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Sunday Slugfest: Neonomicon #4

Posted: Sunday, March 27, 2011
By: Thom Young

Alan Moore
Jacen Burrows
Avatar Press
Agent Brears surfaces and watches over the fate of her captors by her FBI colleagues--all with an eerily calm detachment.

Dave Wallace:
Shawn Hill:
Thom Young:

Dave Wallace: This fourth issue of Neonomicon sees the series conclude in a surprisingly straightforward and conventional fashion compared with the initial issues. However, this being a Lovecraft-inspired horror story as seen through the eyes of Alan Moore, even the most straightforward and conventional issue still has a lot to offer in terms of unsettling imagery and clever storytelling ideas.

Shawn Hill: Yes, what surprised me the most about this issue is how conventional it is. The games of language and symbolism seem muted this issue compared to previous outings where such features were prevalent enough to lead to prominent Internet dissection and discussion--or maybe I just can't see them anymore for all the conventional moves going on in Moore's denouement.

It's exactly like the wrap-up to a horror miniseries should be. The meta-textual awareness of the characters even goes further (perhaps too far), with one of our characters (in an orange jumpsuit) referring to our heroine as playing the "Jodie Foster" role in their standard interaction. However, Merril Brears doesn't play by those rules anymore--and she turns the tables on her "Hannibal" in a way that didn't happen to the actual Clarice until one of the Silence of the Lambs sequels, if I remember correctly (I've tried to forget those sequels/prequels, only partly because they were really scary).

Thom Young: While I agree that this issue was “conventional” in its storytelling, my own reaction wasn’t on how conventional the conclusion was compared to the first three issues--perhaps because I didn’t find the first three issues were all that unconventional.

Aside from the explicit rape scene in the second issue, the series has essentially delivered a conventional Lovecraft comic book story. Even the meta-textual aspect of the story that has the 70-year-old Lovecraft “works of fiction” factoring into the “reality” of Moore’s story is handled in more of a Modern mode rather than a true Postmodern approach.

Shawn Hill: So there’s a difference between Modern “breaking the fourth wall” and Postmodern meta-textuality? I’ve often wondered about that. How would you define the distinction?

Thom Young: Well, here is the short answer (trust me, this is the short answer):

In true Postmodern meta-textual fiction (also called metafiction and self-referential fiction), the characters in the story are aware that they are characters in a work of fiction--such as Buddy Baker in Grant Morrison’s Animal Man. Of course, there can be much more to it than that, but that’s a good starting point.

On the other hand, the breaking of the fourth wall in Modern fiction traces back to at least the Victorian Age (following the conventions of late Romanticism) in which Victorian fictional narrators would often begin a point of exposition with some sort of variation of the phrase, “And now Gentle Reader, let us . . .” as the character-narrator broke the fourth wall to acknowledge the reader even though the book was not written as an epistolary novel.

In the case of Neonomicon, Moore seemed to be heading down the Postmodern path in his initial issues with characters who had the same names as Lovecraft’s characters--though it then became clear that these characters intentionally took their names from Lovecraft’s works. Additionally, the events in Lovecraft’s stories supposedly matched the FBI’s records of events that had happened in the past, but the dates did not actually match up--which is something I covered in my review of the first issue of the series.

After all that apparent meta-texuality in the opening issues, we discover what has really been going on in this final issue. The characters don’t come to realize that they are characters in a hologram based on Lovecraft’s works (which is where I feared Moore was taking the story).

The references to Lovecraft’s work aren’t due to a Postmodern concept of reality (such as Grant Morrison has), but to more of a Victorian/Edwardian view of spiritual planes of existence and the channelling of information from those higher planes--such as W.B. Yeats claimed to do through his wife as the medium.

Anyway, that’s the short explanation.

Shawn Hill:Very helpful. It's important to acknowledge the stylistic innovations of both epochs, I think. This story has a complexity that warrants re-readings, not just to follow what happens in the plot but to identify the individual character arcs and the implications of their choices (many of which seemed mysterious at first to this reader, just as the criminal fallout of those actions instigated the FBI's investigation).

Dave Wallace: Yes, much of Neonomicon's central action having already happened by this point, this issue sees the FBI pick up the pieces after the brutal imprisonment of, and sexual assaults on, agent Brears (as well as the death of agent Lamper)--during the course of which they find out quite a few things that the reader already knew.

In that sense, it's a fairly uneventful denouement--and also one that seems to consciously eschew tying up all of the loose ends left dangling by previous issues, which means some viewers may be left scratching their heads over the significance behind certain elements of the story. However, it's nonetheless a very well-written issue on a technical level, with Moore deftly flitting between two parallel narrative strands from panel-to-panel before unifying the two in such a smooth way that many readers probably won't even notice the join.

Additionally, seeing in detail how Brears handles the aftermath of her ordeal in these early scenes is an important part of setting up the twist that comes with the issue's closing sequence. At the end of the story, we see Moore revisit the first page of the first issue--along with a few key moments from issue #3--all of which gain added significance in light of what we've learned about the situation that Brears has found herself in.

Thom Young: Yes, my favorable four-bullet score for this issue is mostly due to Moore’s technically well-written script. The dialog was precise and natural (as opposed to the two flaws in the first issue that saw American characters using either British phrases or British spellings for words).

Additionally, the plot wraps up the story exactly as it needed to. There are no real surprises in this issue, as everything ended as I thought it would--particularly with Merril’s final condition at the end. The only thing I didn’t care for is that the ending seemed too abrupt. I expected there to be another two issues remaining in this series. The pacing of the first three issues had prepared me for a six-issue arc.

Shawn Hill: What impressed me was that the characters are all themselves; Agent Brears mourns for her murdered partner, she's apologized to by her formerly gruff boss, and she continues to behave in ways that preserve her autonomy and authority as a valued agent. At first, her experience seems to have made her stronger; unfortunately, it's not quite so simple due to the condition in which she finds herself--in that her motivations may not be strictly definable as her own at this point.

The last thing I expected from this story was Rosemary's Baby, but that's sort of what we get here, as well as a graphic dose of violence on the part of the standard shoot-first-and-scream-later FBI agents who invade Salem in force. It's a fitting, if wholly predictable, fate for the criminals that Merril was originally seeking--and she doesn't seem to give a fuck.

There's neither joy in vengeance, nor fear at returning to the crime scene; she's above it all at this point. Is it just the calm of the survivor? Is it a form of shock? I was surprised to see the story take this turn, even though it is almost a cliché of the genre.

Thom Young: I see what you mean, but I didn’t find the ending to be a “twist” or a surprise at all. I figured she was carrying a Cthulhu fetus after the monster that raped her in the second issue sniffed her urine and helped her escape in the third.

In fact, the rape scene in that second issue was essentially the same as the rape scene in Rosemary’s Baby--though much more graphic, obviously, as Roman Polanski in 1968 wouldn’t have been able to get away with what Moore and Jacen Burrows were allowed to do in depicting their demonic rape scene in 2010 (I’ve not read Ira Levin’s original novel; perhaps it is as graphic as Moore’s in Neonomicon).

Shawn Hill:Well, I admit I just took it as just one more weird affront occurring in that hellish basement on first reading. I also wasn’t sure he was leading her to escape. I thought he might be taking her somewhere even worse. It wasn’t until I began to discern the creature’s language that I realized what he was talking about--an unexpected ability that has left me again by this issue, by the way.

Dave Wallace: I, too, had already worked out these elements ahead of time, and as such it's slightly disappointing to see Moore make more explicit elements of the story that might have worked better had they been only implied. However, Moore’s approach does serve to cap the story with that unsettling and vaguely horrific Rosemary’s Baby twist (especially when you consider the full implications of what's to come)--as well as leaving plenty of room for a follow-up should Moore and artist Jacen Burrows be so inclined.

Thom Young: Yes, this work concludes with an obvious set up for a sequel--though so did Rosemary’s Baby, but all we ended up with there was the made-for-television movie Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby with Patty Duke taking over the Mia Farrow role of Rosemary Woodhouse. I hope Moore and Burrows truly follow up on their story here, especially since I was surprised to discover that this issue was the last for this title.

Dave Wallace: Talking of Burrows, he turns in artwork here that's just as solid as his work in previous issues. His best work comes when illustrating the story's more outlandish concepts, such as the monster that we saw in issue #3 and which makes another appearance here.

Burrows also depicts a beautifully conceived sequence of a higher plane of reality in which all of a person's actions--past, present and future--can be viewed simultaneously. As well as being a clever comment on the way time works in comics (which have pages of panels depicting multiple versions of the same character in different poses in order to show progression in time), it also feels like a direct reference to psychedelic experiences that I've heard described by famous drug users (or perhaps it was by characters in a Lovecraft book? I forget). It's a difficult moment to pull off, especially given the limited space Burrows has to do it, but it works very well.

Shawn Hill: Speaking of that higher plane of consciousness concept, the real heart of the issue is Merril’s discussion with the former-agent-turned-serial-killer (and star of the prequel story, The Courtyard), Aldo Sax, where she out-Lecters him by, for one, having completely mastered the gibberish he's been speaking since he met Carcosa. Unlike for Sax, though, learning Aklo hasn’t blown Merril’s mind or led her to commit murders; it's just made her bilingual.

Like Sax, she is now an initiate. Only, she's more than that, too. By some standards, you could also see her as lessened; let's just say I wouldn't recommend Merril’s method of curing one's chronic sexual addictions.

Their higher-plane-of-consciousness explanation of what's been going on the whole time in this unfolding story is revelatory (if somehow also too pat) and ominous, and it sums up the concepts of transformation and altered states of mental awareness that have been used as the sources of the horror since this series began.

Thom Young: I was actually a bit disappointed with the depiction of the higher state of consciousness motif here. Until I read Dave’s explanation of what Burrows had drawn, I didn’t realize that the strange effects (which look a bit like the after images of The Flash when he’s running at the speed of light) were supposed to be a depiction of the past, present, and future being viewed simultaneously--perhaps because the “Flash effect” does not convey the future. What Burrows drew here looks more like a very weird strobe-light effect--which still only conveys the past and present, but not the future.

Shawn Hill:He’s drawing them as sort of “time worms” winding their infinite path through life. The metaphor would be those firework snakes that suddenly unfold out of nothing when lit. I know I’ve seen the concept illustrated elsewhere, but I can’t remember where right now.

Thom Young: Ah, I suppose to me these time worms just look like a slightly altered Flash speed effect run through a strobe light. The entirety of Moore’s description of this higher plane (through the character of Merril Brears) is that “It’s a different view of time, isn’t it? It doesn’t distinguish between past, present, and future.” However, a better description of this plane of reality can be found in T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets in which he contemplated reality as seen from the perspective of God:
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present,
All time is unredeemable. (“Burnt Norton,” part I, 1-5)

The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten
By the dwellers in cities--ever, however, implacable.
Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder
Of what men choose to forget. Unhonoured, unpropitiated
By worshippers of the machine, but waiting, watching and waiting.
His rhythm was present in the nursery bedroom. . . . (“The Dry Salvages,” part I, 6-11)

The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.
Here the impossible union
Of spheres of existence is actual,
Here the past and future
Are conquered, and reconciled,
Where action were otherwise movement
Of that which is only moved
And has in it no source of movement--
Driven by daemonic, chthonic
Powers. And right action is freedom
From past and future also. (“The Dry Salvages,” part V, 32-42)

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. (“Little Gidding,” part V, 1-3)
What struck me most about this issue is how much of it parallels what Eliot wrote in his Four Quartets--with the lines I quoted above being the most obvious in terms of paralleling the events in Moore’s Neonomicon, though other parts of Eliot’s work match up well, too.

It would have been fantastic if Moore could have woven in meta-textual allusions to Eliot’s masterpiece along with his overt use of Lovecraft’s works to indicate that both Lovecraft and Eliot were writing about the same concepts from two different perspectives (with Eliot’s coming from his conventional Anglican religious perspective).

Had Moore achieved that meta-textual level, then Neonomicon could have exceeded Watchmen as Moore’s masterpiece. What’s sad is that Moore might well have attempted something like that had he written this story 25 years ago, but this series mostly feels as if he cranked out a quick potboiler for Avatar Press as a follow-up to The Courtyard.

Shawn Hill:There are online comments that suggest that Moore took on the assignment to pay the taxman, literally. So this series is workman-like, journeyman Moore, rather than the fully inspired innovator we’ve read in other cases. Still, it’s better than most comic books, but not Moore’s personal best.

Dave Wallace: Although Neonomicon might not be the best Alan Moore comic I've ever read, I certainly feel as though I have a more positive view of the earlier issues in retrospect after having read the third and fourth issues of this miniseries, to the extent that I'd probably revise my slightly less enthusiastic opinions of issues #1 and #2 up to four bullets.

Shawn Hill: I admit to having my mind completely blown by second issue of this story; never before had I witnessed something like that homicidal and polymorphously perverse orgy scene in a comic book. It took what looked to be a fairly typical police procedural (albeit with supernatural overtones) into territory closer to Moore's Lost Girls project with Melinda Gebbie.

From Prime Suspect to DeSade in one stunning scene by way of The Wicker Man. I couldn't put issue #2 down--and when I did, I hid it so I wouldn't be haunted by it daily. It felt like a dirty secret, and though the dirt had some racism and violence to it, it was mostly about even more taboo sex.

However, then the third issue brought a surprise, in that Merril didn't lose her mind due to her horrific rape; instead, she continued to work towards obtaining her freedom despite the callous inhumanity of her abusers or the culture shock (to put it mildly) of her subterranean journey. She even got her contact lenses back, which was helpful since she then had a vision quest and started to learn the power-language of the nether world, Aklo.

After reading the third issue, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the story wasn't just a snuff film--that her character still had somewhere to go, and that's why I haven't graded this issue lower. Even though that “higher plane of existence” is (on one level) one of the oldest clichés in science fiction, on another it's certainly not countermanded or prevented by anything that's gone before.

Dave Wallace: After having finished this issue, I immediately felt inclined to dig out the previous three issues--as well as my copy of Burrows's adaptation of Moore’sThe Courtyard--to reread the story in full. That action suggests that it's a series I've enjoyed reading, and that I'll enjoy re-reading in future.

The only real fault that I can find is that the artwork looks a little stiff and posed at times, which might be simply due to Burrows's style (which occasionally evokes Steve Dillon in its lack of dynamism), or it could be due to Moore's famously precise instructions for his artists. Either way, it's not a flaw that detracts from the story too much.

Thom Young: I agree. I mentioned in my review of the first issue that I thought Burrows’s illustrations were a bit stiff. However, he won me over with the way he conveyed the rape scene in the second issue. Since then, I have grown to really like his work. I think he has done a very good job on this series as a whole.

His style is not well suited for superhero comics, but it is perfect for subtle stories that demand a greater degree of verisimilitude in the way the characters are depicted.

Shawn Hill:No arguments from me, Burrows’ verisimilitude has a deadpan tone that I find humorous and ironic. His consistent attention to detail gives his most horrific scenes a frisson of cold-blooded detachment for the viewer while also making the psychedelic scenes all the more mysterious and spooky (because they’re so grounded in the realities of the characters taking the trips).

Though I did find that the bloody dispatching of the villains this issue served to make them a little interchangeable as they lost the distinction they evinced in the second and third issues. I suppose we were seeing them this time from the eyes of the FBI--just as threats with guns, which is a storytelling choice that reflects the script-level focus on changing perspective and point of view in each scene in earlier issues. We still don’t know why most cities have those umbrella canopies (as Salem is shown to from the harbor when Merril is rescued) though, do we?

Thom Young: I haven’t read the initial volume in Moore’s Lovecraft-inspired story, The Courtyard, but the reason for the umbrellas over the cities is supposedly given in that story--something about President Clinton messing up the negotiations between Syria and Israel in 1995, which lead to a limited nuclear exchange and the domes are protection from radioactive fallout circulating in the upper atmosphere (something like that). I really need to read The Courtyard when I have the time.

Shawn Hill:It certainly takes on a different aspect after reading this story, which both explains a lot of what's been happening while also leaving room for further developments to come. It's been a satisfying read and a successful story.

In fact, I must admit I've been surprised by every issue of this series since the first in one way or another, so I wouldn't be so sure a sequel would follow a predictable path either.

Thom Young: I agree, and I hope a sequel follows--one that Moore puts even more of an effort into that would make it a five-bullet classic rather than a four-bullet "above average" comic.

Well, we were going to allow Dave to have the last word, but it looks like he had to run off to the hospital for the birth of his first child. If that's the case, then congratulations, Dave.

Shawn Hill: Yes, congratulations, Dave. I hope all is well with the new addition to the family.

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