Friday, 22 July 2011

Nic's Sticky Notes: From Hell

From Hell

Writer: Alan Moore
Artist: Eddie Campbell

Ok then. Here’s the big one, but where to start?

So before we get into the blast itself a couple of key points:

1) If you’ve seen the film – forget everything about it
2) This is not a book about Jack The Ripper

Well, of course it IS about Jack The Ripper, but as Alan Moore himself says it is less a “who dunnit” than a “why dunnit”.

I am sure this is going to be a long piece (we are talking about a nearly 600 page book here, and that is not counting the accompanying script book) and I haven’t even started yet so I will attempt to “topline it” as I see it:

From Hell is a visceral, brilliant, convoluted, hysterical vision of the birth of the 20th century. Jack The Ripper is the midwife who delivers the next 100 screaming years of war, holocaust, rape, genocide and serial killing, as he painstakingly extracts his victims’ innards and tenderly embraces the final empty corpse . The fevered portrayal of the infamous Whitechapel Murders here has them more as an inevitable symbol of the human condition than a specific event that occurred in historical time.

Alan Moore’s research is, as usual meticulous to the point of obsession and be warned that looking at Eddie Campbell’s scratchy, dirty expression of Victorian London will cause a rotten, mouldy stain on your soul.

This is a work as glorious and as squalid and London itself. You can’t claim to love comics and not read this. You see, From Hell fulfils another very important, very Victorian function – sitting in attic of the comic world it grows ever nastier and more horrifying, allowing the mainstream to grow shinier and prettier, apparently unsullied by its sins.

Here we go then.

"I shall tell you where we are. We're in the most extreme and utter region of the human mind. A dim, subconscious underworld. A radiant abyss where men meet themselves. Hell, Netley. We're in Hell."

The British are fascinated by the enigma of the Ripper murders. Perhaps it is the shuddering image of incredible brutality at the heart of the supposed gentility of the British Empire, perhaps it is the tantalising draw of the knowledge that the crime can never be solved, whatever it might be it seems way out of proportion to the murder of 4 prostitutes in the east end of London. This seems to be the starting point of the book.

The theory, or rather conspiracy, that Moore goes with is probably well known (in fact it has been parodied as often as it has been proposed, I think), involving as it does the Royal Family, Freemasons and magic, but I will try not spoiler it in case anyone reading the review has not come across it before. However great thing about this book is not whether it is “true” in a mundane “X was the killer” sense, but the mythic weight that Moore brings to bear on questions of society, class, violence, fear, sex, and history. As befits the greatest of comics writers Moore knows well that the mask is more important than the man underneath.

Alan Moore, of course, knows his Victoriana. As you might expect the book is peppered with references, in-jokes, sly nods, shy smiles, and tips of the hat. If you have never before seen a person flirt with a period of history this is the place to do it. The hypocritical Victorian line between sensationalism and a stiff upper lip is walked to perfection. You get the idea that the creators are having the time of their lives.

Historical people have been persuaded into cameo roles. Look out for appearances from Queen Victoria, Aleister Crowley, and Oscar Wilde among others. Most notable of all though is the role played in the story by the Elephant Man, John Merrick. The main characters have a vivid realism and are all portrayed with striking compassion and understanding, even The Ripper himself. This just serves to make the unfolding events even more awful. Doom hangs in the air from the very first page. The world evoked is one of emptiness, desolation and bitter frustration. There is a fatalism, an inevitability, to the complex interplay of people and events in time.

In his introduction to the series, Moore wrote "It's my belief that if you cut into a thing deeply enough, if your incisions are precise and persistent and conducted methodically, then you may reveal not only that thing's inner workings, but also the meaning behind those workings.” I feel there is a lot of Alan Moore in his detective characters – Inspector Abberline as appears here, for example, and Finch from V for Vendetta. The ability to get under the skin and see with the eyes of another is what makes both characters and creator great. Of course, he takes you with him. You may feel in need of a good scrub when you get out.

Eddie Campbell is one of my favourite artists. His artwork is magnificent here, probably his best work that I have seen, but it is not for the unwary. Capturing the tone of the tone of writing perfectly it has a madness about it, and yet for all its wildness a detailed, suffocating intensity. It looks like it was etched in the soot and the stains of the city itself. It will catch in your throat and sting your eyes raw.

The architectural drawing especially is phenomenal. The brooding sense of menace and shadow gives the city a threatening character all of its own. This bleak, gloomy, evocation of a dilapidated city built from occult symbols amounts to a psychogeography of the dark corners of the human mind - something made explicit in a wonderful chapter in which we go on a sight-seeing tour of places of magical significance.

I get a strong sense that Jack himself may just be the dreams of the place embodied. The human characters seem almost inconsequential among the looming buildings, an impression enforced by the sketchy, uncertain lines that define them. This hesitance lends a peculiar, uncomfortable intimacy at times – almost as if there is something hovering there too afraid to express itself in the open, craving an understanding the reader does not want to admit to, lyrical and repellent all at once.

Alan Moore's stated aim was “to solve in fiction, that which could not be answered by conventional analysis or enquiry”. I am not sure he ended up with a solution, in the end, but the journey was well worth it, and the questions raised deserve further discussion. In many ways it has similarities to Oliver Stone’s explorations of JFK or Norman Mailer’s dances with Hitler (The Castle In The Forest) and Lee Harvey Oswald (Oswald’s Tale) with their air of plausible unreality.

This is not an “easy” comic. It is not comfortable reading. The subject matter is horrific and the focus is unflinching. Perhaps that is why it does not enjoy the widespread prominence of Alan Moore’s other works. It is the easily the equal of Watchman though, both in scope and craftsmanship. I found that it gave me bad dreams.

If you can, treat yourself to the hardback collected edition which includes all the appendices and notes. There is also a script book which is worth a look, if only to marvel at what went into making this monster.

Highly recommended. Not for the faint-hearted.

Friday, 15 July 2011

3MillionYears: In Which I Voice an Opinion About Something

A couple of weeks back I was invited by Michael Nimmo, mastermind behind the news and reviews site, 3MillionYears, to write a guest post about digital comics. Since I've never ticked a "Don't Know" box in my life, I took it upon myself to wade in and have a good reckon. Thanks to Michael for giving me the platform and megaphone, I'm looking forward to seeing what other guest posters have to say for themselves. You can see my own laughably ill-informed brain-drizzle on the site now.

Moving on...

I got an email recently from a writer called Gordon Robertson, who among other things reviews for GeekChocolate, featuring a really interesting teaser for something he's been working on. I don't have a lot of detail right now, but I'm very intrigued and feel the need to share. Presented below is absolutely everything I know about this upcoming webcomic.

Visit the official site for updates as they arrive. I'll see you on the other side...

Monday, 4 July 2011

Getting to Grips with White Knuckle

White Knuckle is cracking along at an incredible pace now, and my weekend was made by finding the incredibly talented Valia Kapadai had grabbed it by the throat and drawn out this absolutely beautiful cover.

I could not imagine a more perfect cover for the book and it's an honour to be working with Valia on this story.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Nic's Sticky Notes: Ronin


Art and script: Frank Miller

“If you find yourself on a cliffside, trapped, with a hungry tiger waiting above and a hungry tiger waiting below, and, by chance, you spy a single strawberry growing from the cliffside. Pluck the strawberry. And bite into it. And taste it. Our lives are as fragile and as brief as cherry blossoms. And as fragrant.”

So you’ve seen Sin City and 300. You’ve gone back and read Year One, Daredevil and the triumph of heroism and sacrifice that is The Dark Knight Returns. But before all of that came Ronin. If you haven’t read that then it’s still not time sit back to catch your breath!

It is surprising that Miller got away with this at all. Back in 1987 he was not yet the superstar writer that he would become as a result of Dark Knight. The comics industry was in decline. Creativity was not that much in evidence and the big publishers seemed afraid to take risks. Unless you could get your hands on Asian comics you would never have seen anything like this.

Ronin is wildly (and not always completely successfully) experimental. It is haunting and troublesome. The plot twists and screams, wrenching readers and characters from ancient Japan to near future America, swords and demons to organic computers and artificial intelligence. It’s certainly unique. It’s definitely intense. It’s maybe a bit confused, or at least confusing, and sometimes you think you might just be able to hearing something giving way under the strain. Ignore it, no pain no gain, right?

So, it’s sci-fi with Japanese demons is it? Well, yes, and even just taken on that level it’s a pretty spectacular story. But what Ronin is actually about is betrayal. As a consequence it’s also about loyalty, nobility, humanity and control.

The apocalyptic tone and thundering rhythms that have come to be a hallmark of Miller’s work are already building to a rumble. Never afraid to place tremendous demands on his characters Miller does not flinch as he tortures them, informed here by the great samurai traditions of the conflicts arising between duty and desire. There are also less abstract matters thrown in for discussion, uncomfortable questions about race, homelessness, corporate power and scientific responsibility

The story follows the titular Ronin as he hunts down the demon that assassinated his master, in order to exact vengeance, gain redemption and ultimately fulfil his destiny. It’s not that simple of course, for a start it involves a magic sword. Unable to defeat the demon in his own time he is reincarnated hundreds of years in the future into a New York disintegrating under some unspecified economic or social collapse, torn by violence and populated by mutants, monsters and madmen. Oh yes, and cannibals.

The supporting cast includes Mr Taggart, the founder of Aquarius Corporation, Casey McKenna, his head of security and her husband, Peter, the inventor of “biocircuitry” the invention that could save the world. Also, Billy Challas, a ward of the corporation who is being used to test cutting edge prosthetic limbs as he was born with none of his own. Billy seems to have telekinetic powers and has been having vivid dreams about a samurai and demon in ancient Japan. Alongside these humans, with concerns of its own, is Virgo the artificial intelligence at the heart of the Aquarius complex.

Yes, you may well think, "wow"!

This excitable fusion of genres extends to the artwork. A mad combination of styles stitches the graceful pen and ink of Goseki Kojima to the insanely compulsive detail of Geoff Darrow to produce something that is unmistakably Miller. In the space of a handful of pages he bounds through widescreen peaceful panoramic city-scapes, explosive violence covered in speed lines and full of abstracted manga-like ferocity, countless tiny tension inducing panels consisting of little more than captions and beautiful emotional close-ups. The angles and perspectives veer and lurch adding to the unsettling sensations of alienation and instability that are central to the story.

Every time you gasp at the art in his later work remember you saw it here first. More importantly, without this there probably would never have been a Dark Knight Returns.
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