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.

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