Something for Everyone... Jack's Back... and It's Hell

by Martin Wagner

From Hell (Vol.s 1-8)

by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell

Kitchen Sink Press/Mad Love Publishing,
$4.95 each, paper

Tis murderous crime, crime, the nemesis of neglect!" So ran the caption beneath a spine-chilling cartoon -- depicting a wide-eyed, knife-wielding apparition floating past shadowy doorways -- in the September 29, 1888 issue of the London magazine Punch. Victorian London was a city of disturbing contrasts, its West End gleaming with the mansions and carriages of the wealthy and royally favored, its East End a labyrinth of nightmarish slums in which 900,000 people lived like animals in almost unimaginable squalor. In a book by Andrew Mearns dramatically titled The Bitter Cry of Outcast London, one indeed wonders how anyone human could have existed in all this...

"Every room in these rotten and reeking tenements houses a family, often two. In one cellar [lives] a father, mother, three children, and four pigs! ....Here are seven people living in one underground kitchen, and a little dead child lying in the same room. Elsewhere is a poor widow, her three children, and a child who had been dead thirteen days.... Where there are beds they are simply heaps of dirty rags, shavings or straw, but for the most part these miserable beings find rest only upon the filthy boards."

Ugh! is right. And so it should come as no surprise that crime was so commonplace in these dark alleys as to scarcely be noticed. But in the fall of 1888, an unprecedented series of crimes took place in the East End's Whitechapel district that electrified not only London, but the world. And over 100 years later these crimes continue to leave their mark on our society, from the celluloid nightmares of Seven to the real-life rampages of Berkowitz, Dahmer, and others. And they added a new term to the lexicon of the 20th century: "serial killer." You know who it is. It's Jack the Ripper. Damn straight. Straight from hell.

Jack the Ripper is a legend because he was never caught. There have been serial killers ten times as savage and depraved -- Peter Kürten, the Dusseldorf Ripper, made ol' Jack look like Forrest Gump -- but they were caught, executed, and thus demythologized. (Quick, who's Fritz Haarmann?) That we can continue to speculate about Jack is what has created the legend. Countless writers have done just that over the decades. But few have done so as strikingly, and as unforgettably, as the acclaimed British comics writer Alan Moore in From Hell.

Taking its title from the preamble to the only Jack the Ripper letter believed to be genuine, From Hell is a graphic novel that shows Alan Moore -- a writer who has turned genre conventions so completely on ear that he has saved entire publishing companies -- taking on a historical drama with such surgical precision that he all but redefines what comics as a literary form are capable of communicating. Moore's research into the Whitechapel crimes is so detailed as to make James Michener blush; each issue of From Hell, in fact, features several pages of reference notes and appendices.

But out of all of this technical brilliance has come a rich and thoroughly human story. From Hell is no slasher/splatterfest; in fact, for all that it is at times horrendously graphic, From Hell is probably the least exploitative story about the Ripper crimes ever produced.

Moore takes the fictional premise of his tale from the somewhat absurd and discredited theory that the Ripper murders were some sort of royal conspiracy involving the police and Freemasons, as well as just about every London celebrity alive at the time. It goes something like this: Queen Victoria's wayward, party-animal nephew Edward meets a poor East End shop girl, falls in love, knocks her up, secretly marries her. This is bad enough, but wait -- oh, shit, she's Catholic. The baby is born, Edward and his bride Annie Crook are carried off by the queen's agents, but the baby is secreted away by Edward's friend, the artist Walter Sickert and his friend, Mary Kelly, a Whitechapel street-walker and incipient Ripper victim. As Mary Kelly and her friends (the Ripper's other soon-to-be-victims) owe lots of money to "protection gangs" and the like, Mary decides to blackmail Sickert by threatening to go public with the throne-toppling news of a royal bastard. But the blackmail letter finds its way to Victoria herself, who charges her personal physician, Dr. William Withey Gull, with silencing the blackmailers, which Gull apparently interprets as "terminate with extreme prejudice." So it goes.

If all this sounds kind of silly -- after all, if four faceless East End whores started gabbing about a royal baby, well, who'd believe them? -- it stands as a testament to Moore's skill as a storyteller that he can take such an outlandish premise and make it not merely believable, but profoundly compelling and exciting. But even more than the premise, Moore's story succeeds because it is rooted squarely in character, and in an understanding of the social and political conditions of the times.

Central to the tale is Dr. Gull himself, a wealthy and respected physician who from childhood has felt he will one day be called upon to perform a "special task." Inducted into Freemasonry as a young man, Gull becomes absorbed by Masonic ritual, an absorption which leads to, among other things, a study of the work of architect Nicholas Hawksmoor, whose unique, obelisk-spired churches dot the London skyline. In Hawksmoor's work Gull sees something of a physical confirmation of Masonic myths and magic, an endorsement of his "special task;" in one startling scene, Gull has his coachman, Netley, connect all of Hawksmoor's churches on a London map with a pencil, a shape which forms a pentagram. When Gull undertakes what will become the Whitechapel killings, another aspect of Masonic ritual comes into play: the murder of Masonic myth-figure Hiram Abiff. As Gull sinks deeper into his madness, the murders of the five prostitutes follow a pattern of ritual disembowelment central to the Abiff myth.

It's all pretty complex and very unpleasant, but Gull is such a fully fleshed-out character that it's impossible not to be entranced by him even as his crimes become ghastlier. But Moore has not neglected the other characters. In fact, From Hell may be the only work of Ripper fiction to humanize or even give a damn about the women the Ripper murdered (Moore has dedicated the story to them, in fact). In some of the story's most compelling scenes, we are privy not only to the final hours in each of the victim's lives, but we know of them as people, overall. These women aren't the burned-out sleazy strumpets or the sexpot/victim-icons commonly depicted in Ripper tales. They are ordinary women who must deal with daily life in a society that has allowed them only one means of survival. A few of these couplings are depicted with appropriate coldness and detachment, utterly unerotic encounters that sum up the bleak nonexistence of thousands of East End women of the day.

Likewise, the murders themselves are displayed with a remoteness that accentuates their horror. Most horror fiction, whether it thinks so or not, either glamorizes acts of violence or makes them so larger than life and unreal that the most graphic gore is little more than ludicrous. Moore makes a surprising decision by devoting the entire seventh issue of From Hell to the murder and mutilation of Mary Kelly, but as it should be, there's nothing titillating about it. In fact, if you've ever seen a security camera video of a crime in action, the parts that the evening news cut out, you'll have some idea of the revulsion and helplessness you are forced to feel. Only when much of the ghoulish work is done does Moore allow you to come close to what is taking place, to allow a bit of emotion to take the stage. The single panel where Gull, now hopelessly lost to madness, tenderly places a pillow underneath the head of the butchered Kelly; or the panel following the first murder, where the body of Polly Nicholls lies cooling in the gutter, no longer merely a victim but a symbol, an archetype for every victim of sexual violence to come before or after. In its quietest moments does Moore's story have the profoundest effect.

Eddie Campbell is a Scots artist known for his work on such outré alternative comics as Bacchus and The Eyeball Kid, and for his magnificent autobiographical tales The Complete Alec and The Dance of Lifey Death. His sketchy illustrations for From Hell are technically coarse but bursting with atmosphere and the dark elegance of Victorian nightmares. Campbell's pen and inks are in perfect sympathy with the emotional nuances, both warm, but most often cold, in Alan Moore's script. Rarely have an artist or writer been so perfectly matched on so ambitious a project.

So what, ultimately, is the point of From Hell? Not merely to bring comics foursquare into the realm of adult literature, to be sure, though From Hell does that with as much success as Art Spiegelman's famed Maus. It's not really possible to say yet, since Moore and Campbell still have a few chapters yet to go on this award-winning tale. I think, though, that what Moore is really after is a firmer understanding of how our society has been molded by the Ripper crimes; Gull himself says, after murdering Kelly, "For better or worse, I have delivered it. The twentieth century." One critic has described Moore as using fiction as a scalpel. Perhaps that's true: with From Hell, Alan Moore is dissecting society as a whole. Because if the Ripper murders truly are what delivered us, then it's a disease we need to cut away as fast as we can. n (From Hell can be found at Tower Records, Austin Books, Blast Comics, Dragon's Lair, Funny Papers, and any good purveyor of alternative comics the author forgot to mention.)

Hepcats creator Martin Wagner has been busy with the release of his graphic novel, Snowblind, Part One, and the creation of his Hepcats Web Page at http://www.mcs.net/~dvoskuil/hepcats/.

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