Comic book reviews: Necronomicon

Halloween is right around the corner, so once again I am going to take a look at a horror comic book series that I really enjoyed.  A few years back, BOOM! Studios published a number of series inspired by the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft.  For the uninformed, Lovecraft (1890 – 1937) was one of the most influential horror writers of the 20th Century.  He was very effectively melded aspects of the supernatural with science fiction, creating eerie, unsettling tales of “cosmic horror” and alien-spawned entities from the dawn of time exerting influence upon the present day.  Among the Lovecraftian titles released by BOOM! was the Necronomicon miniseries, written by William Messner-Loebs, with artwork by Andrew Ritchie and covers by J.K. Woodward.  Originally serialized in 2008, the four issues were collected into a trade paperback in 2009.

The eponymous Necronomicon is, within the fictional universe devised by Lovecraft, a tome of ancient, dark, powerful knowledge compiled over a thousand years ago by the “Mad Arab” Abdul Alhazred.  Throughout Lovecraft’s stories, characters often foolishly sought out the Necronomicon, either to uncover the secrets of Earth’s pre-history, or in the hopes of discovering methods to revive the now-banished god-like beings which once inhabited the planet.

Necronomicon TPB cover

Set in 1924, Messner-Loebs’ story focuses on Henry Said, the son of an Arabian merchant who is studying engineering at Miskatonic University.  Henry, although struggling with his major, is a polyglot who possesses an incredible aptitude for quickly comprehending new languages.  His remarkable abilities come to the attention of the Miskatonic’s theosophist society, composed of both faculty & students and headed up by Randolph Carter (who happens to bear a more than passing resemblance to H.P. himself).  The society is hoping that Henry can translate the Necronomicon, providing them a copy of the text in English.  At the urgings of his friends Jeremiah “Maxey” Maxwell and Rachel Schiff, Henry agrees to take on the task.  Soon, however, as he begins to experience strange dreams & unearthly sensations, Henry realizes the Necronomicon is no ordinary book.  This is confirmed when strange creatures masquerading as human beings attempt to steal the Necronomicon from the university.

As much as I am a fan of Lovecraft’s stories, I do have to admit that there were certain formulaic elements to his writing.  One of these is that his protagonists were typically middle aged white male academics.  When non-Caucasian or female characters did appear, they were usually depicted in an unflattering light, as servants of the various “Old Ones” who were threatening to once again encroach upon the Earth.  Unfortunately, it’s likely that Lovecraft’s own xenophobia and racism played a major part in this.  One of his primary themes is fear of displacement by some degenerate group of “others” or, worse, the discovery by his characters that they were connected by tainted bloodlines to those outsiders.

Therefore, it was very interesting to read Messner-Loebs’ story, which seems to have deliberately subverted this.  Henry is a foreign-born Muslim, and Rachel is a Jew possessing fervent Zionist ideologies.  Of the three protagonists, Maxey is the only WASP, and he is actually a rather dim fellow who is having an affair behind Rachel’s back, sleeping with a blonde-haired girl who makes anti-Semitic remarks.

Necronomicon 1 pg 7

Writing from the perspective of Henry, the outsider to American society, enables Messner-Loebs to look at the bizarre, disturbing events with an alternate point of view.  Indeed, it is Henry’s awareness that he is a stranger in a strange land, and his empathy for others who are in similar situations, who are looked upon as different, feared & scorned, that ultimately leads to his salvation.

Messner-Loebs also provides a glimpse into the possible history of the infamous Abdul Alhazred himself.  A number of commentators on Lovecraft’s writings over the years have noted that this is not a genuine Arab name, but rather something the author devised which sounded foreign & mysterious.  I believe, though, that Messner-Loebs is the first individual to expand on Lovecraft’s mythos who actually addresses this fact in-story.  Henry, originating from the Middle East, immediately realizes that “Abdul Alhazred” cannot be a genuine name.  But if so, then what was the true identity of the author of the Necronomicon?  Messner-Loebs offers up an interesting theory within his story.

When I was in high school and college, I enjoyed Messner-Loebs’ writing on Flash, Wonder Woman, and various other titles.  Regrettably he has not been employed as frequently within the last decade or so.  I was certainly happy to see him writing this miniseries for BOOM! and, indeed, it was on the strength of his past work that I purchased it.  Necronomicon is a very effective synthesis of the themes found in Lovecraft’s original writings and Messner-Loebs’ own sensibilities as an author.

Necronomicon 1 pg 20

I am not familiar with Andrew Ritchie, who illustrates and colors the miniseries.  I did a Google search to see what else he’s worked on and located his Tumblr site, which contains some really nice artwork.  It reminds me a bit of Charlie Adlard’s work.  Ritchie’s style is certainly well-suited to this miniseries.  He definitely imbues a macabre sensibility and atmosphere to the story.  Richie’s depictions of the Mi-Go and the Elder Ones have a genuine quality of the alien and unearthly to them.  And his renderings of Henry’s Necronomicon-spawned visions into other times and other worlds have the unsettling, sickly feel of a fever dream.

The cover work by J.K. Woodward is quite good.  These were done by him several years ago, earlier in his career, and consequently perhaps not nearly as polished as his recent amazing work on the Star Trek / Doctor Who crossover published by IDW.  That said, even back then it was obvious that Woodward had real talent & potential.  His cover for the first issue, a depiction of Lovecraft’s cosmic entity Cthulhu, is very striking.

If you are in the mood for an interesting, somewhat different interpretation on Lovecraft’s now-iconic legacy, the Necronomicon series is well worth a read, especially right around this time of year.  Happy Halloween!

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