#141: Alan Moore’s Providence
Initial release: 2015–2017 (serialized)
Story: Alan Moore
Art: Jacen Burrows
Content warning for discussion of child sexual assault.
Howard Philips Lovecraft was a racist weirdo whose xenophobia colors his entire body of work. Alan Moore is a curmudgeonly old comics writer preoccupied with sexual assault.
Hi, I’m June Gloom and I read Alan Moore’s Providence so you don’t have to.
Look, I’m just going to get this out of the way: once upon a time, when I was a very irritating 20-something, I really liked H.P. Lovecraft and Alan Moore. I have several Lovecraft collections as well as a copy of Alan Moore’s seminal graphic novel Watchmen, which I maintain is probably his best work. But even in my earliest days when I had my head firmly wedged up my ass, there were certain aspects of their work that jumped out at me and left me feeling unsettled to the point where I can no longer really tolerate them outside of a critical context.
The first is Lovecraft’s overt racism (the more subtle aspects would be hidden to me until later, when I’d developed the ability to look for and spot such things.) This is evident in what he called his cat (don’t Google it,) what one of his characters called their cat (don’t Google that either,) certain stories of his (“The Horror at Red Hook” is the most obvious one, but there are plenty of other examples.) The other is Alan Moore’s preoccupation with sexual assault. I’ve read a lot of his work and it’s in almost everything he does. Even The Killing Joke — a comic that throws a beloved character under the bus solely for drama — heavily implies it, and later comics by other writers have come as close as DC will allow to admitting it. In the years since I’ve only become more sensitive to this stuff, so it is with a heavy heart that I resigned myself, for the sake of professional curiosity (after the reprehensible fuckheap that was Lost Girls I’d thought myself done with Moore) to a reading of Providence, which is Moore’s tribute to lovecraft and cosmic horror.
So… here we go. Spanning twelve issues set mostly in 1919, Providence is deeply intertwined with the Lovecraft mythos. More than that, it’s a rather darkly metafictional take on the idea that Lovecraft was inspired by real horrors just out of sight. The story opens in New York with Robert Black, a young, gay, Jewish journalist who works for the New York Herald. When he finds out that his boyfriend, whom he’d just broken up with, had committed suicide, he is distraught and winds up leaving his job to write a book. Over the next ten issues, Black journeys on a trip across New England in search of some vague notion of a secret America, founded and populated by a diverse melting pot of cultures who bring their old beliefs and rituals with them — and getting more than he bargained for.
Along the way he meets several people and situations that will seem exceedingly familiar to longtime Lovecraft fans, just with the names changed. Each issue seems to relate to a particular Lovecraft story, like “Cool Air”, or, infamously, “The Thing on the Doorstep.” (More on that later.) All these chance encounters that black has, that he describes in a writing journal he calls a “commonplace book,” wind up being appropriated by Lovecraft himself and used as the basis for some of his most famous short stories early on in his career.
Towards the end it becomes clear that this whole exercise, aside from being a prequel-slash-sequel to Moore’s The Courtyard and Neonomicon, a pair of Lovecraft-inspired miniseries, is a means for Moore to ruminate on how fiction and dreams can influence reality. The final issue moves away from Black and his misadventures entirely and moves the action to the Neonomicon setting, serving as a conclusion of sorts to both books, as well as making a commentary on Lovecraft’s influence on popular culture.
Neonomicon is (in)famous for Moore’s attempt to subvert the dry asexuality of Lovecraft’s work and show all the “nameless rituals.” Frankly, I think he just wanted an excuse to write tentacle porn. Providence’s finale is a denoument on that, though it’s not the central theme. This finale will probably make more sense if you read it together with/after Neonomicon. But up until then, the first 11 issues work well by themselves. For a given definition of “work well.” Which leads us to the sixth issue, which is anchored in “The Thing on the Doorstep.”
In Lovecraft’s story “The Thing on the Doorstep,” the protagonist spends a lot of time claiming that he did not actually murder his friend when he dumped a clip in said friend’s dome, but the evil body surfer who had swapped consciousnesses with him, leaving him trapped in a rotting corpse. It’s an early example of the trope of someone basically stealing a body before the consciousness in that body is done using it. It’s a creepy idea that’s been reused in the likes of Dragon Age: Origins, but Moore decided that wasn’t enough, and it needed a dash of child rape for spice.
Moore has always had a shaky grasp on how far is too far when dealing with issues of sexuality. Aside from his preoccupation with sexual assault, he has a fixation on eroticism that has only gotten worse as he’s gotten older, and eventually he began to indulge in — let’s be real — pedophilic fantasy. The unforgivable dreck that is Lost Girls is a great example of this: it’s Moore at his most self-indulgent and masturbatory; say what you will about American McGee taking beloved children’s characters and churning out high school goth crap, at least it’s not what Moore did in Lost Girls.
Providence #6, however, is even worse. In the fifth issue, Black meets a precocious 13-year-old girl named Elspeth, who turns out to be quite intelligent, already taking classes at the nearby college. In the sixth issue, she lures him to her home using the pretext of a rainstorm. Of course, Black is no pedophile (well, not counting the 17 year old boy he bangs in a later issue), and anyway he’s also gay, so the reader is fooled into thinking nothing untoward would happen. That’s when Alan Moore pulls the rug out from under you. In a disturbing scene, Elspeth undresses in front of him, talking in a very different tone of voice, and then the perspective changes, as the speaker is now speaking from Black’s mouth. Essentially, the consciousness inhabiting Elspeth’s body has swapped places with Black’s. Not only is this consciousness using Black’s body to rape a 13 year old girl, it’s in the process raping Black on multiple levels, leaving him such a wreck that he’s convinced that he himself has committed the actual rape. It’s an awful fucking scene, and it colors the rest of the series, hanging over Black like a dark cloud.
There’s a lot I could say about the independent comics industry, but I’m just going to state for the record that it’s getting to the point where whenever I see an Avatar Press logo, I instinctively avoid whatever it’s been plastered on. It’s nature’s way of saying “do not touch.” If the Avatar Press name seems familiar, it’s because they’re also the publisher of Crossed, Garth Ennis’ grotesque, rapey take on the zombie genre. It’s almost as if Avatar Press exists just to push the envelope in the most tawdry, unpleasant way possible with no real point to be made. If this is honestly their mission, then they’ve succeeded, creating a breeding ground for Moore’s worst impulses, already encouraged by Top Shelf with Lost Girls. Is it really any surprise that he worked on a Crossed monthly comic?
Frankly I think Alan Moore is a fucking ghoul. Even aside from the heart-shittingly awful finale of Providence #6, there are scenes scattered throughout the series that seem there explicitly to shock, brought to lurid, horrible life by Jacen Murrows (who also worked on Crossed.)
All that in consideration, I think what Moore is trying to do — ground Lovecraft’s work in the cultural and political context in which it was written — is a good idea. Lovecraft, like many artists, was inspired by the grimness that was the post-war period. The problem is, Moore is a hack and a pervert with no editor. While he does successfully manage to thread together several themes and historical incidents alongside Lovecraft’s actual work, they’re ultimately quite fleeting. It’s like watching a “Forrest Gump in ten minutes” video. He also does an awful job at tackling the elephant in the room with regards to Lovecraft’s rampant xenophobia. Lovecraft is a perfectly genial fellow for the majority of his appearances. Only once is his antisemitism and homophobia brought up.
More generally, the weird fish-people of Salem (which is what the titular town from “The Shadow over Innsmouth” was based on, supposedly) generally have complaints of discrimination from the upper, non-fishy classes, and of course it devolves into a hackneyed Holocaust commentary — via dream no less! But it ignores the fact that the half-human/fish-folk that populate Lovecraft’s Innsmouth are inextricable from his fears of miscegenation. While you can separate a lot of Lovecraft’s basic ideas from his xenophobia, you simply can’t do that with the Innsmouth folk, as we’ve seen with Frogwares’ detective horror shooter The Sinking City recently.
Combine all this with the aggressively sexual themes and it’s all just a dumpster fire. I can’t even say good things about the endearingly nerdy protagonist because he just graphically bangs a 17 year old boy out of nowhere, though it’s seemingly implied to be mind control. Seemingly.
The week I wrote the original version of this review, Alan Moore announced his retirement from comic books, and seems to have been sticking to it, and quite frankly I couldn’t be happier. It’s clear that he’s gone over the deep end — and up his own ass. He’s praised for his vision, but it’s clear that without direction he eventually devolves to child porn.
Don’t read Providence. In fact, do yourself a favor and avoid Avatar Press entirely. Arguably, you should just give up on print comics entirely — spacetwinks on Twitter makes a good argument in favor of the online comic scene:
What you should do, instead, is… well, thinking about it, I can’t help but feel like the real answer is to abandon anything associated with Lovecraft in general. It’s tainted, and you’re never gonna get the stink out. Go watch The X-Files instead or something.