By Alan Donald
It is hailed as Alan Moore’s greatest work since The Watchmen, it’s a major Hollywood film, it made comics (briefly) fashionable in literary circles again, but…is it any good?
The most obvious target is the art. Comics are a visual medium and the artwork is fundamental to ‘selling’ the story. I don’t like attacking artists, I can’t draw and I don’t pretend to be able to (I can’t write but I pretend I can so I tend to attack writers instead). I’ve tolerated all sorts of different art without complaint knowing that what I despise must really work for someone else. What I can’t abide may have a message, meaning to others (with the exception of Robin and Nightwing recently, MAN they are piss poor! Look at the cover to Robin: Flying Solo then look at the latest issue of Robin. How can any editor in their right mind… I digress).
Eddie Campbell’s art is sh**t terrible. His art is sketchy, difficult to make out and very, very stilted, posed almost.
Then there is the story. This is a work of fiction. Moore is very quick to point this out. As such who am I to comment on Moore’s “research”? It’s a comic, that’s all.
This is a comic that has traded off the idea that Moore (the genius! The visionary!) has locked himself away for years and researched every known source on the Ripper murders. Through his findings he has created an elaborate fiction based in fact. Rubbish. Moore’s research is pants he has quoted far too many secondary sources and that while he may have done a lot of reading all he has done is perpetuate a bunch of rehashes. I felt a little cheated as I really got into the book (reading a chapter, then its appendix).
I know this is a fictional work BUT it is a work that has built up a life beyond its covers and this needs to be addressed properly. I am a graduate (difficult to believe, I know). My field was science, biology to be specific. Part of my degree entailed the writing of scientific papers and Dissertations. Whilst the specific format of these were peculiar to my field the general structure is the same for any ‘proper’ research. Particularly one must think about ones source material. If I were writing an article on tropical diseases in the UK I would not quote an article in “The Sun”, nor one in “The Readers Digest”. Not even “Scientific America” or New Scientist” would do (but “Nature” is ok at a push). No I would return to the source material. I would find out who carried out the experiments or surveys featured in those organs and I would then seek out, read and then cite their original paper.
Moore doesn’t do this. Every quote, idea, proposition etc comes from a secondary, tertiary or worse quaternary source. It gets a little sad to be honest. Such a great man, all that reading and, it’s well, you know.
Then there’s the basic flow of the thing. Characters stop and pose to the camera. Don’t worry about Campbell’s terrible art, if you don’t recognise someone they are sure to suddenly stop, face front and introduce themselves formally (I call this the Star Wars: Episode One syndrome). Talking heads spend whole chapters explaining their motives and histories. Gull takes 36 pages to state something that take Moore 2 paragraphs in the appendix to explain, makes you wonder what the point of the appendix is… Ah that’s easy. The appendix is there for Moore to blow his own trumpet about all the hard work he has done. “Look how smart I am!”
Or so I thought. Then I read “Dance of the Gull Catchers”. Then I reread the whole work. The blinkers of over-criticism dropped off as I stopped being so offended by what I felt was a gigantic let down by Moore. It wasn’t a let down at all. It was a piss-take.
Moore has done the research. He’s researched the original texts, he’s examined everything that there is available and then he’s researched all the stories around the stories. He’s traced the lies and looked into the liars. It’s quite simple really. Through endless work he has pulled together a better sense of what had happened in Whitechapel that fateful year, then he threw it away. A simple telling of the Ripper case was beneath Moore; it would be an insult to his skill. Instead Moore examines not only the case but also the urban myths and legends to.
The Dance of the Gull Catchers shows the whole thing to have been a very elaborate joke at the expense of Ripperologists, a parody of their work (and showing how pathetic so many of them are for their constant referrals to secondary sources), a bit of fun for Moore and, well, another mark of his constantly changing style and genius. Gull Catchers, of course, is only good after reading the main book first.
The Dance of the Gull Catchers either directly or indirectly addresses most of my concerns and more AND I felt good about having had those criticisms, as if he had wanted fans of his to have them.
The art. With the prejudice removed one can see the art in its true colours. Campbell’s ‘stilted’ style is actually designed to give a Victorian feel to the comic as it is not unlike (in places) both the photographs and the cartoons of the day. Unlike many dark, sketchy and moody artists Campbell manages to make the whole comic quite accessible and surprisingly clear. The violence is very graphic and yet strangely clinical at times. Unlike Preacher where we saw dynamic pictures of jaws being shot off and felt strangely unmoved Campbell’s depiction of the dismemberment at 13 Millers Court is quite static yet far more powerful (and despite being far MORE graphic it seems to avoid being gratuitous).
The art allows us entry into a Victorian world. Its style is right for the piece yet it does seem hurried in places and one wonders if it is truly Campbell’s best work. On top of that this is far from the most accessible of books because of its unique art but when you get into it, it is one of the best because of the aforementioned style.
Moore’s tale. A nice, simple story about murder and conspiracy. Moore manages to wrap into the work some great touches by way of abstract panel sequences and ‘visions’. The Episode 1 syndrome is part of the Victorian feel and the formal air it lends is there for atmosphere. There is too much explanation in places but some of this is part of the parody that Moore is playing out.
The appendixes are far from the self-grandiosing luvvie fest’s they appear to be on the first read. Here again Moore is building up a beautiful Gull-trap to lure all lazy researchers into. The final appendix snaps the door shut behind them.
On the whole this is a great work. There are many fantastic structural points to note and with them Moore shows that he is truly on form. The dialogue could have been tightened up a lot though and it does tend to drag in places.
Of the final appendix I have no criticism at all. Fans of 2000AD will recognise the whole chapter as pure, classic Alan Moore. The simple visual humour is much like a few of his Future Shocks, something that has been missing for too long and the images of him are terrific. I leave you with a classic line from Alan Moore himself that will, for me, far out live “Hello. I came to talk.”
Alan Moore: “Be vewy, vewy quiet. We’re hunting Wippers.”
(Visit Alan online at Pipedre@ms Online, don't forget to tell him SBC sent you!)
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