Becky Cloonan’s By Chance or Providence Taps Into Primal Fairy-Tale Fears

Lee Loughridge's Colors Add New Dimensions to Cloonan's Previously Self-Published Work

Comics Reviews Becky Cloonan
Share Tweet Submit Pin
Becky Cloonan&#8217;s <i>By Chance or Providence</i> Taps Into Primal Fairy-Tale Fears

Writer/Artist: Becky Cloonan
Colorist: Lee Loughridge
Publisher: Image Comics
Release Date: July 26, 2017

Throughout history, fairy tales have served as indirect gateways to unspoken truths about the harshest of realities. They’re a method of tapping into fears we dare not say out loud, releasing repressed anxieties in the form of heroes, monsters and the uncanny. Angela Carter’s groundbreaking work in the 1970s and ‘80s took the core concepts of fairy tales and added psychological complexity and a disconcerting sensibility.

That same ethos has filtered into the comics medium: Neil Gaiman’s Sandman contains plenty of moments in which familiar-sounding stories took a turn for the nightmarish; more recently, Emily Carroll’s Through the Woods delved into fear and dread. The three stories contained in Becky Cloonan’s By Chance or Providence also hearken back to older forms, but their themes and dynamics feel decidedly modern.

The tales in Cloonan’s collection are pared-down, with atmosphere to spare: she makes use of large panels, her artwork flowing in sync with Lee Loughridge’s new colors. Several of the stories open with a character suffering through inexplicable distress; flashbacks later reveal how they arrived at that point. In these instances, Loughridge’s color work becomes essential, offering a neat delineation between past and present through moody hues.

Cloonan knows well how to set the stage for a story: “Wolves” begins with a feral-looking man foraging in a forest. The first caption reads, “You are cursed,” but Cloonan takes her time revealing just how that curse came to be and what it is.

By Chance or Providence Interior Art by Becky Cloonan & Lee Loughridge

As the story’s title suggests, lycanthropy plays a role—but the narrative also embraces more metaphorical dimensions. The supernatural leaves its mark on the landscape and the characters that dwell within it, but more mundane concerns (love, betrayal, desire) can be just as damaging as a terrifying creature closing in. In “Demeter,” a man mysteriously survives the wreck of his ship and returns home, but finds that something is wrong. His anguished search for answers—“What good are explanations when I will never be again what I was?”—parallels his beloved’s attempts to keep an essential and unpleasant truth from him.

By Chance or Providence Interior Art by Becky Cloonan & Lee Loughridge

“The Mire,” the book’s middle tale, offers the most narratively complex story of the collection, as a squire follows an errand for his knight. He’s tasked with delivering a letter, though he’s reluctant to leave the knight to fight a battle without him. The story takes on a dreamlike texture, even as Cloonan’s art abounds with ominous revenants and undead beings clinging to some shred of existence. That contrast exists, on a grander level, for the entire book: Cloonan neatly juxtaposes love in all of its forms with the monstrous.

This new edition also contains Cloonan’s sketches and illustrations, which heighten the somber mood, and suggest even more stories that could be told in this vein. The blend of desire and horror the cartoonist taps into with these works is hauntingly resonant, and for all that these characters exist in some undetermined point in history, their concerns aren’t far removed from our own. (Minus the curses and the monsters, admittedly.) It’s a good indication of why stories like these endure, and why their primal nature continues to call to us.