The trade collection of Alan Moore's Neonomicon is out, and the reviews have started to trickle in; the more knowing ones from those who read the single editions, and the utterly horrified gasps of those who didn't. The latter reaction is understandable, Neonomicon is a horrible story – not horribly written, but horrible in itself.
This is HP Lovecraft with all that the old master of pulp horror kept implicit, made explicit. Lovecraft was racist, even for his time, and incredibly uncomfortable with sexuality. In some respects, Moore has taken those "indescribable" horrors and made manifest what Lovecraft himself feared most. But Neonomicon is more than that; Moore, like Grant Morrison, never simply lays the facts out for the reader. Instead the reader is part of a collaboration of meaning and intent; do a bit of work yourself, and the experience is that much richer.
Neonomicon then, as I see it, is more than a horrible story, and more even than a knowing look at what horrors really plagued Lovecraft; it's a surge of anger and horror at the comics industry itself, as well as the racism, misogyny and lack of imagination within. But can a horrible story ever be more than simply horrible?
Please note, Neonomicon features an extended and brutal rape scene which is referenced (not explicitly) and condemned in this review.
Neonomicon is the sequel to a previous work of Moore's, The Courtyard, which is included in the trade collection. In this first story then, we follow Agent Sax on his investigations into a series of grisly murders, before moving on swiftly to Neonomicon proper, in which two fellow agents, Agent Brears and Agent Lamper, begin by questioning the now pathologically crazed Sax.
Like Sax, the two new agents quickly realise that the murders (and insanity of Sax) are mixed up in the occult, but fail to realise the true extent of the horror.
The protagonist is clearly Brears, who cottons on to the mystery very early on – the murders, names, and strange language that crop up remind her of the works of HP Lovecraft; rarely in horror stories are the protagonists allowed to pinpoint what is going on, however Brears remains incapable of actually changing proceedings, or of escaping her fate. (A deep knowledge of Lovecraft is not required to spot all the references in Neonomicon, as Brears often remarks on them to her colleagues.)
The knowledge that Brears has, and her realising that this is Lovecraftian horror in the flesh, point to her being a character trapped in fiction. Combined with the metatextuality of the book, this sense of fate being out of the characters control contributes to the ever building sense of doom that hangs over the entire story.
Brears and Lamper pose as a couple to try and blag their way into the meeting place of suspected cultists. This is perhaps the one point in the book where the storytelling becomes a little suspect, or again, it is to point out that the characters are at the mercy of their writer: neither of the agents appears to have told anyone else where they are going, no tags or tracers are used, and at one point not only are they happy to strip naked and leave weaponry behind, but Brears even takes out her contact lenses which results in her being unable to see what is going on.
As characters trapped in fiction, and more specifically trapped in comics, can what follows be read as Moore's commentary on the state of the industry as a whole? His one black character is killed suddenly and violently. His one female protagonist, who is strong and clever, is a recovering sex addict. Comics of course are infamous for having their female characters, particularly those who are strong women, be constantly sexually available to almost any male character. More than that, women in comics who dare be sexual on their own terms are often later punished for their promiscuity (and of course those women who are not portrayed as sexual are usually deemed frigid or ugly – there's no way to win!).
The rape scene in Neonomicon is disgusting, debased and horrifying. To call it a "scene" is misleading; the horror goes on for pages and pages. Brears is reduced to a thing, merely there for the occultists pleasure, and by proxy, for the readers pleasure too. It's women in comics taken to the ultimate level, showing exactly how women in comics are regarded by other characters (and perhaps readers), and pointers are even left for readers to latch on to and in some way excuse the horrific assault. She's a recovering sex-addict; she cooperates with her rapist in order to escape; she doesn't seem overly traumatised afterwards; it's almost as if every bit of rape apologism is being thrown in there alongside the rape itself, daring people to try and excuse it.
This comic is sick and wrong and horrible, and you are supposed to feel ill reading it. There's no softening here, no letting the reader look away. This is what happens to women in comics – they are viewed, they are used, and they are punished.
Rape isn't new in comics of course, and Alan Moore has a particular reputation for tackling the subject in his comics. Whether or not rape has a place in comics is debatable: either comics are for removing yourself from the real world in which case you do not want such dark elements to appear, or comics are a reflection of the real world, in which case such issues would statistically appear. Comics are generally rather violent with lots of fights, blood, guts and death. Aside from anything else, rape is a particularly horrific violating act, and one which has a much stronger effect on women readers than men. With so few women characters in comics, it can also seem very disproportionate when used – in the real world, rape is terrifyingly common but do we really need to see all our female heroes attacked in this way?
Rape is more than just the instant of the act; rape culture has permeated our society to such a degree that "blame the victim" and rapists walking free isn't just the stuff of paranoid nightmares, but a nightmarish reality. Discussions and debates on the subject are hopelessly derailed thanks to rape culture, and comics should be seeking to challenge that if they do broach the subject.
When Moore has written rape or sexually violent scenes in the past – League of Gentlemen, From Hell, Killing Joke, Watchmen, etc – they are rarely glamourised. Generally the reader is left feeling ill and very unsettled. Neonomicon certainly falls in this category too.
It is also true that Moore is a big supporter of women in the arts, equal rights, feminism, and so on, and has condemned the underlying misogyny and lack of diversity in the industry. However, apart from Watchmen, the trauma and lasting effects of rape are rarely explored or shown. Nor is rape culture effectively tackled.
Thanks to rape culture and the institutional sexism of our society, rape remains an issue that will always be read very differently by women readers. Should it not be talked about? Of course not. Should it be depicted in comics? When it doesn't address the fallout and impact of the act, I think the negatives of portraying the act far outweigh any positives. Other crimes don't carry the same emotional trigger that rape does – not only can it pull you out of the story, it can consign the entire book to the bin.
Imagine for a second then that we can cut that element out entirely; that Moore demonstrates the state of the comics industry with respect to its inherent misogyny in some other manner. What we are left with is more than just a run of the mill horror story, and certainly not the lazy shock horror that some labelled it. I'm not sure that Moore ever writes an uncomplicated, unlayered story, and picking through the surface here is a worthwhile pursuit. Burrows' pretty, Quitely-esque art is particularly jarring given the content, as is the deliberately simplistic dialogue.
Characters trapped in their own fiction, at the mercy of the writer and perhaps even the readers themselves, this element is underlined within the story itself by the transition of one character from the three dimensional (or what the reader perceives as 3D) to the two dimensional. A two dimensional portrayal of a three dimensional character becoming two dimensional is, for me, the centrepiece of the book and where everything clicks together.
This is angry writing, about a world with no hope, where fate is out of the characters hands and instead dictated by a readership obsessed with violence, sex and brutality. While this could perhaps equally apply to the real world, here it is aimed squarely at mainstream comics.
What happens to Brears is a part of this furious commentary, and will perhaps serve to shock some readers out of their happy denial that women characters are held to a horrific double standard within mainstream comics.
As someone who does not require that shock however, this comic left me feeling physically ill which is a rare and unwelcome event. That may well be the intention of the comic, and Moore himself thinks he went too far, but I would not recommend this comic to anyone who does not wish to read through a ten page rape scene.