Posts Tagged ‘Providence’

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Before we get rolling on our look back at 2016 in the world of comics, let’s take a brief moment to acknowledge the passing of two masters, shall we? Darwyn Cooke and Steve Dillon were  very different artists with very different visions and very different styles, no doubt about that, but both were among the very best at what they did, both entered this undeserving world in 1962, and both exited it, leaving it a decidedly poorer place for their passing, in 2016. Both gentleman turned the medium upside – down with their brilliance and created bodies of work that are more than guaranteed to stand the test of time, so I feel it’s only appropriate, prior to diving into our annual retrospective (which, you’ve officially been warned, will take a minute, so buckle in) to say “thank you” and “we miss you” one more time to this pair of undeniable greats. And now, onto the business at hand —

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Wow, it’s been quite a ride, hasn’t it? In a year when both of the “Big Two” decided to hit the “reset” button again, it’s probably fair to say that DC Universe : Rebirth #1 — and the entire Rebirth initiative in general — will go down as the major “event” of 2016, given that it essentially catapulted the publisher from a distant-second-place competitor to Marvel to “Top Dog” in the industry in the space of one month. That doesn’t mean that the comic itself was any good, of course — my feelings on it are well-known and I believe that Geoff Johns and his artistic collaborators Gary FrankEthan Van SciverIvan Reis and Phil Jimenez essentially churned out a stinkbomb here that will ultimately do both the DCU “proper” as well as the so-called “Watchmen Universe” no favors by setting them on a collision course with each other — but at this point, what’s done is done, and in the short run that means we’ve got a two-horse race for the top spot in the Diamond sales charts every month as DC’s decidedly mediocre twice-monthly efforts compete with yet fucking another round of “Marvel Now!” relaunched books that by and large are, in their own way, every bit as uninspired and predictable as their rivals’ four-color “floppies.” Honestly, this has been the most convoluted path back to the status quo that I’ve ever seen, and just goes to show that a bunch of hype is all that’s needed to sell readers on the same old crap. Of the two reboots, Marvel’s is the most promising, given that they’ve made an effort to carve out some space for genuinely interesting and off-beat titles, but you know most of ’em aren’t going to last, as the so-called “House Of Ideas” is putting far more promotional muscle behind crap like this —

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than they are behind intriguing and potentially subversive fare like this :

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So, yeah, on the whole, count me as being more or less completely uninspired by both major initiatives by both major publishers. Marvel’s in the awkward position (although it’s one they’re well used to after last year’s Secret Wars) of rolling out a raft of new books hot on the tail of a major crossover that hasn’t even ended yet, given that Civil War II was beset by the usual delays we’ve come to expect from these things, but I do give ’em credit for having about a half-dozen or so pretty good books stemming from “Marvel Now!” 2016 — and that’s roughly four more than post-Rebirth DC is giving us. For all that, though, once you move outside the Rebirth realm, DC is actually putting out a fair number of quite good books, which brings us to our main order of business here —

Ryan C.’s Top 10 Comics Series Of 2016

Same rules as always apply : these can be either “limited” or “ongoing” series — as long as they came out within the past 12 months in single-issue format (our preferred consumption method around these parts), we don’t discriminate. But it’s not a “real” Top 10 list without at least a couple of “honorable mentions,” though, is it? So let’s look at those first —

Honorable Mention #1 : American Monster (Aftershock)

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Brian Azzarello — whose name will be coming up again later for decidedly less complimentary reasons — is proving he’s “still got it” and then some with this decidedly sleazy, amoral small-town crime series that features a cast of pedophiles, gun-runners, neo-Nazis, corrupt preachers, and other fine, upstanding citizens. And Juan Doe‘s animation-cel inspired art is absolutely killer. Unfortunately, this book has seen so many publication delays that we only got three issues all year. If it was coming out on anything like an even remotely consistent basis, this would not only be “Top 10” material all the way, it might be “Top 2 Or 3.” I love this comic. Now feed me more of it.

Honorable Mention #2 : Power Man And Iron Fist (Marvel)

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David F. Walker is The Man. You could ask for no more perfect writer to chronicle the exploits of Luke Cage and Danny Rand. And Sanford Greene and frequent fill-in Flaviano Armentaro are doing a nice job on the art. Unfortunately, this title got sidetracked for no less than four months into the creative black hole that is Civil War II, and while these issues weren’t bad for tie-in nonsense, they were still — well, tie-in nonsense. Now that we’ve got the real story rolling again, all is right with the world, and you can blame this one narrowly missing out on the Top 10 squarely and solely on Marvel editorial, who steered the ship into “event” territory before it even had a chance to properly get its feet off the ground. It was a real momentum-killing decision, and I sincerely hope it won’t prove to be a fatal one, as well — but it may turn out to be just that given that sales on this series have been tanking in recent months. So much for the notion that cross-over “events” boost interest in a book.

Honorable Mention #3 : Love And Rockets (Fantagraphics)

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I’m not too proud to admit it — seeing the first issue of this new series from Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez on the shelves of my LCS, and back in its original magazine format at that, was enough to make me tear up just a little bit for a second. It was hardly an issue for the ages or anything, but everything about this just feels right. I love it when life comes full-circle, I love Los Bros., I love their characters, and I love this world. It’s a shoe-in for the Top 10 next year, but one issue is simply too small a sample size for me too include it in good conscience this time out. Not that I wasn’t tempted.

Honorable Mention #4 : The Fix (Image)

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Nobody does fuck-up criminal low-lifes like Nick Spencer and Steve Lieber, and in the pages of this book they up the ante by making their fuck-up criminal low-lifes cops, to boot. This comic is all kinds of perverse and depraved fun, and I’d dearly love to have found a spot for it in the Top 10, but there simply wasn’t room for more than — well, shit, ten titles. Nevertheless, it’s a series you absolutely should be pulling.

And now onto the main event —

10. Doom Patrol (DC’s Young Animal)

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The flagship title of Gerard Way‘s new “art comics” imprint, this book is proving a mere three issues in that it’s gonna push these characters in directions even Grant Morrison never dreamed of. Way and artist Nick Derington are doing the genuinely unthinkable here — producing a well and truly experimental comic with the full blessing of one of the “Big Two” publishers. All may not be lost, after all.

9. Deadly Class (Image)

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Rick Remender and Wes Craig gave us the “Holy Shit!” moment of the year in comics when they actually fucking killed their protagonist (doubly shocking when you consider he was an obvious stand-in for a youthful Remender himself) twenty-some issues in, but the new crop of students at King’s Dominion Atelier For The Deadly Arts is decidedly less interesting than was the last, hence the drop for this series from its loftier perch last year.

8. Southern Bastards (Image)

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Jasons Aaron and Latour just don’t let up. This deep-friend southern noir is loaded with so much gallows humor, spot-on characterization, and low-rent evil that not even a spotty publication schedule and a lackluster fill-in issue could keep it outta the Top 10. A legend in the making, even if it ends up taking a decade for it all to get made.

7. Jacked (Vertigo)

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As near as I can determine, nobody other than myself actually read Eric Kripke and John Higgins’ superb six-part tale of pharmaceutically-charged super-hero revisionism, and that’s a damn shame as it’s one of the single finest and most honest portrayals of mid-life crisis that this beleaguered medium has ever produced, and the art is simply sensational. Do yourself a favor and grab it in trade — you won’t be disappointed, and you won’t hate yourself for that beer gut and receding hairline anymore, either.

6. The Vision (Marvel)

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Enough ink — both physical and digital — has been spilled in praise of Tom King and Gabriel Hernandez Walta‘s admittedly Philip K. Dick-inspired techno-Shakespearean tragedy that adding to it just feels like piling on against the rest of the industry at this point. Suffice to say all the superlatives you’ve heard are true and then some and yeah, this one has “destined to be talked about for years to come” written all over it.

5. Hip Hop Family Tree (Fantagraphics)

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Ed Piskor put the wraps on the 12-part single-issue reprintings of his cultural history milestone earlier this year, and while I’ll certainly continue to collect and enjoy his oversized hardcover volumes, there was just something about having these previously-told stories presented on cheap, pre-yellowed newsprint that was beyond awesome. And the last issue even came packaged with an old-school floppy record — that was actually a code for a free digital download, but whatever. This book was more satisfying than a 40 of Olde English on a hot summer day.

4. Glitterbomb (Image)

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Jim Zub and deliriously-talented newcomer Djibril Morissette-Pham came out of nowhere with this series about Lovecraftian horror intersecting with the seedier side of post-fame Tinseltown (with bloody results) and just blew me the fuck away. The surprise hit of the year for this armchair critic and a book I can’t stop thinking or talking about. The first trade should be out soon enough and collects the self-contained story presented in issues 1-4,  and they’re coming back in late 2017 with a new arc that — man, I just don’t even know where they go from here. But I’m dying to find out.

3. The Flintstones (DC)

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Believe it. Mark Russell and Steve Pugh are putting out the most socially- and politically-relevant comic on the stands, and the satire in this book is by turns hilarious and heartwarming. A truly “mature” take on characters we thought we already knew everything there was to know about, and consistently one of the smartest books you’ll have the pleasure of reading. I don’t know that I have words to adequately describe how unexpectedly awesome this series is — when I said that DC was actually putting out some damn good stuff outside its main Rebirth line, this is exactly what I was talking about. If you’d have told me a year ago that one of the books I was going to be most eagerly looking forward to month-in and month-out was going to be The Flintstones, I would have thought you’d lost it. In fact, I probably would have said that Donald effing Trump had a better chance of being elected president. And yet, here we are — ain’t life crazy? And shitty? But at least we have this comic, and as antidotes to a new age of right-wing anti-intellectual barbarism go, you won’t find much better.

2. The Sheriff Of Babylon (Vertigo)

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The Vision may have gotten all the attention, but Tom King‘s best series of 2016 — by a wide margin, in my view — was this Iraq-set murder mystery drawn heavily from his own experiences as a CIA case officer during that bloody boondoggle of a war. Every aspect of this comic is almost painfully authentic, and Mitch Gerads rounds the package out with artwork so gritty you can feel the sand underneath your fingertips. This. Shit. Was. Amazing. Or maybe that should be “is” amazing, since — well, more on that in a minute.

1. Providence (Avatar)

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I’m out of superlatives, honestly. I review each issue of this series as it comes out, and my mind is blown more completely every time. I said last year that Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows were potentially creating the comic of the young century with this volume of their “Lovecraft Cycle,” and with one installment left to go in this 12-parter, I think it’s safe to say we can take the “potentially” qualifier out of that statement :  Providence is, in fact, the best comic of the century so far.

Wait, though! We’re far from done —

On the graphic novel front, it’s gotta be said that 2016 was a banner year, as well, in many respects — but I’m always a bit perplexed on how best to assemble a “best-of” list when it comes to the GN format because it only seems fair to subdivide it down into wholly original works, trade collections, old-school vintage reprints, etc. Throw in the fact that may “original” graphic novels got their start as serialized installments on the web, and things get even dicier. What really constitutes “new” work anymore? Still, there is definitely plenty outside the realm of the single-issue “floppy” that deserves a mention, and so —

Original Graphic Novel Of The Year : Patience By Daniel Clowes (Fantagraphics)

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Five years in the making, and it shows in every panel on every page. Clowes outdoes himself with each new project, it seems, and this is jewel in his creative crown — until the next one, at any rate. Love, obsession, longing, time travel, regret, loneliness, desolation — even optimism? This work encompasses all of it and then some; a monumental achievement of staggering proportions.

Best Collected Edition Of Recent Work : American Blood By Benjamin Marra (Fantagraphics)

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Anyone who’s read Terror Assaulter : O.M.W.O.T. knows that Ben Marra exists on a planet of his own, and this collection of the self-published works issued under his awesomely-named Traditional Comics imprint runs the stylistic gamut from insanely exaggerated pseudo-“realism” to Gary Panter-esque primitive id-channeling. WaPo columnist Maureen Dowd as a sexy super-spy? Bloodthirsty barbarians from distant worlds? Gang-bangers who do nothing but fuck and kill? Freed slaves who can tear white men apart with their bare hands? It’s all here, in suitably gaudy purple-and-white.

Best Collected Edition Of Vintage WorkMarvel Masterworks : The Black Panther, Volume 2 By Jack Kirby (Marvel)

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In recent years, the awesome body of work produced by The King Of Comics during his second, late-’70s stint at Marvel has finally been given its due as the visionary output it so clearly was, but while books like Machine ManThe EternalsDevil Dinosaur and “Madbomb!”-era Captain America have now taken their rightful place among the rich pantheon of Kirby masterworks, Jack’s Black Panther run from that same period still doesn’t get anything like the love it deserves. Hopefully this handsome hardbound collection will finally start to clue readers in to what a magical and imaginative Wakanda Kirby created in this high-flying techno-fantasy epic.

It wasn’t all good news, though, and since we’re on the subject of T’Challa, we might as well segue into some of 2016’s lowlights —

Most Disappointing Series Of The Year #1 : Black Panther (Marvel)

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There’s no doubt that Ta-Nehisi Coates is a literary and journalistic genius, and his voice in this ugly new Trump-ian era is more necessary and urgent than ever. Unfortunately, he can’t write a comic to save his life, and his dour, humorless, self-absorbed, navel-gazing take on The Panther reads like a relic of the worst sort of over-wrought 1990s excesses. This is a genuinely lousy title, and it doesn’t help that neither of its usually-reliable artists, Brian Stelfreeze and Chris Sprouse, are delivering anything like their best work.

Most Disappointing Series Of The Year #2 : Batman (DC)

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Tom King giveth, and Tom King taketh away. We’ve already covered the great stuff he’s given readers in 2016, but he’s also taken one of the most consistently-good super-hero books and turned it into a massive fucking train wreck. Lots of people were jazzed when he was announced as Scott Snyder‘s replacement on the “main” Bat-book, but King has struggled to find a “voice” for Bruce Wayne either in or out of the cape and cowl, his two major storylines to date have featured ridiculous plots, and 13 issues in all we can really say is that he writes a pretty good Alfred. The illustration by David Finch on the first five-issue story arc was atrocious, and the only thing that saved this title from being dropped from my pull for the first time ever was when the magnificent Mikel Janin took over art chores with the second arc and delivered work of absolutely breathtaking scope and grandeur. Still, at this point, I have to say — when he goes, I go. And I think he’s gone after next issue. And yet, horseshit as this book has been, it’s nothing compared with our —

Worst Comic Of The Year : Dark Knight III : The Master Race (DC)

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Unmitigated garbage that plumbs new depths of hopelessness with every issue, Brian AzzarelloAndy Kubert and Klaus Janson (with nominal involvement from Frank Miller) are doing something here no one thought possible : making fans yearn for the days of The Dark Knight Strikes Again!  (which, admittedly, I’ve always liked, but no one else does). Also, they seem to be doing their level best to match that title’s glacial publication schedule. At this rate, we’re gonna wait three years to complete a story that’s been a total waste of time from the outset. This series is honestly starting to rival Before Watchmen  in the “artistically-bankrupt blatant cash-grab” category. I expected nothing from it, true — and yet somehow we’re getting even less than that.

I’m going to close on something of a high note for DC, though, if you can believe it, because they also get the award for —

Best Development Of 2016 DC’s Young Animal

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I’m still not sure what the hell a “pop-up imprint” is, but Gerard Way has one he can call his very own, and so far all four series released under this label’s auspices — Doom Patrol (as previously discussed), Shade, The Changing GirlCave Carson Has A Cybernetic Eye and Mother Panic — have been not just good, but great. While at first DCYA sounded like little more than a stylistic heir to vintage-era Veritgo to my mind, in fact its aims seem to be much different, while admittedly utilizing a number of characters and concepts from that fan-favorite period. This is an imprint where anything both goes and can happen, and we’ve sorely needed that for waaaaayyy too long. In short, this is the most exciting thing either of the “Big Two” have done in — shit, as long as I can remember. Long may it continue.

So — What About The Year To Come?

By the sound of it there’s plenty to be excited about, from Warren Ellis spearheading the re-launch of WildStorm to the debuts of much-publicized new series from Image such as God Country and The Few, but my most-anticipated events of 2017 (at least as far we know now) would have to be —

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March 31st (seriously, guys?) is slated as the provisional release date for Providence #12, and to say that I can’t wait to find out how it all ends would be an understatement of criminal proportions. It would also be an equally-proportionate understatement to say that I’ll simply “miss” this series when it’s over. So, ya know, maybe take your time with that last issue, after all.

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The so-called second “season” of The Sheriff Of Babylon is due to hit sometime in the latter part of the year and, simple as the “teaser” image shown above was, it was still enough to get me excited. And finally —

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January sees the release of the first installment of Kamandi Challenge, a “round-robin” 12-part series from DC starring The Last Boy On Earth that features a different creative team on each issue trying to solve the cliffhangers left by the folks the month before, as well setting up new messes for the next bunch to get themselves out of. This is the first of what I hope to be many releases commemorating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Jack Kirby that we can look forward to over the next 12 months — in fact, DC has just also announced an omnibus hardcover reprinting of Kirby’s entire original Kamandi run, so let’s hope that 2017 really will be a vintage year for fans of The King.

Whew! Okay! We’re done for the year! Enjoy your holidays — or what remains of them — and we’ll see you back here in January, when we get to start the whole thing all over again!

 

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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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Before we delve too deeply into the events depicted in Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’ Providence #6, a brief item of housekeeping : in the two-fold interests of time and maintaining the attention of those who are following both this series and my admittedly sporadic reviews of it (one day I really should go back and do write-ups on issues two and three, I suppose, just for the sake of completeness), I’m going to skip over re-hashing the basics in terms of plot set-up, etc. in this and future installments simply because, who are we kidding? If you’re not “on board” with Providence already, odds are very slim indeed that you’ll be jumping on at this point, so it’s fairly safe to assume that anybody reading this right now already knows what the book is all about and anybody who’s reading it, say, a year or two down the road (hi there future! Hope everything’s alright with the world!) is someone who decided to “trade wait” on the series and if they’ve made it this far in, then they, too, will be well familiar with the general particulars of what our guys Alan and Jacen are up to. So no more “Robert Black was a journalist for the fictitious New York Herald who chucked his job to write a novel” and all that.

Besides, with this latest installment we’re really getting into the “meat” of things, anyway — the rumor-shrouded tome that Black has been after, Hali’s Booke (the Providence equivalent to/antecedent of H.P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon) is finally in his, as they used to say in the ’80s and ’90s, “hot little hands,” and while the overly-eager among us were certain that Herbert West, Reanimator was going to be the HPL “anchor story” at the heart of this issue, Moore has faked us out once again by forcing his stand-in for West, one Hector North, off-stage fairly early on when an unexpected message arrives for him at his heavily-formaldehyde-scented home, the contents of which force him and his hen-pecked boyfriend/assistant to beat a hasty retreat back to Boston. Okay, yeah, the first few pages of this issue take place in West’s home, to be sure, and the scenes that play out there are rife with the sort of “gallows humor” that has been ever-present in this series from the outset, as almost every line spoken is rife with double-and even triple-meanings that will be especially obvious to, and rewarding for, longtime Lovecraft fans, but, once again, the inevitable confrontation with North (errrr, West) has been shunted down the line just a bit.

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That’s okay, though, because not only is what happens here a plenty acceptable substitute for the Reanimator-centric issue that fans have been waiting for, this actually proves to be the chapter of the story  (titled, incidentally, “Out Of Time”) where the storm that’s been brewing slowly since #1 finally begins to break. Where the shit hits the fan. Where Moore starts to pull out all the stops and finally “goes to far,” as he always does, serving up the horror in a manner so shocking, and so thick with import, that you get the distinct feeling that he’s basically daring you to keep going. But first, Hali’s Booke.

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Black decides to tour St. Anselm College (Miskatonic University in all but name) one more time, only to discover that the librarian he’s been expecting to wait a  few more weeks to see has actually returned, which means either that his travels were cut short, or that, more disturbingly, our protagonist has actually been in Manchester a lot longer than he figured. Given that the concept of “nested time” has been breached in the backmatter pages of previous issues, and that time seems to pass differently for Black once he sits down to actually read the contents of the volume he’s been in such single-minded pursuit of (Burrows kills it on the art in the panels depicting the strange fourth-dimensional flow in the library), it’s pretty clear what’s really going on — to all but our ostensible “hero,” of course, who remains as clueless to the nature of events taking place around him, as well as his increasingly-important role within them, as ever. All that’s about to change, though, and in a very big way.

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Perusing through Hali’s Booke is every bit the brain-bomb we’ve all been figuring it would be, but it’s what comes next that shifts Providence into a new, higher, and decidedly more dangerous gear : unnerved from his experience with the book, Black accompanies 13-year-old Elspeth Wade (Providence‘s answer to Asenath Waite from The Thing On The Doorstep, who also walked to the college with him earlier and, indeed, was the bearer of the bad news that sent Dr. North scurrying) back to her rooms in order to “decompress,” only to have the absolutely unimaginable happen to him. And to her, I suppose. But mostly to him. I’ll say no more at this point, and allow the following image to do some of my talking for me:

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So — yeah. It gets worse. Much worse. And here’s where we have to side-step for a bit.

Moore has been criticized over the years for his supposed “over-reliance” on rape and sexual violence in his comics, and this once-tiny “buzz”  reached a veritable crescendo semi-recently due to his aggressive responses to said complaints — responses that saw him engage in a rather heated debate, albeit by proxy, with some of his most vocal detractors and nobody emerging from the conflagration entirely unscathed. On the one hand, the naysayers do have a point : rape was a central event in Moore’s run on Swamp Thing, in Miracleman, in the third volume of The League Of Extraordinary Gentelmen, in From Hell, in Lost Girls, in Neonomicon — it’s a long list. And if you throw in the attempted  rapes in Watchmen  and V For Vendetta, as well as the implied rape in The Killing Joke, well — it gets even longer. But it’s also true that Moore never presents it in a titillating or otherwise-glamorized way. It’s always ugly. It’s always scarring. It’s always unspeakably horrific. And so it is here. But there’s a whole other level going on in Providence #6 that bears a little bit of closer examination, unpleasant as it is. So that’s what we’re going to do next — as well as indulge in a bit of speculation.

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I won’t kid you, friends — much as I admire, respect, and in many ways even fawn over the work of Alan Moore, I do think the man has a bit of a petulant side to him, as his numerous “fallings-out” with various former collaborators can attest to. I have no problem with the big middle finger he’s given to DC, to Hollywood, and to the vast majority of the entertainment industry in general (quite the contrary, in fact — I respect the hell out of him for it), but he has occasionally, in my view, demonstrated a mean, or at the very least ornery, streak . And I think that when he started to catch a certain amount of flak for the sexual violence in his work, even if much of the criticism was off-base in its intent, he took it a bit personally.  His critics poked a bear — and now the bear has poked back. And you’re not gonna win a fight with a bear.

Rather than shying away from ever presenting rape in another one of his comics, Moore has instead decided to give us the most fucked-up, brutal, offensive, soul-searing depiction of rape one could possibly conceive of, and has enlisted H.P. Lovecraft’s The Thing On The Doorstep (which turns out to be the “anchor story” for this particular issue) as his accomplice. It’s all so very darkly ingenious, really — take a story about an evil old bastard who has learned how to live forever by effectively “hijacking” a younger body when he places his own consciousness inside it and forces the old one out (into his dying form), and borrow its central conceit in order to give us the perhaps the most psychologically, and even physically, harrowing scene in horror-comic history. Elspeth Wade, you see, isn’t Elspeth Wade at all. She’s someone far older (keen readers of the Providence backmatter will figure out exactly who “she” is pretty quickly once “she”starts talking), and far more malevolent. Someone who transferred their consciousness first into Elspeth’s father, then into Elspeth herself. And as for where Elspeth “really” is — she’s dead, and has been for some time. But the “person” inhabiting her is still very much up to his old tricks, and puts himself into Black’s body, thereby forcing Black into Elspeth’s, and then rapes her/him. So, yes — a malignant force residing in Black’s body is raping Black’s consciousness as it resides in Elspeth’s body.

Need a minute to take all that in? I don’t blame you. And Black could use a minute himself, as you’d expect — but he isn’t given one, since his assailant quickly “trades back” once the unspeakable deed is done, and “enjoys” a “post-coital” cigarette inside/as Elspeth while Black is left to do the one thing almost anyone would have to do in his situation in order to hope to preserve some tiny fraction of their sanity — run.

The full-scale mind-fuckery isn’t over yet, though, folks, because as Black runs out into the rainy Manchester night, he passes — himself, riding in the car with Jenkins, as depicted at the beginning of Providence #5. And lo and behold, when you open that issue up again and look very closely at the figure running along the side of the road, barely visible through the rain-soaked windscreen, it is, in fact, Robert Black. “Nested time,” remember?

So, yeah — this is getting in-fucking-tense.

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Maybe even too intense for some. If there are folks who throw up their hands and say “I’m out!” after Providence #6 I’m not going to hold that against them. The story is visceral, ugly, hard to stomach, and unforgettable in the truest sense of the term, and Jacen Burrows’ art, while lush and gorgeous, is a velvet glove over an iron fist. This is a comic that lands body blow after body blow and doesn’t let you get up off the mat. It hurts and it hurts and it hurts again.

Still — it’s horror, you know? Shit or get off the pot. We’ve become so you used to comfortable, safe, inconsequential quasi-scares that a true tale of mind-numbing terror almost feels alien at this point. Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows are here to remind us that this shit is supposed to be uncomfortable, maybe even unconscionable. We’re talking about a story where it looks like a 13-year-old girl is being brutally raped — and the reality of what’s happening is actually even worse. I can’t say that I “enjoyed” Providence #6 — but I’m never going to forget it. And there’s no way I’d ever back out of this series now, even though staying with it will almost definitely have consequences — as it should. Love it or loathe it, this is what horror — real horror — is meant to do.

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Not so long ago — in fact, just last week, if memory serves me correctly — we did a mini-round-up of reviews of films based (sometimes quite loosely) on the works of H.P. Lovecraft in honor of his 125th birthday, and while I didn’t think I’d be re-visiting the world of so-called “Lovecraftiana” again nearly so soon, when Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’ Providence #4 hit comics shops yesterday I simply had to, given that it’s based so heavily on The Dunwich Horror , the 1970 celluloid version of which I almost-literally just did a little write-up on . Soooooo — since I figured it would be worth delving into these murky backwaters one more time to have a closer look at just how this four-color printed story differs from its literary and cinematic step-siblings, let’s get our hands dirty, shall we?

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For those of you who have been following Providence from the outset — for shame! — the format is deceptively simple : in 1919,  recently-resigned newspaperman Robert Black (who leads something of a double life in that he’s secretly gay and secretly Jewish) is trying to put together his own idea of “The Great American Novel,” one based loosely on the intriguing conceit that there is a “secret country” hidden beneath the public face of the United states, and is following up on the whereabouts of a tome of occult lore that he hopes will point him in the right direction for his literary endeavors. Every issue sees him come into contact with strange situations and characters that Lovecraft fans will immediately recognize as being featured in the author’s works, and it’s fairly obvious that at some point Lovecraft is going to either encounter Black himself or stumble across his notes and will extrapolate his fictions from him/them accordingly. Fun little “side clues” are dropped in along the way that tie into other stories of his, but by and large one famous Lovecraft yarn features as the “backbone” for each chapter, with issue one taking most of its cues from Cool Air,  issue two delving into The Horror At Red Hook,  issue three fleshing out the supposedly “real” story behind The Shadow Over Innsmouth, etc. At the beginning of issue four, Black is in the “company town” of Athol, Massachusetts, which served as the real-life basis for The Dunwich Horror, so you know from the outset which way things are headed here. And if you’re still unsure, well —  by the time our protagnoist meets the inbred branch of the  Wheatley family tree a few pages in, there’s no more room for guesswork.

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These Wheatleys are, of course, the basis for the (alright, equally) fictional Whateleys in Lovecraft’s story, and while the first three segments of Providence have certainly come up trumps in the “creepy” department, things definitely take a turn for the overtly horrific this time out as the nature of isolated country living in the early part of the last century comes to the fore. Let’s just say that when there was no one else around to fuck, a lot of folks simply made do with who was nearby.

Maintaining the “purity” of one’s genetic stock was, of course, a particular obsession with the eugenics-crazed Lovecraft, and as anyone who’s read Smax knows, inbreeding is a topic that Moore has explored in the past with suitably cringe-worth results, as well, so if you’re going to base a contemporary horror comic around the love that damn well better not speak its name, these two are probably your best choices to serve as guides, so — I dunno. Congratulations, I guess, to Messrs. Moore and Lovecraft both for being the perfect autors to tell a story based on this admittedly nauseating premise.

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And yeah, if there’s one thing Providence #4 can definitely claim to be, it’s nauseating. And I mean that as a sincere compliment, since making the reader uncomfortable is the whole point of good horror. Black cottons on to the fact that there’s literally no one else who could be the father of monstrous Willard Wheatley (or, as he’s known in the story and on the silver screen, Wilbur Whateley) than his own grand-pappy, Garland, and while his mother, Lavinia,  was confined to a lunatic asylum in the film version, here poor, uneducated, albino (and quite likely inbred herself) Leticia still lives at home with her father, and spends most of her time attempting to piece together in her feeble mind exactly what the hell happened to her the night she was impregnated in 1912. Lovecraft hints at it The Dunwich Horror, but Moore drops all pretense here and rips the curtain of “literary respectability” away most violently indeed. Let’s just say it’s not a reading experience designed with the faint of heart in mind.

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For us sick fucks, though, it borders on the flat-out revelatory. Needless to say there’s a lot more than a simple dip into the family gene pool going on here, and there’s good reason why Willard is a hulking full-grown ape of a man (the issue is titled “White Apes,” another Lovecraft reference for those who care to do the requisite leg-work) who can apparently fuse glass cubes together with his bare hands in order to form tesseracts, which presumably come in handy in his family’s more unconventional spare-time activities. And yeah, if molesting your own daughter is more “conventional” than the other shit they’re up to, it’s safe to say that the Wheatleys are into some far-out stuff —oh, by the way, has anyone seen Wilbur’s invisible sibling, John -Divine?

Silly me, of course not — I just said he’s invisible (at least to us). But his presence looms very large in this story, to put it mildly. I think I’ll leave it at that.

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Moore takes the occasion of Providence #4 to make some spot-on criticisms of the elitism running rampant through the occult secret society that Garland and his clan have been unceremoniously booted from, and shines a pretty glaring light on the prejudices of the time (including those shared by Lovecraft himself), but it doesn’t feel too terribly heavy-handed given that the characters we’re directed to have sympathy for are engaged in some odious and twisted activities themselves, so maybe at the end of the day it’s fair to say that this is a story with no real “good guys” — especially considering what a self-absorbed — and frankly clueless — ass-hat Black himself comes off as being in the issue’s always-fascinating-and-necessary backmatter.

Top it all off with Jacen Burrows’ increasingly- confident and richly-detailed art (seriously, this guy’s going to be a superstar artist for “The Big Two” one of these days — assuming he’s interested), some intriguing hints as to where things are going in terms of the overall narrative (as an aside, it took me a few passes through to figure out what, exactly, was being depicted on page one of this issue, but once I did — wow), and what you’ve got here is a thoroughly masterful “re-imagining” of a timeless horror classic that certainly rewards multiple re-readings and re-mystifies Lovecraft’s original work by, ironically, de-mysifying its ugly underbelly for all to see.

I certainly had a damn good time watching Daniel Haller’s 1970 film adaptation of The Dunwich Horror again for the first time in many years (who can argue with Dean Stockwell’s turn as Wilbur?), but as far as “revisionist Lovecraft” goes, right now Providence is in a class by itself, and issue #4 is the strongest one yet — even if it requires an equally strong stomach.

 

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H.P. Lovecraft would have turned 125 years old the other day, and given that Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’ Providence has proven to be the impetus for the biggest “Lovecraft kick”  I’ve experienced since high school, I figured, what the hell? Why not mark the occasion by reviewing a few Lovecraft-inspired flicks over the next handful of days? And given that pretty much everybody has seen the Stuart Gordon/Brian Yuzna productions of Re-AnimatorFrom Beyond and Dagon (my personal favorite of the bunch), we’ll avoid those and try instead to zero in on a few celluloid Lovecraft adaptations that are easy enough to find, but that haven’t been seen by many apart from seriously hard-core fans.

First up is legendary B-movie auteur Albert Pyun’s ultra-low-budget, shot-on-HD-videocam 2006 take on Lovecraft’s Cool Air, a film that is, admittedly,  tempting to dismiss before even seeing it simply because any movie that sits unreleased on a shelf for seven years before quietly being dumped out on DVD (and DVD only, I might add — no Blu-ray for this one) is probably bound to not be all that good, right? LionsGate, who owns the rights to this number, surely would have seen fit to get it into the hands of fans sooner if they’d felt it was worth the effort to do so, wouldn’t they? I mean, anything shot this cheaply (IMDB lists the budget at being just over $1.5 million, but watching the film it’s hard to see where most of that went) that has Lovecraft’s name attached to it in any capacity whatsoever is bound to at least break even, wouldn’t you think?

Well, evidently the suits at LGF disagreed, and let Pyun’s filmed-entirely-in-one-house opus gather dust until 2013 — which was when, I’m guessing, some catalogue- and -archiving intern stumbled across it and reminded his or her bosses that, hey, we’ve still got this thing sitting here and we may as well do something with it. So they did.

Actually, that’s not what happened at all — the film’s original production company (a one-and-done outfit composed of Pyun himself and a couple of financiers)  sat on it until 2012, trying to figure out how best to get the thing out there, and ended up entering it into the 2012 Las Vegas Grindhouse and Horror Film Festival, where it was something of a minor hit, then LionsGate picked it up for home video release the next year (it’s also available streaming online for $2.99, which is how I caught it). But dammit, I like my version of the story better.

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To be brutally frank, things  don’t appear too promising at first here, with what has to be the one of the dullest extended opening-credit sequences I’ve ever been forced to sit through (in fairness, the “run snippets from the movie you just watched with the actors’ names underneath” that rolls at the end is probably even worse, though — that didn’t even work well in ’80s “ensemble” comedies, why would it fare any better in a low-key horror flick with a grand total of five cast members?), but if you can stay awake through that, the good news is that once events (finally) start rolling, this is actually a pretty faithful adaptation that has a lot going for it.

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Now, if you’ve actually seen this thing, this is the point at which you’re probably going to stop dead in your tracks and question my sanity. Allow me to paraphrase what’s likely  going through your mind : “Faithful adaptation? Are you nuts? The story’s been moved to the present day, it’s set in Malibu, and the the main ‘villain,’ Dr. Munoz, has been gender-swapped for a female character named Dr. Shockner! Shit, the 20-minute adaptation Rod Serling did of this story on Night Gallery is more faithful than that!”

Okay, fair enough — on paper, the story of a down-and-out Hollywood screenwriter named Charlie Baxter (played by Morgan Weisser) who’s lost his apartment and has to rent a room in a “McMansion” from a secretive landlady (Wendy Phillips) who has a couple of secretive tenants (a former Disney animator named, believe it or not, Deltoid, who’s played by Norbert Weisser, and the aforementioned Dr. Shockner, who’s played by Crystal Green) bears only a passing resemblance to Lovecraft’s original premise, but Weisser’s voice-over narration directly lifts huge passages from the story verbatim, and really, those cosmetic changes are about the only major difference on offer here, apart from the whole-cloth invention of a character named Estella (Virginia Dare), who’s the landlady’s autistic daughter. In terms of overall theme and tone, though,  Pyun and screenwriter Cynthia Curnan get things more or less exactly right, and in the end, isn’t that what counts?

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Any film with production values this abysmally- low-by-dint-of-necessity is going to have its problems, of course — visually, the flick is dull as un-buttered toast, and a visible boom mic during a scene that has no dialogue whatsoever is jarring to say the least, but you know how things work around these parts : we’re generally a pretty forgiving bunch. On the whole the acting is actually pretty good apart from Weisser being asked to have one of the least-convincing heart attacks ever committed to film (or, in this case, to tape), and Green in particular is flat-out superb in a role very few established actors could make a go of, namely that of a classic Lovecraftian amoral semi-monster re-interpreted as a MILF (and damn, her voice just oozes sex appeal), so it really does appear that everyone is giving their all here for a production that, let’s not beat around the bush, hardly demands any such professionalism. Also, it’s worth pointing out that, purists be damned, most of those “cosmetic changes” I just droned on about in Curnan’s screenplay actually work and go some way towards making the dated concepts at the core of Lovecraft’s yarn relevant to a modern audience. Let’s face it : these days you can find an air conditioner that will keep your room below 55 degrees at all times, which is exactly what Dr. Munoz required in the original story, so that whole “crazy-contraption-that-runs-on-ammonia” thing just isn’t going to fly with folks unfamiliar with the, to use a term I fucking hate, “source material.” Some sort of updating was very much in order here, and while this Cool Air may deviate here and there from what’s on the printed page, it does so not in a way that corrupts or trashes the story, but rather brings it into the modern era with its soul intact.

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Now, obviously, this being 2015, it’s pretty hard to talk Lovecraft without talking Providence, and yes, the short story as originally scripted features prominently in the first issue of Moore and Burrows’ ongoing masterwork (is it too early to call it that? I think not). Pyun and his small crew can’t compete with that, it’s true. But they’ve also got a budget — and a very tight one at that — to work within. The comics page has no such restrictions (nor does the imagination of Alan Moore). Cool Air does what it can with what it has, and manages to squeeze a lot of blood from a rock. It’s far from stylish, far from flashy, and in many technical respects it’s fair to say it’s even far from competent — but it’s still good. What more can you ask than that?

Next up : we keep the Lovecraft train rolling with a look at 1970’s The Dunwich Horror — which is streaming on Netflix right now if you want to catch it in advance of my review. Hope to see you back here in a few days!