Monday, October 31, 2011

Comic Review: From Hell

Despite being completely disgustipated by Alan Moore's most recent comics effort, Neonomicon, I'm still a fan of the guy's comics work thanks to stuff like Watchmen and Top 10. The guy is quite capable of some very solid writing.  I mean, people don't consider the man a comics genius for nothing right?

When I received From Hell as a nifty-gifty last year, I was a bit daunted by the size.  Make no mistake, this is a tome.  For works of such girth, I typically wait for when the time feels right to dig in.  With Winter coming, and the city firmly in Fall's grasp, I figured the time was nigh for this tale of murder.

From Hell isn't just any old tale of murder, its the story of Jack the Ripper.  Jack the Ripper might be the most famous of killers, but there is no definitive text, or account of who he really was, and how all the killings were pulled off, or reasons why.  Its a mystery that to this day remains unsolved.  What you get with From Hell is Alan Moore's take on how it all went down, and by the end, you also get the strong sense that the guy might just have solved the damn mystery.

The story begins a few years prior to the murders with Prince Albert falling in love with a common shop girl named Annie, who has no clue as to Albert's true identity.  He soon fathers a child on her, and the two are secretly wed.  When Queen Victoria discovers the marriage, she sends Albert off on extended holiday, and has Annie relocated to an asylum and instructs her royal physician, William Gull to handle things.  Gull does so, by performing an operation that renders Annie insane.

For a while, it seems like all is well, but a few years later, Annie's friends, now forced into prostitution due to a variety of reasons, decide to blackmail the Prince's pal William Sickert in order to pay off a gang of thugs who demand protection money from the ladies.  Once again, the crown calls upon William Gull to handle the situation, and we all know how that ends.  The catch here is that Gull is a high ranking member of the Free Masons guild, a secret society that strives to control the order of the world from the shadows and from behind closed doors.  It is through Masonic and Royal connections that cause the police investigation to go awry and the case to go eternally unsolved.

In From Hell, Moore approaches the story from multiple angles.  Not only do you see things from the deranged mind of the killer, William Gull, but also through the eyes of the er, ladies of the night who get killed, and also via Inspector Abberline of the police.  In that sense, From Hell is more than just a tale of murder.  You also get an interesting police procedural plot, a taste for the day in and day out existence of an Victorian era Londoner, and a tour of the city as it stood way back when.  These aspects all breathe life into the narrative and help present a full picture of the events surrounding the murders.

Moore does a great job of not only presenting the known facts of the murders, but also adding his own ideas as well.  What makes From Hell work is that Moore is able to put it all together into a story that is interesting and engaging to read.

Accompanying Moore in this epic comics endeavor is artist, Eddie Campbell.  At first glance, Campbell's art is not exactly remarkable.  Many pages feature seven to nine panels with lots of long, thin vertical lines providing the only background.  It wasn't until I becomes fully immersed in the story that I was able to appreciate Campbell's work.  From at a casual glance what looks like sloppy/busy panel work is actually part of the atmosphere.

Yes, when the focus is solely on characters and what they are doing or saying, Campbell's art also focuses on the people. He essentially cross hatches out the setting, and instead focuses his energies on facial expression and body language. A concept that goes a long ways towards giving the reader a strong sense of the character's emotions or inner thoughts.  That said, Victorian Era London is very much a character of it's own in From Hell and Campbell hits the mark with his depictions of the city, and it's architecture, not to mention the nature of people's dwellings.  The furnishings, clothing and other every day items are all there and help depict the time the story is set in and brings life to the story.

For the completist, there's a significant appendix with detailed information on what is happening on nearly every page of the graphic novel and where that information came from.  I found it more useful to use the appendix as a reference tool when I wanted more information on a particular page, rather than something I read all the way through after I was done with the story.

All told, From Hell is an impressive piece of work.  There's folks out there who consider this the most significant work of comics ever, and while I'm not sure I'd go that far, I will say that it is one damn fine example of how incredible the comics medium can be.  Moore is able to present the reader with an insider's view of the Jack the Ripper murders, delving into the mind of the killer himself, all while keeping the many other details and intricacies of the story in focus.  This is a must own/must read for any comics lover.

Grade: A

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