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The Redoubtable Alan Moore (Pt. II)

Monday, November 27, 2006

Go to Part I / Go to Part III / Go to Part IV

By: Beal & James17930

James17930: It’s been a while . . . where were we? Ah yes — you have admitted to not yet having read From Hell, for which I pity you. I share Mr. Moore’s look of dismay (at left).

Beal: Do you share his uncanny ability to be entirely in black and white except for his irises? Do you share his fondness for rings?

J: The rings, yes. Shiny.

B: Anyway, it’s true: I haven’t read From Hell. Which means I’ll be unable to respond to any hyperbole on that particular subject. I have read the first League of Extraordinary Gentlemen; however, it was quite a long time ago, so any hyperbolic response I could give would basically be guesswork. I’ll just keep my mouth shut this time, but watch for my triumphant return in Part III.

J: I’ll lend them to you when you get back. For now, you’ll just have to trust my judgement. Although, you might not want to read this until you’ve read the book — and now I may have just inadvertently destroyed any chance of a lot of other people reading this as well. <Sigh> For those still here, enjoy.

Whitechapel Twilight

From Hell is Moore’s masterpiece. So precise in its use of detail and flawless in the integration of these into the overall story, From Hell is at once about the small existences of a few poor people living in one of Victorian London’s worst slums — made famous through brutal circumstance as the victims of ‘Jack the Ripper’ — as well as an exploration of the whole of man’s tendency toward violence and self-destruction throughout history, culminating in the epic destruction and loss that characterized the 20th century. Moore imagines ‘Jack’ as the culmination of all that had preceded him, and the harbinger of all that was to come.

J: There have been numerous theories espoused during the 100 or so years between the murders and the writing of From Hell, and obviously numerous suspects proposed (it’s still going on even today). Moore, purely for storytelling reasons (as he reveals in Appendix I) decides to use Stephen Knight’s Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution as the basis for his story. Knight proposed that the murders were part of a Masonic conspiracy to cover up the knowledge of an illegitimate royal child. The person he names as the Ripper is Sir William Withey Gull, physician-extraordinary to Queen Victoria. None of this is meant as a surprise, with a shocking ‘reveal’ at the end — it’s not that kind of book. Moore and artist Eddie Campbell instead use this grand narrative to at once critique the mores and conventions of the late 19th c. (picking up on a theme here?) and to craft a dense, semiotic text which delves into the intricacies of Masonic lore, serial-killer lore, Victorian pop-culture and the history of the city of London.

It’s hard to know where to begin. It’s a massive book — Prologue, fourteen chapters, epilogue and two appendices, all of which are amazing — but there are certain moments that stand out.

Gull’s reasons for committing the murders have to do with a skewed, pagan-inspired Masonic ideology, and, since most of us are not conversant in skewed, pagan-inspired Masonic ideology, Moore, in Chapter 4, gives us a whirlwind tour of pagan London under the auspices of training and immersing his lower-class coachman/henchman in this lore and Gull’s grand designs. What we get is a fascinating history/geography lesson, touching on everything from Dyonisiac architect Nicholas Hawksmoor and his series of churches filled with pagan symbology, to the Druidic history of the London area, to the smothering of Mother and Moon (i.e. female power) worship by the early Britons due to the onslaught of male-dominated Christianity (similar sorts of things as get discussed in both of Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon books, if you want to use those as a touchpoint). Since Moore explains all this in Chapter 4, it leaves him and Campbell free to cleverly and subtly intersperse these symbols throughout the text either as foreshadowing or dramatic irony, as demonstrated by the panel below, in which four of Gull’s future victims are shown being ‘dominated’ by the obelisk/penis/knife of one of Hawksmoor’s churches, and one of them makes a portentous remark.

Getting back to the point about Jack the Ripper being the harbinger of the horrors to come in the 20th c. — Moore does not tread lightly on this. It is explicit. There are numerous points where Gull, in fits of murderous ecstasy, leaps around in time; it is as if by becoming one of the most transcendental figures in history, he is afforded passage through time itself. The most striking of these is the single image on Pg. 40 of Chapter 8 where Gull, his knife and arms oozing with the blood of his fourth victim Catherine Eddowes, raises his fists triumphantly at the giant, fully lit skyscraper which has suddenly appeared before him, as if bathing in the light of the future he is ushering in — one of moral decrepitude and seperation from the sanctity of compassion and the body. This idea is brought to its fitting climax at the very end of the book in Chapter 14, but I won’t go spoiling everything; needless to say it is incredibly complex and intelligent.

Using images to present such profound ideas without having to print a single word is the biggest strength of the comic/graphic novel; that Moore, who obviously doesn’t illustrate his own stories, is able to visualize his stuff in such detail and clarity so as to facillitate this kind of symbiotic storytelling — working closely with the artist instead of just treating the pictures as an afterthought — further points to this status as the preeminent comic author of our time (a title he will most likely maintain even long after he’s gone).

Your Country Has Need Of You Again, Sir

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is just pure fun. Currently comprised of two volumes, with more on the way, it follows the heroic exploits of a group of Victorian-era literary figures (whom, in Moore’s London of 1898, are all real) thrown together by British Military Intelligence (MI6) to thwart the dastardly plans of those who would harm the Empire. The League is comprised of Whilemina Murray (Bram Stoker’s Dracula), Allan Quatermain (H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines), Captain Nemo (Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea), Henry Jekyl/Edward Hyde (Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyl & Mr. Hyde) and Hawley Griffin (H.G. Wells’s The Invisible Man — although Moore supplied the first name, that of a notorious murderer of the time). They are brought together in Vol. 1 by a man named Campion Bond (an unofficial — due to copyright reasons — ancestor of James Bond) who works for the head of MI6, the mysterious Mr. M, to thwart a plot by the ‘devilish Chinaman’ Fu Manchu to destroy London using a deadly flying machine. Or so it seems . . .

J: Vol. 1 is all about excellence in pacing, structure and plot contrivances while still taking the time to introduce and paint the basic personalities of the characters, provide a romantic subplot, and insert the set-up for Vol. 2. It’s for reasons like this that, as Beal notes in the opening to Part I, most people trying to imitate Moore would simply fall on their asses — all this balancing in writing is extremely hard to do well, and it takes someone of Moore’s talent and skill to do it properly.

Vol. 2 picks up right where 1 leaves off, with a Martian invasion of Earth. Once again, it’s a great example of how to pull many disparate aspects of period pulp and literature together to create a single cohesive story; unfortunately, this time around, it feels somewhat strained. What made Vol. 1 so thrilling was the mix of discovery and mystery surrounding the whole affair — here, neither of those things are present to any great extent (there is one big ‘secret’ that becomes important to the story, but I won’t ruin it). To fill all the extra pages he suddenly finds himself in need of filling, Moore uses this volume to focus intensely on character, but with mixed results (again here as in Watchmen). Alas, much of it feels forced, and like he’s stalling — as if he could have wrapped the whole thing up in three issues instead of the six needed to fill out the volume. There are moments where it really drags, like he’s straining to find things for the characters to do. But then it all comes back together and ends with quite a bang, and so he is redeemed.

Aside from the generous amounts of action, adventure and humour, what makes these books so good is, again, the attention to detail. The entire story is assembled using Victorian-era people, places and things; every single character mentioned by name (save, perhaps, for a few very minor ones here and there) is either a real person, a figure from era-literature, or an ancestor of someone appearing in modern-day books. Every background advertisement, or company name visible on a piece of equipment, is real. Also, as the books function as pastiche, he’s not afraid to write in the temperament of the day; there are many scenes which invoke blatant late 19th-century racist and sexual stereotypes. It’s hoped the reader will be smart enough to contextualize.

Alright, that’s it for me for a while. You see, while Beal wasn’t able to comment on these two books, I haven’t read the last two, which leaves me out of Part III in the same way. I’ll definitely make an appearance, but merely in banter-form. Take it away Mr. Beal . . . 03971semaj laebmada

One Comment leave one →
  1. James17930 permalink
    Tuesday, January 15, 2008 4:51 am

    I can’t believe it’s been over a year already since we wrote these.

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