Below are annotations for Providence, No. 1 “The Yellow Sign” (32 pages plus covers, May 27 2015)
Writer: Alan Moore, Artist: Jacen Burrows, based on works of H.P. Lovecraft
Note: some of this is obvious, but you never know who’s reading and what their exposure is. If there’s anything we missed or got wrong, let us know in comments.
General: This issue takes place on June 5, 1919. Robert Black walks back and forth from the Herald offices, through Manhattan, and interviews Dr. Alvarez, Providence‘s analog for Dr. Muñoz of Lovecraft’s short story “Cool Air.” At the same time, Black’s lover, Jonathan (Lillian) Russell commits suicide. The issue concludes with Black’s written account of the day’s events in his Commonplace Book.
- Thanks to Alan Moore World and their reader Flavio Pessanha for basically annotating this.
- The building depicted is 317 W 14th St, New York, NY 10014.
- The site is that of Lovecraft’s story “Cool Air.” Read “Cool Air” (text available in its entirety online, also in audiobook version) as it is referenced throughout Providence #1.
- According to Wikipedia, Lovecraft wrote “Cool Air” during his unhappy stay in New York City, during which he wrote three horror stories with a New York setting. The building that is the story’s main setting is based on a townhouse at 317 West 14th Street where George Kirk, one of Lovecraft’s few New York friends, lived briefly in 1925.
- The light on, on the fourth floor, is Dr. Muñoz room from “Cool Air”: (excerpt from Dagonbytes via Alan Moore World)
[A]fter a time I came upon a house in West Fourteenth Street which disgusted me much less than the others I had sampled. […] in my third-floor front hall room […] One evening at about eight I heard a spattering on the floor and became suddenly aware that I had been smelling the pungent odour of ammonia for some time. Looking about, I saw that the ceiling was wet and dripping; the soaking apparently proceeding from a corner on the side toward the street. […] Mrs. Herrero disappeared up the staircase to the fourth floor, and I returned to my room. The ammonia ceased to drip, and as I cleaned up what had spilled and opened the window for air, I heard the landlady’s heavy footsteps above me. Dr. Muñoz I had never heard, save for certain sounds as of some gasoline-driven mechanism; since his step was soft and gentle.
A map of Providence, Rhode Island, where H. P. Lovecraft was born and lived most of his life. Prominent at the top is Swan Point Cemetery, where Lovecraft is buried.
- The letter is to Jonathan Russell, also known as Lillian “Lily” Russell, whose hands first appear in panel 2. The letter is from Robert Black, who first appears on Page 2.
- Jonathan may have taken the name Lillian Russell as a reference to the famous late 19th/early 20th century actress and singer. Commenter keshavkrishnamurty points out that ““Mr. Lillian Russell” was a nickname for another Broadway star and legendary cross-dresser and female impersonator Julian Eltinge, who may or may not have been homosexual himself” which adds yet another layer of reference.
- Though the letter is dated April 1919, Providence #1 takes place on June 5, 1919 (see P30 below.)
- “Huysmans” refers to Joris-Karl Huysmans, a famous French Decadent writer whose works include À rebours (1884) and Là–Bas (1891), which influenced weird fiction.
- The page is constructed to focus the reader’s eyes towards the center of each panel. The view faces the same direction, and zooms slowly outward (back toward the reader.) Moore uses zoom sequences frequently, including on P1 of Watchmen #1.
- This is the first instance of a motif that appears a few times: layers are peeled back to reveal what is beneath. On this page, the words are peeled/discarded to reveal the reality of the city (or, in truth, a picture of the city.) These theme is alluded to in the written word here “you seemed to break through the mere words to the reality lying beyond them.” (Thanks commenter cent.)
- Panelwise, Providence, same as Neonomicon, features black comics gutters (the space between panels.) These interact with the black shadowed areas to create areas where the panel border is implied but missing – for example see Russell’s black coat at the bottom right corner of panel 3.
- Panelwise, Providence follows the four horizontal panels stacked on top of each other page format established on P3 of Neonomicon. This gives an almost cinematic feel, the eyes – and often the characters – typically drawn toward the center of each panel. It’s an effective trick of perspective, framing the reader’s attention.
- Panelwise, the edges of the gutter are hand-drawn, slightly irregular.
- The appearance of the fountain reveals this to be Bryant Park, in New York City. Russell appears to be very near the library, facing west toward 6th Avenue. The gap between the buildings in the center of the panel appears to be 41st Street. According to Black’s Commonplace Book (see P32 below), Russell and Black frequented this library, park, and stream.
- Readers with a better grasp of NYC history and geography, please comment. This appears to be a Bryant Park slightly different that what actually existed in 1919.
There does not appear to have ever been an east-west water feature running through Bryant Park, as depicted (and mentioned on P32 below “that little stream that they put in that’s fed from the old reservoir before the library was there.”) Moore and Burrows show the fountain in the west end of the park, where it exists today. According to Wikipedia, the fountain was initially installed in 1913 in the east end of the park (basically very near where Russell is standing), and it was moved to its present location in 1936.The explanation for this difference is not entirely clear. It appears that Providence‘s 1919 is similar to The Courtyard‘s 2004 and Neonomicon‘s 2006. Those settings very much resembled the present day, but feature slightly futuristic devices, including city domes (see some further explanation in annotations for Neonomicon #1 P3,p3 and P9,p4.) Perhaps analogous to those futuristic devices, Providence‘s 1919 features a then-futuristic suicide chamber, shown on P6 and P15 below.
- The captions are the voice of Ephraim Posey, leading into his word balloon on P2. In a transition often used by Alan Moore (especially throughout Watchmen, for example #1, P3,p5) the text has a dual meaning. Though it is the off-panel Posey describing the press’ relationship with the public, the words also apply to Russell’s situation depicted in the panel. Russell is in despair over the end of his relationship with his boyfriend/lover Robert Black (the dispute is shown in the flashback sequence below on P22 panels 2 and 4.) Black has figuratively “thrown away” his relationship with Russell, and Russell has literally “thrown away” Black’s letter. He and Black “were in a position of trust” but have “let all that go.”
- The setting is the offices of the New York Herald, an actual newspaper published 1835-1924.
- First appearance of Ephraim Posey (left), Prissy Turner (center), Freddy Dix (center-right) and Robert Black (right).
- There appears to be a love triangle with Dix interested in Turner, and Turner interested in Black.
- The headline on the typewriter page reads “Will Treaty Spell Trouble,” and the text specifies the subject is the Treaty of Versailles (signed 28 June 1919), marking the end of World War I.
- The byline on the typewriter page is “Robert Black.” According to an Alan Moore interview, Robert Black is the protagonist of the series, and a homosexual Jewish male. Robert Black appears to be based on a few characters (read Phil Smith comment) including Lovecraft’s fictional Robert Blake (who’s based the real writer Robert Bloch) and Lovecraft’s friend Samuel Loveman. (We’ll add more detail on this as Providence progresses and we get to know Black better.)
- “Hearst” is William Randolph Hearst, an American newspaper magnate renowned for his “yellow journalism,” marked by lurid ledes and exaggeration to grab the readers’ attention and sell papers instead of researched or unbiased reporting.
- Dime novels were a popular form of literary entertainment in the United States in the late 1800s, and were the immediate precursors to the pulp magazines.
The advertisements outside the window for Blue Label Ketchup, Packard’s Black D Shoe Polish, etc. are authentic period advertisements.
- Commenter Legion of Andy points out:
Next to the black shoe polish ad — carrying Robert’s surname (And I’m sure he keeps his shoes well polished, like the rest of well-groomed surface) — is an ad for Lowney’s Cocoa. All we see of it is Lowne Coc. The N is quite large giving an impression of Low NE Coc. Robert has come to the North East — NE — (NYC) in search of cock in low places.
While this may seem like a stretch, a Google images search for ads for Lowney’s Cocoa in fact tends to support this theory. The lettering on the ads falls into a few standard arrangements, one of which is quite similar to the one depicted here, but with the letters noticeably compressed and shifted.
- The issue’s title “The Yellow Sign” refers to the mythos created by Robert W. Chambers in his book The King in Yellow (1895), later adapted as part of the Cthulhu Mythos by H. P. Lovecraft and others. Per Wikipedia, The Yellow Sign itself is a glyph symbol that anyone who has one is susceptible to some form of insidious mind control by the King in Yellow. Chambers’ stories suggest that the sign came from an alternate dimension’s ancient city known as Carcosa (see Johnny Carcosa in Neonomicon and The Courtyard.)
- Commenter Pádraig Ó Méalóid points out the preponderance of references to colors: The Yellow Sign, yellow journalism, Blue Label Ketchup, Black D Shoe Polish, Robert Black, and even implied a red badge of courage.
- Burrows and Moore employ “rotating shots,” with the perspective shifting as each panel is from a different part of the room, framing the characters movements and body language relevant to each other.
- “The Jersey Devil” is an American folktale with obscure origins. It first achieved widespread popularity in the early 20th century, where hundreds of sightings were reported in newspapers in 1909.
- “That book sent everybody crazy” – A popular misconception of the Cthulhu Mythos is that the books send the readers mad; an idea fostered by pasticheurs and especially the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game, where because of the Sanity mechanics reading Mythos tomes will render your character temporarily or permanently insane. It also describes Chambers’ eponymous play The King in Yellow referenced in the story collection of the same name. The play induces madness in those who read it.
- “Sous le Monde” is French for “Under the World.” This is a fictitious book that Moore invented as Providence‘s analog for the Chambers’ fictional play The King in Yellow, which, in Chambers’ mythos, causes its readers to go mad. The phrase may be taken from Victor Hugo‘s preface to Odes et Ballades (1822): “Sous le monde réel, il existe un monde idéal, qui se montre resplendissant à l’œil de ceux que des méditations graves ont accoutumés à voir dans les choses plus que les choses.” (Under the real world, there is an ideal world, which shows resplendent to the eye of those in serious meditation accustomed to see in things more than things.)
“Back in the ‘eighties” apparently refers to the 1880s and 1890s marked by the Decadent movement in art and literature, particularly in France and England, where the exploits of Oscar Wilde and The Yellow Book gave rise to the term “Yellow Nineties.” Moore wrote about Decadence, the Yellow Nineties, and The Yellow Book previously in 25,000 Years of Erotic Freedom.
- “It was a real title” reveals some xenophobia on Turner’s part, in that she apparently only considers things written in English to be real. Commenter Raúl Moreno aptly points out that there’s a meta-reference here: Moore is hinting at Sous le Monde not being the real title – because it’s a stand in for The King in Yellow.
- Just to the left of Robert Black’s shoulder, the pneumatic message tube system is visible (shown more fully on P5,p1.)
- The King in Yellow (1895) is the weird masterpiece of American writer Robert W. Chambers. It is a series of interconnected short stories which combine fantasy, science fiction, experimental fiction, and realistic works based in part on Chambers’ experiences in Paris. Highlights include the eponymous play The King in Yellow, the Yellow Sign, and the locations of Carcosa and the Lake of Hali that are all associated with the macabre, unseen figure of the King in Yellow entity. In writing the book, Chambers drew on the creations of Hastur, Carcosa, and Hali from fellow American writer Ambrose Bierce. Chambers’ work inspired H. P. Lovecraft and others to include references to Chambers’ mythology in their own fiction. Today, the subset of fiction centered around The King in Yellow is known as the Yellow Mythos, and has recently seen a resurgence in interest due to its adoption in the first series of True Detective.
- “Doctor Alvarez” is Providence‘s equivalent to Dr. Muñoz of Lovecraft’s story “Cool Air“. If you haven’t read “Cool Air” (text available in its entirety online, also in audiobook version) you should do so, as it forms the primary Lovecraft influence on Providence #1.
- West 14th Street was was Dr. Muñoz’ address in “Cool Air”. Alvarez first appears on P12,p1 below.
- “If providence allows” – Possibly a pun on Moore’s part, referring in-character to divine providence, and out-of-character to the Providence series. Notably, H. P. Lovecraft himself never completed and published a novel during his lifetime (the closest being The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath), though he planned one or two.
- “Apparently, some readers went insane and even committed suicide” – A reference to the first story of The King in Yellow, “The Repairer of Reputations.”
It is well known how the book spread like an infectious disease, from city to city, from continent to continent, barred out here, confiscated there, denounced by Press and pulpit, censured even by the most advanced of literary anarchists. No definite principles had been violated in those wicked pages, no doctrine promulgated, no convictions outraged. It could not be judged by any known standard, yet, although it was acknowledged that the supreme note of art had been struck in The King in Yellow, all felt that human nature could not bear the strain, nor thrive on words in which the essence of purest poison lurked. The very banality and innocence of the first act only allowed the blow to fall afterward with more awful effect.”
- “Ghoulish,” “[inducing] goose-bumps” and “a real stiff” are all apt descriptions for the eerie Dr. Muñoz in “Cool Air”. As with a number of things in Providence, there is ambiguity with double meanings. Goose bumps could be from cold air, or the eerieness of an animated corpse. A real stiff could be a dead person, or someone live who’s really dull.
- The setting returns to Bryant Park; floating on the water are the ripped pages of the letter from Page 1.
- The white things on Johnathan’s shoes are spats, now rarely seen; they were designed to protect the ankle, shoes, and socks from water and mud.
- The building on the right, later called an “exit garden” (see P25,p1) is a chamber for committing suicide. The exit garden references the Lethal Chamber in Robert W. Chambers’ story “The Repairer of Reputations” which is described as follows:
It was, I remember, the 13th day of April, 1920, that the first Government Lethal Chamber was established on the south side of Washington Square, between Wooster Street and South Fifth Avenue. […] In the centre of the garden stood a small, white building, severely classical in architecture, and surrounded by thickets of flowers. Six Ionic columns supported the roof, and the single door was of bronze. A splendid marble group of the “Fates” stood before the door, the work of a young American sculptor, Boris Yvain, who had died in Paris when only twenty-three years old.
- Commenter E.A.Buck notes “the Spanish word for butterfly is “mariposa” which is Mexican slang for a gay guy. It certainly is a poignant metaphor for Jonathan/Lillian’s death.”
- Many streets of New York were still unpaved in 1919, and you can see both a horse-drawn cart and a streetcar.
- Behind Black is the southwest corner of the Herald Building, shown more fully on P23,p1 below. In the upper right is the 6th Avenue elevated railway tracks.
- The transitions from panel 1 to 2 is similar to that from panel 3 to 4. In each, the younger Robert Black is just to the below right of the contemporary (1919) Robert Black.
- Sepia toned panels are flashbacks.
- The setting is Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The boy depicted is a young Robert Black, seated at a table with his parents.
- “Married to some pretty girl” shows his parents assume (incorrectly) that Black is heterosexual.
- The emphasis on being a doctor, speech patterns, and cheek-pinching are suggestive of Jewish-American immigrant stereotypes.
- On the left-hand side, you can just make out a framed silhouette, formerly a popular form of art. Lovecraft had his silhouette cut by E. J. Perry.
- Horn & Hardart was an actual food services company with multiple automat restaurants in NYC.
- This street view should be easy to nail down (hardware, hat shop, H&H, hotel – all Hs?), but we haven’t been able to find it. It should be between Herald Square and Madison Square which are connected by Broadway… but the scale looks more like an east-west street, than Broadway?
- Again the sepia tone indicates a flashback. The young man is Robert Black, speaking with his father.
- Black, who is gay, is following a common migration pattern still practiced today. Closeted homosexuals depart from their smaller hometowns and go to big cities where homosexuality is tolerated to a greater extent.
- First appearance of Charles.
- The automat is a now mostly defunct style of fast-food eatery. Meal items were located in slots in the wall, dishes and all, and were paid for using a coin slot.
- Oddly, Charles is wearing a plain band on his left middle finger, perhaps to emphasize he is unmarried.
- Charles, like Black, is gay (or at least travels in gay circles), otherwise he would not know about Black’s closeted homosexual relationship with Lillian (Johnathan) Russell.
- Vera is apparently Charles’ lover/boyfriend.
- “Wearing her hair up” was then gay slang for not being openly gay. Thanks commenter Nate.
- “Dropping hairpins” is gay slang for dropping hints that one is gay, perhaps as a precursor to flirting.
- Charles wears a red (bow) tie which was a covert homosexual sign, per commenter Nate according to the book Gay New York.
- “The city of bachelors” may also be gay slang. Please comment.
- The New York Times frontpage sets the date at June 17, 1919, although this may be an error (see Page 30 below) or one of the subtle differences between Providence‘s 1919 and earth’s (see P1, panels 2-3 above.)
- Similar to Page 6, there are some parallels in the transitions from panel 1 to 2 and 3 to 4. The newspaper on the left in panel 1 becomes the newspaper boss Posey in panel 2. The (questionable) vice of alcohol on the left in panel 3 becomes the (questionable) vice of gay pick-up coupling in panel 4.
- Again the sepia tone indicates a flashback. The young man is Robert Black, being hired by his now-boss Ephraim Posey.
- Posey, as Black’s father had above (P7,p2), assumes Black is straight and warns him that “women are an awful temptation.”
- On the left, you can see a Temperance Movement sign – “Drink The Demon That Is Haunting America” – part of the campaign for national prohibition.
- The “D” in “DRINK” is hollowed out, and the “R” is partially obscured by bunting. This leads to a second reading, that “KINK” is the demon haunting America. And the very next panel is our first strong hint that Black is a gay man.
- Black is walking south on 5th Avenue. The building on the right is the Flatiron Building; the trees behind (left of) it are in Madison Square Park. The view is roughly the same as this present day Google street view.
- Again the sepia tone indicates a flashback.
- Robert Black is apparently cruising a gay pick-up area. His back to the reader may indicate symbolize his lack of openness, his closetedness.
- The sailor is wearing the traditional “dixie cup” hat.
- Sepia tone indicates a flashback.
- Lillian Russell is also known as Johnathan Russell, who tore up the letter on the first page. At this point, Moore and Burrows haven’t made it clear to the reader that Lillian Russell is actually a male, and that she’s the male who we saw on P1.
- “The Ariston when they got raided in 1903” – The Ariston Baths, beneath the Ariston Hotel in New York City, were a historical meeting place for homosexuals. It was famed for a police raid in 1903, categorized as the first anti-gay raid in New York history.
- The intersection is 5th Avenue and 14th Street. The view is facing south. The building depicted is still there, visible on Google street view.
- The area, at the border of NYC’s Greenwich Village neighborhood, is apparently some kind of homosexual cruising area, as Black later (P30) writes “I’m down on W. 14th Street, which is obviously a part of town that I’m not unfamiliar with. The gay girls down there weighed me up with practiced gazes and dismissed me as at best a bad investment and at worst as competition. I think one or two of them I recognized.” There are probably more details in the book Gay New York (a book Moore mentions as part of his background research for Providence – see this lecture – starting minute 23) but here is a line from the 2014 Alan Moore forward to The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft: “[Circa 1920] On the streets of Harlem, Greenwich Village, Times Square, and the Bowery in New York [City], a novel populace of highly visible and unapologetically flamboyant homosexual men (and women, albeit less noticeably) were establishing themselves, much to the consternation of the city’s moral arbiters.”
- Sepia tone indicates a flashback.
- “Gautier” is Théophile Gautier, French Romantic writer
- “Swinburne” is Algernon Charles Swinburne, English poet
- “De l’Isle Adam” is Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, a French symbolist writer whose collection Contes cruels (1883) gave name to an entire genre of horror fiction.
- “I’ll be Venus, you be Tannhäuser” – Almost certainly a reference to Aubrey Beardsley‘s erotic novel The Story of Venus and Tannhäuser (1907), originally published as Under the Hill. Beardsley was an infamous artist of the Yellow Nineties, associated with Oscar Wilde, The Yellow Book, and Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan (1890). Venusberg, the site of the legend of Venus and Tannhäuser, appeared in Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier.
- Black has arrived at 317 W 14th St, the “Cool Air” building shown on the cover. The buildings behind him are more-or-less the same as the present day Google street view.
- The transition from p9,p4 to P10,p1 is a (somewhat mild) page-turn reveal.
- The building depicted is 317 W 14th St, New York, NY 10014, shown on the cover. See cover notes above. (Commenter Seigor Bolskan notes that the fire escape and balconies on the building to the left are inconsistent between this panel and the cover. Could be a mistake or intentional.)
- P10,p2 through P11,p2 are a fixed-camera sequence. Moore and Burrows show the passing of time through the progress of the cart and the people walking.
- First appearance of Mrs. Ortega, Providence‘s equivalent for the Spanish landlady Mrs. Herrero of Lovecraft’s story “Cool Air.”
- Mrs. Ortega answers the door after a pause in a housecoat; this is a foreshadowing of her relationship with Dr. Alvarez, made clear below on P13,p2.
- “Sí?” is Spanish for “yes?”
- First appearance of Dr. Alvarez, Providence‘s equivalent for the Dr. Muñoz of Lovecraft’s story “Cool Air.”
- It’s probably just faithfulness to the original text, but Burrows’ Alvarez bears some resemblance to Bernie Wrightston’s Muñoz in the 1975 adaptation of “Cool Air” published in Eerie #62.
- “¿Señor Alvarez? Este caballero es del periódico. Como siempre le digo, todos deberían saber de usted. Mr. Alvarez?”
Translation: This gentleman is with the newspaper. As I always say, everyone should know about you.
- “Oh, muy bien. Puede pasar. Espero verla más tarde, querida señorita Ortega.”
Translation: Oh, very good. He can come in. I hope to see you later, dear Mrs. Ortega.
- Doctor Alvarez is also in his housecoat – probably for the same reason as Mrs. Ortega – made clear below on P13,p2.
- “Lo veré esta noche… y háblele bien de usted a este joven.”
Translation: I’ll see to it tonight… and speak well of yourself to this young man.
- There is quite a contrast between Black’s and Alvarez’ complexions. Black, who appears pale compared to his newspaper co-workers, has a much warmer complexion than Alvarez’ cool (nearly blue-green) pale complexion.
- The cold, Alverez’ illness, and the ammonia-fueled cooling system are further references to Lovecraft’s “Cool Air.”
- You can first see Black’s breath misting in the cold air. In contrast, Alvarez’ breath does not mist. (Thanks commenter Ken Langfield)
- “Claude Guillot” is apparently a fictitious original author Moore invented. Guillot is perhaps a play on the word guillotine.
- To the left is a framed picture of a human heart. These and other medical diagrams reinforce Alvarez’ medical background.
- The item Alvarez picks up appears to be a pair of underpants. Coupled with Alvarez’ comments, the implication is that he and Mrs. Ortega are lovers, and that Black interrupted them during sex. Moore has invented the sexual relationship between Muñoz (Alvarez) and Herrero (Ortega) which is neither mentioned nor implied in Lovecraft’s story “Cool Air.”
- To the left of Black, you can see the bottles and Alvarez’ cooling equipment.
- “Sfarda” is a reference to the Sephardic Jews of Spanish ancestry, subtly hinting at Black’s closeted Jewish ancestry.
- Since Black in no significant way appears Jewish, this foreshadows the fact that Alvarez knows more about Black than we would expect, as made more blatant below at P17.p3 and P31.
- Commenter Mr Nobody points out that red hair (which Alvarez has just commented upon) was associated with Jews in Medieval Spain.
- Picking back up from Page 5 above, the setting is inside the suicide chamber in Bryant Park. The hand on the right belongs to Jonathan/Lillian Russell.
- A few years from now, young people may not recognize this as a phonograph record. In this period, phonographs and even recording were often mechanical as they were electric, and would run at 78 RPM. Implicitly, the suicide picks the music to listen to as they await death to claim them.
- The record is Pullman Porter’s Parade, sung by Al Jolson. (Thanks to commenter ccsbn for pointing this out.)
- Commenter skeletonpete adds:
The song choice seems a strange one at first. Jolson, who sings it in “minstrel” style, was still wearing black face in 1913 when it was recorded.
Further investigation shows a link to the underlying social themes (worker’s rights, unionization) that Moore has been documenting throughout the series. As you likely know the porter’s were predominantly black men working service jobs in the sleeping cars of railway trains.
They attempted to organize/unionize, even boycott the Pullman company, as far back as the 1880’s, but were disallowed entry into the railway workers union based on race. Perhaps the “parade” was a show of solidarity as these workers continued to consolidate their brotherhood through the 1920’s and their actions are seen as a harbinger of the civil rights movement.
- Commenter skeletonpete adds:
- This is another fixed-camera sequence, again depicting the passage of time.
- “Cool Air” mentions Muñoz’ interest in precious books: “the unconventional and astonishingly ancient volumes on his [Dr. Muñoz’] shelves.”
- “Kitab Al-Hikmah Al-Najmiyya” is Arabic for “Book of the Wisdom of the Stars.” This book is Providence‘s analogue for Lovecraft’s Necronomicon. Many Arabian texts on alchemy, philosophy, medicine, and the occult filtered into Europe during the Middle Ages and later, forming an important part of the corpus of European knowledge. This book is Providence‘s analog for Lovecraft’s Necronomicon. In Lovecraft’s The History of the Necronomicon, his famous grimoire is given a similar origin in the Arabic Al Azif (sometimes rendered by other writers as the Kitab Al-Azif or similar).
- Commenter David Milne points out that “Book of the Wisdom of the Stars” sounds like The Starry Wisdom, the name of the Lovecraft-inspired compilation where Alan Moore’s story The Courtyard first appeared. That book title referenced a fictional cult of worshipers of Nyarlathotep, the “Church of Starry Wisdom” which appears in Lovecraft’s story “The Haunter of the Dark.” More generally, the title would also apply to real-world Arabic works of astrology like the Picatrix, which may have inspired Lovecraft’s Necronomicon.
- “For many years it was believed a joke to be, a fiction.” – Again, Moore is re-fictionalizing the Cthulhu Mythos – instead of the King in Yellow, the Sous le Monde; instead of Dr. Muñoz, Dr. Alvarez; instead of the Al Azif, the Kitab Al-Hikmah Al-Najmiyya and so on.
- “Khalid Ibn Yazid” is Moore’s invention, not to be confused with Khalid ibn Yazid al-Shaybani who would have lived a century later. As becomes clearer in later issues, Khalid Ibn Yazid is Providence’s analogue for Lovecraft’s “mad Arab” Abdul Alhazred author of the dreaded Necronomicon.
- “Dr. Estes” is the counterpart to Dr. Torres in “Cool Air”
- “The Reviving of Cadavers” is a reference to Lovecraft’s “Herbert West—Reanimator” and similar stories, including perhaps the reanimated “y’m-bhi” of “The Mound.”
- “The Transplanting of Souls” refers to Lovecraft’s “The Thing on the Doorstep,” and possibly “The Shadow Out of Time.”
- The other two methods are not named here, but it willbe no surprise that one of them turns out to be preservation through cold – as in “Cool Air”. The methods are explained a bit more fully in Providence #2, P11.p4, and we see some of what the Kitab has to say about them in Providence #6, P38.
- “Mr. Suydam in Flatbush” is a reference to Robert Suydam from Lovecraft’s story “The Horror at Red Hook.” Suydam is mentioned briefly in both The Courtyard #1 P23,p2 and Neonomicon #1 P12,p2. See this blog post for background on Suydam who appears extensively in Providence #2 (beginning P7,p3.)
- “The Repairer of Reputations” in The King in Yellow is set in an alternate future New York in the 1920s, which featured legalized suicide chambers (see Pages 5 and 14 above) and a concluded European war with an American victory; this further reinforces the layered fictionality of Providence, where the reality of the comic book is not our reality, nor even Lovecraft’s. See P1,p2-3 above for further exploration of this alternate reality.
- The armless statue on the left seems referenced from the Venus di Milo.
- The New York Herald sent reporter Henry Morton Stanley on a harrowing quest into Africa to find Dr. David Livingstone in 1869; in 1871, Stanley succeeded, famously supposed to have greeted the ailing explorer with the phrase “Dr. Livingstone I presume?” This dated reference – some forty years before the time of the comic – gives an indication of Dr. Alvarez’ true age.
- The statue of Athena and the brass owls with electric flashing eyes are true details of the Herald building, as revealed in the Bleeding Cool interview. They are depicted on P22.
- These form a fixed-camera sequence, perhaps showcasing Black’s perking up when he hears about the “concealed country.”
- Commenter Mr Nobody points out that Alvarez’s statement “Life does not trouble me” is certainly true, since he is technically not alive.
- Dr. Alvarez’ veiled threat “you have your secret” suggests he knows more about Black than he should. The “concealed country… hidden below the society we show the world” sounds similar to “Sous le Monde” (Under the World) though it may describe either the “underground” society of homosexual romance the Robert Black is part of, or his heritage as Jew.
- “…is is a land sunken beneath many fathoms. Were it one day to rise and confront us all…” – Another double reference; both to the sunken island of R’lyeh, where Cthulhu sleeps, and to Blake’s “secret” – being outed.
- Back at the Bryant Park suicide chamber, continuing from P14 above. The attendant presumably waits to see that the suicide is complete.
- On the left-hand side, a device for pumping gas into the chamber; on the left a selection of records.
- Panels 1-2 form a fixed-camera sequence, showing the passing of time.
- Panel 4 reproduces the view of the suicide chamber shown on P5, panels 2-4. The light shows that it is later in the day. The white butterfly (or moth) that flew past on P5, is now dead on the ground on the left, apparently a victim of the deadly gases from the chamber.
- Dr. Alvarez offers a wholly un-supernatural explanation for the deaths associated with Sous Le Mond.
- Black is thinking about “hidden America” (P17,p3) but Dr. Alvarez is thinking about love (perhaps sexual love with Mrs. Ortega.)
- Alvarez’ statement “We must never discard those we are loved by. Lacking them, we are cursed” is alarmingly apposite. The reader learns on P22 below that Black has just discarded Russell who loved him. If Alvarez is correct, Black is cursed. (Thanks commenter Raúl Moreno)
- “Fall to pieces” describes Dr. Muñoz’ fate at the end of “Cool Air.”
- “A lively one” is ironic, because Alvarez (“Cool Air”‘s Dr. Muñoz) is dead.
- Black looks at his hand, apparently cold from shaking Alvarez’ hand.
- “The day I am knowingly dishonest with a feature is the day I quit journalism” foreshadows P25 where Black will be dishonest about Russell’s suicide. (Thanks commenter Raúl Moreno)
- The sepia flashback depicts the recent past, Black breaking up with Jonathan/Lillian Russell.
- On the left, the old-style double-decker bus.
- The street sign says W. 19th Street. The view is looking south on 5th Avenue at 19th Street, similar to this contemporary Google street view.
- The sepia flashback depicts the recent past, Black walking out on Jonathan/Lillian Russell.
- “You hide your religion, you hide the truth about us” refers to Black’s passing as a non-Jew, and his closeted homosexuality.
- Commenter Dave Judgment notes: “It is clear that Lillian wears nail varnish in her room in panel 4, but in the public panel 2 she keeps her nails clean (as a gentleman would).”
- First full look at the outside of the Herald building, statue of Minerva and owls with electric eyes and all (mentioned on P17,p1 above.) The building (demolished in 1921) was located at 6th Avenue and Broadway, which today still called Herald Square.
- Note that the text “The New York Herald” is conspicuously missing. (It can be seen, slightly shadowed, in the photograph above.) This may be an oversight, though commenter Legion of Andy points out that it may be symbolic of Black’s status as “The Herald” being hidden information at this point in the story.
- Dix and Posey appear to be discussing the Temperance Movement, also mentioned on P8 above.
- “On the sauce” is a euphemism for drinking alcohol regularly.
- The Bowery is an historic neighborhood in south Manhattan, somewhat associated with urban decline. Alvarez’s W 14th Street residence is not actually in the Bowery, so Posey may be generalizing – stereotyping immigrants as living in undesirable neighborhoods.
- “Out with some woman” is Turner incorrectly assuming Black is heterosexual, and reemphasizing that he is in the closet.
- As mentioned above (P3,p2) the pneumatic message tube system apparatus is visible between Dix and Turner.
- This is the first mention of the suicide chamber as an “exit garden.” Commenter Phil Smith noted that Moore has used this terminology before for a nearly identical suicide chamber in the 1980s sci-fi comic The Ballad of Halo Jones. In prog #406 “Book Two Prologue” on Page 3 panel 4 the lecturer states “If the poverty and riots got too depressing, you could visit one of the hoop’s exit gardens… sniff the flowers… listen to the music… and be put quietly to sleep with a lethal injection.”
- As mentioned above (P3,p2) the pneumatic message tube system apparatus is visible in panels 1, 3, and 4 on this page.
- Odd that Dix, who has just written an article about Russell, mistakes the name as Brussell.
- These form another fixed-camera sequence.
- “I know him a little, sure” is a very closeted understatement. Black and Russell were lovers, for at least a few months.
- “He didn’t have woman problems” again shows Posey’s incorrect assumption of Russell’s heterosexuality. He made a similar statement about Black on P8,p2.
- These three panels form a fixed-camera sequence, highlighting Black’s realization that the Sous Le Monde book could have caused Russell’s suicide. Though the rest of the Herald staff love this lurid explanation, there’s clearly a more mundane explanation: that Russell was distraught over Black breaking up with him. Commenter Raúl Moreno has a better explanation: Black is lying quickly to shake Herald staff from digging deeper into a motive for suicide, which could reveal Black’s closeted homosexuality. Black lies, despite just having told Mrs. Ortega (P21,p4) that he would quit journalism if he is ever “knowingly dishonest.”
- Similar to the transition from P1 to P2 above, to some extent, Posey’s words “It looks like there is someone watching out for us after all. Even in a town like this, there is sometimes great mercy” could refer to the scene on the next page. Mrs. Ortega watches out for Dr. Alvarez, bestows mercy on him, in the form of sex. Commenter Raúl Moreno points out a third meaning: Posey’s words can refer to Black and Russell. Black is hurting, as he probably feels he had no mercy for Russell, nor will Russell be watching over him anymore.
- Mrs Ortega returns to Dr. Alvarez that evening, as requested by Alvarez on P15,p1.
- These form a fixed-camera sequence. Clearly Ortega opens her coat (for Alvarez and the reader), but also Alvarez’ gaze correspondingly shifts slightly downward.
- The opening of Mrs. Ortega’s coat is perhaps visually similar to Russell’s tearing of Black’s letters on P1 above. Both draw readers’ attention to the middle of the panel.
- The comics portion of the issue ends with an image that could be seen as a lead-in to the cover.
- Lovecraft kept several notes and story ideas in his “Commonplace Book.” These were later mined by other authors like August Derleth after Lovecraft’s death, and were the basis for several “posthumous collaborations.”
- The art deco bookplate features the figure of the Greek god Hermes, in front of a winged staff or caduceus. Hermes was the messenger of the gods – fitting for a journalist – and was later made the patron of Western magic when he was syncretized with the Egyptian god Thoth as Hermes Trismegistus.
- The Latin numerals “MCMXIX” translate to the Arabic numerals “1919.”
- There are symbols or letters worked into the design along the bottom of the bookplate that are ambiguous: A? N? +? R? M? F?
(Annotations note: Some of the text back matter below refers directly to stuff we’ve already covered in the comics annotations above. In these case, we try not to repeat ourselves, but just briefly refer to the details above.)
- The style of the Commonplace Book entries reads almost like a fictionalization of (or perhaps the notes that could precede and inspire) Moore’s script for the issue.
- Moore previously used journals as storytelling devices: see Rorschach’s journal in Watchmen, and Future Taylor’s journal in Crossed Plus One Hundred. The use of text back-matter is reminiscent of Watchmen.
- The handwriting appears to be the same as Black’s note to Russell on P1.
- The date, June 5, 1919, would sets these journal pages weeks prior to the start of the story (see P8,p1 above), and may be an error. Or maybe Black wrote the date, set the book down, and didn’t pick it up again until the events of the story.
- The “their” in “Today my lover took their own life” is oddly gender-less. Commenter Raúl Moreno suggests that “their” hints at Russell’s two personas: Jonathan and Lillian. Commenter DCo points out that Robert Black (or perhaps Alan Moore) goes to great length to avoid writing Lily Russell’s gender.
- “Lily” is Lillian Russell, publicly known as Jonathan Russell.
- “Herald” – see P2,p1 above.
- “Times Square” is a bustling major destination intersection in mid-Manhattan – and, at the time, a neighborhood where homosexuals lived openly – see P9,p2 Moore quote above.
- “Doctor living down on 14th Street … Dr. Alvarez” – see P12,p1 above.
- “Guillot” – see P13,p1 above.
- “Sous le Monde” – see P3,p2 above.
- “Towering eminences like the great Jack London” refers to Jack London, the famous American writer, whose weird work influenced writers including H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard.
- Ephraim Posey first appears on P2 above.
- “Our Lords & Masters” is a saying for someone/s who have power over another.
- “The Versailles piece” is the article Black is writing on P2 above.
- Freddy Dix first appears on P2 above.
- “Jersey Devil” – see P3,p1 above.
- The Titanic was an ocean liner that sunk in 1912.
- Prissy Turner first appears on P2 above.
- “Chambers’ King in Yellow” – see P3 panels 2-3 above.
- “Guillot” – see P13,p1 above.
- “Sous le Monde” – see P3,p2 above.
- “…all this after I happened to have casually mentioned both books to her some time back in Spring while she was … pretending she was listening to what I was saying.” Black’s hostility towards Turner masks his own self-contradiction here. Given how much she remembered, and for how long, she was certainly more than “pretending” to listen. This is perhaps the first time we see what will be a recurring theme: Black’s extraordinary ability to fail to think through the implications of what he is writing.
- “Dr. Alvarez” – see P12,p1 above.
- “Part of town [where] gay girls … weighed me up” – apparently the part of town (it’s on the edge of the West Village and Chelsea) where Alvarez lives is frequented by homosexual men in drag – see also P9,p2 above.
- Mrs. Ortega first appears on P11,p2.
- “Dr. Alvarez” – see P12,p1 above.
- “Poe’s Mr. Valdemar” refers to Edgar Allan Poe’s 1845 short story “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” involved a man who was hypnotized into surviving after he was dead; it was an obvious influence on Lovecraft’s “Cool Air.”
- Alvarez has “a perspective that’s outside of everything” refers to Alvarez actually being dead, as told in the conclusion of H.P. Lovecraft’s “Cool Air.”
- “he sees things very clearly.” – The writing here somewhat merges the “c” and “l”, so that “clearly” can also be read as “dearly”. And Alvarez does see things that way as well. (This was probably accidental, but, as Moore’s influence Brian Eno famously said: “Honour thy accident as your hidden intention.”)
- “[Robert W.] Chambers’ King in Yellow” – see P3 panels 2-3 above.
- “Sous le Monde” – see P3,p2 above.
- “Kitab Al-Hikmah Al-Najmiyya’ or ‘Book of the Wisdom of the Stars’ – see P15,p3 above.
- “Khalid Yazid” – see P15,p4.
- “Robert Suydam” is a character in Lovecraft’s short story The Horror at Red Hook – see P16,p2 above and this background blog post.
- “Dr. Estes” – see P16,p1.
- “Alvarez” – see P12,p1 above.
- “fancy metaphor for what I really want to talk about” – Moore here is, perhaps, describing his own creative process. He wants to write about religious and sexual prejudice, but can more easily accomplish that under the guise of a Lovecraft homage.
- “The hidden world that people like me and my friends inhabit” refers to the Black’s closeted homosexuality.
- “their own private practices and way of talking, almost their own language” – as noted above, this can be seen to apply to Black’s identities as Jewish (P6,p2, p4) and as homosexual (P7,p3-4, P9,p1, P30).
- “Mr Suydam” refers to Robert Suydam of Lovecraft’s short story The Horror at Red Hook – see P16,p2 above and this background blog post.
- “So much of this is made of books” – True on more levels than those Black is aware of. Providence as a whole is “made of” the books of H.P. Lovecraft and those who influenced him. See also the note on stories, below.
- “Guillot” – see P13,p1 above.
- “Sous le Monde” – see P3,p2 above.
- “The King in Yellow… [Robert W.] Chambers ” – see P3 panels 2-3 above.
- “lethal chambers in public parks” – see P5,p2 above.
- “Visits to the library… the park there, by that little stream… fed from the old reservoir before the library was there” refer to Bryant Park, shown on P1 and annotated there. Moore thereby opens and closes Providence #1 with Bryant Park.
- “Our lives, the world, it’s all just lies, it’s all a story that we’re making up until a more compelling story comes along.” – This ties in to a frequent Moore theme that “stories are real”. Within the context of Providence, it may also be foreshadowing of the exchange between dreams and reality.
- “I never want to dream again” probably doesn’t refer to this 1964 pop song.
- The letter quoted on the back cover is from the Selected Letters of H. P. Lovecraft volume 1.