21 December 2007

Erudite, horrifying, and masterfully illustrated fiction

From Hell
Alan Moore
Top Shelf Productions, 2000

This "comic" dissects the most famous unsolved crimes in history, peeling away their layers of misogyny, class stratification, abject poverty, imperial machinations, conspiracy, magic, and madness like so much flesh and sinew. Each chapter approaches the topic from a different angle, focusing here on the hidden Masonic architecture of the British capital, looking there in detail at the lives of the Ripper's victims. The basic plot is that the Ripper is one Sir William Gull, royal physician and Masonic magician, who is killing these women to keep them from blackmailing the Queen's grandson, Prince Eddy. To reduce the story to this plot, though, is to miss its incredible richness and intelligence.

Those looking for the definitive Ripper "solution" need to continue their searches elsewhere. As author Alan Moore notes in the second appendix, "Jack is not Gull or Druitt. Jack is a super-position." Instead of presenting the typical cops and robbers version of a played-out murder story, Alan Moore uses the Ripper to reveal the banal horrors of everyday life for the poor women and children of Victorian England and to indict a male culture whose callousness and brutality was matched only by its religious and aristocratic hypocrisy. In Moore's novel, the Ripper is not merely a doctor conducting Masonic rituals whilst ostensibly ridding the Crown of a handful of blackmailing whores. Rather, the Ripper is the entire miasma of modernity, the calculated technological horrors of 20th century condensed into four murders, one year, one decade. Jack is the man who leaves his wife and two children to be with their midwife, he is the royal brat whose dalliances have disastrous consequences for the little people, he is the media bent on selling papers by peddling gore and hysteria.

The erudition of the cultural commentary in the volume is staggering. A review of the 42 page monstrosity of an appendix reveals the manifold reasons behind each frame of each page of the story. It all boils down to this: "Five murdered paupers, and one anonymous assailant. This reality is dwarfed by the vast theme-park we've built around it. Truth is, this has never been about the murders, or the killer nor his victims. It's about us, our minds and how they dance. Jack mirrors our hysterias. Faceless, he is the receptacle for each new social panic."

This book is a work of literature, easily on par with such other classic graphic novels as Maus, Persepolis, or Fagin the Jew.

(This review was originally written on July 27, 2006.)

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