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Sunday Slugfest: Neonomicon #2

A comic review article by: Dave Wallace, Thom Young
FBI agents Gordon Lamper and Merril Brears travel to Boston to follow up on the case of the H.P. Lovecraft cultists that they are trying to crack.

[Warning: The following review/discussion contains spoilers.]

Thom Young:
Dave Wallace:




Dave Wallace: In many ways, the second issue of Alan Moore's Neonomicon is an improvement on the first. We get a much stronger sense of active participation in the story from its two protagonists as they investigate a bizarre H.P. Lovecraft-related sex club that seems to have a strong connection to the crimes we learned about in the first issue.

We also get a lot closer to the evil Lovecraftian force that was little more than a phantom menace in the first chapter--with a couple of teasing glimpses of a supernatural demonic creature towards the end of the issue that set up a more fantastical tone for the remaining two chapters of the story.

As a whole, the issue seems a lot more focused and comprehensible than the opening chapter--to the extent that you could probably start reading Neonomicon with issue #2 and not really feel as though you'd missed much.

Thom Young: Yes, I enjoyed this issue significantly more than I did the first issue. Your bullet score remained the same from the first to the second, but mine has gone up one full point. After the first few pages of this issue, I was anticipating lowering my score for this second issue. However, once our protagonists arrived in Boston, this story picked up a great deal.

Yet, the story is not without its flaws--which is why it's only getting four bullets from me rather than five.

Dave Wallace: Yes, there are some elements of the story that aren't so successful; they actually work to detract from what could have been a much better book if these problems had been ironed out before reaching the page.

The first problem is Moore's on-the-nose acknowledgements of the links between the story of Neonomicon and the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Part of the fun of the first issue was in spotting the little nods to Lovecraft's work--and although I'm not a huge fan by any means, I picked up a few. However, the second issue abandons all pretence of subtlety, with one of the lead FBI agents explicitly stating that “every element of this case is connected to the writings of H.P. Lovecraft," before proceeding to give a running commentary on exactly what those connections are. It removes the play-along aspect for those readers who do happen to be Lovecraft fans, and it comes off as a little indulgent and self-satisfied for those that aren't.

Thom Young: That’s interesting. I was going to focus on this aspect of the story as well, but what you pointed out here is what I was going to praise. Instead, I was going to complain that this issue’s “explanation” still doesn’t address the fault that I found with the first issue:
[T]here are allusions to H.P. Lovecraft’s stories as presenting “real” historical events within the world of Neonomicon (specifically to Lovecraft’s 1925/1927 short story "The Horror at Red Hook" and his 1926/1929 short story “The Silver Key”). However, these allusions to Lovecraft’s stories show a further lack in attention to detail. . . .

For instance, FBI Assistant Director Perlman (Lamper and Brears’s boss) refers to the events of “The Horror at Red Hook” as occurring in 1925, the year Lovecraft wrote that story, but it wasn’t published until 1927. However, Perlman then refers to the events of “The Silver Key” as occurring in 1929, the year that story was published even though Lovecraft wrote it in 1926.
In this current issue, Agent Brears is beginning to suspect that the antagonists are not cultists playing off Lovecraft’s stories. Instead, she starts to hypothesize that Lovecraft wrote his stories based on events he witnessed. In that case, the Red Hook case would have occurred in 1925 (when Lovecraft wrote the story) but not appear in print until 1929. However, the chronology of the other story doesn’t work.

Moore has the Silver Key events occurring in 1929 (the year it was published) but it should have occurred in 1926, the year Lovecraft wrote it. Obviously, for those who know me, I love this type of Postmodern metafiction, but the chronology of composition should be maintained. It just seems sloppy on Moore’s part--similar to the sloppiness of the two Briticisms popping up in the American English spoken by the characters in the first issue.

Dave Wallace: I'm not actually sure that this is such a big problem, since I don't think that Moore is explicitly stating that all of Lovecraft's books are necessarily inspired by real-world events. Instead, he seems to be suggesting that only some of Lovecraft's stories might be based on supernatural events that actually happened, whilst other examples of his work have inspired followers of his writing to try and recreate their events after the fact (just like the Lovecraft worshippers we see in this issue). I think this ambiguity helps to explain some of those discrepancies you mentioned.

Thom Young: I didn’t get that sense, but I also haven’t tried to figure out a timeline and a character list of these past cases that the FBI agents have referenced in the story. Perhaps it all works out, but based on my single readings of these first two issues (and not having read The Courtyard), my sense is that there are discrepancies--but you might be right. I should re-read the entire series (and read The Courtyard) to see if everything holds up or not.

Dave Wallace: The second problem I had with the issue deals with its closing developments. However, it's not the explicit sex and nudity that I have a problem with--even though that seems to have caused a minor controversy amongst some readers and retailers. Rather, it's the way that Moore falls into some clichés of bad horror writing that an author of his calibre should be expected to avoid.

In the second half of the book, we see the male and female FBI-agent leads pose as a couple in order to gain access to a seedy, underground (both literally and figuratively) sex club run by apparent Lovecraft aficionados. As part of the rituals of the club, the agents are asked to strip naked--forcing them to leave their guns in a changing room--and the female agent is also asked to remove her contact lenses so that she doesn't trap any germs from the river water in which the club members conduct their business.

These circumstances leave the two agents completely defenceless, and one of them virtually blind--which is hardly a state of affairs that you'd expect trained law enforcement officers to enter into so readily, let alone when they're already being led into an unknown situation in an undetermined location full of complete strangers (the rapidity with which they're welcomed into the club despite being complete newcomers is another bugbear I have with the issue, but I'm willing to give Moore the benefit of the doubt on that one, given that the club members seem to have their own reasons for wanting some new members).

It's no surprise that the agents' weapons are discovered and their identities exposed, and the female agent is left helpless at the mercy of the deviant club members, unable to even understand what's going on due to her semi-blindess. And not only does Moore fall into the trap of having people act stupidly in order to advance the plot to a point at which it becomes scary, but he also ticks off that other bad horror cliché of having the only black character in the story--the male FBI agent--also be the first one to be killed (by his own abandoned gun, no less--serves him right for being so idiotic as to leave it in an easily-discovered place, I suppose).

Thom Young: Again you focussed on something akin to the complaint I had, but we have slightly different complaints. Like you, I didn’t mind the explicit nudity and sex in the issue. In fact, twenty-five years ago I would have absolutely loved that sequence on a very visceral level. It’s why Cherry Poptart (or just Cherry after Kellogg’s objected) was one of my favorite comic book series 25 years ago.

However, now, 25 years older, I’m not so viscerally inclined when it comes to sexually explicit comics. I did, though, enjoy those scenes because it showed me how good Jacen Burrows is as an illustrator. I was somewhat underwhelmed with his work on the first issue--finding it “adequate.” However, his ability to draw naked human bodies realistically greatly impressed me.

With the exception of Agent Lamper’s muscular superhero physique, every character actually had a realistically drawn body. Of course, there actually are people who have muscular superhero physiques in real life, so even Agent Lamper came out okay in that regard.

I was particularly impressed with the way Burrow’s drew Agent Brears, who is the most attractive female character in the story. However, he didn’t exaggerate her proportions the way other comic book artists might be inclined to do. Burrows drew Brears with firm-but-small breasts and a skinny ass.

However, what I was not impressed with was Moore’s handling of the situation. Yet, while you focussed on the agents’ missteps once they were in the underground chambers, I was bothered by their initial missteps when they arrived in Boston.

They believed they were going to Boston to check out a sex shop--which you mentioned in your complaint. Upon arriving in Boston, they must have gone immediately to their hotel. We don’t actually see them arriving; we only see them at their hotel. However, we can assume they went straight to their hotel because of what follows.

At the hotel, they immediately start “pimping” themselves in preparation for their undercover visit to what they believe is going to be a sex shop. However, upon arriving at the shop they discover it’s not a sex shop at all; it’s an occult shop that just happens to sell cultist dildos. Nevertheless, they enter the shop in their undercover clothes--with Lamper dressed as a stylish “pimp” and Brears dressed as a stylish “slut” (as she termed it).

My question is why didn’t they drive by the shop first before deciding what clothes to wear? Then, why did they proceed into the shop in their “sex shop” undercover clothes? They probably gave themselves away as not being legitimate Lovecraftian cultists the minute they set foot in the store.

However, I didn’t have any problems at the time with the complaints you had with them getting themselves into a situation in which they didn’t have their guns and Brears didn’t have any corrective lenses for her eyes. Yet, now that you bring it up, the lack of a backup pair of corrective lenses is just stupid.

I used to wear contact lenses, and most people who do wear contacts (especially those who have vision problems as bad as Brears is presented as having in this issue) know to always have a pair of glasses with you in case something happens--such as having to remove your contacts for any variety of reasons. Thus, it really is sloppy to have Brears be so stupid when it came to her corrective lenses.

Yet, it still doesn’t bother me too much because a lot of the drama of that sequence is based on Brears not being able to see what is happening around her due to her extreme myopia. I suppose the better decision would have been to have Brears switch from her contacts to her glasses and then have her lose her glasses in the struggle once Lamper is shot and she is overpowered.

Dave Wallace: That's true, I think the effectiveness of that final sequence more or less justifies the unbelieveable setup that it took to advance the story to that stage.

Thom Young: A worse fault is the one that Burrows illustrated back at the hotel when Brears was preparing to put in her contacts. He drew the lenses in a box. I can only assume the Burrows has never worn contact lenses and has never lived with anyone who has. Contact lenses aren’t stored dry and in a box; they are stored wet in a plastic case that contains saline solution to keep them moist.

Yet, despite the admittedly minor faults I found in the issue--the twisted chronology of Lovecraft’s stories, blundering into the store in the wrong undercover clothes, and incorrectly stored contact lenses--I really enjoyed this issue far more than I enjoyed the first issue.

I wasn’t going to mention Agent Lamper’s death, but since you mentioned that “spoiler” I will say that I wasn’t bothered by the fact that he is black and is the first character who is killed. His race never crossed my mind except when the Lovecraftian cultists referred to it--and since they are obvious racists when it comes to people of African ancestry, it makes sense they would kill Lamper immediately.

Dave Wallace: Yes, I think it's likely that the cultists probably knew that the two agents weren't kosher Lovecraft occultists the minute they entered the shop (as you suggested earlier)--so I think you could make the case that they'd actually planned to execute Lamper all along as some kind of sacrifice to their demonic gods.

But I do think that Lamper's race is important. As well as the cultists referring to the fact that he is black (and making vaguely racist remarks about him being their first black member), there are passages earlier in the issue that deal with Lovecraft's own racist point of view (or at least, perceived racist point of view).

It just bothered me slightly that Moore tied this into the longstanding schlock-horror cliché of having the black character be the first one to be killed off.

Thom Young: Oh, I agree. It’s important that he is a black character. It’s a significant part of the story, which is why I don’t think Lamper’s death was an example of a bad horror cliché of immediately killing off the only black character. Lovecraft may have been guilty of committing such a bad horror cliché in his writing, as he was an admitted racist early in his career before later expressing regret for those beliefs.

However, since Moore is playing with the conventions of Lovecraft’s fiction, his killing off of the only black character makes sense and isn’t an example of him committing the cliché; it’s an example of him acknowledging that Lovecraft would be guilty of the cliché. Thus, these Lovecraftian cultists would commit this act of immediately killing the black character.

It’s all part of the self-reflexive nature of Postmodernist metafiction. It only surprised me to see such an early exit for a character whom I had considered one of the two protagonists of the series. I would have expected Lamper to be the first character killed (because he’s black and because Moore would be playing with those conventions), but I would have also expected for that death to occur at either the end of the third issue or the beginning of the fourth issue of this four-issue series.

Of course, this being a “horror” story, it’s not out of the question that Lamper will rise from the dead in some capacity--especially if the story is all some elaborate holographic virtual reality rather than “actual reality.” He may only need to have his character “rebooted.”

Dave Wallace: That's true, it may be that Moore is playing a longer game here. And I take your point that he's also more likely to be consciously acknowledging the cliché than he is unwittingly falling into using it. But still, reading this issue on its own, Lamper's death felt a bit clichéd and predictable to me.

However, if you can get over these problems, and some other oddities of behaviour that simply don't seem to ring true (the female FBI agent stripping off in front of her colleague in a shared hotel room seemed completely gratuitous but also completely out-of-character, given their non-sexual relationship and the fact that an en-suite bathroom provides all the privacy that she could want), there's some fairly effective horror in this issue.

Thom Young: Oh, before you talk about that effective horror let me add that the clothes-changing scene at the hotel room was completely gratuitous and out of character regardless of the nature of the relationship she has with Lamper.

As for the gratuitous nudity, we could have still had that if she had changed her clothes in the bathroom while Lamper was in the bedroom. There’s no reason the readers’ couldn’t be in the bathroom with her. However, given that she is trying to distance herself from her sexual addiction problem (mentioned in the first issue), it seems unlikely that she would choose to take her clothes off in front of her partner.

I suppose, though, that the scene was meant to show us that she has not actually put her sexual addiction problem completely behind her. She is still feeling an inclination towards exhibitionism even if she isn’t actually trying to seduce Lamper.

Dave Wallace: Yes, I think that's one way of reading it--and given that Moore has already spent so much time in the first issue talking about her sex addiction, I think it's unlikely that he'd handle a scene that deals with the relationship between the two leads so clumsily.

Anyway, that's really the only place in which I felt the story might have used its sexual elements gratuitously. Every other example of sexual content and nudity in the comic has a good reason for being there, and is handled in a way that serves the story very effectively. I'm thinking in particular of the final scene, which involves an orgy in which the surviving Agent Brears is raped by more than one of the club members before being offered up to an inhuman, demonic beast as some kind of sexual sacrifice. That scene is actually handled pretty well in terms of building suspense and evoking a feeling of disgust in the reader.

Despite the unpleasant subject matter (which may automatically make the issue unbearable for some readers), Moore never feels like he's trying to glamorise or eroticise the events of the story, encouraging us to empathise with the book's heroine as she's dragged against her will into a sick, twisted sub-culture that makes her self-confessed "sex addiction" look positively quaint.

Artist Jacen Burrows also plays his part in encouraging us to see things from her point of view, too, using blurring effects in several panels to accurately replicate her semi-blinded point-of-view.

Thom Young: Yes, I thought that final scene with the nudity, the sexual orgy, and the rape was very effectively written. It’s obviously the type of scene that is not for everyone. People offended by graphic displays of nudity, sex, and/or rape should stay away from this book. However, the craft of that scene is one of the few indications that Alan Moore is the actual writer of the issue and not merely someone who tossed off a quick outline of a story to Avatar Press.

Oh, and I believe that is Cthulhu--or a cthhulhu-type creature--that is preparing to rape Agent Brears.

Dave Wallace: I'm not familiar enough with Lovecraft's stories to be sure, but I think it's defintiely meant to be one of his sinister creations.

It's not just the more horror-oriented moments that are served well by the art, either. As with the first issue, the details of Burrows's artwork convey many of the story points so effectively that Moore doesn't have to mention them in the text, especially when it comes to the weird shop full of sex-toys, pornography, ancient books, and music recordings that all have some kind of Lovecraftian bent.

His figures may be a little stiff and his style a little flat, but he articulates the story well and doesn't shy away from some of the more unpleasant details of the issue's denouement, enhancing the horror of the sinister orgy by making the sexual elements and nudity mundane and realistic rather than attractive and titillating.

Thom Young: Yeah, as I mentioned earlier, Burrows’s work in this second issue is better than his work in the first. I don’t find his characters to be as stiff and flat as I did in the first issue. In fact, my only complaint is with the colors, which I think makes the art look flatter than it actually is.

The colors are flat Earth tones, which seems to be the house style for Avatar Press for the most part. I wish the colorist would expand his palette slightly. I’m not asking for bright, vibrant colors, but something other than Earth tones would be welcomed.

Dave Wallace: Yes, I can see what you mean. As you say, it seems to be the house style for Avatar books, but I get the feeling that we may see something a little more distinctive and vibrant next issue, if the supernatural horror elements are brought to the fore in the way that this chapter's cliffhanger suggests.

I look forward to reading it.

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