5 out of 5
The impressiveness of Alan Moore’s large-scope works – in concept, of not page-count, though at 12 issues Providence meets both – is the writer’s willingness to see his creation through to its logical conclusion. This might seem like the ‘duh’ resolution for any story, but a lot of writers go the world-building route in support of an A to B to C plot, or to espouse am agenda, or occasionally both. Plenty of great tales have come from such a formula, but just as many, if not more, essentially hijack their own good ideas with said plot / agenda. That is: You take up pages and time to establish your universe, and then it results in car chases and explosions and happy endings anyway.
It can seem anticlimactic to instead let your creation carve out its own story – I mean, we definitely like car chases and explosions – but when you have skill with the big picture approach, like Moore, it can also be exactly the kind of jaw-dropping experience one hopes to achieve with a more “standard” approach. And so across a lot of his stories – and across his worlds – maybe your point of view isn’t radically shifted or you’re not on the edge of your seat, but Moore makes a lasting impression by allowing his work to become as real as it wants to be. And over in his Lovecraft universe, formed by The Courtyard, Neonomicon, and now Providence, that’s a ridiculously fascinating and frightening thing to experience.
Providence is, mostly, the tale of journalist Robert Black, reporter for the New York Herald in 1919, who pursues a line of inquiry involving the book Sous le Monde – which is said to make its readers go insane – in order to fill up some empty page space for his paper. The space gets filled regardless, but in pursuance of the story, Black gets hooked on an idea of a society existing ‘neath the surface of the one we all see – possibly as a parallel to the life he leads as a gay man, possibly as a distraction from the recent loss (to suicide) of a former lover – and soon enough is pursuing the story to odd corners of the country that should be familiar to Lovecraft / Moore craft fans.
His discoveries start to become more devious and disturbing; the lines between the fictions of Sous le Monde and other occult works and reality blur. The concept of a powerful text affecting the physical world is meta-textual layered into the story, making it as gripping and frightening as any Lovecraft cosmic-horror fueled tale, but Moore continues broadening his scope, evolving his story forward to encompass events of The Courtyard and Neonomicon, while simultaneously somewhat retelling the history of the Cthulu mythos. As the story passes the halfway point, things seem to actually normalize a bit, but this is a calm before a storm. A car chaseless, explosion less storm, but a mind-boggling one nonetheless, as Moore takes his backwards contemplation of repression and shuffles it through the language as a virus paradigm into new (old) worlds where the repressed is flip-flopped for the real. Or something like that.
Some readings of Providence might suggest that Lovecraft lore and Courtyard / Neonomicon are prerequisites; admittedly, the last chapters, which directly connect to the latter two stories, require this context. But id almost argue that Providence ends in chapter 11, with 12 propelling its events forward to encompass all of the Moorecraft timeline, and the first 11 issues have incidental ties but can otherwise be read as Robert Black’s standalone story.
The Lovecraft ties are a similar deal. Some basic knowledge certainly helps to give some of the weirdness context, but the deep-dive details – fascinating as hell – are really Easter Eggs. I think this is a story that can be enjoyed mostly as-is, like many of the weird fiction writers’ works referenced in the book, but without the added Moore layers of characterization and setting complexity.
Jacen Burrows’ ready hand gives the book the same patient, focused vibe as Watchmen, with a gorgeously shifting color palette from Juan Rodriguez and letters as befitting the various moods from Kurt Hathaway. The entire series – like a lot of Moore pieces, admittedly, since he seems to proceed forth with a set vision – is quite an artistic achievement, not only in terms of the creatives’ skills, but in the dedication to the period, and the remarkable handling of sequences ranging from macabre to pages of talking-heads, all with professionalism and aplomb.
Lastly, I suppose, be forewarned: risqué subject matter aside, this is a dense read. Most of the issues feature pages of a handwritten diary “from” Robert Black, and these really shouldn’t be skipped, as they add a whole extra level to proceedings.
But you didn’t expand your Moore collection beyond Watchmen because you were adverse to dense writing, yeah?