I came late to the works of Alan Moore. I knew of him for a long time, from the pages of the horror magazine Skeleton Crew which did many a long essay on his work. There I saw scattered panels from his comics: V for Vendetta, From Hell, Big Numbers and Swamp Thing. There was a certain reverence in the words about him that made him appear as if a god among mortals. Though this is probably a response to the reality that monthly comics scriptwriting was fairly dire. Following leads, I went to 2000AD, the flagship comic of the UK to find the illusive Moore. Instead of Alan Moore, who had finished writing for the magazine years earlier, I found Peter Milligan, Grant Morrison and John Smith, writers I noticed attached to strips I enjoyed. I followed these writers to DC and Vertigo comics and discovered Neil Gaiman and others. Still I had not read any Alan Moore. It was a strange lacuna. I knew a lot about Alan Moore and about the comics he had written from reading the reactions and perceptions of others. Still I had not actually read any of the landmark work that he had created.
When I finally read V for Vendetta and Watchmen, I was in my mid 20s and I had read so many other comics that had used techniques and surface gloss from them that it all seemed old hat. Watchmen (and Frank Miller's the Dark Knight Returns) helped create the comics style that we have suffered through since the late 80s: grim, gritty, pretentious and hyper violent without actually taking note of what Moore was actually doing: taking superheroes to their logical, illogical end (something that the recent film decided to 'correct' slightly*).
My first realisation that Alan Moore was an amazing writer was when I read From Hell, illustrated in pen and ink by Eddie Campbell (one of the guys who worked at Graphix**, Andy, had bought a page of From Hell, and it amazed me to see that Campbell had used ballpoint to create some of the scratchiness in the art). From Hell is an exhaustive exploration of the Jack the Ripper mythology using the Stephen Knight theory (Freemasons perpetrated the Ripper murders at Queen Victoria's behest to cover up a Catholic marriage and an illegitimate heir to the throne) to hang an amazing stew of ideas and imagery off of. It is incredibly rich, in it's detail and Moore provided extensive appendices where he discusses the references that he used.
There is an entire 30 odd page chapter dedicated to a mystical tour of London, a carriage trip where Doctor Gull, the murderer, lays out a cosmology and philosophy that ties architecture to magic and imagination. Later there is a similar amount of pages dedicated (dedicated? an oddly appropriate word) to the dismemberment of the ripper's final victim. It is silent, and relies on Campbell's art to depict the clinical horror of the destruction of a human being.
The final stroke is an afterword where Moore injects himself into the history of Ripperology and talks about the imploding nature of closed theories. It is my favourite part of the book, it is funny and tragic and it lays bear the obsessive desire of people to take ownership of a story, a mythology by uncovering the inner mystery. In From Hell, this is the identity of the killer, the reason for the murders. It is brilliant.
*More about the tragic Alan Moore adaptions later.
** Graphix is the premier comics store in Wellington, NZ. It would be perfect if only it displayed books in the window instead of toys. I judge other stores against this one. It does not have the stink of a geek's basement about it.