Let’s take a quick breather from our Netflix horror movie rundown to talk horror comics for just a minute (or, more accurately, several minutes), shall we? After all, man (and woman) cannot live on a diet of celluloid scares alone — even in October — and once in awhile you may just wish to get your chills and thrills via a four-color, printed delivery method. If so, I humbly suggest that there’s no better way for you to go as we approach Halloween 2015 than by plunking down five of your heard-earned dollars for the fifth issue of Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’ superb Lovecraftian travelogue, Providence.
We’ve talked Providence around these parts before, of course — a couple of times, in fact (in fact, I halfway feel like I ought to go back and review issues two and three just to say I’ve covered ’em all) — but as long as it maintains this lofty standard of excellence, I see no harm in bringing it up again. In fact, it’s no exaggeration at all to say that every issue to date has been “the best one so far,” and I’m pleased to report that trend continues here. I have a fairly respectable monthly pull at my LCS, and right now it can easily be broken down into four categories : books that I’ll probably end up dropping sooner rather than later because they suck; books that are okay but that I could easily see myself parting company with because they’re wildly inconsistent at best, and two subpar issues in a row will probably seal their fate; books that are good and that I’ll continue to pick up; and Providence. Honestly, if I only had five extra bucks a month to spend, I’d spend it on this. My monthly Providence fix is starting to become essential to my survival.
And while that may sound pathetic, I assure you that the comic itself is anything but. For those who are reasonably steeped in the lore of H.P. Lovecraft, like myself, this is the series we’ve been waiting our whole lives for and just didn’t know it, while for more casual readers it can serve as a springboard into a hitherto-unexplored literary world that will immediately arrive on your doorstep with a tremendous amount of breadth, depth, and resonance thanks to the million-and-one clever ways Moore has woven core aspects of Lovecraft’s ever-fluid mythos into his sprawling, multi-faceted narrative. One thing’s for certain, though : whatever your prior “Lovecraft immersion level,” this comic is going to creep you the fuck out and keep you glued to its pages. I’ve read every issue at least a half-dozen times so far, and frankly am looking forward to getting this review over with so that I can read number five again.
Do I really want to do that, though? Chances are that once I do, I’ll notice any number of little details that I missed last time around, and that will have me scurrying back to these virtual “pages” to hastily edit this review and mention them all before I feel like an idiot for omitting them. Some comics hold up fine on second, third, and subsequent re-readings, but Providence flat-out demands them — and gets better each time.
For those unfamiliar with the basic set-up, I suppose a quick run-down is in order : journalist Robert Black has recently quit his job at the New York Herald in order to track down a Necronomicon-esque ancient tome that he hopes will be of assistance as he researches material for his slowly-developing novel about America’s secret underbelly, and has taken up the trail of the volume through a number of , shall we say, dinstinctive rural New England backwaters. He meets various and sundry bizarre personages along the way — variations of whom will all play a role in later Lovecraft fictions — and remains semi-blissfully unaware of the obvious-to-us-readers connections between them and the part he will no doubt play in tying all their stories together. In short, he’s as important as he is clueless, and seems more concerned with protecting his own secrets (the largest ones being that he’s gay and Jewish) along the way than he is in puzzling out the ones presented to him in plain sight.
Each issue to date has seen one Lovecraft story serve as its major “anchor,” while dropping in plenty of knowing winks and nods toward others, and number five is no exception, with The Dreams in The Witch House playing the largest role in the proceedings, but characters, plot elements, and themes from The Rats In The Walls, The Colour Out Of Space, In The Walls Of Eryx, The Thing On The Doorstep, and Herbert West – Reanimator all weaving their way into the web of strangeness surrounding Black, as well. If you happen to have any or all of these stories at your disposal, keep them handy — if not, don’t sweat it too much, because you’re still in for a heady, intoxicatingly good read.
Our protagonist’s travels this time out take him to St. Anselm’s college in Machester, New Hampshire, where he’s got a couple of weeks to kill before he can arrange a viewing of the book he’s determined to scope out, so he rents a headache-inducing, oddly-angled attic room at a boarding house during the forced interregnum, making the acquaintance of a nowhere-near-as-simple-as-she-seems landlady, a cab driver who’s always there when you need him (and especially when you don’t), a “fellow traveler” who “helps out” in some unspecified manner in the university’s medical department, a precocious 15-year-old girl, a perhaps-too-helpful priest, and a federal agent investigating a decades-old meteorite crash while he bides his time.
That’s just during the daytime hours, though, and it’s at night when the real weirdness in Manchester goes down.
Don’t get the wrong idea — there’s no real crazy nightlife to be found in 1919 New England college towns (hell, there probably still isn’t much today), but Black”s been having some decidedly odd dreams since he took out his rented room, and they’re getting worse. Dreams about rats with human faces. Dreams about witches speaking horrifying secrets about the nature of the universe that the conscious mind can’t comprehend. Dreams about odd geometric angles that cause one plane of existence to intersect with another. Dreams about being watched by presences he can’t even define, much less see. Dreams about time folding back in on itself (which Moore mirrors in the dialogue boxes at the bottom of each page). Dreams that eventually send him running from the house in the middle of the night and over to the residence of Dr. Hector North, whose home reeks oddly of formaldehyde —
Where to begin with all the details to be on the lookout for here? Moore and Burrows are throwing them at readers so fast that you really can’t afford to miss a beat, beginning with the tiny figure running through the rain in page one, panel one, and continuing throughout. A favorite of mine is paying close attention to which panels are hand-ruled and slightly uneven and which are straight-ruled and perfectly symmetrical. I won’t give away what that denotes, but once you figure it out for yourself, you’ll be all “damn — that’s genius, that is.”
And yes, despite the fact that we’re not even at the halfway point of this 12-issue series yet, I don’t think it’s too early to call Providence a work of genius. Moore is gradually building up all the elements in his story and moving his chess pieces into almost agonizingly-precise locations, while Burrows is deftly mixing in reams of visual clues and hammering all the horror home with his finely-detailed, richly-realized illustrations. Both gentlemen are in top form and operating at the peak of their skills, and if you’re one of those who’s been waiting for “the next great Alan Moore comic,” well — here it is.
So, what could be better than this? It’s hard to say, but something tells me that we’ll all be finding out on October 28th, when Avatar releases Providence #6 — just in time, of course, for Halloween. How perfect is that, I ask you?