Monday, 20 November 2006

London’s greatest myth, finally back in print - Alan Moore's From Hell!

by Edwin Hesselthwite

"London calling to the faraway towns.
Now war is declared, and battle come down..." - London Calling, The Clash

While I was raised elsewhere, I believe I have enough heritage in this city to say the words “I am a Londoner”.

To me, this brings forth a whole swathe of imagery, from the smoky Soho bars where English intellectuals debated the founding principles of Liberalism (The Red Lion of Soho is the pub where Marx, Engels and a crowd of other alcoholics hammered out The Communist Manifesto in a dark week in 1847), to Cable Street where the Jews and trade unionists of the East End fought a battle/riot that was the beginning of the end of Sir Oswald Mosley’s brand of fascism in the UK. But unlike New York, which wears it’s mythology (Jazz and Film Noir) heavily in literature and cinema - with Woody Allen and Paul Auster its most obvious proponents – or Paris, which has a long cinematic tradition of sophistication mixed with brutality, London does not strongly project its mythology to the world.

In my opinion, the single greatest recent work in London mythology is Alan Moore’s epic graphic novel From Hell. I first read this several years ago and I’ve been trying to obtain a copy for over a year, during which time it has been frustratingly elusive. In a cheeky bit of sharp practice I ordered a copy of the 2004 edition from Amazon well over two months ago, only to find the new edition – apparently released this week – landing in my letterbox this morning; long after I had assumed the order dead. The reissue is unarguably a good thing; it was a tragedy that such an influential work, amongst the most literary in the medium of graphic novels, had been allowed to drift by the wayside.

An image of Christ Church, Spitalfields in From Hell, taken from here, where there is an interview with Moore discussing the novel.

There is little to say about From Hell that hasn’t already been written better elsewhere, but due to its medium it is still too easily overlooked. Alan Moore is Anglophone comics’ pre-eminent writer, he gained his name writing the most intelligent works in the superhero genre and From Hell is a sprawling, uncompromising masterpiece where he cashed in this creative credit and wrote something that read like a terrible idea on paper – a literary graphic novel about Jack The Ripper. I have a lot of time for Moore, an eccentric, controversialist, self-declared warlock anarchist. In From Hell, Moore took the story of The Whitechapel Murders and used it to draw an epic tale of corruption and murder that runs all the way to Buckingham Palace, poverty and humanity amongst the prostitutes of Whitechapel, and a series of myths and histories about the society, structure and architecture of the capital of The Empire. The emphasis of the story is in drawing out the atmosphere of Dickensian London, with carefully crafted characters performing acts of sensitivity and brutality. There is a mysticism to Moore’s world view that pervades FH, with ancient Druidic legends mixed with Masonic symbolism, giving the story a sublime scale. It is quite so rigorously researched that the edition comes with a massive explanatory appendix sufficiently complete that it renders interpretations such as this irrelevant.

It would be disingenuous to write a piece on From Hell and not mention Eddie Cambell’s artwork. These scratchy ink works are perfect at capturing the tone of Moore’s narrative, simple for images of violence and conversation, followed by virtuoso demonstrations of technique when rendering the architecture of the city. The imagery, from the first frame of a dead seagull lying on a beach, is impressive. A quick note to those who only saw the Johnny Depp movie, Moore has a well deserved reputation for hostility towards Hollywood, it is a virtual certainty that he had no input into the film. The result is not a bad movie, but it does not do justice to the novel at all.

Moore has recently released a work of pornography in a similar uncompromising vein called Lost Girls, which includes graphic imagery of sex between the characters of Alice In Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz and Peter Pan. We at LMWN would really appreciate the comments of any readers who happen to have read this, because we can’t bring ourselves to pay money for something that sounds like such a bad idea.

So, we salute Knockabout Comics for their reissue - don’t let this happen again! The smoke and crime of London makes me feel at home - I live by the river!


Click to read reviews on Amazon


Charles Pooter said...

Your link for Oswald Mosley is to a Mosley-worshipping website. This site makes him out to be a hero rather than the dick that he was.

Anonymous said...

Wordlife, 'From Hell' is tha shiznit. Word up to all da muthas who is on this shit already, aiight.