A seminal work, almost on par with Moore’s own Watchmen, this is the kind of book which strikes down the notion that ‘comics’ are limited in their scope and reach to select audiences. As complex and layered as any novel out there, there is a chance you may not love its grit and gore but you cannot deny the mastery of medium and meticulousness of research that has gone into producing it. Alan Moore, who comes across as an eccentric genius mostly, shows that there is a brilliant method behind the facade.
The story takes its inspiration from the infamous ‘Jack the Ripper’ serial killer who terrorized London towards the end of the nineteenth century with the Whitechapel murders of a number of prostitutes. A case which was never solved and the criminal never caught, there have been numerous theories over the last century and more on the identity and conspiracies behind the gruesome murders. It is on the germ of one of these theories that Moore expands this universe.
In his tale, a conspiracy involving a royal prince marrying a commoner and begetting a child is the forerunner to the murders of the prostitutes in the know of these affairs. For this, their preferred weapon of choice is a brilliant surgeon by the name of William Whitney Gull, who uses his fascination of the human body and of his belief that a higher cause calls to him to commit the crimes. Gull maybe a brilliant surgeon, but he is also a member of the Freemasons and accordingly is deluded in his own significance in the events unfolding. There is a fascinating and long chapter devoted to Gull and his man Friday in the murders, Netley the coach driver, going around various historic landmarks in London with Gull soliloquizing on the architectural secrets the architects hid in these landmarks as a nod to their pagan influences through history. This may sometimes seem like a long winded explanation going nowhere, but it provides a gruesomely effective explanation for what Gull believed in while planning and executing his elaborate murders. On the other side of the spectrum, we have the police – mainly Inspector Abberline of Scotland Yard. However, Abberline is going to realize soon that Gull has the blessings from various aspects of the bureaucratic and police machinery and that finding a scapegoat may be the primary objective. To complicate matters further, a supposed psychic of the Queen is also in the picture.
So this is not a typical whodunit, because the ‘who’ becomes quite obvious from early on in the story. What it is, is a complex analysis of power and poverty and how these intermingle to produce effects that reverberate through the ages. Desperation and need become perfect foils for the ruthless and it is this that is exploited by the Royal machinery (and Gull) here. The age it is set in is hugely interesting, but I’m not sure if I’m a huge fan of the grainy black and white art though. It rendered some details tough to decipher and I felt it didn’t capture the place and time it was set in effectively enough.
So this is not my favorite Alan Moore comic (that would still be Watchmen), but it’s definitely up there with some of the best stuff I’ve come across in the medium. A must read, if you’re willing to put up with the gore and some complex ruminations on the world and the state of man in it. However, a word of warning though – don’t watch the movie version starring Johnny Depp; that is just a disservice to this wonderful work of art.