Although he used to write for 2000 AD which I often read, I knowingly first encountered Alan Moore’s work when I read Watchmen back in the late Eighties, years before the movie and the TV show ever graced our screens, and subsequently Batman: The Killing Joke which gave us an thought-provoking origin story for the Joker. Then Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman took over my appetite for comics before Moore pulled me back in with V for Vendetta (albeit after I had seen the Wachowski’s big screen adaptation).
Then another break, a dismissal of From Hell after the Jonny Depp film in 2001 failed to leave much of an impression and the black and white images of the graphic novel turned me off. I filled my comic book time with some of Frank Miller’s work and Ghost in the Shell manga, but didn’t think about Moore all that much until this year when I came across the coloured ‘Master Edition’ of From Hell (coinciding nicely with an Amazon voucher I needed to use), and found something called Providence listed among a ‘top graphics novels you need to read before you die’ listicle alongside the likes of From Hell, The Dark Knight Returns (love it) and Maus (not read it, yet).
A little bit of digging alerted me to the fact that I needed to also read Neonomicon if I was going to read Providence, and ebay came to the rescue for that. I followed one reviewer’s advice and paused reading Providence which is mostly a prequel but also a sequel to Neonomicon at Chapter 12, then read Neonomicon before continuing to the end of Providence . Why the four-part Neonomicon isn’t simply included in the $29.99 trade paperback version of Providence is anyone’s guess. never mind.
Providence has been described as ‘the Watchmen of horror’ – it’s publisher hype but I get what they’re trying to say – this is a magnificent undertaking if you like the work of HP Lovecraft and his Cthulhu mythos. Published episodically around 2015-2017, Providence contains the distinctive art of Jacen Burrows, is coloured by Juan Rodriguez and lettered by Kurt Hathaway; Burrows and Moore having previously collaborated on the shorter run of Neonomicon.
The series is mostly set in 1919 and follows the story of journalist turned fiction writer Robert Black. Black takes a leave of absence from the New York Herald after the death of his male lover. He travels to New England with the intention of writing a Great American Novel and investigating the lives and beliefs of occultists outside of the American Dream as a thematic metaphor for social outsiders like himself – this being a time of sexual and racial intolerance on the East Coast.
What he encounters in his journey into madness is a secret society intent on bringing about the end of the world and a return of the dream world of Cthulhu and various other old gods. As the bizarre story pulls from the work of HP Lovecraft we find Black uncovering mystery after mystery while all the time applying a rational mind to what he encounters. His diary entries that end each chapter become frustrating in that not only is there so much handwritten text to read (most of which repeats what we’ve already seen but form his blinkered perspective) but also because Black just doesn’t get what is going on, or indeed admit to his own homosexuality. He is delusional in the sense that he is pretending to be one person in one reality when everything is telling us that he is not.
The finale of Providence delivers upon the title, writes HP Lovecraft, and indeed Alan Moore and all the other mythos writers, directly into the narrative as being the enablers for the return of the ancient ones and the end of the world as we know it. It is very clever metaphysical stuff pivoting on the power of the written word to change worlds.
Neonomicon on the other hand is a rather more straightforward but no less horrific helping of the Lovecraftian mythos centred on two young FBI agents in the X-Files mode investigating a series of ritual murders somehow tied to the final investigation conducted by former agent, now max security prisoner, Aldo Sax who is criminally insane. They find themselves in the spooky harbour town of Insmouth and encounter a band of occultists who regularly ‘commune’ with an otherworldy creature.
Basically they have sex orgies with a fish-monster. Yup. And while Providence didn’t shy away from portraying sex in it’s panels, Neonomicon takes it up a horrible notch. Black’s mental inability to see the reality of what he was getting into is replaced by the female agent losing her spectacles and not being able to see the creature properly during the orgy, but it doesn’t really help the reader avoid the horror.
I’m not sure the book works very well as a standalone story, but it certainly adds vital detail to the story of Providence and essential reading unless you want to be asking yourself “who the fuck is this woman?” when she appears in Chapter 13. Together they add up to a whole heap of madness and a great adventure into the enduring world of HP Lovecraft.
From Hell was first published in 1991-1998 and is no less horrific and maybe more so as it tells the story of the Jack the Ripper murders of prostitutes in1888, in a Victorian London on the brink of the Twentieth century. For me this is Moore’s best work. Yes Watchmen is brilliant within the costumed hero / superhero genre, but From Hell has a depth of historical research underpinning the story which tests the limits of one of the theories of who Jack the Ripper was. Also it’s not much like the movie of the same name, which came as a relief. In the hard bound ‘Master Edition’ Eddie Campbell’s art has been revised by the artist to include colour and so the bloody scenes are rendered in glaring red.
There’s also an extensive set of appendices which include some really interesting and often amusing page-by-page notes explaining the choices Moore made in the writing process and giving some fascinating insights into Victorian London. the appendix ‘Dance of the Gull Catchers’ is I assume an addition for this edition since it includes a panel containing the movie poster of 2001’s From Hell.
Rather like Providence here we have another secret society (the Freemasons), or at least one of their number, trying to use the murders as blood sacrifices to usher in a new era in the world. The story expertly blends the theory that the women who were murdered were part of a blackmail plot that threatened to embarrass the British monarchy with this more fantastical idea based around the hidden power of the Dionysiac Architecture that was dotted around London and the killers intent to elevate himself into the fourth dimension.
The closing sequences of the story are so very well done, linking the events of 1888 to the past and the future, that I was smiling at every page despite the dark subject matter – this was a masterclass in storytelling – both in words and pictures. It’s a shame that the film contained almost none of this great imagery. Also I was pleased with myself for figuring out a twist in the plot, a case of mistaken identity that gives the reader a bit of hope that not everything in the story is tragic.
I think it’s fair to say at this point in the year that From Hell is going to feature in my list of the best books I’ve read in 2021, and we’ll have to wait and see if the Providence/Neonomicon duo also appears.
Main image adapted from a photo by Hert Niks on Unsplash