By Edward Saul
Excitement abounds for we enthusiasts of Alan Moore, HP Lovecraft and Weird Fiction, as the crashing denouement to Providence looms overhead. Considering that the exact release date for Providence #11, let alone #12, is aptly unknowable, now is the prime time for speculation. Such speculation should not, of course, be limited merely to theorizing on what happens next, but could also stretch to the overall motives and meanings behind the series, and how that might predict what happens next.
This can be logical and precise, based on the evidence presented; those of us eagle-eyed readers, for instance, had by the release issue #3 or #4 realized that Prof. Alvarez’s comparison of Robert Black with that other Herald reporter who found Dr. Livingstone was subtly foreshadowing Black’s inevitable encounter with Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Equally, it is also possible that such theories become outlandish, echoing the excesses of 9/11 truthers in their drawing together of thick black lines between distant, disparate dots. Or, rarely, there might be a happy medium between the two.
I put it to you, fellow readers: Providence isn’t just about Lovecraft, his fiction, its meanings and its impact. It’s also a riposte to True Detective Season 1.
Stay with me here.
My curiosity about the subject was piqued by an observation on Bleeding Cool, the news-aggregate website run by comics enthusiast Rich Johnston and paid-for by Avatar Press, publisher of Providence, following the broadcast of the final chapter in True Detective S1. It was pointed out that the final conversation between the two titular detectives, Cohle and Hart, echoes that used in an issue of Top 10, Moore’s series with Gene Ha and Zander Cannon, which originally takes place between a middle-aged space adventurer and a cosmic chess piece fused in a teleportation accident.
When Providence began, I did not think much further—until this very website alerted me to the existence of the series’ ‘Weird Pulp’ variants. If you’re not aware, a popular plot element of True Detective as it was broadcast was its passing mentions of Chambers’ King in Yellow—and the variant for issue #1 of the series clearly shows the titular monarch, standing silently over a host of those driven mad by the fictional play named for him. This visual connection—in concert with the frequent mentions of Chambers and his work in that first issue—gave me the idea that series creator Nic Pizzolato might have cribbed more from, er, Moore. My first google-search to that effect yielded a result that hardly argued in his favour: a candid admission that he has long been a fan of Moore, whose work (and Grant Morrison’s) taught him the storytelling method.
When you examine the visual motifs of the series, the parallels with The Courtyard and Neonomicon do stand out. In both works, we have otherworldly themes being explored in very humdrum, domestic settings. In both, we have the same provincial ‘simple folk’ of whose lives Lovecraft wrote perpetrating atrocities. Aldo Sax in The Courtyard, like Rust Cohle in the flashback storyline of True Detective, is a skinny figure with a shaven head; when we see him again in Neonomicon, it is when two other investigators have come to listen to his unintelligible ramblings, Burrows’ panel work practically storyboarding the camera angles for that same scenario unfolding in the present-day storyline of True Detective. After his encounter with Johnny Carcosa, Sax carves a swastika on his forehead; the Carcosa cultists that are revealed in the TV series are not shy in adorning their bodies with fill-foots.
Visual motifs, however, do not by themselves provide a proper argument. To make a more convincing case, we must make a brief detour into both Moore and Pizzolato’s use of the creative technique called intertextuality.
Intertextuality, as explored brilliantly in this video by YouTube user Nerdwriter, is a technique wherein one work is influenced by, and beholden to another—and, frequently in modern media, one wherein a story’s plot beats and significant events are built on communicating information which has far greater significance to the viewing/reading audience than it ever will to the characters. Distinct from metatextuality, intertextuality does not so much tear down the fourth wall as it does poke holes in it to push through messages.
It can be done well—e.g., the use of the phrase “We make him an offer he don’t refuse” in The Godfather Part II—or poorly—critics have noted that the climax of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice can be easily summarised as “But—but we got Doomsday in the movie!” Like all writing techniques, when robbed of meaning and justification, intertextuality falls flat, coming off as tidbits written to satisfy an easily-pleased audience.
Moore’s work, by contrast, is built with intertextuality as its baseline—the uniting thread between his diverse body of work is the presumption that his audience are intelligent and critical, and if they don’t immediately understand the revelatory nature of throwaway lines and images in his work, they will be willing to do the work necessary to reach understanding. Whether it’s the myriad references crammed into the background of every panel of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or the creeping dread behind Prof. Alvarez’s blue, glowing window on the cover of Providence #1, Moore’s work lives and breathes intertextuality, and is arguably a singular factor in his success as a writer.
So to True Detective. The methodology of a TV series laying out subtle clues to a grander mystery is not something which Pizzolato invented, being a hallmark of older creations such as Doctor Who and Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner. True Detective bucked the trend in two ways. First, unlike the methodology of J.J. Abrams and his infamous “Mystery Box” technique, the series took it as a given that their storyline would have a beginning, middle and end rather than add a teasing hook to its season finale.
This not only presents a novelty that proves popular with audiences grown used to the keep-‘em-guessing method (see also the enthusiastic response to this year’s Stranger Things, and the near-paradoxical clamour for a second season); it also bypasses Moore’s major criticism of cinema/television in contrast to comics, in that the latter can easily be combed over and revisited while the former has to be enjoyed continuously. In an age of Netflix and DVD scene selection, the average audience member finds it easier to treat films or TV series as they would a comic. The creators of a series can lay out clues that build properly to the series’ ending (such as the prominence of the color yellow, or Cohle’s “Time is a Flat Circle” speech), rather than hoping, as in LOST, that the disparate threads will be tied together in a final series.
Secondly, Pizzolato was able to utilise an effect Moore had played with in his early Lovecraft-inspired works, and one he recently mentioned Lovecraft using, in which the intertextual integration of a real-life work seems to make reality a part of the story for the audience. Just as “The King in Yellow” is a book within The King in Yellow, the fact that Chambers’ book exists in real life added authenticity to the ‘True’ in True Detective, leading some to ghoulishly speculate that the book could have real murderous consequences.
So how does the single TV series compare with the two comic series? If we boil them down to a single-sentence premise, then the plot for each is identical: “A stoic, cynical detective with mental health problems investigates a series of ritual murders based on a Weird Fiction classic, drawing them into a web of cults and conspiracies that alters their attitude forever”. In Moore, both Aldo Sax and Merrill Brears fit the same “protagonist of a modern procedural crime drama” template that Rust Cohle became a part of; the later work supplants Chamber’s stories for Lovecraft’s.
Far more can be drawn from the contrasting differences between the two works than the similarities, however. Both of Moore’s protagonists, whether partnered (Brears) or not (Sax), are not the nihilists that Cohle is: Sax merely lives with a variation of the elitism that Lovecraft utilised in his work, being an analogue for that person, and Brears is only world-weary due to the tumult created in her life by her sex addiction. Sax and Cohle, in using an analytical and somewhat arrogant attitude to their investigations, are corrupted by that which they investigate; Brears and Cohle both descend, spiritually and physically, into a subterranean realm.
Yet we notice that—in keeping with the more romantic theme of Chambers’ work, and the unspoken rule that network TV not be allowed to delve into as adventurously depressing territory as comic books—the eventual character journey is reversed. Sax becomes one with the very cult he was trying to investigate, murdering in fluent Aklo; Brears, as the prospective mother of Cthulhu, makes peace with her fatalistic purpose. Cohle, on the other hand, is forced to abandon his bleak outlook when confronted with horror—accepting that he is on the side of light fighting against darkness.
So if Providence is Moore recognizing and silently recoiling against True Detective, how does this manifest in the text? We notice in the opening of Providence that our new protagonist, Robert Black, is dismissive of Chambers’ work—it being only a minor fiction and apparently inferior to Sous Le Monde, the analogue for the book-within-the-book of The King in Yellow. This could easily be seen as Moore dismissing Pizzolato’s usage of Chambers’ less haunting work; the empty-headed Prissy Turner’s recollection of it as “The Yellow Thing” could be seen as a reference to The King in Yellow’s modern popularity being as fleeting as when originally published.
Further to this, though human critics such as Prof. Alvarez still hold Chambers worthy of estimation, The King in Yellow serves only as a catalyst to Black’s journey—perhaps an intertextual reference to the way in which True Detective has, in borrowing the themes Moore played with in his earlier work, helped to popularize them and paved the way for Providence’s publication—and does not return until the latest chapter, #10. Here, Johnny Carcosa, the closest direct connection between Providence and Chambers, makes his appearance; and as the mouth-piece of Lovecraft’s ‘pantheon’, informs Black that they have no interest in Chambers. Clearly, to Moore, The King in Yellow can only ever be a starting point leading elsewhere—and perhaps True Detective can also be retooled as a gateway to his own work, as it was to Chambers’.
So how does this impact the final chapters of Providence? One will note that the variant covers to #11 give us a couple of clues. Two of them, the Weird Pulp and Pantheon versions, have direct depictions of Nyarlathotep and the High Priest Not To Be Described, both connected partly to The King in Yellow, and the latter much resembling the King in Burrows’ “Weird Pulp” variant to #1; the “Dreamscape” cover depicts Randolph Carter in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, in which he directly meets and speaks with Nyarlathotep’s avatar; and, most directly, the regular/“Ancient Tome” covers depict the “Exit Garden” from #1, directly related to the “Lethal Chambers” of The King in Yellow, and the “Portrait” cover has the arm of Lillian Russell extending Sous Le Monde to Robert Black.
Will Moore’s narrative return to Chambers’ work only to finally, and damningly, demonstrate its inferiority to Lovecraft’s, and by proxy, Pizzolato’s to his own? Or will it be an exercise in setting the narrative straight, steering away from the optimistic tone of True Detective S1’s conclusion and back towards the existential dread which both Chambers and Lovecraft originally intended? Like Carter and Cohle, will Robert Black be brought to the edge of total despair, only to wrench himself away from danger as though waking from a dream?
As so often happens in Moore’s work, I leave the conclusion to you…