This Sunday is the finale to HBO’s True Detective. For those who watch the show, this possibly means finding out who (what) the Yellow King is, who really killed Dora Lange, and how Pizzolatto and Fukunaga are going to top their now-legendary six minute continuous take. For those who do not watch the show, it means your friends will soon stop bothering you with their endless, obsessive “theories” about the show’s plot.
There’s a lot to love about the series, including its charismatic and passionate cast, refreshingly intelligent scripting, the narrative’s muddily fragmented structure, and a brilliantly ominous sense of tone. But one of the more pleasant features of the show has been the extent to which it’s brought so-called “weird fiction” into the mainstream consciousness.
If you follow the show, you’ve likely come across the well-retweeted piece by Michael M. Hughes, a novelist and all-around paranormal aficionado, called “The One Literary Reference You Must Know to Appreciate True Detective.” In it, Hughes draws out and highlights the show’s multiple references to the work of Robert W. Chambers, a literary antecedent to H.P. Lovecraft and, by extension, of modern American horror itself.
I won’t rehash what Hughes says, because he says it well. But I will bring to your attention another incredible detective story that is full of references to weird fiction: Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’s underrated graphic novella The Courtyard (2003) and its controversial sequel, Neonomicon (2010), both published by high-quality indie publisher Avatar Press.
Moore’s story bears a lot of similarities to True Detective. The Courtyard follows an undercover FBI agent named Aldo Sax as he investigates a string of grisly ritualized murders. The killings are clearly connected, but in a way that no one can discern. Like True Detective’s Rust Cohle, Sax is an alienated recluse obsessed with finding connections and pouring over files. Bnly instead of an alcoholic nihilist prone to soliloquy, Sax is a bitter and acrimonious misanthrope. His boss describes him as a “smug little Nazi.”
Through application of “Anomaly Theory,” Sax is led to a goth hangout in Redhook, where bands named “The Yellow Sign” and “The Uthar Cats” perform, each named after short stories by Chambers and Lovecraft, respectively. He ends up seeking out an obscure drug named Aklo, sold by only one man: Johnny Carcosa. He shares his namesake with True Detective’s mysterious location where “there’s all these, like, old stones out in the woods, people go to, like, worship…there’s just so much good killin’ down there.”
Parallel literary references like this pepper the show and the comics throughout. But that’s not the only reason to read them. The Courtyard and Neonomicon combine to form some of the most shocking and innovative work Alan Moore has ever produced. It’s no exaggeration to say that in these six issues, Moore and Burrows push the boundaries of what the graphic storytelling form is capable of.
You may be familiar with Jacen Burrows’s art if you read Garth Ennis’s ultraviolent zombie epic Crossed, but he triumphs as a comic book artist here. Moore is known for saddling his artists with endlessly detailed scripts, but the formal perfection and exactitude of Burrows’ work still blows my mind. His sense of proportion and attention to detail is second to none, and he draws with schematic realism that renders moments of horror deeply unsettling when they unexpectedly hit.
Burrows excels at sequential storytelling particularly through his use of repetitive rectangular panelization, which gives the reader a cohesive and intelligible sense of perspective throughout. With very few exceptions, The Courtyard uses two symmetrical vertical panels per page. Similarly, almost every one of Neonomicon’s pages are divided into four horizontal strips of equal size. Even when he deviates from the established pattern, geometric shapes within the panels often line up perfectly with the grid (see e.g. Neonomicon #1, page 2; Neonomicon #3 page 8). I absolutely adore this kind of formalism.
I unfortunately can’t go into too many specifics about what Moore and Burrows really accomplish without spoilers, but I can tell you to look out for certain key motifs. Be on the lookout for hidden panels within the main panels, and consider how these relate to disruptions in the story’s internal reality. You’ll see it happen clearly at the end of The Courtyard #2 as Sax leaves Carcosa’s apartment. These also function as a comment on the paradoxical ontology of 2-dimensional space.
But the single most mind-fucking moment I have ever experienced in a comic happens at the end of Neonomicon #1. You’ll know it when you see it. What Moore and Burrows pull off in this sequence has never really been done before or since, and would have been completely impossible to execute in film or literature. I find these comics important for that reason: because they show what comics can do that no other storytelling medium can.
(For a Room 237-esque analysis that goes far beyond anything I’m willing to attempt, check out clips here and here. But don’t watch them until you’ve read. They reveal key moments that you’ll never understand if you don’t experience them yourself first.)
In 2012, Neonomicon was the first-ever recipient of Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a Graphic Novel. But perhaps the highest honor bestowed on Neonomicon wasn’t a formal award at all, but rather the fact that it’s been banned by at least one public library. I was happy to see the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund stand up for the comic and the creators’ Free Expression rights.
However, that’s not to say I was surprised. The book is as relentlessly obscene and offensive as it is astute, literary, and formalistically innovative. It doesn’t belong in the hands of children, or weak-minded adults for that matter. That’s the highest compliment one can give it.
Both The Courtyard and Neonomicon were collected into a TPB available from Avatar Press. It’s a must-have for anyone who likes cosmic horror, obscure literary references, or gratuitous sex and violence. Otherwise, it will be a serviceable palliative when you go through True Detective withdrawal next week.