Wednesday, December 15, 2010

From Hell by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell

I first encountered Jack the Ripper one of those big ol' potboiler book of unexplained mysteries that every kid should have. It had an introduction by Colin Wilson and an article on Nostradamus that scared seven shades of hell out of me by claiming that the world was going to end-

In 1999 and seven months
From the sky shall come the great king of terror

Brr. Those words haunt me still. Thankfully, old Michel's prophecy was off (by at least two years anyway!) and I'm still around, sharing reminisces about childhood trauma. Anyway, the book also featured a terrific article on Jack the Ripper. Ok, the writing was poor, but all the elements were in there- spooky, fog-shrouded Victorian London (which I already knew about because of Dracula and H. G Wells), a mysterious killer who was left-handed and had expert SURGICAL KNOWLEDGE, and sent taunting letters and half-eaten kidneys to the police. What a character!

I think the fact that the Ripper was literate and consciously stoked his fame (vis-a-vis the letters, though I didn't find out till years later that he probably didn't write any of them) made him more interesting to me than boring, sordid, ordinary crime stories (still hate 'em, actually); it made him a character. More Springheel Jack than Jack Jones. And add to this that he was probably a doctor, and an upper-class one at that: I pictured Jack as a flamboyant, skilled and charming madman who wanted to give the world something that would shock and awe them- something the world would never, ever forget.

I still feel that some of this is valid. Look, if you've already decided to be crazy and commit some terrible and motiveless crime (and obviously the best option is not to do that at all), than at least you could do it in a way that's creative and memorable, instead of just seedy and depressing. It's a fact that people are obsessed with war and murder. A guy once cut up five prostitutes, and one hundred years later we're still talking about it. We're fascinated by it. We use it as a window into his time and place, we use it as a jumping-off point to learn about the society he came from. Look at Hitler, to invoke Godwin's law. However terrible he was (in fact, because of how terrible he was), he will always be a million times more fascinating than the good people who struggled against him. We may admire them, but we don't buy books about them and we don't make movies about them.

How many books or movies have you seen about Detective Abberline?

Have you even heard of him?

Ok, I'm going to step down from the soapbox now. The other feature of note about the Unexplained Mysteries book that needs mentioning is the imagery that it used- all taken
from Punch and the Illustrated Police News. The former was a Victorian magazine that is still famous for its satirical cartoons such as dropping the pilot and the Rhodes Colossus. The latter is probably best looked upon as an ancestor of Britain's loathsome tabloid culture. Both featured great line-drawing art that solidified Victorian London in my mind as a dark, sordid place full of horror and mystery.

Around every monochrome corner in this imaginary London, it seemed that serious-faced men in mutton chops found the shattered corpses of fallen women. Elsewhere, mesmerists, mediums and even a few hapless bobbies did their best to track down those responsible. See for yourself:

Little did I know it, but out there waiting for me was From Hell: not only is it probably the most detailed fictionalization of the Whitechapel murders in any medium, but it's also one of the most immersive trips into Victorian London it's possible to take nowadays. This is due in no small part to the art of Eddie Campbell, who clearly based his vision of this period on the kind of lurid art featured above. Alan Moore's extensive research and all-round geniusness don't hurt either. Calling From Hell a comic book is a bit like calling the Sistine Chapel a wallpaper replacement. It's a many-layered piece that manages to comment on much more than just the Ripper murders.

But first thing's first: a little bit of plot. The story kicks off when heir to the British throne Pronce Albert has an affair with a Catholic sweet-shop girl that results in a pregnancy. This alerts us that Moore is using as his base the outlandish theories of one Stephen Knight, writer of Jack The Ripper: The Final Solution. It's an ingeniously complex conspiracy theory that even Moore admits is nonsense. Long story short, in order to avert scandal Queen Victoria herself orders that a small group of prostitutes who have attempted to blackmail certain parties with this information. Unlike much Jack the Ripper fiction (including the movie version), From Hell is decidedly not a whodunnit, as we learn early on who the killer is: Sir William Whitey Gull, physician-in-ordinary to the Queen (it's not a secret, he's on the front of the book for feck's sake).

Soon, Detective Fred Abberline in brought in to deal with the case. He's not happy- after years working in Whitechapel, he thought he'd finally left it behind after being promoted. Now he's back amid the poverty and prostitutes of London's East End. But it seems as if many on in the police force don't particularly want him to track down the killer...

From Hell is a huge book, and using the Ripper murders as a focus, it manages to comment on a great many subjects. Moore gives us one a feeling of what it must have been like 'on the ground' in Victorian London, and many aspects of that society are addressed: the social system, racism, political activism, art and history. A multitude of historical cameos occur- including from Irishmen W. B. Yeats and Oscar Wilde. And if you've ever heard the story about the cursed mummy case in the British Museum, well, there's a little something for you, too.

There's a lot of talk about the occult, too. The narrative kind of stops dead in chapter four as Sir William Gull gives his uncomprehending coachman an occult tour of London. It goes on a bit long, and contains perhaps just a bit too much information for the casual reader (restraint was never one of Moore's strengths), but to those who are interested, it's a masterful piece of work. Using entirely real places and working from photographs, Moore and Campbell provide a wealth of history, both real and imagined, about the various pagan activities that have existed around the British capitol. Even the more outlandish theories have some basis in history, as Moore proves in his wonderful appendix.

Moore seems to have it in for the Masons. Like in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, they live up to their legendary status as secret string-pullers in From Hell. Here, Moore provides a fascinatingly thorough look at how such an organization might actually function. Again, he claims that most of the information has been claimed as fact at some time or another, though he was not afraid to bend the facts to fit his story. The Masons are portrayed as an important group to get involved with if one wishes to advance themselves in Victorian London.

All this fanciful stuff aside, From Hell remains an excellent way to begin learning the facts of the true case. The appendix makes clear what is fact and what is fiction, and Moore has attempted to cleave as close to fact as he can (within the boundaries of Knight's outrageous plot). Having faces and characters to attack to the various persons involved with the case is helpful too, and spurs one on to read about the truth (Charles Warren, for example, was a far more interesting character in real life than the book hints at).

There's a whole lot of other great stuff chucked in as well. As Gull descends deeper and deeper into madness during the book, he has hallucinations that link his murders to others committed at different times throughout history. At first it seems like just an oddity, but Moore is working towards some tremendous ideas about the nature of history, paranormal experiences, and murder. Stick with it. And the final appendix is a self-contained comic quite unlike anything you'll ever read. It's a brilliant take-down on the notion that we'll ever really know what happened in Whitechapel in 1888. All the major suspects and theories are looked at in some detail, but the take-home message is that the mentality of those fascinated by the murders is as interesting as the original happenings.

The Ripper murders will obviously continue to fuel books and movies. But I can't see any of them improving on what Moore and Campbell have done.

And to mix and mash influences, I'd like to note that the reason I can still name all five of the 'canonical' victims is not any book, but in fact this.

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