Monday 26 October 2009

'what is the fourth dimension?'

From Hell
by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell

My graphic education continues with another Alan Moore title and another of his which has been adapted into a terrible film (I say this without having seen it, but the only comments I received from people when reading this book were 'Oh, that was a s**t film'). I think this may be a consistent problem as V for Vendetta will be next on my list and I don't even need to watch that to know it's not much cop. The various volumes of Moore's take on Jack the Ripper were originally published through the 90's and collected together at the end of that decade. In his appendix The Dance of the Gull-Catchers Moore illustrates the impossibility of satisfactorily solving these infamous murders (over 100 suspects have been proposed over time) and beyond that shows that to find a single culprit would be to ignore the fact that almost all killings have a society around them that is as much to blame as the person who wields the weapon itself. That appendix also serves as a potted history of Ripperology (what would Maureen Lipman's BT mum have made of that!), which reminds a modern reader that further theories and ideas have developed in that field since the publication of Moore's book meaning that it lost some of its power for me, feeling a little dated if anything.

That isn't to take away from the book's considerable achievements. The dark black and white drawings maintain a consistently grim outlook, there are some genuinely electrifying moments and for anyone coming to the subject without prior knowledge you couldn't ask for a more accessible medium to take in a lot of information. Or almost. You could certainly never argue that Moore hasn't done his research, there are 42 pages of notes in the first appendix which explain the sources behind many of his decisions, even explaining that some of the backgrounds have been meticulously recreated from the originals. I started trying to read the notes simultaneously with the story but found it was making my progress incredibly slow. Even without the notes themselves some of the early chapters are a little heavy going, reading like research presented as narrative but if you can slog your way through it there is certainly a pay-off nearer the end where the creativity is given a freer rein and the panels begin to open up (or close down) to great effect.

Based heavily on Stephen Knight's theory that the murders were part of a conspiracy to conceal Prince Albert Victor's fathering of an illegitimate child, Moore has no worry about placing Queen Victoria herself in our line of sight, issuing a vague order to her physician Dr William Gull "We leave the means to you, Sir William. We would simply it were done, and done well." It is Gull who leads his driver, and us, on a tour through London, his masonic credentials giving him a knowledge of the pagan symbols and teachings hidden amongst some of London's most famous landmarks and buildings. Chapter 4 is one example of some fairly dryly presented research, the dialogue about as unnatural as you can imagine, but even so Moore manages to build to a moment of drama at the close and with that knowledge now in place he is able to return to it later in the novels closing chapters to far more dramatic effect.

Rather than go into too much detail about the plot I thought I'd highlight some parts of the book that worked really well for me. The black and white artwork was a bit hit and miss for me actually, the inconsistency with faces sometimes making it harder to keep track of who was who, the panels which really excited me were where something different happened. To contrast the different lifestyles of Gull and Polly Nicholls in chapter 5 there are suddenly only three long panels to each page; Nicholls' presented in the style we have become used to, Gull's softened like pastel drawings or watercolours. This is the only time that the artwork changes significantly and it can't help but catch your eye. The rest of the time the eye-grabbing effects are achieved by playing with panel size (they're always rectangular though) or by throwing in something you don't expect. The brutality of the final murder of Mary Kelly makes chapter 1o one of the book's stand-out sections. There is a rhythm built up by the regularity of each nine-panel page and when that rhythm is interrupted by a larger panel it has a strong effect. On top of that it is here that Moore and Campbell achieve their greatest coup de theatre; Gull's delusions making manifest that fourth dimension which has been posed throughout the book, showing that time is a human illusion and that all times co-exist in eternity. This dramatic effect is perhaps only topped by the audacious final chapter where Moore manages to unite many of his themes and present a daring conclusion to his meditation on evil, power and death.

The thing that I find fascinating about Moore is the process by which he creates the story lines, dialogue and presentation of his books (in collaboration with each artist to a certain extent I'm sure) without making a single drawing himself. His extensive notes are infamous and on Eddie Campbell's blog it is possible to see some of the original scripts together with the artwork he created here and here. It is a fascinating insight into one of the most creative minds I've come across.


Anonymous,  26 October 2009 at 09:47  

About the movie, you may want to check this out before coming to a conclusion.
It's a coincidence, but I came across this article just today. Also, the movie was playing on TV here a couple of days ago.

William Rycroft 26 October 2009 at 11:58  

Thanks for the link Ronak, praise from no less a man than Ebert himself. I understand that the film diverges from the book so much as to make it almost a different story and I'm not sure I have much faith in Heather Graham but if I ever come across it on the box I shall certainly give it a go. Thanks for stopping by.

Max Cairnduff 26 October 2009 at 14:11  

I should restart this one, I rather like Eddie Campbell's artwork and I was enjoying it well enough, but I got bogged down somehow. As you note, some of the early chapters are rather heavy going, though I'm hearted by your use of the word "early" there.

I'm not actually a huge Alan Moore fan as it happens, but this does seem something unusually ambitious and interesting, it's good to know it comes together at the end - for something of this length and density that's a valuable reassurance.

William Rycroft 27 October 2009 at 23:10  

It's certainly a hefty tome when all together and didn't really come alive for me (and I hate to say it because of what that might mean) until the murders started.

I'm not sure what I'll end up feeling about Moore, and I fear I may have begun with his crowning achievement in Watchmen but I'm impressed with how different each of his projects are and fascinated about the distinction between the mind that thinks it up and the artist who executes it.

Max Cairnduff 30 October 2009 at 13:50  

I like both Watchmen and V for Vendetta, his League of Extraordinary Gentlemen stuff though I think is hugely overrated, and makes him a bit of a hypocrite (he's complained about others misuing his characters, an odd complaint given the nature of League).

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