Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Oh Heck

From Hell, Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's graphic exploration of Jack The Ripper and the Rise of the 20th Century is far more impressive than it is good. Impressive because of Moore's considerable gifts for research and drawing said research together (detailed extensively in a series of notes on sources of pretty much each page of the book in an appendix after the book is over), and not particularly good because it is never capable of sustaining much in the way of narrative tension, characterization or even visual beauty.

As in all of Moore's major work, From Hell is about a Mad Genius who sets himself a goal and then accomplishes it. In Watchmen this narrative structure worked because you actually didn't know that was the story you were reading until the very end. In V For Vendetta, this proved disasterous because you never doubt that V is going to do exactly what he says he's going to do, and thus there is no real reason to read the book once V has declared his intentions. From Hell is stuck somewhere in between. This is because Moore (as per usual) populates his book with lots of side characters and digressions that are, while more interesting than V For Vendetta, aren't as fascinating or moving as, say, The Nightowl or the newsstand denizens in Watchmen.

The problem with the whole Mad Genius plot line is that it is, at the end of the day, more about the writer than the character. After all, to write a genius, you have to at some level be a genius. And so I can never shake the suspicion reading Moore's work that on some level his fundamnetal point is about how much smarter he is than the reader. That certainly seems to be the point of V, anyway.

From Hell is a little bit different, because it shows the occasional high cost of said genius-- namely that it might turn you into a murderous psychopath. William Withey Gull, royal physician, mason, expert surgeon and stroke vicitm is held to be Jack the Ripper. He kills the prostitutes at the beheast of HRH Victoria herself, because they are blackmailing Prince Albert over a baby he fathered while living undercover as a student artist. Gull is himself a sociopath-- completely devoid of empathy, capable of doing (and justifying) just about everything. His goal, his life's work is to take the myths that form the foundation of Masonry (which he knows are pure bushwha) and make them Real through the ritual sacrifice of the Whitechapel prostitutes.

Needless to say, the book is dark. And Campbell's illustrations are as well. so dark that frequently I had trouble making out exactly what was going on, or who was speaking. All of the prostitutes dress alike. Many of them look alike. Ditto the upper crust men.

The book, at the end of the day, is bogged down by the historical fiction syndrome, where interesting facts/personages surrounding an event are brought together in ways that seem increasingly ludicrous. Witness Oscar Wilde's cameo late in the book, or the parts of the novel where people mention books, tropes, intellectuals, authors, events etc. apropos of nothing because Moore found it in some obscure Almanack. I think it's fascinating that someone predicted most of the events of the twentieth century. I don't see how it fits into a discussion of whether or not visiting American Indians were responsible for the Jack the Ripper killings.

This mix makes the novel intermittedly fascinating and frustrating, and this keeps the book earthbound when it desperately wants to soar. I think this will mark the end of my reading of Alan Moore. I loved Watchmen, I still think it's one of the Great Books of the 20th Century, but everything else he's written has left me somewhere between cold and frustrated to the point of anger.


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