Placed in the Red Scare era of the early 20th century and dripping with classic sci-fi horror, Miskatonic #1 is a unique combination of American history, H.P. Lovecraft, and noir fiction from Aftershock Comics.
Pippa Bowland (colorist), Giorgio Pontrelli (artist), Thomas Mauer (letterer), Mark Sable (writer)
November 11, 2020
At its surface, Miskatonic #1 comes across as a fun X-Files-esque sci-fi story about a couple of people trying to solve a small-town alien/reptilian mystery. And if you don’t have any background knowledge about Lovecraft’s work, you can certainly read this new series at that basic surface value and enjoy it. But by and large this is a comic written for H.P. Lovecraft fans, and having some background knowledge of his work, and the man himself, is really going to enhance your reading experience.
Miskatonic #1 starts off with a literal bang as Ephraim Waite’s house in the Miskatonic Valley, Massachusetts, is blown-up by a mail-delivered explosive, killing Waite. With evidence of a possible connection to the anarchist bombings of 1919, new Bureau of Investigation acting director J. Edgar Hoover sends agent Miranda Keller to Innsmouth to team up with retired detective Tom Malone to investigate Waite’s death. Their first person of interest is Waite’s daughter Asenath, a student at Miskatonic University in nearby Arkham. But before they head to Arkham, Malone suggests they speak to Zadok, a man who witnessed the explosion. Zadok tells them a strange tale involving a dangerous and shadowy cult called the Esoteric Order of Dagon and fish-like humanoids called Deep Ones, who live underwater at Devil’s Reef. Despite Zadok’s warnings that the Deep Ones know they’re poking around in Innsmouth, Keller and Malone decide to stay for the night. Unfortunately for them, they find out firsthand what Zadok was trying to warn them about.
Before I get into discussing the many layers of Miskatonic #1, I have to mention Giorgio Pontrelli and Pippa Bowland’s artwork. I absolutely loved it. Each panel looked like it had been painted with watercolours, and the detail to each image really helped bring the story to life. I loved noticing little details, like symbols appearing on buildings and clothing, being used to deepen the story. And the appearance of the fish-humanoid Deep Ones was great, exactly what I think of when I read Lovecraft’s stories. All in all, the fantastic artwork really brought together the connections of Miskatonic #1 to many of Lovecraft’s works.
Now I want to talk about the layers. Miskatonic #1 is very layered. And that’s why I mentioned earlier that Lovecraft’s fans and those familiar with his work are the readers who will get the most out of this new series. I noticed three main layers to this story as I was reading. The first is all the references to Lovecraft’s works. Between the characters, locations, and general storyline, I noticed pretty overt references to at least four of Lovecraft’s stories. The most obvious was the connection to The Horror at Red Hook (1925), which was even directly mentioned a couple of times by Keller and Malone. In one way, Miskatonic #1 felt a bit like a re-telling of The Horror at Red Hook (which is about Tom Malone investigating a murder involving a strange cult), though with a monster-of-the-week spin by adding in the Deep Ones. Of all the Lovecraft references in Miskatonic #1, The Horror at Red Hook was the only one that is not part of the Cthulhu mythos Lovecraft is most well-known for. In a way, Miskatonic #1 felt like Mark Sable and Pontrelli were trying to pull Red Hook into that mythos, and I think the story they created was an effective way to do that.
The second layer I noticed were all the real-world references drawn into the storyline. In Miskatonic #1, readers meet J. Edgar Hoover as he’s beginning his appointment of acting director of the Bureau of Investigation, many years after the anarchist bombings. He’s also about to demote Miranda Keller simply because she’s a woman. In reality, all these things happened. The anarchist bombings were a real thing that happened between April and June of 1919. Hoover’s involvement in the Palmer Raids following the bombings led to him being appointed as the head of the Bureau of Investiation, which later became the Federal Bureau of Investigation. And Hoover really was a massive jerk who decided there was no place for women in the Bureau. He fired all women agents and banned the hiring of women. It took until 1972 to reverse the policy and allow women to join the FBI again. We also can’t ignore the parallels between the Red Scare timeline of Miskatonic #1 (a time during a pandemic that was full of American national unrest, unwarranted arrests, and mass deportations) and everything that’s happening in the United States today.
The third layer I noticed was how Sable and Pontrelli pushed back against Lovecraft’s personal legacy. I’ve already mentioned that Hoover was a jerk, but Lovecraft was no peach either. He was bigoted, sexist, and racist, and those aren’t things we can ignore when we talk about his work. They were part of the man and became part of his work. The Horror at Red Hook was perhaps his most explicitly racist story, and it features prominently in Miskatonic #1! Sable and Pontrelli have mentioned that part of their goal with Miskatonic was addressing that problematic side of Lovecraft, and I saw that happen a couple of times. They pushed back at sexism (of Lovecraft AND Hoover) by making one of the lead characters a woman. And they highlighted Lovecraft’s racism by illustrating the Esoteric Order of Dagon as white supremacist klansmen.
But to be honest, I felt like Sable and Pontrelli missed a big opportunity by not featuring any BIPOC characters. It’s great they drew attention to Lovecraft’s racism, but the story still features white characters front and centre. It would have been more powerful to feature BIPOC characters. Take a look at Lovecraft Country for a great example of how this is being done. The book (and show of the same name) centres Black characters as it tackles head on the racism of Lovecraft and the world the characters live in. I’m really hoping we’ll see a similar approach in Miskatonic as the series continues!
It’s clear that H.P. Lovecraft’s influence over pop culture is still strong. Heck, his influence over society in general is still strong. There actually is a real occult order called the Esoteric Order of Dagon that was entirely inspired by Lovecraft (though they’re not really klansmen as depicted in Miskatonic). Remember those stories in the news a little while back about a medical doctor who believed reptilians were controlling the American government? Conspiracy theories related to reptilians were also inspired by Lovecraft’s work. And as a cult archaeologist, Lovecraft is even part of my work, both through the way archaeology inspired him and how he inspired theories some cults have adopted. Lovecraft is everywhere, and his fictional works hold such a place of legend within the sci-fi horror genre that it’s really no surprise to see a new comic series featuring his tales. I’m happy to see that the creators aren’t shying away from the problematic side of Lovecraft as they retell his stories. I think they’re taking a pretty proactive approach to addressing those problems, though there is room to make this more powerful by featuring more diverse characters. This new series is definitely off to an intriguing, mysterious start and I’m looking forward to seeing where it goes as it continues!