Current Reviews


Sunday Slugfest: Alan Moore's Neonomicon

Posted: Sunday, July 25, 2010
By: Thom Young

Alan Moore
Jacen Burrows
Avatar Press
FBI agents Gordon Lamper and Merril Brears visit a psychiatric prison to speak to their former colleague Aldo Sax, who went on a ritualistic murder spree during his final case as an FBI agent when he worked undercover while investigating a cult. Sax is now imprisoned with psychiatric inmates who committed murders identical to the ones he committed, and Lamper and Brears want to speak to him about a new series of identical murders. They soon find themselves caught in a bizarre series of events that defy all conventional explanation.

Ross Haralson:
Dave Wallace:
Thom Young:

Ross Haralson:

H.P. Lovecraft remains the uncontested master of classic horror storytelling. While some might be tempted to specify a particular subset of the horror genre over which Lovecraft reigns (such as “cosmic horror”), I would argue that no further descriptors or delineations are necessary.

Most attempts to weave a modern Lovecraftian tale, regardless of the medium, fall into one of two categories: Those that seek to emulate Lovecraft’s style (these are rarely, if ever, successful) and those that firmly establish themselves as visitors to Lovecraft’s world--approaching the material almost reverentially. Artists in the latter group allow Lovecraft’s spirit to weave its own threads of chaos and destruction throughout the work while leaving their own voice and style unobscured; Alan Moore’s Neonomicon, thankfully, is a work of this very sort.

Neonomicon marks the much–anticipated return of Alan Moore to the world of comic book writing and, if rumors are to be believed, may very well represent his final work for the medium. Those unfamiliar with the property should note that this book is a sequel to Moore’s prose story “The Courtyard,” which was adapted to comic form by Antony Johnston (and formally retitled Alan Moore’s The Courtyard). Unlike its predecessor, Neonomicon was conceived as a comic book series.

So does Neonomicon read like Alan Moore? Yes.

Is it one of his best works? Perhaps not, or at least not yet.

However, it is still an excellent comic book and a worthy tribute to H.P. Lovecraft.

This first chapter (entitled “At the Mansions of Madness,” an obvious nod to Lovecraft’s novella At the Mountains of Madness, begins with an ominous splash page warning the reader of Cthulhu’s pending return from slumber at the ocean’s floor--a fact that might lead readers to assume that Neonomicon will proceed like most post-Lovecraft “Cthulhuverse” tales in that it concludes with the Great Old One surprising a hapless and unprepared humanity; however, in one of the issue’s most intriguing twists, it is later revealed that one of the protagonists (Agent Brears) recognizes the numerous Lovecraftian story elements as being indicative of “some big literary in-joke.”

Neonomicon may not be the first story to merge Lovecraft’s most iconic creation with the author’s own reality,* but the novelty of such a revelation is preserved in that Moore is still playing the “Cthulhu card” very close to his vest. Indeed, apart from the aforementioned splash page, there is little evidence that the god himself exists within Moore’s story.

Instead, the “villain” of this story may yet prove to be something far less tangible, perhaps the forbidden knowledge with which so many of Lovecraft’s protagonists were obsessed to the point of self-destruction. The fate of The Courtyard’s fallen hero, Aldo Sax, is certainly a testament to this possibility.

While there is very little action in Neonomicon #1 (most confrontations consist only of shouted profanities and the single fatality occurs off-panel), the story still manages to arrest the reader’s attention. There is a significant amount of dialogue, and while that fact generally represents a positive and all-too-rare divergence from the bulk of today’s comic books, it does seem at times that Moore struggles to provide genuinely compelling material.

For instance, conversations occasionally seem stilted and unnatural--seeming to exist only for the benefit of the audience, and the repeated references to Brears’ recent personal struggles solicit the reader’s empathy with all the subtlety of an elephant. These are minor issues, however, and in an era where character development is undervalued it seems untoward to complain.

Illustrator Jacen Burrows is in fine form for this series. The vertically separated, dual-paneled pages of The Courtyard’s graphic iteration have been traded for more conventional page layouts here. Though this format may be less unique, it does allow for significantly more story content per page (probably a necessity given Moore is both plotting and scripting this sequel).

Burrows’ style continues to evoke that of Steve Dillon in many ways, though I would argue that the latter artist is extremely talented and that such comparisons should be considered nothing if not flattering. Burrows excels at establishing a moody atmosphere, something unquestionably essential to the works of both Alan Moore and H.P. Lovecraft, and his work in Neonomicon #1 is excellent in this regard. Backgrounds are minimalist at times, but always finely rendered--and Burrows’s environments can be quite detailed when such attention is warranted (such as the first few panels following a given scene change). Characters are distinct, detailed and expressive; their movements are fluid; and the cast seems to naturally inhabit each panel with an appreciable absence of awkward poses or uneven perspective (well, apart from when scripted as such).

Juanmar’s colors are equally excellent, as the finer details of Burrows’s pencils are never muddled by the colorist’s work. Of particular mention, Juanmar seems impressively adept at providing a visual distinction between artificial light (e.g. lamps or headlights) and that cast by natural sources such as the moon. Further, color fidelity remains notably consistent from scene to scene with rare exception.

Though this first issue is more or less dialogue-driven it ultimately proves to be an energetic and interesting start to the series. Alan Moore fans will not want to miss Neonomicon--and, though the series is still in its infancy, all signs indicate that this will be an essential read for H.P. Lovecraft followers as well. Having tasted what Moore has to offer, I now wait with bated breath for the next installment. Cthulhu fhtagn!

* In the world of Hellboy, for instance, Mike Mignola’s title character has often suggested that Lovecraft based his writing on personal experiences and knowledge. Similarly, 2009’s The Strange Adventures of H.P Lovecraft saw the author’s nightmares given life at the earliest stages of his career.

Dave Wallace:

Although I’m not a huge fan of horror-themed comics, a new project by Alan Moore is always cause for celebration--so I readily bought this first issue of Neonomicon knowing only that it was written by Moore, and that it was a supernatural-horror-based thriller involving FBI agents investigating a series of H.P. Lovecraft-inspired murders. This opening chapter is very much a setup issue, so the story doesn’t really progress very much beyond establishing those elements.

That said, the characters are fleshed-out fairly well (with some rather individual quirks, including a sex-addiction subplot that feels like it can’t decide whether to be sincere or tongue-in-cheek). Additionally, the ways in which some of the Lovecraftian elements are utilised are imaginative and a little disturbing--even if there isn’t really anything truly scary to speak of, yet.

The closest the issue gets to genuinely unnerving horror is the interrogation of the sinister Aldo Sax during a creepy scene in which our two FBI agent leads confront their ex-colleague who speaks in the otherwordly tongue of Lovecraft’s “old ones.”

Illustrator Jacen Burrows (whose work I’m not otherwise familiar with, having never read his other projects--such as Avatar’s Crossed and Wormwood) does particularly well during this scene by ensuring that Sax’s reactions to the questions are perfectly clear through his body language, and imbuing him with real character despite his undecipherable responses.

Elsewhere, Burrows effectively conveys a lot of details of the story through his art, whether it’s the mysterious domes hanging over the city or the modern punk subculture of the underground nightclub that our protagonists infiltrate. He also deals well with some of the issue’s more unusual concepts--such as the moving mural towards the end of the story, a concept that could have been visually confusing given its ambiguous nature, but which is translated perfectly clearly through the artwork.

There’s only one point at which the art falls a little short, and it’s in the slightly cartoonish image of a naked dead body with a slit throat towards the end of the issue. It doesn’t quite feel in keeping with the more realistic tone of the rest of the book, and I hope that future examples of explicit gore and horror in the series will seem more affecting.

Despite this being a solid enough establishing chapter for Neonomicon’s longer story, and one that will ensure that I pick up the next issue to see how things progress, I wasn’t as wowed by it as I have been by some of Moore’s other works. There aren’t many of the linguistic or structural flourishes that have distinguished some of his masterpieces, and there’s little here that feels unique to the medium of comics (although the weird living mural towards the end of the issue may be more effective in sequential art than it would be on film).

That said, Moore’s other masterpieces have set a personal standard that’s probably unlikely to be matched by him in future--especially since the writer seems to be moving away from comics and into other media--so it’s perhaps unfair to expect the modern-day Moore to be the equal of his vintage counterpart.

If anything, the issue feels like a good pilot episode of an American supernatural-thriller TV show, built around some compelling Lovecraftian lore. However, since I’m not the biggest Lovecraft fan in the world (I’m not intimately familiar with the C’thulhu mythos, and I’ve also never read Moore’s The Courtyard, to which Neonomicon is apparently a sequel), I wonder if I’m getting as much out of the book as other readers might. As Agent Brears rather clunkily remarks, “It’s almost like some big literary in-joke”--and I wonder if I would enjoy it more if I was better acquainted with the source material that Moore is working from.

Thom Young:

To be honest, because I was confused by what this book actually was, Neonomicon #1 is not at all what I was expecting. When I saw that my colleague Dave Wallace was picking up this title, I was under the impression that it was a different Alan Moore book that both he and I have been interested in--The Moon and Serpent Bumper Book of Magic (co-written by Steve Moore) that is to be published by Top Shelf.

My mistake was in believing that all new Alan Moore material was being published by Top Shelf and that Avatar was only publishing comic book adaptations of older Alan Moore works. Top Shelf is the company through which Moore has been releasing all of his recent stories since he left his imprint at Wildstorm-DC Comics. He has gone into semi-retirement except for the sporadic release of new League of Extraordinary Gentlemen books, with the second volume of Century listed on Top Shelf’s Web site as “Coming Soon” in 2011.

Anyway, because Moore has been releasing all of his recent work through Top Shelf, and because I knew he was semi-retired except for his Top Shelf releases, and because Dave was buying this book (and Dave had not bought the comic book adaptations of Moore’s short stories that Avatar has been publishing), I figured this new comic book that was supposedly written by Moore (rather than being an adaptation of an earlier story) must be --The Bumper Book of Magic that I’ve been waiting for (I had forgotten the title, and I thought “Neonomicon” was a good title for a “new book of magick”*).

Unfortunately, I’ve since learned that Top Shelf is listing The Bumper Book of Magic as a 2013 release, so I’ve another three years of anticipation ahead of me.

In the meantime, had I known that Neonomicon was a sequel to one of the adaptations of a Moore short story that Avatar had published in 2003, I doubt I would have bought it. Avatar has published at least five comic book series adapted from Moore’s earlier short stories, novellas, and poems, and I haven’t bothered with any of them.

I’m not interested in reading another writer’s adaptation of Moore’s writing; I’m interested in reading Moore’s own writing. While Neonomicon is not being billed as an adaptation, it certainly does read like one.

I have no doubt that Moore “wrote” something that Jacen Burrows used as the basis of his illustrations, but I have my doubts that Moore wrote a full script for Burrows to follow--or, if he did write a full script, then Moore certainly did not devote much time and attention to crafting his work.

As Dave noted in his review, “There aren’t many of the linguistic or structural flourishes that have distinguished some of his masterpieces.” I would go even farther than Dave by stating that there aren’t any of the linguistic and structural flourishes that are the hallmarks of every comic book Alan Moore has written in the last 26 years (save for the extraordinarily bad job he did on WildC.A.T.S. #21-34 in 1995-97).

Neonomicon isn’t as bad as Moore’s work on WildC.A.T.S., which was below average in quality. Instead, Neonomicon is just average.

This issue reads the way I would expect a competently written Cthulhu tale by an unknown beginning writer to read. However, it certainly does not read like a comic book crafted by Alan Moore should read. Rather than a full script, I suspect Moore provided a plot synopsis and some dialog suggestions, and that Burrows then took over the story from there.

In addition to the lack of linguistic and structural flourishes that are evident throughout the story, two specific lines of dialog stand out as lacking Moore’s usual attention to his craft. First, on page four (panel three), as FBI agents Gordon Lamper and Merril Brears enter the “Haven Secure Psychiatric Institute,” Lamper says to his partner about her “sex addiction thing,” “Merril, if that was a real illness everybody over thirteen would be in hospital” (sic).

The line is a great bit of dialog, and it does indeed show the writer to be witty--which Moore is, of course, and Burrows might be as well--and Lamper is correct in that the American Psychiatric Association has not yet recognized sex addiction as a disorder that can be diagnosed by licensed psychiatrists (though that will change once a pharmaceutical company claims to have developed a specific drug therapy for the behavior).

However, the problem with the line is that it is being spoken by an American--specifically, an African-American male--yet the line has the British English trait of not using an article before the noun hospital.

In American English, the line should read, “Merril, if that was a real illness everybody over thirteen would be in the hospital.” For some reason, in the United States, we like to use the definite article the before the word hospital--at least in most instances. American English seems to indicate that there is only one hospital, and we all go to it for our various medical reasons.

In those rare instances when we don’t use the definite article, Americans will still use the indefinite article a. However, British English tends to not use any article before a noun that identifies an institution, only with nouns that identify a location (as in “I am at university this year” and “the lecture will be at the university”)--but the Brits don’t use any sort of article regardless of whether hospital identifies an institution or a location. Thus, Agent Lamper suddenly slipped into British English in that one line.

Alan Moore certainly knows about this difference between British English and American English, and it seems unlikely he would have scripted the specific line of dialog if he was focusing on his craft. Of course, we could just claim that the letterer (whom I believe was Burrows) failed to include the definite article. However, the second such error (which I’ll address in my next paragraph) makes me believe that Moore either hurried through the writing of his full script or (more likely) he simply drafted an outline with dialog suggestions that Burrows then crafted into the story.

In that latter case, Moore would have undoubtedly written his plot summary or outline in his native British English rather than in American English--which would explain the second line of dialog that stands out in this story. On page 22 (panel three), as her fellow FBI agents shout outside an apartment building about what they discovered inside one of the apartments, Agent Brears says, “Okay, okay, let’s not broadcast this to the neighbourhood” (sic).

Now, Brears’s line would be spoken the same way in either British or American English (save for the accent of the speaker, of course). However, the British spelling of the word neighbourhood is out of place when coming from an American speaker (the word is spelled without the “u” in American English, of course). This “error” is another obvious example of the story being written by a British author, which Moore obviously is; however, both of these instances of British English in the American dialog shows a lack of craft by the writer as well as a lack of attention by the book’s editor (or project manager).

Again, if he was simply writing either a summary or an outline for Burrows to follow, then Moore would have naturally written his directions in his native British English. Thus, “neighbourhood,” is undoubtedly what he wrote, but I doubt he would have kept either of these British-isms had he written a carefully crafted full script.

Thus, in a sense, Neonomicon seems to be just another Avatar Press adaptation of a Moore story--albeit, an adaptation of Moore’s outline for a story rather than an adaptation of a completed work of prose. While there is a lack of craft in these two instances (and in the absence of any of Moore’s usual linguistic and structural flourishes), Neonomicon is not a bad story; it simply isn’t a true Moore story as much as it’s an Alan Moore idea for a story.

If Burrows did indeed complete the scripting of the story from Moore’s notes, then he did an adequate job, and fans of Lovecraftian horror will probably want to add this book to their respective collections.

It’s not an outstanding work, but it’s an average, competently produced comic book in terms of both the script and the illustrations. While there is a stiffness and a flatness to Burrows’s drawings that keep them from being above average in quality, they serve the story sufficiently.

I’m mildly curious to see how this story plays out since there 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 on the part of the person who scripted the dialog (whoever that may have been). 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 which 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.

Yet, the real dilemma here isn’t when those “historical events” occurred. Instead, the oddity is that the protagonist of “The Silver Key,” Randolph Carter (the analog for Lovecraft himself in his stories) is also a contemporary character in Neonomicon--though now the character is the lesbian lead singer of a punk-esque rock band.

Agent Brears realizes the oddity when she learns that the female singer’s name is Randolph Carter, “Gordon, there’s something weird about this. It’s . . . see, it’s almost like some big literary in-joke.”

Yes, Brears is correct, it’s either an inside joke that Moore and Burrows are playing on their characters or else the domes and equipment that are built over the city actually represent some sort of virtual reality matrix that is running a Lovecraftian story in which the characters are taking part.

Anyway, I am mildly curious to find out what it’s all about. However, I can’t really justify spending twelve dollars for three more issues of a story that I consider average in terms of words and pictures. I’ll save my money for the actual writing from Alan Moore that Top Shelf will sporadically publish over the next three years.

* In reality, “Neonomicon” is an awkward name for a book in that Lovecraft’s fictitious book The Necronomicon makes no sense etymologically. Necro, of course, refers to “the dead” and Lovecraft meant for nomicon to refer to the “image of names” or “book of names,” and he claimed the title translated out of Greek as the "image of the law of the dead.”

However, Lovecraft didn’t develop his Greek etymology correctly, and other subsequent “nomicons” have merely continued Lovecraft’s error--such as the currently popular vegan cookbook titled The Veganomicon (“the image of the law of the vegan”?). Thus, Moore’s Neonomicon continues the error as it supposedly means “the image of the law of the new.”

What did you think of this book?
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