Posts Tagged ‘avatar press’

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As Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’ Providence #9 opens up, the big moment has finally arrived — Robert Black has arrived in the series’ titular city, and surely that means it can only be a matter of time until all hell breaks loose and reality (shoot, any number of realities) comes crashing down around the ears (and eyes, and mind, and everything else) of our largely-hapless protagonist. Events have been building, both quietly and not-so-quietly, toward a crashing symphony of potentially-apocalyptic proportions for some time now in the pages of this book, it’s true, and it would be natural to assume that, with only three issues left to go after this one, the time to start “unleashing the beast” would be now.

Here’s the thing about Alan Moore, though — love him or hate him, the simple truth is that he’s just plain smarter than the rest of us (well, most of the rest of us, at any rate), and he wisely takes this occasion to “dial back” on some of the more overt manifestations of the horrific that have punctuated recent chapters of this still-unfolding masterwork in order to lay the groundwork, both geographically and metaphysically, for his final act. As such, most of this issue feels like something of a “break” for poor Black as he’s guided on a couple of walking tours through Providence — first by a young man whose company he , shall we say, very much enjoys, and then by H.P. Lovecraft himself, whose company enjoys even more, albeit for entirely different reasons.

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Now, fair enough, the old “walking and talking” routine has accounted for something like 50% Providence‘s page count so far, but here’s the damn thing — it never seems to get dull, does it? Not when the conversations are dripping with as much import as Moore consistently imbues them with. Issue nine is no exception to this rule, but some of those “double meanings” and “triple meanings” and even “quadruple meanings” are right out there in the open (so to speak) this time around, thanks to the special glasses worn by Henry Annesley, a stand-in character for From Beyond‘s Crawford Tillinghast (From Beyond arguably being the closest thing we have to an “anchor story” from the Lovecraft canon in this issue, although The Shunned HouseThe Case Of Charles Dexter WardThe Haunter Of The Dark, and The Colour Out Of Space, among others, all make their presence felt, as well), designed to see “light from the far violet frequencies.” Jacen Burrows does an absolutely superb job of delineating the various grotesqueries adrift in these other, “higher” dimensions, and it must be said that they’re not always employed merely for the purposes of the horrific — for instance, the comings-and-goings of one of these bizarre creatures in rhythm with the obviously-building sexual attraction between Black and one Howard Charles (Moore’s analogue for Charles Dexter Ward) leads to one of this series’ most “laugh-out-loud funny” moments.

On the whole, though, Annesley’s character functions as something of a flesh-and-blood “pressure release valve” — at least for the time being — offering as he does a mostly-rational and thoroughly (enough, at any rate) scientific explanation for most of the “high weirdness” he and his fellow members of the Stella Sapiente order are engaged in, a viewpoint that’s tremendously reassuring to Black given that it allows him to  maintain his “blissfully ignorant” mindset without undercutting the premise for his still-supposedly-in-development novel completely.

Oh, sure, certain statements made by both Annesley and, later, Charles (who Black is “passed over” to once Annesley’s other-dimensional “friends” clue him in to what’s going on) are laden, knowingly or otherwise, with portents of impending doom of the sort that we’ve grown accustomed to in these always-remarkable pages, but by and large it has to be said that if two words could be used to describe our protagonist’s mindset in this chapter (titled, non-coincidentally as ever, “Outsiders”), they would be genuinely relaxed.

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It’s when Black finally visits Lovecraft himself, though, that things kick into another gear altogether in this issue. Moore, as is his custom, appears to have left no stone unturned in his ransacking of the author’s available biographical data, and the end result is quite likely the most fully-realized representation he’s ever been given in a fictionalized narrative. Lovecraft historians will no doubt be pleased as punch with every word he utters, every gesture he makes, and every one of his mannerisms and habits brought to life by The Beaded One’s script and Burrows’ meticulous renderings, and will also be left with plenty or material for debate and discussion thanks to Moore peppering both the pages of the comic book proper and the “Commonplace Book” backmatter with plenty of intriguing theories about their favorite writer’s life, particularly in relation to his — what did they call them again at the time? — “nervous ailments.”

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Speaking of which, the conversation Lovecraft has with his mother outside the doors of the hospital where she’s institutionalized strongly implies that she needs no special glasses to see the ultraviolet spectrum (among others), and is peppered with any number of “callbacks” to the first Moore/Burrows story in this entire cycle — yes, there was one before Neonomicon, and you would do very well to go look it up, since it appears that it will will have not-inconsiderable bearing on the remainder of this series. So grab yourself a copy of Avatar’s Alan Moore’s Yuggoth Cultures And Other Growths trade paperback collection; I have a feeling it’ll come in handy.

Lest we as readers find ourselves getting too comfortable along with the central character we’re following, though, Moore concludes his script for this issue with a line of dialogue from Lovecraft about his relationship with his mother that can be read in any number of ways, many of them quite disturbing indeed, and Burrows accentuates this unpleasantness with a final splash-page image that showcases a memorably ghoulish gallery of extra-dimensional entities swarming well beyond both the reach and, crucially, the awareness of our ostensible “heroes” as they make their way back to their respective lodgings. They’re keeping their distance — for now. But you just know the good times ain’t gonna last forever, and it’s that constant sense of inescapable doom — even during the series’  purportedly “quiet” moments — that elevates Providence into the lofty (and at this point entirely deserved) ranks of modern horror masterworks.

 

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Some years back, Dave Sim conducted (via correspondence, if memory serves me correctly) a lengthy and fascinating interview with Alan Moore that he ran over the space of several issues as a backup feature in Cerebus. Moore was, at the time, in the midst of writing From Hell, and one idea that he kept coming back to as he expounded upon his creative process was something that he called “high-altitude mapping,” which is sort of a convenient shorthand term for “when you stand back far enough from the situation, there is no distinct separation between dreams and reality.”

It’s a powerful notion, when you really stop to think about it — after all, isn’t the whole point of living to “chase our dreams”? And don’t the limits imposed on those dreams by daily life’s practicalities whittle down and otherwise confine the scope of them over time? When you’re a kid, maybe you dreamed of being a movie star. Or a rock star. Or a famous author. Or a superstar athlete. Or president of the United States. It’s all technically possible for a time, of course, until our actions, or circumstances, necessarily begin to do away with some or all of those possibilities. Then at some point,  after limiting the scope of your dreams for any number of years, you have kids,  and you tend to transfer your dreams down to them — some of which they may be “on board” with, others of which they may cast aside in favor of their own. And so the cycle continues, our dreams affecting the course of our “real” lives while our “real” lives modify and alter the character of our dreams.

Then there’s the whole matter of the dreams we have while we’re asleep — that raw, unfiltered communication from our subconscious mind that informs our conscious mind in ways we still don’t, and may never, fully understand. In a very real sense we’re talking to ourselves in our dreams, and while they very often appear to make no “sense,” who can deny the power of a dream so “real” that it lingers in our waking thoughts for days on end? Say what you will for outer space, but with apologies to any Star Trek fans that might be reading this, the world of dreams is, in my own opinion, “the final frontier” of human exploration — just as it was, in many ways, the first.

We’ve been fascinated, intrigued, perplexed, and in some cases flat-out terrified by our dreams, and what they say about ourselves, since we first crawled from the primordial ooze, and yet they remain as alluring to us, and as tantalizingly out of our reach, as ever — and that’s never likely to change. Unless it does. But we’ll get back to that in a moment — for now, let’s just acknowledge that as a species we’re positively obsessed by dreams, and H.P. Lovecraft was no exception, devoting many a story to the phenomenon of dreaming, and to exploring the notion that perhaps our “dream life” was our true one, with corporeal, “consensus” reality being , for all intents and purposes, our “secondary life.”

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Issue number eight of Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’ Providence, entitled “The Key,” opens with our protagonist, Robert Black, being regaled with numerous “dream stories” by his host, amateur author/would-be decadent Randall Carver (an obvious stand-in for Randolph Carter, the central figure in many of the stories that comprise Lovecraft’s “Dream Cycle,” with “The Statement Of Randolph Carter” being our de facto “anchor story” in this issue, but elements of said entire “Cycle” coming into play). The first one talked about/shown to readers is lifted directly from Charles Fort’s Book Of The Damned — and, really, given the thematic concerns of Providence and the time period in which it’s set it’s actually something of a surprise that this is our first exposure to so-called “Forteana” within its pages — but in fairly short order Black and Carver are discussing Lovecraft’s own Beyond The Wall Of Sleep and utilizing Carver/Carter’s “700 Steps” method for triggering “lucid dreaming” in order to journey through a semi-conscious landscape that incorporates numerous characters and story elements introduced in previous issues, stylistic homages to the great Winsor McKay, and hey — even some of the imagery featured in the “Dreamscape Wrap” covers that Burrows has lavished so much attention and detail upon. It’s a heady and intoxicating experience, to say the least, and its after-effects most certainly inform the rest of the issue.

One can’t dream forever, though, and if our characters want to make it to the reading being held later that night by Carver’s literary hero, Lord Dunsany, they do need to “snap out of it” and get back to “reality” — whatever that even means at this point. A casual stroll through the streets of Boston (that includes a perhaps-coincidental run-in with a now-obviously-quite-paranoid Dr. Hector North) soon gives way to an enraptured evening of listening to Dunsany talk that sees Black, and perhaps even the rest of the audience, re-enter the “lucid dreaming” state thanks, this time, to the power of the author/speaker’s words alone, and without the assistance of whatever it was that was burning in Carver’s incense pot earlier. Heck, not even one step is necessary this time around, much less 700 of them.

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Don’t discount the ability of the physical world to hold surprises of its own, though, for once the lecture is over, the “big moment” that we’ve all been waiting for in this series arrives : Black meets Lovecraft himself for the first time, and the shock wave that this creates in the — I dunno, ether? — draws the attention of many a key player from earlier chapters in this sprawling epic. Could this, in fact, be the meeting of “The Herald” and “The Redeemer” long prophesied by the Stella Sapiente order? Black, as usual, is oblivious to this possibility, but at least he’s got a valid excuse — as he departs into the evening, Lovecraft’s invitation to come visit him anytime at his home in Providence having just been proffered, key early passages from Beyond The Wall Of Sleep are ringing in his ears so insistently and profoundly that he actually hears the people around him saying them, and this storytelling conceit is made all the more concrete thanks to their dialogue being rendered in a type-written font not unlike what one would find in the pages of one of Lovecraft’s books.

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That bit of “fourth-wall busting” closes the main story out, but in the “Commonplace Book” backmatter that appends the issue, there is a curious fuck-up on page 29 that I don’t actually think is a fuck-up at all when viewed in the context of where this story has been heading all along — Black refers to Carver as “Carter” at one point on the page in question, and I humbly submit that this “blending,” if you will, of the “real” and the “dream” worlds is what Moore and Burrows have been building towards from the outset. It’s only a theory, mind you, but the insertion of Lovecraft into a narrative based on his works, the overall project of the Stella Sapiente being a “flipping” of the “real” and “dream” worlds, the assertion in the last issue that said “dream” world exists underground — it all fits in with the “high-altitude mapping” Moore discussed in his conversation with Sim, and leads me to believe that what we are witnessing in Providence is a slowly-unfolding occult ritual on the author’s part with an aim not so entirely different from that of, as Garland Wheatley called them, the “Stel Saps.” Moore may not be looking to actively overwrite our consensus reality with the “dreamscape,” but he’s actively blurring the distinctions between the two of them to the point where they either can’t be discerned anymore, or fade into absolute irrelevance. He and Burrows are playing not just with our perception of the world, but with the very nature of the world that we’re perceiving. If you want to be glib about it, you could say that they’re telling a fictional story — that’s becoming increasingly true.  And if you’re still not picking this book up, you’re missing out on perhaps the most thematically, artistically, and, yes, magickally ambitious comics series not just of this year, this decade, or even this young century, but — no shit — of your entire life.

 

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It occurs to me that as we begin the second “leg” of Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’ Providence with the just-released seventh issue that we as readers are on no firmer ground, metaphorically speaking, than hapless protagonist Robert Black is in a more literal sense — having fled Manchester without even knowing how much time he spent there much less what happened both to and around him, our hero/victim next turns up in Boston smack-dab in the middle of the notorious round of riots and looting instigated by the city’s police strike of 1919, an engineered debacle both triggered by the actions of, and then capitalized for political gain by, then-governor Calvin Coolidge, one of early-20th-century America’s more loathsome figures. For our hopelessly cracking (or maybe that should be already cracked)  former newspaperman, though, the violence and depravity he sees unfolding on the streets of Beantown is a pretty accurate reflection of his own mental state, and as we open this issue turmoil (both inner and outer) seems to be the order of the day.

Fortunately, he makes the acquaintance of beleaguered soon-to-be-former cop Eamon O’Brien, who manages to not only direct, but accompany, him to the residence of photographer/painter Ronald Underwood Pitman, the man Black has traveled to Boston to meet, and while both are certainly glad to be quickly ushered into Pitman’s home, this is a visit that will end very differently for each.

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I trust I’m not giving anything away at this point if I reveal that the H.P. Lovecraft “anchor story” for this issue is Pickman’s Model, with Pitman functioning as our “stand-in” for doomed artist Richard Upton Pickman himself, but what struck me is how this new installment is something of a “throwback” to the first couple of chapters, with Moore focusing his ever-sharp eye on just one Lovecraft tale rather than incorporating elements from several into a sort of “tapestry,” as was the case with numbers three, four, five, and six (especially five and six). This “extra-special attention” definitely pays off in terms of expanding the breadth and scope of the horror at the heart of Pickman’s Model, despite the fact that the premise is essentially unchanged (painter transcribes scenes of horror onto his canvas that are a little too real for most tastes, most featuring a recurring “hairy, toothy monster” theme), and in fact goes some way toward disproving the time-worn adage that “it’s what you don’t see that’s most scary,” since both Moore’s script and Burrows’  wonderfully-realized, detail-rich art go a long way toward establishing a much more graphic realization of the terror Lovecraft only hints at — until the very end, at any rate — in his original yarn.

Black, though — ever the creative interpreter of events — at first seems almost pathologically clueless to the fact that he’s actually going from the frying pan into the fire here, and constructs, for the sake of maintaining his own sanity if nothing else,   a political subtext for Pitman’s works that the perpetually-nervous-but-strangely-sympathetic (his speech is littered with “uhm”s) artist is all too happy to play along with despite the fact that it’s painfully obvious he’d never considered such an “alibi,” if you will, himself. If you’re thinking that Black’s skewed take has something to do with the creatures — who Pitman refers to as “saprovores” — representing the “1%”-types sucking on the blood and marrow of their working-class “victims,” you’re pretty close to the mark.

Still, the full extent of Black’s almost heroic capacity for self-deception isn’t made completely clear until after he meets “Pitman’s model,” a gigantic deep-cellar-dweller who goes by the name of “King George” and takes pride in being both a “good boy” and a “hard worker.” The nature of his “work” should be immediately apparent to anyone who either knows the term “saprovore” already or bothered to look it up when Pitman first mentioned it, but for those who just keep plugging ahead with their reading regardless, rest assured that Moore makes things perfectly clear pretty quickly, and yeah — it’s creepy as fuck, even though we don’t even blink at the thought of worms and maggots doing essentially the same job.

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What wasn’t entirely clear to me until my second reading of this issue was how Moore is having a bit of self-referential fun with his audience here (yes, Providence can, at times, actually be fun) — there’s been a running theme of class-related issues at play here almost from the outset of the series (as there is in much of Moore’s work, and in much British literature, film, and television in general), with the “fish people” of issue three being looked down upon by the “respectable citizens” of Salem, the inbred Wheatley clan of the fourth issue being an object of scorn for both their neighbors and former “colleagues” in the Stella Sapiente order, and the “elite, refined” Wade family being the receptacle/vessel of the most malignant entity we’ve met so far in issue six. His message, at least to me, seems quite clear — no matter how monstrous and evil some of the “lower-class” people we meet on this journey are, the rich are always worse, and represent the true “villains” of the story. Here that point is driven home by King George  — who has brothers, we learn, named George Washington and, even more curiously, Mary Pickford, and I confess that I spent a good long time figuring out just how the saprovores might come by their unique “handles” before discovering that, as usual, the fine folks over at http://factsprovidence.wordpress.com had beaten me to it —bemoaning the fact that he and his brothers “work hard” while the “yankees” who live above them “have many things and — do not work hard. And always we are underneath them.” And yet, in a knowing wink to readers, Moore presents Black’s political reading of Pitman’s work as being nothing but a desperate attempt at rationalization by an equally desperate man, even while he invites us to do the same with his own subject matter here. Irony, you can be so delicious.

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We’ll wind things down, then,  by dove-tailing back to a couple of near-throwaway comments I made previously, since I seem to be absorbing via some form of osmosis Moore and Burrows’ penchant for not letting any tiny piece of information, either of the scripted or illustrated variety, go to waste. I mentioned that the visit to Pitman’s home ended “quite differently” for Officer O’Brien than it did for Black, and while a fiendishly subtle clue as to the flatfoot’s eventual fate makes an appearance when Black dons an apparently-spare overcoat before his descent into the tunnels beneath the house (a scene which plays out via the same straight-ruled vertical panels than Burrows employed for our protagonist’s subterranean journey in issue #2), the dread becomes deeper when King George asks Pitman if Robert is the brother of the “other,” in his words, “red and black one,” and all becomes painfully clear in the last panel of the issue — in keeping with the story upon which it’s based,  of course,  but the added dimension of specificity that Providence #7 gives to events Lovecraft referenced in more oblique fashion really gives the final image here an extra dose of “holy shit!”-ness even though it’s hardly a surprise by this point.

As far as the second brief (I promise!) point I wanted to get back to goes, this time in regards to Black’s — how did I put it it, “heroic capacity for self-deception” or somesuch? —well, I’ll just say that the bizarre “spin” he puts on his meeting with King George, and on his entire 10-day stay with Pitman in general, just has to be read to be believed, and provides yet another sterling example of why, much as the “main” story reveals, you should absolutely never skip over the backmatter at the end of the issues in this series. Besides, if you do, you’ll miss the laugh-out-loud-in-spite-of-yourself thrill of seeing how the truth of what happened to Robert in issue six finally assert itself into his consciousness — even if, as ever, he completely fails to realize it.

Still, Black’s return to blissful unawareness is rather richly deserved at this point. The guy’s been through a hell of a lot, and while us lucky readers are learning more with each successive installment  (as far as major revelations go, this issue packs a doozy with the introduction of the notion that the world of dreams is an actual, physical plane of existence far beneath the Earth, with the saprovores inhabiting a middle ground between the two and the Stella Sapiente engaged in a project of “flipping” the “upstairs” and “downstairs” realities around ), I think he’s sort of earned a breather. We all know it’s both destined not to last and entirely a product of his own rationalization, but still — it felt good to see him smiling as this chapter drew to a close. Even if walking past a cemetery gives him some pause.

In closing, it appears as though we’ll be waiting until April for Providence #8, but I’m not complaining. I’ve read this issue four times already and look forward to reading it about a dozen (at least) more, and anything that can be done to prolong this title’s stay on comic shop shelves is welcome, as far as I’m concerned. 60 days between installments is hardly a death-knell for sales of purportedly-monthly “floppies” with today’s “delay-trained” readership, and in fact there seems to be a positive “buzz” building around this book the longer it goes on. Besides, if Sex Criminals fans can wait twice that long, on average, for each new issue, then how much do we really have to bitch about here? You can’t rush perfection, as they say — and right now Providence is as close to a perfect comic as any that I’ve read in the past decade, at minimum. Take your time, Alan and Jacen — we know you’re working hard.

Okay, so normally I pretty much avoid “top 10” lists because I’m sure they’ll make me cringe later — and when it comes to movies there’s probably a few (at least) deserving entries that would flat-out slip my increasingly calcified and deteriorating mind — but ya know, as far as comics go, this year I think I can do it. One caveat, though : since we’re big believers in monthly (or less-than-monthly, as the case may be) “singles” around these parts, the following list is specifically for comic book series, be they of the ongoing or limited-duration variety,  and therefore you will find no graphic novels, digital comics, or anything of the like here, although I should stress that there were any number of absolutely excellent comics that came out last year in those formats — I just wanted my list to reflect my preference for “floppy” books that are serialized in the good, old-fashioned, printed single-issue format. So without any further ado —

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10. Southern Bastards (Jason Aaron/Jason Latour – Image)

The pacing of this series is certainly unique, with the Jasons (Aaron and Latour) going from extended stage-setting in the first arc to a multi-part “origin” of the series’ chief villain in the second to side-steps focusing on supporting characters in the third, but they definitely seem to be building up to something big and memorable in an unconventional, but certainly appealing, way.

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9. The Twilight Children (Gilbert Hernandez/Darwyn Cooke – DC/Vertigo)

Classic Hernandez “location-centric” storytelling peppered with broadly-drawn, memorable characters orbiting around a truly fascinating mystery/supernatural thriller. Cooke’s illustration is, of course, superb.

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8. Tet (Paul Tucker/Paul Allor – IDW/Comics Experience)

The second series produced under the auspices of Comics Experience’s publishing partnership with IDW, Paul Tucker and Paul Allor’s four-parter is the most harrowing and effective meditation on the human cost of war to appear on the comics page in literally a couple of decades. Now available in trade, go out and grab it immediately.

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7. Deadly Class (Rick Rememder/Wes Craig – Image)

Things seem to be heading into Battle Royale territory here, with the exploits of Marcus and his increasingly-fractured circle of former “friends” taking a number of gut-wrenching twists and turns over the course of 2015. Wes Craig’s art gets stronger and more confident with each issue.

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6. Annihilator (Grant Morrison/Frazer Irving – Legendary)

Morrison’s Philip K. Dick-esque mind-fuck script is brought to grand, cosmic life by Irving’s absolutely spectacular art to create a story of personal tragedy played out on a universe-shaking scale. Now out in trade and definitely worth a purchase.

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5. Big Man Plans (Eric Powell/Tim Wiesch – Image)

The most gleefully anti-social and misanthropic book of 2015, this Powell/Wiesch four-part series embraces the most extreme aspects of the grindhouse without remorse or even apology. A visceral wallop to the face that leaves you reeling — and loving every minute of it. The trade’s available now, so do yourself a favor.

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4. Effigy (Tim Seeley/Marley Zarcone – DC/Vertigo)

Seven amazing issues of “reality”TV/celebrity “culture” deconstruction wrapped around a trans-dimensional mystery story that’s been on a “hiatus” since September that I’m increasingly worried may be permanent. I’m keeping my fingers crossed, because Seeley and Zarcone have barely begun to scratch the surface here.

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3. Crossed + One Hundred (Alan Moore/Simon Spurrier/Gabriel Andrade/Fernando Heinz/Rafa Ortiz – Avatar Press)

Moore and Andrade’s initial six-issue story arc was absolutely epic and arguably the best “zombie comic” of all time, and while it took a little while for Simon Spurrier to find his footing as The Bearded One’s successor, he seems to have finally discovered his own voice while remaining true to his predecessor’s “blueprint” of strong “world building” littered with knowing winks in the direction of various genre fiction classics.

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2. Hip Hop Family Tree (Ed Piskor – Fantagraphics Books)

Piskor has “re-purposed” his oversized hardcover cultural history as a monthly series on cheap paper with intentionally-shoddy production values and the end result is a revelation. Yeah, the gigantic volumes are great, but dammit, this is how the series should have been presented all along. A wealth of new material, including “director’s commentary” pages, definitely helps, as well. Worth the “double dip,” without question.

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1.  Providence (Alan Moore/Jacen Burrows – Avatar Press)

No surprise at all for regular readers of my shit, the latest and greatest entry in the Moore/Burrows “Lovecraft Cycle,” now at its halfway point, is shaping up to be the most literate, multi-layered, immersive comics reading experience of the decade, as well as one of the best pure horror comics, well, ever. I’ve written somewhere in the neighborhood of 6,000 words on the series already, and it’s nowhere near enough, so expect plenty more single-issue reviews for the now-apparently-bimonthly series as 2016 rolls along. If I only had five bucks to my name and the latest issue was coming out, I’d buy Providence and go hungry — it’s just. That. Fucking. Good.

A few final points — while Image certainly dominated the list this year, their two most popular and acclaimed titles, Saga and Sex Criminals, are nowhere to be found here. I felt that both had “off years” and that their currently-running story arcs are definitely not up to previous standards. Saga will most likely rebound, but Sex Criminals is just getting swallowed further and further down into its own self-created rabbit hole and may very well have, pun absolutely intended, shot its wad by this point.

And while we’re on the subject of list domination, I’d be surprised if Image pulls a “repeat” in 2016, to be honest. Not because their line is getting worse, mind you, but because Vertigo is just getting that much better. They came on strong at the tail end of 2015 with their re-launch, but a one-or two-issue sample size just isn’t enough to earn most of these superb new series, like Slash & BurnRed ThornThe Sheriff Of BabylonUnfollowLast Gang In Town, or the latest iteration of Lucifer spots in this year’s top 10. Next year, however, is another matter entirely, and unless these books go to pot, I fully expect Veritgo to be the publisher to beat in 2016.

So — that’s our (alright, my) 2015 list. I’m a little bummed that female creators aren’t better-represented herein, to be sure (Marley Zarcone’s the only one), but hopefully the increased presence of women in the freelancer ranks will continue apace and my list next year — assuming I do one — will be far more gender-balanced. Kelly Sue DeConnick is certainly blazing a heck of a trail with Bitch Planet, and Gail Simone is in top creative form so far on Clean Room, but both of those books fell just outside my rankings this time around. Still, I’m as unpleasantly surprised as anyone that the comics industry is still as depressingly male-dominated as it is.

As far as more pleasant  surprises go, I never thought I’d be putting together a Top 10 list in 2015 that featured Alan Moore twice. If I was doing this in 30 years ago, sure, but apparently Moore is every bit the creative dynamo at age 63 as he was at 33, and so if I had to single out one “creator of the year,” he’d be it. In fact, he’d earn the nod by a country mile. I only wish that more people were actually, ya know, buying his stuff. Providence is selling great for an Avatar book, but it’s still routinely bested on the Diamond charts by even the most tepid and uninspired “Big Two” fare, so if there’s one thing we know about comics heading into 2016, it’s that the overwhelming majority of stuff coming out will still, sorry to say it, suck.

Okay, that’s it for this time around — here’s to happy reading in the year ahead!

 

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Fair warning : there are a few key “spoilers” ahead — not just for Crossed + One Hundred, but for Southern Bastards and The Wicked + The Divine, as well — so if you’re not completely caught up on any of these books, skip the seventh paragraph following this one, pick up again at the tenth, and you’ll be in good shape. Got that? Okay, my conscience is clear.

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A little while back, I reviewed the first issue of Alan Moore and Gabriel Andrade’s Crossed + One Hundred from Avatar Press, and I’m not sure how many of you took my advice and jumped on-board with it, but I’m guessing it must not have been a very big number because my inbox hasn’t been flooded with emails from random strangers thanking me for turning them onto this series (although I did receive one, which I appreciate) and, frankly, there’s just no way I’d be confronted with that sort of “radio silence” if folks had heeded my words.

I  say that with full confidence because, now that the book’s initial six-issue run in over (which is all that it had originally been slated to go for, but apparently sales have been good enough that Avatar has picked it up as a monthly ongoing, with Si Spurrier taking over the writing duties from Moore as of issue #7), it’s safe to label this first “story arc” of Crossed + One Hundred as far and away the best goddamn post-apocalyptic “zombie comic” ever.

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Trust me when I say that I don’t throw a compliment that all-encompassing down lightly — I only do it because Moore and Andrade have unquestionably earned it. Seriously — those who are still picking up The Walking Dead on a monthly basis (or even my beloved Empire Of The Dead) and are also reading this know that there’s just no comparison. To put things as plainly as possible, every other four-color exploration of the “undead plague” is hollow, one-dimensional stuff when judged by the standards set by Crossed + One Hundred. Robert Kirkman has been fleshing out his post-zombie-apocalypse world for, what? A decade now? And he still hasn’t put as much thought into the hows and whys of humanity’s survival as Moore obviously has here. To use a cliche, this is “next level” stuff — from the mutated language, to the makeshift technology, to the new attitudes toward sex, to the fundamental changes to basic morality itself — and the damned thing is, when you sit down and think about it for a minute, it all makes perfect sense.

Consider : if you woke up tomorrow and found yourself transported to a world that was a century removed from a civilization-destroying “extinction event,” one with no more television and radio broadcasting much less an internet, what do you think the most valuable commodity would be? Knowledge. Specifically. knowledge of the past. And where would you find such knowledge? Books. The printed page would be your only lifeline to what came before, and would be essential not only for learning  how we came to find ourselves where we are, but for understanding what culture itself really was, and what it meant — valuable information indeed in a world where only a vague approximation of it still exists, and has been developed entirely on the basis of necessity rather than choice.

Let’s take it a step further. With no more movies and TV, what would humans do for fun? Well, there’s always fucking, and in a makeshift “society” where the shit’s already hit the fan and day-to-day survival is far from a guaranteed prospect, would archaic notions of purely “homo” and “hetero” sexuality still exist (assuming they were ever relevant for anything beyond social control in the first place)? Would people still refrain from talking about sex in “polite” company? Hell — would there even be such a thing as “polite” company, given that the forefathers and foremothers of the small number of people still around would have to have been a pretty hard-assed bunch?

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Moore has fully developed all of these various hypotheticals in his mind, and that’s a key difference between Crossed + One Hundred and every other zombie comic (or, for that matter, zombie movie or zombie TV show) out there. But notice I said “a” key difference, and not “the” key difference —that’s because, there’s one other, and it’s the most brazen, “balls-y” thing you’ve come across in some time. Sit tight, and I’ll explain.

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The “bait and switch” is a common tactic in today’s comic book landscape — in Jason Aaron and Jason Latour’s Southern Bastards, the guy we thought was our protagonist gets killed at the end of issue #4, and the book’s next “arc” gave us a four-part story about the series’ chief villain, while over in the pages of Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s The Wicked + The Divine, our lead character makes it all the way to issue # 12 before being killed off (in spectacular fashion, and right after her greatest wish came true) and the narrative shifting gears to — well, I don’t rightly know where that book is headed now (although I remain curious to find out). In issue #5 of Crossed + One Hundred, though, Moore does his peers (okay, fair enough, perhaps Alan Moore doesn’t really have any “peers”) one better by pulling the whole conceptual framework of what we’ve been reading out from under us and letting us know, in no uncertain terms, that this book was never about humanity’s survival at all — not matter how much rich detail he poured into it — but about the survival of the so-called “Crossed,” and about how all of our efforts were as naught compared to theirs.

How fundamental a shift is this? Not to put things too lightly, but also not wanting to give too much else away in terms of “spoilers,” I’ll say only this much — it turns out that it was their world all along, we were just ignorant and/or arrogant enough to believe that it was ours. Moore then doubles down on the impact of this revelation by allowing his protagonist, archivist Future Taylor, to survive (along with some, but not all, of her supporting “crew”), but what does that even mean when confronted with the reality that, in Ms. Taylor’s own words, “I didn’t know we were all just wishful fiction”?

And that, friends, is how you pull off a “bait and switch” with intelligence and meaning and raise it above the level of mere storytelling contrivance. The climactic sixth issue plays out more or less exactly the way we believe it will know that we know the “Crossed” are intelligent, and that they’ve spent a century absorbing the “teachings” of an honest-to-God serial killer and planning their revenge on humanity, which is to say — it’s an absolute fucking nightmare. But it’s a nightmare that matters and has impact beyond just the visceral (although Gabriel Andrade does visceral like nobody’s business — but more on him in a second) because Moore has fleshed out his post-doomsday world so well.

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Of course, any script this detailed needs art equal to the task, and damn, Andrade sure has proven to be the right guy for the job here. Every wildly varying scenario he’s tasked with detailing — from a Muslim colony in Appalachia (of all places) to a “Crossed” encampment made from  skulls and bones is rendered in exquisitely-realized detail, and his characters all look like distinctly unique people who have weathered a hell of a lot in their time on this planet. He’ll be continuing with the series when Spurrier takes over, and that’s very good news indeed not only for the sake of visual contnuity, but because  he’s firmly established himself as an artist worth following.

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And speaking of following — when it comes to Crossed + One Hundred, I’ll be doing just that. Spurrier’s got some big shoes to fill, and only time will tell whether or not Avatar’s decision to continue this comic proves to be a wise one, but, if you’ll permit me to adopt the language of our post-plague survivors for a moment, I’m going to keep on opsying this wishful fiction because these first six issues were fuck movie.

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Fellow comics readers — do you remember that feeling of being in on the ground floor of something not just great, but truly monumental? Folks who were around for Fantastic Four #1 and the dawn of the so-called “Marvel Age Of Comics” talk about it a lot. As do those who picked up Jack Kirby’s New Gods #1 on the newsstands (even though, technically speaking, the Fourth World mythos had already been introduced to the world in the pages of Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen). Members of my generation felt it when we grabbed book one of Frank Miller’s  The Dark Knight Returns  and, just a handful of months later, Watchmen #1 , hot off the comic store shelves in the annus mirabilis of 1986.

It’s been a long time, hasn’t it? But I promise you this much :  here,  in 2015, it’s happening again — finally. I just hope somebody’s paying attention.

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For some time now, Alan Moore has been piecing together a cycle of stories based around themes and concepts from the works of H.P. Lovecraft that’s been flying well beneath the radar for a number of reasons — chief among them being, most likely, that they’re being put out by small independent publisher Avatar Press. First came The Courtyard, a one-shot based on Moore’s short prose story of the same name that was adapted into comics form by writer Antony Johnston and artist Jacen Burrows. This was followed up a few years later with The Neonomicon, a four-part mini-series directly from the pen of Moore himself with Burrows returning to handle the artistic reigns. By this point a small “buzz” was starting to form around the work, but Moore lost a lot of readers along the way due to the brutal, uncompromising, and frankly ugly nature of the story — which included, among other things, a protracted and decidedly disturbing rape sequence that’s as hard to stomach on its tenth reading as it is on its first.

Which is kind of the point, I would suppose, in the same way that the lengthy and uncomfortable violation of the heroine in I Spit On Your Grave absolutely should be difficult to sit through because without it, the third act of the film —  centering on her revenge —  would lose most of its power. You’re more likely to stick  through a film that you’ve already bought a ticket for, though, than you are to keep picking up a serialized comic book story that demands a fresh four bucks from you every month, and so it came to pass that a good many people opted out of The Neonomicon before Moore and Burrows had finished telling their tale. For my part, I did ride it out, but I’d only give it a very qualified recommendation — if you appreciate being challenged and you have a strong stomach, then you won’t exactly “enjoy” the series, but you certainly will appreciate its narrative power. For what it’s worth, even Moore himself has admitted that he probably went too far with it and that he wasn’t exactly in the most positive space mentally and emotionally when he wrote it.

But hey, it’s a new day, and what better way for Moore to wrap up his loose “Lovecraft cycle” than with a new 12-part series, Providence, that promises to be his most ambitious work in the comics medium in far too long? Avatar’s own extended promotional blurb for the series calls it “the Watchmen of horror,” and while I would contend that a good number of Moore’s post-Watchmen projects actually surpass, in terms of their scope, themes, and even ambition,  the book for which both he and Dave Gibbons will probably always be known best (Promethea, anyone? The League Of Extraordinary GentlemenFrom Hell? The almost criminally-underappreciated Supreme?) , the fact is that none of those admittedly remarkable projects arrived with the immediate, transformational “thud” that Watchmen  itself did. None stated their intentions as immediately or staked out their turf with the same level of bravado. I’d certainly argue that some — maybe even all — were better than Watchmen by the time they were finished, but none of them were as hell-bent on pushing the comics form itself into a new future, given that they were all a by-product of (or, in the case of Supreme, a direct answer to) the new, more “grown-up” landscape that Watchmen had left in its wake.

Thirty years later, I’d say we’re more than ready for the next leap forward, wouldn’t you? Providence seems to be all about propelling comics in general — and horror comics in particular — into a more considered, literary direction, and while Moore has certainly been doing his level best on that front for some time, the self-contained nature of this narrative (more on that in a moment), as well as its promise to be on time month in and month out (given that it’s already scripted and drawn in its entirety) should lend itself well to the task. There’s a palpable sense of magnitude apparent from panel one, page one here that you just can’t fake. Providence is all about setting the bar for other works, and other creators, to measure up to.

Which might seem funny, I suppose, given that most of the first issue is taken up with people just sitting around and talking. Our protagonist, newspaperman Robert Black, hangs around in the office of his publisher one summer day in 1919 trying to come up with ideas for a space-filler story. Having hit (with some assistance from his colleagues) on an idea, he then proceeds to interview the subject for the piece, one Dr. Alvarez, at his apartment. Then he goes back to work.

It all sounds terribly exciting, doesn’t it? Of course not — but Providence is all about what’s going on beneath the surface. Dr. Alvaraez even mentions this explicitly, talking about how all of us have so many secrets that there is an entire “secret nation” that exists just beneath the surface of the one we see, and that we actually live in both. It’s a staggeringly powerful idea, and undeniably true — it’s also one hell of an effective story “hook.”

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Time for some props to the artist. Jacen Burrows has spent the past two years illustrating this comic, and it shows in every furrowed brow, wrinkle in a character’s suit, and line in their hand. This is amazingly, almost agonizingly, detailed artwork, and looking at reference photos of 1919 New York City in comparison to his panels, you see that he hasn’t missed a beat. To his credit, though, there’s none of the lifelessness here that accompanies other such heavily-referenced work done by less skilled hands. Yes, his art here is accurate and clinical, but it also has a tremendous amount of personality to it and is in no way lifeless or cold.

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What is cold, though — damn cold, in fact! — is Dr. Alvarez’s apartment (as seen above). The good doctor suffers from some sort of unspecified medical ailment that requires him to remain in very frigid temperatures at all times — temperatures achieved by an ammonia-based cooling system for his home that’s probably not unlike heavy-grade industrial refrigeration. Welcome to one of many historical “wrinkles” that clues us in to the fact that this is not 1919 America as we know it. The “suicide parlor,” where people who wish to exit this world in a safe, clean, relaxed manner (a terrific idea, by the way) is another hint.

And that brings us back to the “self-contained” nature of the story here. Avatar is quick to point out that while Providence functions as “both sequel and prequel” to The Courtyard and The Neonomicon  (therefore pulling “double-duty” already), it’s also completely hermetically sealed and operates by rules, logic, and premises that are entirely its own. If you’ve read those other two comics, you’ll invariably get more out of this one, but it’s not necessary in the least to have done so.

Likewise, if you’ve read a fair amount of Lovecraft, you’re sure to have a richer, more meaningful reading experience here, but it’s in no way a prerequisite to have read any to fully understand what’s happening in these pages. Ditto for the work of Robert W. Chambers, whose seminal story collection The King In Yellow — massively referenced in this first issue — was a tremendous influence on Lovecraft and provided the starting point for the entire “Yellow Mythos” that a number of writers have added to over the years. It was Chambers, in fact, who first posited the “suicide parlor” or “exit garden” idea, and so it’s clear that the world of Providence is one in which the author’s ideas are not only more well-known than they are in our “real” world, but have even —at least in some instances — come to pass.

It’s entirely likely that the comparison to Watchmen the publisher makes is based on this detailed,  multi-textual approach that Moore is taking with  his story in Providence. Every time you re-read that classic work of super-hero deconstruction, you’re virtually guaranteed to notice several things you didn’t previously. It reveals more the deeper you go into it, and the same is undoubtedly true of the first issue here. It keeps plenty of secrets, to be sure — the identity of Black’s former lover being the biggest — but upon subsequent re-explorations, you come to see that they’re all deliciously hidden in plain view. A fully-annotated version of this book would be welcome at some point — but not just yet. As with any comic where Moore is firing on all cylinders — as certainly seems to be the case here — piecing together things for yourself is a big part of the fun, and at times can even be flat-out revelatory.

It seems to me that’s where Moore still leaves both his contemporaries, as well as those who have followed in his stead, waaaaayyyy back in the dust. Rather than just telling a story, he fully engages the reader as a near-equal partner in the process along with himself and the artist. If you’re willing to put in the work, you’re going to arrive at so many possible readings of the text that whatever you up believing the “truth” of  it to be will be a matter of completely individual interpretation. While most comics, films, novels, etc. are able to content themselves merely with telling a good — or even passable — story, Moore has always aimed for something greater; to use his stories as a map for helping you find your own. I can’t wait to see where Providence takes me — and, perhaps even more importantly, where  take it.