimes non-human world and confronts it head on with genuine curiosity and bravery. He takes parts of his culture and achievements and brings it to add to his host country and planet.
Robert Black is a little more complicated. According to the Redeemer Prophecy in Providence, he is the Herald. He is called “the black herald,” which has a resonance with the Pharaonic Great Old One figure of Nyarlathotep; who wanders as Black’s semi-nomadic — or semitic — ancestors once did, and changes every civilization he comes across. He does have a background in some Kabbalah and mysticism from what he recalls of his grandfather’s studies, and he takes down copious amounts of notes and observations from his experiences traveling to find the “secret” groups and subcultures that make up America, hoping to use them as a metaphor for his novel Marblehead: An Undertow to talk about the gay or queer experience after the suicide of his former lover.
Unfortunately, unlike Clark Kent, Robert Black lacks the self-consciousness to realize that the alien reality he’s experiencing — of which he is a part — is more than just symbolism and metaphor. He doesn’t even know his role in it all until, arguably, it’s too late. You see, unlike Superman’s world where strange things happen but there are more concrete rules and definitions, Robert Black’s world is the Cthulhu Mythos where cosmicism — the idea that the universe is vast, malicious, or utterly apathetic towards human sanity — is prevalent. This revelation, towards the end of the series and far away from the newspaper job he quit, ultimately consumes and destroys Robert as he just can’t accept what he’s seen or done, and he can’t live on with that understanding or the lack thereof.
Magic and science are more distinguishable in Clark Kent’s world, though they also interlap. He too is affected by magic, though his ultimate weakness turns out to be what Siegel and Shuster originally called K-Metal, but is now known as Kryptonite. It is a fragment of Kal-El’s homeworld. While Kryptonite now weakens and will kill a Kryptonian like Superman after continued exposure (like radioactive ore), originally it had the ability to simply take away his powers and make any human exposed to it more powerful. Later, in other iterations, it’s shown to have a terrible cancerous effect on humans after long term exposure as well.
And it’s strange to consider how Moore and Burrows use the Shining Trapezohedron in Providence. They combine the meteor from Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space” (that destroys the farmland and environment of an entire territory where it crashed) and the artifact used to summon an entity in “The Haunter of the Dark” into an item that uses orgone or sexual energy — increasing it in those humans nearby — to terraform the world around it with that power. Robert Black, and a young lover of his, Charles Howard — the analogue to Charles Dexter Ward — have sex over the artifact which charges it. The Shining Trapezohedron is depicted in Providence as being a black and red crystalline object and, fascinatingly enough, K-Metal or Kryptonite was intended to be red in the Superman comics before it was changed to green in the Silver Age.
Kryptonite itself has many forms, arguably including the Kryptonian crystalline technology created in the Silver Age Superman comics which he uses to create and raise his Fortress of Solitude to essentially terraform it into existence on Earth in some “polar waste.” Incidentally, while green can represent radioactivity and sickness, it also has other connotations when you consider that green ties and clothing — such as the items that Robert Black and his fellows wear — were queer-coded in the 1900s gay subculture to let other homosexual men know about one another in America, while green itself is also the colour best associated with Lovecraft’s Great Old One Cthulhu.
All of these coincidental parallels aside, what this whole writing comes down to is, what do each of these characters represent? I posit that the both of them, while existing in their respective time periods, represent an idea of a Man of Tomorrow. And their glasses say a lot about them. Clark Kent uses his glasses to hide himself, yet arguably also to cloak himself with a human perspective so that he can relate to his surroundings. They represent him actually being able to see clearly, and he chooses when to use this perceptive lens depending on the situation: if he is needed as Clark Kent or Superman. Just like the übermensch from whence he was derived, save with morality, he chooses what mental and superficial tools he needs to get the job done. As the Man of Tomorrow, he is something to which others should aspire.
But Robert Black is clearly different. He needs those spectacles to actually see. In the Redeemer Prophecy, they are mentioned as being a special glass to the regard that many interpreters misunderstood. In the end, for all of Robert’s need for those glasses, he is still blind to the world that he explores, and as it is, and when he doesn’t have them he is visually impaired, and when he finally does realize the truth they are knocked from him; and one lens is cracked. As symbols of reason and rationality, this is not a good sign, and these are the same glasses he puts on when he goes to the exit garden and its gas chamber to voluntarily kill himself. Robert Black is a Man of Tomorrow in the sense that he carries ideas, transmitting them in ignorance, like a memetic virus, until something irrevocably changes, and he begins the process of restoring the “Vanquished Country” of the Dreamlands and forgotten places of nonhuman mentality to reality at large. Robert Black is the child of a diaspora, from a nation that had been conquered millennia ago, and he is more of a Man of Tomorrow in that his Tomorrow is the Yesterday of an inhuman past in a cyclical world that he unwittingly and unwillingly helps to restore..
One man represents hope and inspiration, while the other symbolizes ignorance, self-involvement, the despair of a revelation come too late, and the perpetuation of cycles. H.P. Lovecraft, himself involved in American pulp magazine works like Weird Tales, died one year before Action Comics #1 was published, while Alan Moore did collaborate in writing Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow among other DC comics with the superhero. Is there a link, or an influence? Probably not. Even so, it’s funny how Kal-El and Black both begin in similar places and end in different directions; one continuing on to record the adventures and news of the world, and the other willingly dying and leaving only his notes to be found, and then shredded and discarded by another, his greatest story either lost, or strewn across the world to continue yet another cycle.
I always wondered, even before Providence was published, just why Alan Moore decided to base his story off a character like Robert Black, a gay Jewish man, writer, and journalist instead of Lovecraft himself which I had been given to think he was going to do. Perhaps it’s because of Lovecraft’s own association and correspondence with queer and Jewish friends, despite his obvious prejudices. Maybe it’s due to the immigrant or generational immigrant experience being that of the America whose underbelly of a soul Moore and Burrows were trying to dissect through Lovecraft; like two paragons between American exceptionalism and utter ruin. Or in the end, whether it’s a hapless man trapped by cold determinism, or a superhero with agency to spare, a true “Outsider” is what’s required to understand where a world is, and where it is going.