Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, From Hell

When told that I had recently finished reading The Watchmen, a close friend recommended that I check out Moore's From Hell. I did ... and must say that this is definitely one of the cooler books I've read so far this year!

From Hell (on which the Johnny Depp film was based a few years ago) is a retelling of the Jack the Ripper case that confounded London police in the late 1880s. Using as his starting point a conspiracy theory put forth by one Stephen Knight, Moore examines how the seemingly random Ripper victims were in fact a small group of Victorian-era prostitutes who were planning to blackmail English royalty because one of their own gave birth to an illegitimate daughter sired by Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence. To avoid embarrassment to the Crown as a result of this birth, Queen Victoria herself commissions her royal physician, Dr. William Gull, to locate and institutionalize the working-class mother of the child. But we learn that Gull is likewise a sociopath who takes it upon himself to "remove" the whole handful of blackmailing prostitutes in the name of Freemason ideology. Hence, "Jack the Ripper" is in essence (according to Knight and Moore) a direct result of a cover-up by the English monarchy.

Reading this was almost like reading a Pynchon novel. The research that Moore did is evident in the story's intricate detailing of period crime solving techniques, Freemasonry lore, historical documentation, geographical history, yet sprinkled with allusions to Karl Marx and William Blake and Buffalo Bill, and including cameos by such Victorian luminaries as John "The Elephant Man" Merrick, Oscar Wilde, William Butler Yeats, and even a young Aleister Crowley! And Campbell, working primarily in inkwash and crosshatch shading, beautifully renders in black and white the starkness of 19th Century England. It's a visual treat!

And herein lies part of what I find fascinating about reading this novel in particular, and graphic novels in general. Visual treat aside, it's a visual medium much like a film in that the artist, like a filmmaker, selects what the reader/viewer can and cannot see. But more importantly, the other aspect of that "editing" process -- the pace of the material -- is out of the artist's control and must be trusted to the reader himself. So while film forces the viewer to see what the filmmaker wants you to see, and for how long you will see it, the act of "reading" the panels of a graphic novel must rely on the pacing of the reader/viewer. For this reason I found Chapter Ten, "The Best of All Tailors," a great example of how the art must in fact allow for the individual reader's pacing to sustain the suspense and impact of the scene. (But hey, I'm a novice at this graphic novel stuff and I assume this "pacing" idea is old news to afficionados.)

Anyways, it's a great read. If graphic novels are your thing, I highly recommend it!

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