After twelve issues – or eighteen, if you count The Courtyard and Neonomicon – we come to the end of Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’ Providence. To finally have the whole project complete at last, we can finally sit back and reflect. No more annotations, no more stressing over page borders and trying to find the one black cat, no more digging through libraries of Lovecraftian lore to catch each reference, to untangle the hints and shades of meaning, the layers of possible interpretation. To compare notes and swap theories.
It’s been fun. Thanks for reading with us.
The ending is what you might come to expect, once you’ve come to expect it. Alan Moore has always liked the quieter, anticlimactic, introverted sort of apocalypse, “Only the End of the World Again” to steal a line from one of Neil Gaiman’s Lovecraftian tales; Jacen Burrows was never going to deliver anything except crisp artwork, attention to detail in every line, and a loving touch to every monster and bit of alien fungus. More than the previous issues, there is a sense of ritual and finality to Providence #12: the stage is set, the players in their places, and the final drama is almost a formality.
Providence has been, from the beginning, a human story, and humans like their endings. If some readers have felt that the final issue didn’t deliver, it may be because their expectations were in the wrong place. Providence is the end of the human story, but not the end of all stories. An apocalypse for the human ants milling about on planet Earth is just one small step for Cthulhu. As in several of Moore’s previous apocalypses – Watchmen, Tom Strong, Promethea, Swamp Thing – the end is a time for answers, but not all the answers; it provides a sense of closure, while reminding us that there is no final closure. With its final pages, Robert Black and Aldo Sax and Merril Brears are laid to their literary rest…but there are a few more points to ponder, a few unsolved mysteries, and some final reflections.
Several threads in the series were quietly dropped and never really picked up again. The “white powder” in The Courtyard never played any part of Neonomicon or Providence, perhaps because while Arthur Machen’s “Novel of the White Powder” was influential on Lovecraft, the Old Gent from Providence never used it in his own Mythos. Likewise, some bit characters disappear: Randolph Carter of the Ulthar Cats is a no-show in Providence, and most of the inmates of Haven released by Brears when she rescued Sax likewise disappear quietly off-screen, the motivation for their curious dismemberments never truly revealed.
Aldo Sax himself feels almost like an afterthought in issue twelve, there for a moment and then quietly dispatched off-screen. In many ways, the narrative had long outgrown him, a symptom of Moore continuing a story which was initially self-contained (The Courtyard), and then grew an unexpected sequel (Neonomicon), which finally laid the groundwork for a much more ambitious story (Providence). Maybe there’s a no-prize for the reader that can fit the pieces together – certainly there is an argument, looking back from the end of Providence, that some of the events of The Courtyard might have been orchestrated (or pre-ordained); without Sax, the FBI would likely never have found Club Zothique and Johnny Carcosa, and Merril Brears might never have followed Carcosa’s trail to Salem and the Dagon cultists there.
Johnny Carcosa himself represents one of the great enigmas of the series; an avatar of Nyarlathotep whose origins and role shift from series to series, too valuable to throw away and yet remaining essentially unexplained. In The Courtyard he is a dealer in esoteric drugs, sex toys, and enlightenment who lives with his mother; Neonomicon sees him step out of this role, becoming the apologetic messenger of unnamed forces; and in Providence he begins to take an increasingly leading role in events – the quasi-human face for the inhuman forces at play. Yet his origins, his nature, his history remain quintessentially unknown. Was he always an avatar of Nyarlathotep? Why was he dealing drugs (and other things) from Club Zothique? Was he the manipulator of events, or just another pawn – the needle of the Great Old Ones, dropped down at different points on the spinning record as necessary?
Another mystery is the connection between the Stella Sapiente and the Catholic church. Never detailed, though Moore began to draw comparisons with the Nativity in Neonomicon with the Annunciation of Merril Brears, it is strongly hinted at in the last act of Providence, and the final issue is a parody of the Nativity of Jesus, more blatant than even Arthur Machen’s “The Great God Pan” or Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror,” suggesting that in some way the Order’s eschatology and the Church’s are intertwined. There are hints, never really more than that, of connections between the “binary world” of Earth and Yuggoth and Gnostic beliefs, but the Catholic apocalypse doesn’t quite work on the face of it: Cthulhu is not the second coming of Jesus, Merril Brears is not the Whore of Babylon from Revelations.
Then again, maybe that’s the point. What did Robert Black herald? What did H. P. Lovecraft redeem?
A reader could take Providence at face value: without a familiarity with Lovecraft, The Courtyard, or Neonomicon, it would be a bit of a slog. They wouldn’t really understand the things they saw, even though from the perspective of the reader they would grasp more of the hidden and monstrous world than Robert Black did, until his final moments in Providence #10 and #11. The great virtue of the story really starts to come out when a reader does have more pieces of the puzzle – exactly as it is with Lovecraft’s Mythos. A reader who encounters Lovecraft for the first time does not know what to expect when someone lets loose an exaltation of Shub-Niggurath, nor does their pulse quicken when they find out that Aesnath Waite is from Innsmouth if they have never read “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” In that sense, at least, Providence is an initiation for some readers, and a deeper revelation for others – those who have read The Courtyard and Neonomicon, who are familiar with the work and life of Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos, get more out of it.
Too, it is hard not to compare Providence with other works. Most Lovecraftian comics are less ambitious; one-shot adaptations or brief original series based on or incorporating some element of the Mythos, or even Lovecraft himself. From Dylan Dog and Martin Mystere to The Strange Adventures of H. P. Lovecraft, Necronauts, Golgotha, and Young Lovecraft. Few are as lengthy or as complicated as Providence and its two precursors – they lack the level of detail that Moore goes into, the weaving of fact and fiction; the closest, perhaps is the graphic novel Lovecraft (2003, Hans Rodionoff, Enrique Breccia, Keith Griffen), which is also concerned with H. P. Lovecraft and a “real” Necronomicon, a parallel world where the Mythos was real but entered through subterranean gates, but even that does not measure up in terms of the scope and care put into the plotting, and in the end Lovecraft has HPL as kind of nobly tragic figure protecting the world from horrors it thinks are fictions.
Yet in Providence, the world does end, and the last witnesses and participants are left, with the readers, in largely uncharted territory. Lovecraft was clear that when the stars were right, Cthulhu and the Great Old Ones would come back into their own. The details afterwards are a little vague. In “The Dunwich Horror” Wilbur Whateley himself is uncertain, saying only:
“I wonder how I shall look when the earth is cleared and there are no earth beings on it.”
The problem is, once Cthulhu comes, it isn’t a human story, not anymore. Writers like August Derleth wrote pulp stories of fantastic adventure, where humans fought the minions of the Great Old Ones with mystic talismans and even nuked Cthulhu, for all the good it did them. Scott R. Jones in When The Stars Are Right: Towards An Authentic R’lyehian Spirituality talks about the acceptance of an ending, the narratives of death and closure we are told throughout our lives, and yet that we come to that moment beyond which we cannot know anything. Different ways of dealing with the same inevitability. Perlman and Brears’ takes on things.
In Providence, the world ended, but the characters still exist. It isn’t their story, not anymore. Perhaps some of them can work out new narratives, find a new place in a world. Readers may already be familiar with the concept: after all, every time a story ends, we close the book and put it back on the shelf, or close the file, or turn off the media player. Their story is over; ours continues. We lived for a time in their world, experienced what they did from our voyeuristic perspective, all the wonders and horrors that Aldo, Merril, and Robert encountered. Now their time is done, the final page turned.
We are all that is left. We who are on Leng, from their perspective, seeing the whole scope of their past and future at once, and every moment in between. The metanarrative of Providence might haunt a bit.