Tuesday, July 06, 2010
Greg's Best Graphic Novel of All Time
Jim recently challenged the writers of this blog to recommend the best “graphic stories you would use to give to a non comic fan to show them the best of our world.” This isn’t the easiest question to answer, and you’ll probably get a different response from every comic fan you ask. For me, this discussion has to begin and end with the best comic ever made – From Hell by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell.
Examining the Jack the Ripper murders that took place in 1888 London, this book is hardly covering new ground. What makes it unique is the comprehensive approach that Moore and Campbell take to the material, as well as the way they use it to examine the world the murders took place in and the world we live in today. Unlike virtually every other piece of fiction about Jack the Ripper (including this book’s terrible movie adaptation), this is not a whodunit. We know the identity of Jack the Ripper in the second chapter of this book and he is probably the closest thing this sprawling narrative has to a main character. From Hell is not concerned with WHO Jack the Ripper is, but WHY he’s doing it and the effect that those actions have on everyone else, including the reader.
Clocking in at 572 pages, From Hell is a sprawling narrative that covers everything from the class struggles of the Victorian era to the pagan history of London to the emerging social trends of the late 1880s. It is all painstakingly researched by Moore (there are over 50 pages of annotations by Moore at the back of the book detailing his research on every page, and shockingly enough, they are even interesting to read) and drawn in exacting detail by Eddie Campbell. Yet, despite spending entire chapters on things such as the showing secret history of London through a carriage ride or demonstrating the disparity between the lives of the upper class Jack the Ripper and one of the prostitutes he is hours away from murdering, it is always enthralling. Even the smallest details usually pay off in a satisfying way.
While the book is full of interesting digressions, its heart is the story of these horrifying murders and how these acts of violence gave birth to the 20th century, the most violent 100 years in the history of humanity. It is gruesome, but Moore’s story is a wonder to behold. Throughout his entire career, Alan Moore has been known as a writer capable of extraordinarily complex plots, but this has to be his masterwork by any standard. The way he constructs his story is like watching someone build a swiss watch. He creates extraordinarily detailed characters, builds on the history we have of this case to make his story stronger, and even weaves in obscure historical figures such as the Elephant Man to emphasize and strengthen his story. Every piece interlocks with the other as the story perfectly builds to its finale.
Moore has been roundly criticized for including many of his more eclectic interests, such as paganism and spirituality, into his works in a way that can feel exclusionary to those who don’t share those interests. Here, he does it in a way that feels very organic, contributing to the story, without overwhelming it or confusing the reader. It is an exceedingly complex piece of storytelling, but it is to Moore’s credit that it is always interesting.
From Hell would not be nearly the success it is without the work of Eddie Campbell. Campbell’s inky, black and white art is a perfect match for the moody subject matter of a story set in the slums of Victorian London, but it is always clear. He is also an exceptional storyteller and it is to his credit that his artwork helps drive Moore’s complex narrative forward without losing focus. His attention to detail is remarkable. It is perhaps best illustrated by the scene in which the final victim is murdered. Drawn according to the records and photographs of the scene that still exist, Campbell strove to be as accurate as possible. Halfway through drawing the scene, Campbell realized he had a body part placed on the wrong side of the room. So he drew an additional sequence in which Jack moves it to its proper place. This may seem gruesome, but I believe it illustrates the care and exceptional craftsmanship that went into producing this work.
From Hell is a challenging read. It is a complex story about an unpleasant subject. However, it is the finest graphic novel I have ever read. Even at its considerable length, it is a book that captivates you and is impossible to put down. If you are interested in what this medium is capable of, then you owe it to yourself to read this book.