I suppose it was only a matter of time before Alan Moore’s formally brilliant, painstakingly crafted horror comic PROVIDENCE went so far in its efforts to disturb readers that it precluded my recommending without huge, all-caps caveats, despite enjoying the vast majority of it myself, but I was holding out hope, which was dashed about as awfully as possible with the sixth issue.
Two further issues have been published since I first started thinking about this; they’re both good and continue the unusual, accretive plot structure, which looks for hundreds of pages like a series of disturbing anecdotes and turns out to be a huge, horrifying, interconnected superstructure. “It’s like a maze you can’t see,” as one of the characters observes.
Here’s a brief explanation of why I care that the book is so aggressively problematic:
Moore is a genius. Like Stephen Sondheim or the Coen brothers, I am happy to be alive while he is creating new work. He is one of my favorite authors in any medium and I’m a moderately well-read guy, which is to say that I don’t just read comics or comics and sci-fi. He’s a virtuosic comics writer in the same way John Ashbery is a virtuosic poet or Tom Stoppard is a playwright; their work may be a little cold at times but it is underpinned with incredible and genuine depth of feeling and supported by tremendous, intricate knowledge of literary structure, which is why the final phrase of Moore’s has become such a disappointing one to his devoted fans, among whose number I of course count myself.
(I’ll get to the troublesome passage in a minute.)
A lot of Moore’s work has been derided by the weird internet morality police for depicting violence against women in what those readers think is a prurient way, notably The Killing Joke, an okay Batman graphic novel that’s not even in my top twenty Alan Moore stories. It’s apparently of no use to these people how well or sensitively Moore depicts sexual violence – and in the cases of, say, Watchmen and Top Ten, to pick what are probably the two best stand-alone volumes he’s written, I’d say he does it with extraordinary sensitivity.
This is very scary to someone who loves Moore’s work and thinks it’s valuable; we live in a time of such unparalleled idiocy in arts criticism that I often worry great works and great bodies of work will be consigned to the dumping ground of history by people who lack not just the understanding of but the slightest interest in the way art works. Fandom has no use for quality. Its objective is competitive, and its medium is intensity: all there is for the fan to do is to love or hate something harder than all the other fans.
Which is to say that when fans try to write criticism they do it badly. “Alan Moore’s work is RAPEY!” is not a criticism; it’s a description of subject matter. Law & Order: SVU is also rapey; so is Nabokov’s bibliography. The latter is better than the former.
But what these critics are gesturing at, again, badly, is in fact something legitimate. Alan Moore’s work is structured like clockwork, and it is designed to elicit emotions on this page and realizations on that page and to pull together in the readers head into a kind of larger structure you can hold in your mind only upon finishing one of his books. Many great writers do this; if it’s done well it’s often the reason a good book with many plot twists is worth rereading.
And, again, like many writers, Moore has a limited bag of tricks. Serial possession, intricate time travel, triadic romantic relationships, evil wizards who turn out to be nice, if horny, old men – these are things that show up in quite a few Moore books, and there are others besides.
One of those is rape as punishment.
Moore excels at writing cruelty. He also excels at writing heroism, and so his pitched battles tend to have higher stakes than most. But lately he has given up completely on heroism, or at least turned it down, and he has turned up cruelty as far as it will go, and so, as a writer good at weaving complicated ideas for his readership, when he has returned to horror in this latest and likely last stage of his career, he seems bent on crafting despair, using all of his tricks.
What’s odd is that his books are still enjoyable. His plots are twisty and his characters are sympathetic but (and here if you are easily disturbed or feel worried by anything you have read so far in this piece I would entreat you to stop reading) in the latest issue of Providence, his comic about a gay Jewish man learning the secrets of vicious racist horror writer HP Lovecraft’s New England, he has his hero, Robert Black, encounter a 13-year-old girl who turns out to be possessed by a creature that can move consciousnesses between bodies – its own and other people’s – as it wishes.
And, in order to teach Black a lesson, it traps his mind in the 13-year-old girl, possesses Black, and viciously rapes him with his own body, which on the page is depicted as the brutal and explicit violation of a teenage child.
There’s a tremendous amount going on in Providence. It’s drawn very cleverly; it’s clear that there are images in the background to which the reader will need to return to understand the way Moore is subtly bending time over the course of what appears at first blush for several issues to be a perfectly normal road trip story.
But this most recent scene is so utterly horrible, so carefully designed for maximum disgust and so painstakingly demonstrative of sadism, that it’s hard not to receive it as authorial sadism. And I think that is on some level what the complainers (at least those who’ve read the work in question) are getting at: Watchmen and Top Ten take place in worlds where there is hope and the possibility of peace, or at least brief love. Providence does not. The Killing Joke, which might actually be Moore’s most widely read work, doesn’t really, either. V for Vendetta, largely for reasons of amateurism, is pretty hateful. The mechanics are not much different from any other Moore story; the trouble is that he’s intentionally cranked the volume up too high. He undoubtedly has a reason; in fact the reason is starting to become clear in the subsequent issues, but the question is not whether Moore can justify it to himself, it’s whether the reader can be reasonably expected to endure it. That the question is still open is a mark of Moore’s genius, and his willfulness.
I’ve considered not publishing this review until the series is finished. I still enjoy Providence tremendously and am anxious to read it to the end, no matter what Moore has coming next. I have a lot of faith that he will tell me something complicated and worth understanding about the way he sees the world; he has lost none of his cranky, crazy, unceasingly brilliant edge in the last ten years. Even his brief takeover of his friend’s mildly lame zombie series, Crossed, was excellent. But I am worried that this darkness in his work will engulf not just the author, but his place in posterity.