Review: “Neonomicon” by Alan Moore & Jacen Burrows

I recently introduced myself to the works of H.P. Lovecraft, both because I was planning to read Neonomicon, Alan Moore’s tribute to Lovecraft and the first winner in the newly-created graphic novel category of the Bram Stoker award, and because I have another Lovecraft tribute anthology I won through Goodreads. I figured I should read the real thing first on general principle. I’ve decided not to give a simple overall star rating to this book because my opinion is very complicated. I’ll rate it a bit more in-depth and discuss several different factors instead.

First, the premise. This book collects both the earlier two-part story The Courtyard and its later four-part sequel Neonomicon, both written by Alan Moore and drawn by Jacen Burrows. Largely a tribute to H.P. Lovecraft, the book is itself an entry into that luminary’s Cthulhu Mythos. In The Courtyard an undercover FBI agent Aldo Sax investigates a seemingly-disconnected yet identical series of murders that all lead back to a Lovecraft-obsessed subculture. Two years later the case is taken up by FBI pair Brears and Lamper as they are plunged headlong into this same subculture….with predictably horrific results.

Now, the analysis. As a tribute to Lovecraft, I give it four stars. As a standalone work, I give it two. Anyone familiar with Alan Moore or his body of work (you can see just from his Wikipedia article that he’s a brilliant crazy man) knows that he’s a deranged genius with a keen sense of how his work will be perceived….and not afraid to make a statement with it. It should also be noted (some will care, some won’t) that his work is increasingly sexually explicit. The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen has an excellent concept*, and the first volume is good reading, but the sequence where they capture the Invisible Man haunting a girls’ school, impregnating virgins and being confused with the Holy Spirit carries a creepy S&M vibe completely aside from the fact that these girls are basically being raped. Subsequent volumes only get worse. In an attempt to “raise the literary status of pornography” Moore wrote Lost Girls, a graphic novel chronicling the erotic adventures of Alice (of Wonderland fame), Dorothy (of Oz) and Wendy (of Neverland). I haven’t read it, but I’d heard of its reputation. Neonomicon goes further, depicting graphically a woman raped by a fish-man creature as well as a more conventional orgy.

In Neonomicon Moore sets out to write a Lovecraft tale that is at once more faithful than most writers of similar works and goes beyond what Lovecraft wrote to reveal the world he envisioned. Lovecraft’s work is famously racist (a fact unnoticed in the collection I read, except for two notable instances), and while violently asexual carries on deeper analysis some disturbing sexual themes. Women almost never appear, and sex is never mentioned, but many stories deal with the inhuman spawn of humans and a wide variety of eldritch creatures. Most modern writers shy away from the sex and racism when they pay homage to Lovecraft. Moore decided to place it center stage.

The world Moore paints here is ours, one in which Lovecraft published his works, was unappreciated in his time, and has enjoyed a modern resurgence of popularity and respect. The bands in the club visited in both stories are named for HPL stories, and the entire environment is laden with references. I am very glad I read that anthology before picking this up, and wish I had managed a couple other stories that weren’t included (something about Red Hook is the only one I remember). Ostensibly, however, Lovecraft based his stories on real occurences. Trying to integrate this story into the Cthulhu Mythos might be difficult given the conclusion, but it at least proudly stands beside it and pretends it fits.

Was this a well-conceived HPL tribute? Yes. Did I find it completely repulsive? I must confess that I did. Apparently in Moore’s mind–or in his conception of Lovecraft’s, at least–the FBI is a bastion of racism and sexism. I was completely repulsed by the graphic rape sequence, but I will admit some well-executed elements of it. First, the facts. A woman is captured and forced to participate in an orgy before being raped by a large fish-man that is drawn to the group’s “orgone energy” (I can only assume its their sex hormones). I kept reading, expecting it to end that sequence much sooner than it did. There is lots of full frontal nudity and explicit/implicit sex during the orgy, and later we see her grabbed around the waist and taken from behind by the creature. Still later she gives it a handjob in order to spare herself a repetition of the experience. Repulsive and completely offensive to nearly anyone reading it? Yes. And yet I will give them a few kudos. 1: The rape was not eroticised. It was horrific, not arousing. 2: The character wears glasses or contacts, but is not wearing either during this sequence. The artist does some interesting visual things with giving us blurry panels from her POV to heighten the suspense of the creature reveal. The artist is incredibly talented throughout the book, but his work here was stellar. Both of these added to the artistic integrity of the book, and both served immensely to heighten the horror factor. This is, after all, a horror book.

Content: This is the most sexually explicit graphic novel I have ever encountered. As I mentioned above, there is a graphic rape scene that gets quite terrifying. R-rated language. Bloody violence. Lovecraftian magic, which is to say not really magic at all, but whatever.

*Every character that appears in the comic is a character lifted from Victorian literature, from Dracula to King Solomon’s Mines to The Pearl, which is basically the British 1890s version of Playboy.

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