I doubt Alan Moore has had much dealing at all with video games (though that may be increasing due to the digital aspects of the Electricomics project) or interest in them but, yes, it’s particularly strange that one of the things that occurs to me when approaching the first issue of his new comic Providence, with artist Jacen Burrows, is a concept of “agency” most often discussed in the context of gaming. But it’s also discussed in terms of whether characters are well-rounded, feel and seem like they have their own personalities and psychology, or have been treated as simply wooden objects to help frame a story or plot. For instance, one might discuss whether female characters in a male-character dominated comic have enough agency. Can they do things? Do they seem to act autonomously of those around them and have a permanent effect through their actions?
But what does that have to do with Providence? It must just be the zeitgeist of the time, but what Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows have done with Providence is the unprecedented creation of what could almost be considered a “sandbox” world in a comic, one with a radical degree of agency, or at least the appearance of agency, for their characters. All of this could simply be the impression that the comic gives off, but if it’s purely the effect it has on the reader, that’s quite an achievement. A “sandbox” world, as gamers will know, is a world in which the player can continue to create. The game developers have constructed it in such a way that the player helps construct the game too. The most popular sandbox game right now, and arguable of gaming history so far, is Minecraft where players create their own structures, literally constructing them, and kingdoms.
I can think of several reasons why Providence gives this impression to the reader and several reasons why this is a really important development for comics. The effect of all this on you, the reader, however, will be both eerie and exhilarating and may well give you a feeling of stepping outside the medium of comics that you feel you know so well. Or perhaps further inside? That’s probably up for interpretation.
We’ve known for some time that Providence is, in some sense, inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft or based on adapting his works, following on from Alan Moore’s story later adapted into comics, The Courtyard, and the later fully-scripted Lovecraft-based series, Neonomicon. And there’s been plenty of conjecture about what Providence is in relationship to Lovecraft. It’s not an adaptation, nor is it in an “update” or a story that draws on certain elements from Lovecraft brought into a new setting. Trying to sum it up succinctly, which is no doubt limiting, Providence is a story set in Lovecraft’s actual historical world of 1919, and also set in a world that is about to break out into becoming the world or worlds that Lovecraft created. Still with me? This comic is effectively both inside and outside of Schrodinger’s box in that sense. It is both a historical, realistic world heavily grounded in the social realities of the day, as well as architecture, clothing, and speech, but it is also a world where things lurk beneath the surface, coming to a boil.
As a teaser, rather than a spoiler, I’ll quote a hand-written letter that appears at the beginning of the first issue of Providence. It uses the phrase “break through mere words to the reality lying beyond them”, and the phrase is visually emphasized by actions on that page. What Providence the comic seems to do is take Lovecraft’s work as the “words” and “break through” them to a “reality lying beyond them”. In what sense is this work Lovecraft? In the sense that Lovecraft’s stories have been woven together into a single tapestry at carefully chosen points of intersection. For those who know Lovecraft’s work well, they will be tripping over hints and clues at every turn in peoples’ names, in comments from characters, in settings, and situations. In the first Issue of the comic alone, which in any story needs to be used for set up of the plot, we nevertheless have several Lovecraftian references, an entire story alluded to and pre-quelled, and the beginnings of an even bigger adventure into menacing territory.
How do Moore and Burrows accomplish this? Through introducing a very important POV character Robert Black, who is a reporter in New York working for the New York Herald. We meet him in his everyday workplace, glimpse his social life and background through memories and thoughts, and we follow him in pursuit of an arcane story’s lead. Robert is our primary source of “agency” in the comic—we see things through his eyes, over his shoulder, or with special emphasis on his facial expressions and reactions in most panels, and we “follow” him. This is reinforced by the inclusion of detailed backmatter in each issue of the comic that really enriches the experience. Having read the first issue of the comic narrative, and then reading the backmatter was shockingly illuminating for me as it will be for readers—it provides a key and a “way in” to the many of the events of the issue with added detail, nuance, and resonance. Reading both the comic and the backmatter was like reading two works in one, works in dialogue with one another.
I mentioned agency—which works in the comic because we feel we are Robert and that we are making his choices as he moves cleanly around in his world, a world so enhanced in its realism that it does feel like exploring the vast digital worlds created on massive platform games (and this is only the first issue of the comic even)— but I also said this comic is like a sandbox game. What I mean by that specifically is that the reader helps construct the world of this comic. That may seem unlikely given the radical level of historical detail that Moore and Burrows have employed (as Burrows discussed in an interview here) to the degree that every surface seems like it “really” exists (and many of those surfaces still do, especially in New York City), but what the reader constructs is the web of allusion and interacting references that tie us to Lovecraft’s own world and his created world.
Depending on your level of knowledge of Lovecraft, you will have a different reading experience. Sure, that’s true of all comics, but in this one it is true in particular or par excellence. I’m not saying that if you’re new to Lovecraft you won’t appreciate this comic fully. In fact, you may be the poster child for the perfect reader of this comic. Because as we’ve learned from Moore’s interview on Bleeding Cool, he wants this comic to be like encountering Lovecraft for the first time. If you’re new, this comic is going to “work” on you very effectively. If you’re not new, it’s going to subtly chew away at everything you think you know and act like an echo chamber of references to the point you might suspect where things are headed but not really be able to see around the corner to make sure of that before you’re accosted by it.
Moore and Burrows have put the monsters back in Lovecraft. “Real” monsters the way monsters you’ve never seen before affect you as “real” monsters. Issue #1 is all about showing us the surface of things and beginning to suggest the depth of the darkness that lies beneath it, and watching Robert Black, aka the reader, purposefully start to pull back the surface of things. And there’s no telling what he’ll find, but it will be very Lovecraftian indeed. The inclusivity of this comic makes almost anything possible when it comes to feats of the imagination because it’s powered and co-created by you.
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