Thursday, September 28, 2006

From Hell (Chapter 1-3)

After reading a bunch of Grant Morrison stuff, I decided it was time to mix it up and check back in with his hairier rival, good old Alan Moore. It's still amazing to me that the two best thinkers in popular fiction both work in comics, are both magicians and both explore similar themes in their works. The two of them so similar, it makes sense that they'd dislike each other. Despite sharing so many themes and concepts, the two of them have very different approaches to their work, approaches dictated by their technique in magic. Morrison is a chaos magician, all about do it yourself belief powered magic. Moore prefers a more structured system, drawing on older traditions. Consequentially, Morrison's work is much looser, based on pop extravagance, full of energy, but often sloppy. Moore's work is perfectly structured, working on countless levels, but lacking the sheer joy of Morrison at his best. They're my two favorite authors.

I first read From Hell in May 2003, at the end of my period of total immersion in The Invisibles. In November 2002, I read the whole series and I spent the subsequent six months working through the concepts and talking over the series with other readers. I had put off reading From Hell for a while, covering other Moore works because I wasn't expecting much from a nearly 500 page graphic novel set in the 1800s. I was picturing something more like the From Hell film, a traditional period murder mystery. What the book delivered was an interrogation of one hundred years of societal history, seen through the lens of magical exploration. I loved the book, and I'd count it among Moore's best works, a crowded place.

So, I'm not returning to the work for the first time. Seeing as how From Hell is a massive book, it's going to take a little bit to set everything up. The opening Men on the Beach prologue sets up one of the book's primary themes, the idea that our contemporary media is built on crime. Just like Abberline's house was paid for through the Ripper murders, so our modern society is built on the culture of media immersion created through coverage of the Ripper attacks.

The most impressive thing about chapter one is the way that Moore compresses time. In the space of five pages we travel through five years, and the evolution of Annie Crook's relationship with the Prince. This is likely done to try to expedite the exposition. I'm not sure how the work evolved over the years in which it was written, but the core of the piece is exploring what drives William Gull to do what he does, and how his actions remake his society. So, the actual circumstances surrounding the murder are less important than the murder itself.

However, this exposition is necessary, and what this chapter does beyond just introduce plot essentials is begin to build the mood of the piece. Moore has been very fortunate in that he's had incredible artists on most of his projects, and he's been able to tailor his writing to take full advantage of the artist's talents. Even though I don't find Eddie Campbell's art as aesthetically beautiful as someone like JH Williams, I think he's the perfect artist for this book and having someone else do it would totally alter the character of the piece. In his scratchy black and white drawings he creates a world that envelops you. This feels like a book made in the nineteenth century and sent forward through time. It's that authentic, and that credibility is essential to the success of the work.

The core themes of the book begin to develop in chapter two, a first person journey through Williiam Gull's entire life. Like chapter one, this is a marvel of perfectly chosen moments to convey the information needed to move forward. I remember when I was first reading the book, the caption "What is the fourth dimension?" was the moment when I began to think that there was more to this book than your typical period set story. Going with the fourth dimension theme, we get fractions of his life in that first blank page, and the idea of moments experienced outside of time becomes critical as things roll along.

The thing I like about Gull's story is his utter removal from traditional societal customs. He's searching for his purpose throughout the chapter, but he behaves like a man who's already on a mission, he does not indulge in the social niceties that his peers partake of. This is best demonstrated by his encounter with John Merrick, the Elephant Man. He comes right out and says that Merrick his hideous, and Merrick respects that honesty. His fascination with the grotesque is also evident when he dissects the mouse, a scene that will be paralleled later on.

Here we also see him getting involved with the masons. This is all part of his quest for a purpose in life, which culminates with his vision of the three gods. That's a stunning page, the spread's impact enhanced by its difference from the previous dense nine panel grids. Jahbulon is described as the great architect of the universe. He ties into something Moore explored in Promethea, the idea that all gods the same thing, they're just viewed through different cultural lenses. So, the Egyptian god is the Jewish/Christian god, they're all one aspect of the same creative force that pushes the universe forward.

After his encounter with the godhead, Gull finds the purpose he was looking for, and as the book proceeds, he will go on to become the architect of a new world, the one we live in. It's great to finallly see Gull after experiencing things from his first person perspective for the whole chapter, and in that scene, we also see the cruelty of England's royal family, doing anything they can to preserve their traditional superiority.

In chapter three, we get further development of the street scene in Whitechapel. One of the wonderful things that Moore does in his books is create fully realized societites. In Watchmen, we get not only an entire alternate history of societal development, we also get to know a whole bunch of ordinary people on the street, and it's that development that makes the end of the book so powerful. Similarly, in this work we understand the average person on the street, and because we know these characters, we can better understand the effect that the murders have on their world.

These first few chapters are essential in building the world of From Hell. My favorite is definitely the William Gull stuff, he's the main character of this work, and the point is to explore what drives a man to murder like he did. I think the actual historical events surroudning him are rather beside the point, what's truly important is the effect that the murders had on the world, and on the man who did them. That's what this book chronicles.

Next up is the classic Chapter 4, one of the best things Moore ever wrote.

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