[GRINDHOUSE COMICS COLUMN!] PROVIDENCE #7

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It occurs to me that as we begin the second “leg” of Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’ Providence with the just-released seventh issue that we as readers are on no firmer ground, metaphorically speaking, than hapless protagonist Robert Black is in a more literal sense — having fled Manchester without even knowing how much time he spent there much less what happened both to and around him, our hero/victim next turns up in Boston smack-dab in the middle of the notorious round of riots and looting instigated by the city’s police strike of 1919, an engineered debacle both triggered by the actions of, and then capitalized for political gain by, then-governor Calvin Coolidge, one of early-20th-century America’s more loathsome figures. For our hopelessly cracking (or maybe that should be already cracked) former newspaperman, though, the violence and depravity he sees unfolding on the streets of Beantown is a pretty accurate reflection of his own mental state, and as we open this issue turmoil (both inner and outer) seems to be the order of the day.

Fortunately, he makes the acquaintance of beleaguered soon-to-be-former cop Eamon O’Brien, who manages to not only direct, but accompany, him to the residence of photographer/painter Ronald Underwood Pitman, the man Black has traveled to Boston to meet, and while both are certainly glad to be quickly ushered into Pitman’s home, this is a visit that will end very differently for each.

 

 

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I trust I’m not giving anything away at this point if I reveal that the H.P. Lovecraft “anchor story” for this issue is Pickman’s Model, with Pitman functioning as our “stand-in” for doomed artist Richard Upton Pickman himself, but what struck me is how this new installment is something of a “throwback” to the first couple of chapters, with Moore focusing his ever-sharp eye on just one Lovecraft tale rather than incorporating elements from several into a sort of “tapestry,” as was the case with numbers three, four, five, and six (especially five and six). This “extra-special attention” definitely pays off in terms of expanding the breadth and scope of the horror at the heart of Pickman’s Model, despite the fact that the premise is essentially unchanged (painter transcribes scenes of horror onto his canvas that are a little too real for most tastes, most featuring a recurring “hairy, toothy monster” theme), and in fact goes some way toward disproving the time-worn adage that “it’s what you don’t see that’s most scary,” since both Moore’s script and Burrows’  wonderfully-realized, detail-rich art go a long way toward establishing a much more graphic realization of the terror Lovecraft only hints at — until the very end, at any rate — in his original yarn.

Black, though — ever the creative interpreter of events — at first seems almost pathologically clueless to the fact that he’s actually going from the frying pan into the fire here, and constructs, for the sake of maintaining his own sanity if nothing else,   a political subtext for Pitman’s works that the perpetually-nervous-but-strangely-sympathetic (his speech is littered with “uhm”s) artist is all too happy to play along with despite the fact that it’s painfully obvious he’d never considered such an “alibi,” if you will, himself. If you’re thinking that Black’s skewed take has something to do with the creatures — who Pitman refers to as “saprovores” — representing the “1%”-types sucking on the blood and marrow of their working-class “victims,” you’re pretty close to the mark.

Still, the full extent of Black’s almost heroic capacity for self-deception isn’t made completely clear until after he meets “Pitman’s model,” a gigantic deep-cellar-dweller who goes by the name of “King George” and takes pride in being both a “good boy” and a “hard worker.” The nature of his “work” should be immediately apparent to anyone who either knows the term “saprovore” already or bothered to look it up when Pitman first mentioned it, but for those who just keep plugging ahead with their reading regardless, rest assured that Moore makes things perfectly clear pretty quickly, and yeah — it’s creepy as fuck, even though we don’t even blink at the thought of worms and maggots doing essentially the same job.

 

 

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What wasn’t entirely clear to me until my second reading of this issue was how Moore is having a bit of self-referential fun with his audience here (yes, Providence can, at times, actually be fun) — there’s been a running theme of class-related issues at play here almost from the outset of the series (as there is in much of Moore’s work, and in much British literature, film, and television in general), with the “fish people” of issue three being looked down upon by the “respectable citizens” of Salem, the inbred Wheatley clan of the fourth issue being an object of scorn for both their neighbors and former “colleagues” in the Stella Sapiente order, and the “elite, refined” Wade family being the receptacle/vessel of the most malignant entity we’ve met so far in issue six. His message, at least to me, seems quite clear — no matter how monstrous and evil some of the “lower-class” people we meet on this journey are, the rich are always worse, and represent the true “villains” of the story. Here that point is driven home by King George — who has brothers, we learn, named George Washington and, even more curiously, Mary Pickford, and I confess that I spent a good long time figuring out just how the saprovores might come by their unique “handles” before discovering that, as usual, the fine folks over at http://factsprovidence.wordpress.com had beaten me to it — bemoaning the fact that he and his brothers “work hard” while the “yankees” who live above them “have many things and — do not work hard. And always we are underneath them.” And yet, in a knowing wink to readers, Moore presents Black’s political reading of Pitman’s work as being nothing but a desperate attempt at rationalization by an equally desperate man, even while he invites us to do the same with his own subject matter here. Irony, you can be so delicious.

 

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We’ll wind things down, then, by dove-tailing back to a couple of near-throwaway comments I made previously, since I seem to be absorbing via some form of osmosis Moore and Burrows’ penchant for not letting any tiny piece of information, either of the scripted or illustrated variety, go to waste. I mentioned that the visit to Pitman’s home ended “quite differently” for Officer O’Brian than it did for Black, and while a fiendishly subtle clue as to the flatfoot’s eventual fate makes an appearance when Black dons an apparently-spare overcoat before his descent into the tunnels beneath the house (a scene which plays out via the same straight-ruled vertical panels than Burrows employed for our protagonist’s subterranean journey in issue #2), the dread becomes deeper when King George asks Pitman if Robert is the brother of the “other,” in his words, “black and red one,” and all becomes painfully clear in the last panel of the issue — in keeping with the story upon which it’s based,  of course,  but the added dimension of specificity that Providence #7 gives to events Lovecraft referenced in more oblique fashion really gives the final image here an extra dose of “holy shit!”-ness even though it’s hardly a surprise by this point.

As far as the second brief (I promise!) point I wanted to get back to goes, this time in regards to Black’s — how did I put it it, “heroic capacity for self-deception” or somesuch? — well, I’ll just say that the bizarre “spin” he puts on his meeting with King George, and on his entire 10-day stay with Pitman in general, just has to be read to be believed, and provides yet another sterling example of why, much as the “main” story reveals, you should absolutely never skip over the backmatter at the end of the issues in this series. Besides, if you do, you’ll miss the laugh-out-loud-in-spite-of-yourself thrill of seeing how the truth of what happened to Robert in issue six finally assert itself into his consciousness — even if, as ever, he completely fails to realize it.

Still, Black’s return to blissful unawareness is rather richly deserved at this point. The guy’s been through a hell of a lot, and while us lucky readers are learning more with each successive installment  (as far as major revelations go, this issue packs a doozy with the introduction of the notion that the world of dreams is an actual, physical plane of existence far beneath the Earth, with the saprovores inhabiting a middle ground between the two and the Stella Sapiente engaged in a project of “flipping” the “upstairs” and “downstairs” realities around ), I think he’s sort of earned a breather. We all know it’s both destined not to last and entirely a product of his own rationalization, but still — it felt good to see him smiling as this chapter drew to a close. Even if walking past a cemetery gives him some pause.

In closing, it appears as though we’ll be waiting until April for Providence #8, but I’m not complaining. I’ve read this issue four times already and I look forward to reading it about a dozen (at least) more, and anything that can be done to prolong this title’s stay on comic shop shelves is welcome, as far as I’m concerned. 60 days between installments is hardly a death-knell for sales of purportedly-monthly “floppies” with today’s “delay-trained” readership, and in fact there seems to be a positive “buzz” building around this book the longer it goes on. Besides, if Sex Criminals fans can wait twice that long, on average, for each new issue, then how much do we really have to bitch about here? You can’t rush perfection, as they say — and right now Providence is as close to a perfect comic as any that I’ve read in the past decade, at minimum. Take your time, Alan and Jacen — we know you’re working hard.

 

 

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