Are You Kidding Me? – David Ward on Moore and Burrows’ Neonomicon (Spoiler Alerts)

Neonomicon: Issues 1–4
Avatar Press
Writer: Alan Moore
Artist: Jacen Burrows

In 1927, HP Lovecraft published a long essay entitled “Supernatural Horror in Literature”, which contains the well-known quote: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” Fine words, indeed. Many works of horror explore this concept, preying on our fears, to name just a few, of the dark, otherness, death, betrayal, violence, and sex. This taxonomy is by no means complete, but the last is of particular significance when considering both Lovecraft and Moore and Burrows’s latest foray into territories Lovecraftian, Neonomicon.

Lovecraft’s works are notorious for their absence of sex, and when coupled with what we know about Lovecraft’s life, belie a man to whom the sexually repressive agendas of the most conservative of American evangelicals would be indicative of a rebuilt Sodom and Gommorah. Rumours abound about his latent homosexuality, and this is entirely possible, but even the men in Lovecraft’s works are devoid of even the slightest smidgen of testosterone or sexual proclivity. The only possible reference to sex in Lovecraft comes in the form of the monsters. As Moore points out in some of Neonomicon‘s dialogue: “You know? The monsters and all that? They’re like a lot of cocks and pussies crawling around.” Perhaps not the most eloquent of explanations, but the point is clear, and it’s what Moore uses to propel Neonomicon forward – the absence of sex in Lovecraft was hiding the stories’ actual impetus, and that Lovecraft was writing about sex from day one.

Fine, as theories go, and perfectly acceptable, and I’m sure many fans and students of the genre would agree. Where the acceptability of this theory finds itself in a nuclear wasteland of a mess, however, is in its execution. Simply put, Neonomicon is exploitative and an embarrassment.

First, the plot:

woman investigates cult
woman captured by cult
woman raped by cult
woman raped by monster
woman impregnated by monster
woman to give birth to monster

This series is offensive from the first few pages of the first issue. The main character, Merril Brears, and her partner go to question an incarcerated fellon. The reader discovers by page 4 (page 3 makes a slight reference to it), through conversations with her partner, that Brears is a reformed sex-addict. Ah, I see: the young, hard-as-nails, attractive, sex-addicted federal agent. I felt as if I were at the start of a bad Warren Ellis rip-off. Admittedly, I was surprised to discover Brears wasn’t a goth with multiple piercings, until I got to page 14, when there she is, entering Club Zothique, done up to the nines with too much eyeshadow, a collar, and spikey hair. Oh, there’s the young, hard-as-nails, attractive, sex-addicted federal agent cum goth we’re looking for. Why I kept reading, I’m really not sure. There are some interesting Lovecraft-related references throughout all of the first issue, but they pale into insignificance when compared to this trite objectification of the main character.

The reason they’re at Zothique, by the way, is to capture an elusive cult member by the name of Johnny Carcosa, whom we later discover is the avatar of Nyarlathotep, Lovecraft’s creature with a thousand faces (most of Carcosa’s face is hidden by a bandana – such symbolism!). As they hunt him down, the reader is assaulted with an unnecessary and gratuitous panel of Carcosa’s naked mother, and she has slit her own throat. She lies spread-eagled on the bed, and strewn about the floor are dildos and strap-on penises, which also manage to find themselves in other panels as the policemen go through their apartment. Not that it’s a major plot point, but they lose Carcosa, who melts into an otherworldly chalk drawing (…you know my name is Simon) drawn on a courtyard wall outside the apartment building.

Fast-forward to issue 2, where rape is the name of the game. Our reformed sex-addict federal agent and her partner have infiltrated a sex cult in Salem, Massachusetts. Prior to the revolting end of the issue, the reader is subjcted to several panels focussing directly on Brears’s breasts. She and her partner are in a hotel room, and they are changing into their disguises – we’re shown her body in great detail, but we see very little of him. It’s reminiscent of mainstream movies: yes, you can show breasts, but you cannot show a penis! For shame! Anyway, everything goes horribly wrong at the cult meeting, and Brears’s partner is shot, and she is raped by several of the cult members while the others fornicate around them in a dingy, revolting swimming pool. As awful as this is, it’s made even worse visually by the panels – Brears has lost her contact lenses, and the art and captions reflect the blurriness of her vision, but the clarity of the dialogue, which I’m not going to bother quoting here.

Enter monster dong. The sex is to bring about one of the Deep Ones, one of Lovecraft’s underwater abominations that serve the Great Old One Cthulhu; the creature is drawn to pheromones, it seems. As Brears suffers further humiliation and assault in the background, we’re shown the Deep One’s large, green penis and its semen upon one of the cult members’ faces (a woman, of course). The Deep One takes an interest in Brears, much to the dismay of the rest of the cult (they all want their turn), but they’re happy to present her to it, and the issue ends with the creature’s eyes.

There is some brief dialogue in issue 3 that enraged me, however. In brief, Brears is a captive of the cult and the creature, and is being raped in the same swimming room. As she lies there, her face bruised and crying with the monster’s hand upon the back of her neck, she drifts off into a dream world. She ends up in R’yleh, Cthulhu’s underwater and otherworldly city. She meets and speaks with the masked Carcosa (he speaks with a speech impediment), and the following is said:

Brears: “I really am a dirty fucking whore. My pussy’s wet right now.”
Carcosa: “That’th becauthe thomething’th thecrewing you. Thee, all thith ith a dream. Ath for your real thituation, thith fuck you’re having, it’th a Deep One.”

Please stop. On top of trite, utterly banal generalized characters, the regular subjugation and objectification of women, and the crude and gratuitous use of rape as a plot device, the reader is told here and later on that this all causes a relapse of the main character’s sex addiction. This is a gross masturbatory rape fantasy (“No, please! Don’t! It hurts! But, but, I like it . . . Oh, my… It’s so good!) that is exploitative and insulting. Brears even forgives the monster, if not the cult (they all die at the hands of the police and the Deep One by the end of issue 4), as the end result is that she is the one foretold, the saint who will bring forth great Cthulhu (there’s even some tacky Mary references in issues three and four).

What is also repulsive about this miniseries is that, in the past, Moore has written some extremely strong women characters in comics. They’re often women who deny the typical objectification endemic to the medium (I am thinking primarily of superhero comics, here), but in Neonomicon, we take seventy steps backward. Brears is a victim from start to finish, and I, for one, am sick of seeing women as the victims in comic books. It’s a conceit that a lot of fantastic writers, and I used to count Moore among them, strove to annihilate, and yet here it is again, and as it’s in an adult series by a non-mainstream publisher, on gratuitous display.

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5 Replies to “Are You Kidding Me? – David Ward on Moore and Burrows’ Neonomicon (Spoiler Alerts)”

  1. This is an interesting take on the comic and not one I disagree with. Far be it for me to defend Moore – he can do that himself – but it’s not the first time the author has depicted a female rape victim (Watchmen) nor a woman engaged in sexual acts with a monster (Swamp Thing).

    The story was the most disturbing and harrowing I have ever read in any medium and although I might not have liked it, I did feel that Moore’s storytelling was utterly brilliant. At its crux, I felt that in Neonomicon, Brears’ recovery from sexual addiction heightened the anxiety, fear and empathy a reader had over her situation. Without that bit of knowledge, the scenes truly are exploitative. With it, we get something important that far surpasses the ridiculousness of the events.

    Also, in terms of comic book storytelling, there are many moments in Moore’s script, coupled with the artistry of Burrows that transcends the medium of “comic books” while offering reader experiences that are unavailable in any other art form. Carcosa’s melting “into an otherworldly chalk drawing” along with the visual, embryonic aurora borealis that the sky is constantly enveloped by, are just two, important examples. The truth of the world in which this story exists is always up for questioning.

    And it’s that deep analysis and worthy dialogue, despite the despicable scenes contained therein, which I believe makes Neonomicon something worth reading – for those without weak constitutions.

    It’s something to talk about over coffee and bacon and eggs at any rate.

    1. Yes, but in Watchmen and Swamp Thing, the women were not victims throughout the piece. Also, in Swamp Thing we’re looking at consensual sex. What’s appalling here is the constant subjugation and negative portrayal of a woman, and women, as seemingly nothing more than a walking pudenda. It’s gratuitous and unnecessary. Rape is a tricky subject in any art form, and while I endorse free speech, I also recognize bad taste, and Neonomicon is rife with it.

  2. “Lovecraft was sexually squeamish; would only talk of ‘certain nameless rituals.’ Or he’d use some euphemism: ‘blasphemous rites.’ It was pretty obvious, given that a lot of his stories detailed the inhuman offspring of these ‘blasphemous rituals’ that sex was probably involved somewhere along the line. But that never used to feature in Lovecraft’s stories, except as a kind of suggested undercurrent. So I thought, let’s put all of the unpleasant racial stuff back in, let’s put sex back in. Let’s come up with some genuinely ‘nameless rituals’: let’s give them a name.” – Allen Moore
    Get it over it. Its a decent story and a homage to classic Lovecraft weirdness. Not his best work I’d say, but do you really want a Lovecraft tale done in “good taste”?? No, no one does. Did you hate the headless oral sex scene in Re-Animator too?? Sounds like you’re as squeamish as H.P. was.
    Allen Moore has earned the right to write a filthy, gross, exploitative, Lovecraftian tale with all the classic Lovecraft elements people like to avoid like racism&misogyny, as stated above. In a way, it’s almost like Moore’s way of showing people what Lovecraft was actually all about symbolically in his stories and in his real life. A shitty and reclusive weirdo that could write up a decent horror story unique for his time. It’s weird fiction, take off your nerd-blanket.

    1. Firstly, it’s Alan, not Allen, Moore.

      Secondly, no, I will not “Get over it.”

      Yes, Moore tackles sex head on where Lovecraft shied away from it, and I acknowledge and concede this point. What I will not condone is the exacerbation and legitimization of rape culture in any media or form of expression, be it vocal, written, or otherwise. Neonomicon‘s story is appalling, and it continues to justify a horrific trend in comic books that includes the subjection and abuse of women. I recognize that this probably wasn’t Moore’s point when writing; he likely felt he was laying this situation bare to show the readers the horror of the situation. Or perhaps it was pushing taboos to their limit to show us horror? I gave him the benefit of the doubt until the above-mentioned rape fantasy in issue three. Neonomicon‘s execution, regardless of its intent, is half-assed, puerile, and cheap, and it does nothing but add credence and legitimacy to expressions of abuse against women in a medium that is already fraught with problems like this. Moore should be ashamed of himself, but as recent interviews show, he’s nothing of the sort.

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