The first issue of Providence, a new Avatar Press comic series from creators Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows that will see eleven more installments before it’s wrapped up, is mostly concerned with dialogue. It’s not as if every one of the pages is flooded with copy, exactly — there are occasional wordless panels (each set on black pages), and the discourse is succinct — but it’s a conversation-heavy introduction. By the time we get to the end, however, when we’re peering up into the darkened window of a Greenwich Village apartment building, those words from Moore (The Watchmen, From Hell) have gone a long way in making us feel really uncomfortable.
Providence is stationed in a New York City of 1919. Following the depiction of a man in a black waistcoat tearing a letter into pieces and tossing them from a bridge, the first issue opens in the office interiors of the New York Herald newspaper, an entity that would’ve been five years from being acquired and folded into another paper at the time. Burrows’s inaugural establishing splash page positions ginger-haired reporter Robert Black in the foreground of a newsroom that overlooks busy midtown Manhattan. The staffers bandy about sensational ideas to fill a half-page before going to press. Black pitches a somewhat convoluted idea that isn’t exactly timely and has barely a local angle, but it could lead somewhere ghoulish — i.e., something that could sell papers in the competitive era — so he ventures out to interview a mysterious Doctor Alvarez on West 14th street.
Against colorist Juan Rodriguez’s rich red curtains and mossy green wallpaper patterns, Alvarez’s socketed facial features look set in pale, graying skin. At the time, New York City was actually plagued with a flu epidemic that claimed tens of thousands of lives, and Alvarez references a sickness that forces him to keep his apartment heavily cooled — so much so that Black’s teeth chatter during their talk. We know the shivering is temperature-induced, but the visual, alongside the sequence’s uneasy conversation, is troubling. The scent of ammonia is sharp in the air, and Alvarez attributes that to the cooling apparatus he keeps running. Their exchange grows ever mysterious, complete with grave mentions of love not interrupting death, methods for reviving cadavers, and “the transplanting of souls.”
“The truth,” Alvarez tells Black matter-of-factly, “is a land sunken beneath many fathoms. Were it … to rise and confront us all, what would you do, Mr. Black?”
Providence‘s exploration of H.P. Lovecraft-inspired storytelling is evidently a “sequel and a prequel” to Neonomicon, an award-winning series from the pair that I found so disturbing and mired in rape-driven shock tactics I couldn’t wait to unload on someone else after I’d read it (see critic Laura Sneddon’s post). For now, Providence‘s ad-free, two 32-page issues are knee-deep in words and intertextuality.
Robert Black, likely named for real-life pulp magazine writer/novelist and Lovecraft protege Robert Bloch, has a novel in the works. The talk of books in any instance involves essays pertaining to said books, references to other books, and both issues close-out with a peek at Black’s handwritten journal entries. As the story’s supernatural implications begin to take physical shape, more so in a comparatively accelerated second issue that finds Black in Brooklyn searching for a Flatbush-based importer of whom Alvarez spoke, Moore’s script grows musty with age-old evils. Burrows’s vision for the tale’s supernatural horrors, its bookish and fastidiously attired players, and his depiction of early 20th Century New York City — his visuals of Lower Manhattan’s seaport area and detailed drafting of varying building facades is clearly pinned to exacting geographical and photographic research. Black’s “trip” to Brooklyn from Manhattan is treated like substantial travel (as it was back then), and Moore taps into the era’s hostility toward otherness, a trait that the bigoted Lovecraft himself shared while walking the streets of Red Hook back when this story is set, such as blaming immigrants for his inability to get a job.
While Moore’s Alvarez is rooted in Lovecraft’s Dr. Munoz from the latter’s late 1920s short story “Cool Air” (“I shivered as I crossed the threshold into a large apartment whose rich and tasteful decoration surprised me in this nest of squalor and seediness,” wrote Lovecraft), Providence‘s doctor heralds the weird short stories in 1895’s The King in Yellow. He praises the collection, written by American author Robert Chambers, for its “prophetic” properties, as Moore brings what Alvarez calls the “exit gardens” to life in the comic. In the original text’s first story, a pair of rooms that provide New Yorkers with the option of suicide are situated in Manhattan’s Washington Square Park (Moore sets them in Bryant Park). The “Lethal Chambers” also feature prominently in the opening pages of The King in Yellow, a new graphic adaptation of a handful of the late 19th century book’s stories from comics artist and writer INJ Culbard.
Culbard is pre-disposed toward rendering beautifully very old books that have strange short stories in them, and is incidentally also well-acquainted with the work of Lovecraft, having adapted several of his stories via comics. For his first longform work since his 2014 debut graphic novel Celeste, Culbard looks to several tales from Robert Chambers’ 1895 book, which has recently made its way into popular discourse for the references made to it during the first season of HBO’s True Detective. The first mention of “Carcosa” in Culbard’s The King in Yellow, however, is far from True Detective‘s grassy, rural Louisiana. For “The Repairer of Reputations,” a man looks into a mirror and recites verses from a text that we learn will play a part in nearly corrupting whichever character comes into contact with it. The book — within the book — that drives people mad is also called The King in Yellow, and Culbard seems to delight in depicting this lit-sprung instability.
In “The Repairer…,” Chambers’s Hildred Castaigne’s long slender face is mushroomed by a thick mop top of hair that threatens to engulf it. His oversized flower petal-coned eyes are the largest of anyone’s in Culbard’s adaptation. They’re emphasized in purposeful close-ups from panel to panel, specifically when Castaigne grows angry with those in his small social circle, who agree to meet him late at night in Greenwich Village’s Washington Square Park only to learn that his devotion to The King in Yellow — as well as the medical treatment he’d received after a fall from a horse years previous —has driven him to make considerably imbalanced decisions. Castaigne surrounds himself with books — “(Y)ou’ve shut yourself up here like an owl…never doing a damn thing but poring over your own books,” his cousin tells him. I’m reminded of Providence‘s studious protagonist here, and of the scholarly undercurrents of Culbard’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (my Comics Journal piece here), a Lovecraft adaptation that proves as aesthetically well-organized and plotted as this work is.
“It is a great book of truths,” says Castaigne of The King in Yellow. Later, its “truths” are linked frequently to feverish nightmares and mysterious half-dreamt horrors that Culbard handles with creative page layouts and color pairings. A two-page spread in “The Yellow Sign” story turns to the magnificent marble arch of Washington Square Park.
Through the trees, the Washington Memorial Arch glistened like silver in the sunshine, and beyond, on the eastern extremity of the square the grey stone barracks of the dragoons, and the white granite artillery stables were alive with colour and motion.
Home to the book’s “Lethal Chambers” and to grisly dialogues conducted after midnight, Culbard’s park is an elegant monument to death in the adaptation. It’s as it should be: the architect of its arch was shot dead in a theater at Madison Square Garden not twenty years after he finished his work; the Park was utilized as a burial ground in its early days; it stands in spitting-distance proximity to where the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire would claim nearly 150 lives in 1911; and recent — as well as long-past — excavations there have yielded “mostly intact skeletal remains” of human bodies. In the comic, Culbard’s panel composition has broadening clouds cushioning the gorgeous fixture, cast in soft blues and sandy browns. It’s bordered by a sequence of headshots of the chapter’s Mr. Scott, who is distressed by recollections of recent nightmares that are rife with imagery of death. The arch towers over him, and it’s at once sinister and masterfully carved art. Built initially to celebrate George Washington, it looks like something that one might have commissioned to honor a king.