Friday, 18 December 2015

Providence Provides

In theory, Moore and Lovecraft should go together like chocolate and squamous peanut butter. Moore's best work is often cold, at a remove, an artist writing like a computer simulation of a genius. Lovecraft's prose is similarly distant, the text shorn of warmth or adornment to bring stark cosmic unutterable horror more fully to life. It's not an uncommon trick - nor does it have to revolve around the tentacled and the cyclopean, as those who never shut up about The Shining will surely tell you - but that doesn't necessarily damage or even dent its usefulness today.

So the combination works on paper. Does it work in practice (or on shinier paper, perhaps I should say)? Well, it's certainly well-formed, with strong, precise pencils from Jacen Burrows and a sensibly restrained palate courtesy of Michael DiPascale. But can it function beyond the level of prettiness? Moore is certainly keen to assure us it can. The very first panel features only prose - a close-up of a love letter - which is then progressively ripped apart to show the landscape of New York beyond. The written word is giving way to images, and what they can do that mere letters and punctuation cannot (this is reinforced later with a visual clue regarding the mysterious Senor Alvarez, but I am getting ahead of myself). Moore has always insisted that comics are no pale approximation of other mediums, but a device through which one could tell stories that could exist nowhere else, no matter how much money Hollywood wants to spend. More tellingly, the letter itself talks of breaking through "mere words" to get to the underlying reality; the tear in the paper splits those two words apart. "Mere words" cannot contain this story any more than they could the indescribable other Lovecraft concerned himself with. "Don't worry", Moore is telling us. "I know what works in the Cthulhu Mythos, and I know how to translate that to a new medium."

All this almost gets us to the end of the first page.

In other words: this is a dense work. Not so much by Moore's own standards, perhaps, but certainly by almost anyone else's. Consider for instance that Moore begins this series with "The Yellow Sign". The choice is as inevitable as it is clever. This first issue is a story about the distance between where a writer starts off and where they end up; of course Morse chooses the Yellow Sign as the accompanying symbol.

And if all this feels like I'm focussing on the adapter at the expense of what he is adapting, there's good reason; precious little in this first issue exists of very few Cthulhu references at all, and almost nothing of Lovecraft's own work (King in Yellow being a work by Robert Chambers, an inspiration for Lovecraft's stories). The central idea of a play that brings about madness and suicide remains, but the narrative seems to reject the very idea, suggesting that what is important about the book isn't that it drives people to commit suicide, but that everyone in New York is so close to the edge, so wrapped up in appalling secrets, that suicide all too often feels like the only escape, and that some of the people who reach that conclusion that will also happen to be well-read. There is something buried in us all, waiting to reach the surface and cause havoc (hence Sous le Monde being the title of the book Moore suggests King in Yellow was inspired by).

To say more would be to tread too far into the realm of spoilers, but Moore is clearly linking the looming rise of R'yleh to the deep currents of the human subconscious - not astonishingly original, perhaps, but let's give the man time - which has particular implications for protagonist Robert Black. Black is a newspaperman working for a broadsheet finding itself slipping into the abyss of irrelevance, and desperately trying to up the scandal quotient to stay afloat. This shouldn't particularly concern Black, who tells himself he's just working there until he can get somewhere as a fiction writer. Things aren't quite so simply, though. As I've mentioned, this isn't a story about where Black is going (not yet at least) but about the cavernous distance between where he started (replayed in sepia flashbacks that further fade an already cold, drab colour scheme) and where he is now. How far the reality has drifted from the dream. Not that the specifics of Black's goals are what we might expect from his seemingly familiar tale of small-town dissatisfaction - how Black's secrets influence the narrative is one of the principle hooks here. The mysteries of Black are both intriguing and swiftly revealed, and result in a first episode that fits together like a jigsaw, or perhaps like the torn pages of a diary. Or a love letter. He certainly ends this first issue as a more intriguing character than he began.

Speaking of intriguing, to the extent the supernatural intrudes upon this opening issue at all (which it doesn't, at least obviously, though from the cover alone it's clear that the nightmarish may already be hiding in plain sight, reaching slowly for us) it's in the form of Dr Alvarez, a Spanish medical doctor who lives in rooms specially chilled for the sake of an unspecified medical condition. The broad strokes of what is going on here are obvious (Moore underlines them both in artwork and text), but there's enough here to make us curious about the specifics. There's fear here too, not in anything overt, but in the sick feeling that the two most interesting ideas here - who or what Alvarez is and the spiraling misery of Black and his tragic secrets - cannot possibly exist alongside each other for long before the former swallows the latter. Cthulhu stories always end the same way; the heroes end up mad or dead or worse. In giving us so compelling a reason to root for Black, Moore has both kicked back against two of Lovecraft's worse tendencies - to ignore characterisation and sneer at any deviation from "polite society" - and ensured that when the hammer drops, it will all be so, so much worse.

I'm still going to devour the next issue, though.

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