Sunday, March 31, 2013

'From Hell'

Well, I finished "From Hell" last night, around four in the morning after getting it in the mail that afternoon, so I think I have to give it a thumbs-up.

The book is a graphic novel written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Eddie Campbell about Jack the Ripper. Detailing events leading up to the infamous Whitechapel murders and an ensuing coverup, "From Hell" is a tightly scripted piece of historical fiction.

As an on/off fan of Moore's work -- I loved his run on "Saga of the Swamp Thing," was blown away by"his V for Vendetta," and found "Watchmen*" to be amazing, but was unimpressed with "Tom Strong" and "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" -- I've been looking forward to reading this one.

The book did not disappoint. It was a tightly written graphic novel, as meticulously plotted as I've come to expect from Alan Moore, and thoroughly researched. The book is structured around a widely dismissed conspiracy theory that Jack the Ripper's actions were a plot orchestrated by the Freemasons to protect the British Crown during the reign of Queen Victoria from a scandal involving her grandson Albert.

The action is gruesome -- this is a story about Jack the Ripper, after all -- but Moore's ability to tap into the power of symbolism and to further imbue those symbols with the semblance of deeper order and power, drives some of the most absorbing sections of the book, such as Sir William Gull's taxi ride back and forth across London as he completes an arcane circuit of the city's churches and landmarks.

On the downside, the artwork did make it difficult at times to differentiate among the characters, particularly given the size of the cast; and as an American reader unfamiliar with 19th-century London slang, customs or culture, I had to consult Wikipedia at times to make sure I was following the story correctly. (I also had to re-read the first two chapters, since I found I didn't understand properly what was happening in the fourth chapter, when the story started to progress.)

The artwork also was explicit, not just in terms of the violence, but also regarding human sexuality. Jack the Ripper, after all, wasn't just a serial killer; he was driven by psychosexual demons that led him to prey upon prostitutes in the Whitechapel district with a particularly vicious sexual violence. As a result, I doubt I'll be letting my daughter read this anytime soon. Maybe around the time I let her read my "Swamp Thing" collections, which I've summed up previously as "When you're older, and I'm dead."

I do recommend it, although if you've decided you're not an Alan Moore fan, I concede that you probably won't like it.

* I think I finally enjoyed "Watchmen" on the fifth or sixth time through. To be fair, on first reading I think I initially was expecting a superhero comic, and wasn't ready for the superhero deconstructed. By the time I was in my early 30s, though, I was finally able to see myself a little in Nite Owl, and could appreciate better what Moore had done with the other nonheroic "superheroes" like Dr. Manhattan and Rorshach.

Copyright © 2013 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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