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Comic Review:
The Courtyard #1
By Matt Martin

02.21.03


Avatar Press – Alan Moore, Antony Johnston (w); Jacen Burrows (a)

When I pulled the stack of this book out of my store’s weekly shipment today, I had already resigned myself to the fact that I was essentially required to review it. I mean, I have to try and maintain some semblance of credibility amongst that small portion of both sites (www.continuitypages.com, my original home and www.slushfactory.com, my additional place of residence) that reads my reviews. And one way to do that, basically, is to review anything Alan Moore puts out and try to sound at least moderately intelligent in the process. Or, at the very least, make sure that no one mistakes me for a babbling, illiterate half-wit (which is apparently harder than you’d think).


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So all day, while I should have probably been working or something, I was sort of mulling over what angle I was going to take on this book. I kept remembering that I had read in an interview or a preview or some such that the story was purportedly influenced by the horror fiction of H. P. Lovecraft, an author that I read an insane amount of work from during my many study halls back in high school. And I wondered if, having a foreknowledge of what the writer claims as an influence, my own perspective on it would be changed. That is to say, knowing that Moore wrote the story with Lovecraft in mind, would I be more likely to overanalyze it, to see connections to Lovecraft’s fiction where there possibly were none? This was very worrisome to me, because it seemed to me that I was basically cheating.

I shouldn’t have worried. Apparently, “influenced by H. P. Lovecraft” means “complete homage to the man’s work.” If I had never cracked the spine on a Lovecraft collection, I’d miss the references. But someone with even a cursory knowledge of the source material is going to see them sprinkled liberally throughout the issue.

For those unfamiliar with Lovecraft, a crash-course: the root of all of Lovecraft’s fiction is that there is more to the nature of reality than is known by the human mind or even able to be comprehended by it. Frequently, throughout the course of his catalogue of work, a scholar or explorer or some other such student of erudite lore will make a chance discovery. That discovery generally relates to the existence of either a) other dimensions or b) creatures known only as “the elder gods” or “Great Old Ones,” a race of superbeings whose presence in this reality far predates mankind’s and whose power is held in check only by their millennia-long slumber, an effect that can be reversed if certain rituals are performed when particular celestial alignments should arise (giving rise to the oft-repeated phrase, “when the stars are right”). Generally speaking, that knowledge causes the person discovering it to go stark raving insane. Occasionally characters survive their encounters with the bizarre with their sanities intact, but it’s pretty rare. With that out of the way, let’s go back to the review.

The Courtyard immediately establishes its setting, a world not quite like our own, through three means: 1) it’s set in our own near future, 2) it makes reference to events in our own past that clearly did not happen and 3) it’s set on a holiday that does not exist (Farrakhan Day). A tone of racial intolerance is set immediately when an unspecified narrator refers to the holiday’s fireworks as “nigger-stars.” The references to Lovecraft begin their unchecked flow right off the bat as well, as the story is set in Red Hook, a borough of New York that served as a backdrop for one of Lovecraft’s most famous shorts. And our misanthropic narrator, a federal agent known as Sax (or so I surmised from a fax he’s reading, which is addressed to someone named Sax; the narrator himself is never explicitly named), tears off an invective-filled monologue describing the state of his life and lodging. This rapid-fire combination of sharp prose and Jacen Burrows’ smooth pencils sets the tone for the book right away.

Sax, it seems, specializes in a field known as anomaly theory. He takes seemingly unrelated crime scene evidence and intuits connections about them. In this instance, his case is a series of identical murders, for which no definite suspect can be found. In fact, the murders are complicated by the fact that three separate people, none of whom share any connection with the others, have each confessed to some unique fraction of those fifteen killings. Sax correlates the facts that are known about the murders and extrapolates a commonality amongst their suspects: a bar called the Club Zothique and a drug known as DMT-7. Traveling there and meeting with an informant, Sax uncovers a perplexing side effect of DMT-7, previously regarded as nothing more than a relatively harmless, natural hallucinogen: it results in a considerable amount of seemingly incoherent babbling on the part of the drug’s user. And lastly, information faxed to him from the Bureau about similarities to prior unsolved cases turns up a disturbing abnormality in an archived photograph from the 1920s.

Now, here’s the problem in reviewing this book. I loved it, I’ll say that now. But I think a good portion of the reason that I enjoyed it is because I “get the jokes.” I know, from having read Lovecraft, that at least some part of the gibberish that DMT-7 users spew out is chock-full of references to specific Elder Gods and their mythical locations. As well, I know that seeing a reference to the town of Innsmouth, a comment about a remote East Coast port and a picture of something clearly subhuman all ties back to “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” a Lovecraft story about New Englanders that interbreed with monstrous creatures from the deep.

The problem then is whether or not to absolutely recommend the book. Even if I didn’t know anything about Lovecraft, I think I would still be very intrigued by the events of the book, more than enough so to justify picking up the concluding issue next month. By that rationale, I should. However, knowledge of Lovecraft’s work makes the book infinitely more enjoyable, I’m sure. So if I follow that line of logic, the book should lose some points for not being entirely accessible, in my opinion.

So I’ll say this: horror fans would be crazy to miss out on this, regardless of whether or not they’ve read Lovecraft (though I can’t imagine a serious horror fan having not). Alan Moore completionists will want this book regardless of anything that I have to say. And anyone looking for a unique, atmosphere-laden story should definitely look into picking it up. Though I’ve often said that if anyone writes a better comic book that Alan Moore that I don’t know who it is, Jacen Burrow’s artwork should not go unsung, because he does his fair share of carrying the book. I’m usually fairly critical of the artwork in the average Avatar book (despite the fact that one of their frequent contributors and I share the same name), but his pencils here are absolutely outstanding, very detailed work.

Final Score: 4.5/5




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