Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Review - From Hell

From Hell
Written by Alan Moore

Art by Eddie Campbell
1993 Eisner winner for Best Serialized Story

1995, 1996, 1997 Eisner winner for Best Writer

2000 Eisner Award winner for Best Graphic Alblum (Reprint)

I wanted to lead off reviewing Eisner winners with one of the big winners and who better for that than twenty-five time Eisner winner Alan Moore. Moore's best known for writing Watchmen but in my view From Hell is far and away his best work.

It's hard to say exactly why a madman cutting up five prostitutes over a century ago has held people's attention for so long. Jack the Ripper wasn't the only celebrated killer of the time and he wasn't even the only person stabbing prostitutes in Whitechapel at that time. From Hell isn't a book about the killer; it's a book about the effect the killer had.

From Hell isn't even a mystery: it's quickly established that Dr. William Gull murders the prostitutes on behalf of Queen Victoria because they are attempting to blackmail the royal family over the sexual misadventures of a prince. The real story is in how Gull is using the slayings in a work of magic to change the course of the world and what happens to it. The book offers a reasonable explanation for the behavior (a recent stroke left Gull with some hallucinations of divine visitation) but the impact that he has over the course of the story cannot be denied. Once the killings begin the public becomes obsessed with them and myth overtakes facts.

The narrative jumps around quite a bit since the story is dedicated to capturing the atmosphere of London in 1888. As a result the daily lives of prostitutes is shared with the details of the police investigation. The schemes of journalists to manage the story (who says that's a modern invention?) are interwoven with panicked concern of those who know the truth. And behind them all Gull continues his work.

One of the things you'll find in the collected edition that brings into focus how different From Hell is from most works is forty-two pages worth of tightly printed historical annotations. The story is built on a mixture of conspiracy theory, historical facts, and outright fiction used to spackle over the spaces between the two. Moore explains his sources, the actual history, and what he had to fabricate. From Hell is in the running for the best researched peice of Ripper fiction ever written.

The weakest portion of From Hell is Eddie Campbell's art. It's not because the art is bad; most of the art is a scratchy pen and ink which gives the work a distinctive textured look using long, slashing strokes of the pen. Campbell also draws the vast cast of characters with distinct appearances and he integrates photographic references of locations long gone. In fact I'd say that Campbell does a terrific job with what he is given. The problem is that Moore tightly holds the reins on any artist he works with and Moore arranged for a standard nine panel layout on every page. It's extremely rare when the artwork splits from that format and in this case I think that's a flaw in the storytelling; Campbell's art is crying out for a more dynamic page layout.

From Hell is an impressively atmospheric story of Jack the Ripper in a perfect blend of history and fiction. By concentrating on the impact of the murders Moore gives himself more leeway to integrate all of the famous people who have been connected to the killings. In a final appendix Moore comments on how From Hell itself has just added to the muddy swirl that makes it impossible to ever know the truth but I can't complain when it is also the most compelling account of the story I have ever found.