Mon
Apr 30 2012 3:00pm

The Great Alan Moore Reread: From Hell, Part 2

Tor.com comics blogger Tim Callahan has dedicated the next twelve months to a reread of all of the major Alan Moore comics (and plenty of minor ones as well). Each week he will provide commentary on what he’s been reading. Welcome to the 27th installment.

Last week, I explored the first half of Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s hefty From Hell collected edition, and this week will bring us to the final chapters and the illustrated post-script, where Moore provides a reflection on the fractal complexity of Ripperology, and where it leaves us in the end.

To throw a bit more context into the mix, before we get to Chapter 8, let me pull out some helpful quotes from 2011’s Alan Moore: Storyteller, by Gary Spencer Millidge, a book that over-relies on George Khoury’s lengthy interviews for TwoMorrows, but nonetheless provides a crisp overview of Moore’s career thus far, accompanied by glossy pieces of art. In the chapter on From Hell, Moore cites Douglas Adams’s Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency – or at least the advertisements for it – as the source of his angle into the Jack the Ripper killings. “A holistic detective?” says Moore, “You wouldn’t just have to solve the crime, you’d have to solve the entire world that the crime happened in. That was the twist I needed.”

At the time, Moore wasn’t even looking at the Ripper murders, but was trying to find some other, less rehashed, act of violence upon which to structure his “holistic” investigation. But he came upon Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution, with its intricate web of conspiracies, and realized that he could, with substantial research, provide a new take on a series of murders that had been done to death in other media.

And, as I mentioned last week, the actual mystery of who committed the Ripper killings was not at all of interest to Moore. The culprit posed by The Final Solution, and examined by Moore and Campbell in From Hell, is royal physician William Gull. But, Moore clarifies his stance on targeting a single suspect: “I was not at all interested in who Jack the Ripper was. That’s Hardy Boys stuff… It was the behavior of the culture that fascinates me and still does,” says Moore. “The William Gull figure is the culprit I came upon because he was the most interesting. Because he connected to a much bigger world than any of the others, so I could use him to explore all these kinds of mythical aspects of the Jack the Ripper story.”

Moore and Campbell explore these mythical aspects literally on some of the pages, with visions and delusions made real in pen and ink, but mostly they focus on the methodical process of the murders and the far-from-CSI investigation techniques. In the end, they…well, we’ll get to that in a little bit.

First, the rest of the chapters of the graphic novel!

 

From Hell, Chapters 8-14 & Epilogue (Eddie Campbell Comics, 1999)

I joked last week that Eddie Campbell’s linework on this comic is far from the Burne Hogarth or John Buscema schools of action/adventure storytelling, and Campbell himself has mentioned that he was aiming for a scratchy, illustrative style that looked as if it could have been drawn at the time in which the story takes place. But as Gull’s surgical precision (eliminating the prostitutes who pose a potential threat to the crown) moves close and closer to obsession and mania, Campbell’s murder-action scenes take on a more dynamic quality. Gull leaps across the page near the end of Chapter Eight, a move unlike anything we’ve seen from him, or from any character, in the story thus far. And the murder that follows is a furious series of slashes and splatters of blood.

The highly educated, articulate Gull, who narrated – to his driver Netley – some of the knife movements in previous murders, here is presented as a lone, possessed lunatic. All that comes out of his mouth in the scene is “nnugh” and “hehh” and “uehh” and so on. Gasps of breath and primal grunts, before he pauses over his kill, and then looks back to see a 20th century London skyscraper looming over him.

That’s one of those instances of Moore’s time-collisions where the past, present, and future smash together in the narrative. He increasingly ties it to Gull’s delusions, as if the murderer is somehow gaining access to the world that is to come. As if the Ripper killings gave birth to the horrors of the 20th century. (An earlier chapter, which I didn’t address last week, even alludes to Adolf Hitler’s conception, half a continent away, occurring at the same time as the Whitechapel slayings.)

Chapter Nine brings in some brief guest appearances by the likes of a young, frighteningly inquisitive Aleister Crowley and the poet William Butler Yeats. Moore’s post-mortem of the city would have to include those two significant figures of paranormal exploration, even if neither would have had any logical connection to the Ripper case itself. They would have been, possibly, in London around the time, and that makes them fair game for a bit part in From Hell. But that kind of thing is exactly what makes the book so multi-dimensional, and the later movie version – any possible movie version – so trite in comparison. When you have 90 minutes to show some murders and the race to catch the bad guy, the colorful narrative branches get hastily sawed off. In Moore and Campbell’s work, it’s all colorful narrative branches, and the main trunk of narrative – the inspector tracking down the killer – is barely thicker than anything else.

I should also note that the individual chapters of From Hell become increasingly large after the first few, brief installments. Reportedly, Moore had the whole structure mapped out (as he tends to do), but he left the length of each Chapter an unknown, so the moments could grow organically. The eight-to-sixteen page openers soon gave way to forty or fifty page chapters. Interestingly, the chapters shrunk back down by the final few, so what we’re left with is a crescendo, a swelling of incident as the story builds toward its climax, and then a series of shorter resolutions in the end. So for all its mathematically-defined structure and its sometimes divergent narrative branches, From Hell, as a whole follows the simple geometry of Gustav Freytag.

And the character arc of William Gull, and his increasingly feverish madness? Moore and Campbell slow things down with Chapter Ten, providing page after page of silence and rigid nine-panel grids as Gull kills, then dissects, Marie Kelly. The relentless pacing of the sequence, with only Gull’s occasional hallucination to break the horrible, gory monotony, makes Chapter Ten one of the most unbearable parts of the book. Or, it likely would be, if read out of context. But as part of the larger whole, it has the effect – and I really hate to compare this very comic-book technique to a cinematic approach, but I see no other way to describe it – of providing a slow-motion emphasis on Gull’s actions. I don’t remember how the Hughes brothers movie handled it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was some kind of montage with ominous music. Here, because it’s comics, its deadly silent, and each successive panel shows something individually pedestrian, but cumulatively horrible. And, as always, we can’t look away.

Gull marks the event, in his follow-up discussion with Netley, as a personal climax: “I have been climbing, Netley, all my life, toward a single peak. Now I have reached it. I have stood and felt the wind. I have seen all the world beneath me. Now there is only descent.”

Chapter Eleven provides more of the Masonic machinations, and outlines the sad case of Monty Druitt, a troubled school teacher who would soon make an easy scapegoat for the Ripper killings. He wouldn’t know it, though. He was dead by then, a victim of his own forced suicide.

Chapter Twelve brings Mr. Lees and Inspector Abberline together again, and we learn why they are bound together by the force of history, and why they served as companions to Moore and Campbell’s From Hell prologue. Lees the phony psychic and Abberline the reluctant (but shrewd) investigator visit the home of William Gull, and, to their complete shock, he confesses with a single two word response.

Abberline’s hesitant non-accusation, “Y’see, what it is, somebody thought you were the culprit” receives a stern “I am,” from Gull. And then that’s the end of the investigation. They have cracked the case, by accident. Only because Gull was, as he admitted earlier, ready for his “descent.”

Abberline doesn’t even know what to say, other that it’s a matter he’ll have to pass along to his superiors – he knows the game that’s going to be played when the royal physician is the one confessing to the Ripper killings, even if he doesn’t exactly know how it will end.

All Abberline and Lees can do is inform Scotland Yard, and hope they don’t get caught in the crossfire, or cover-ups, that follow.

Moore’s lack of interest in the mystery of the Ripper killer, or even any attempts to amplify the built-in gamesmanship between hunter and hunted, is apparent in this chapter. Moore releases the air out of the entire bloated ballon through Gull’s simple confession. There’s no pursuit. Merely, an unfolding of events. Matters of fact. Though, of course, they are really all speculations presented as if they are simple, humble, unheroic, facts.

Gull faces his Masonic leaders in the end, with flashes of what will happen to him – he’ll be institutionalized, after his death is faked – interspersed with his secret “trial.”

In the finale – in what amounts to a series of epilogues with Chapters Thirteen and Fourteen and then the officially-marked Epilogue – the loose ends are tied up. Abberline, caught up in affairs far beyond his control (though he pieced together that Gull was more than a madman, and that there was a royal conspiracy involved), will receive a hefty pension – as alluded to in the Prologue – and sits on his bed, looking at a Pinkerton card that had been handed to him in one of the many scenes I completely glossed over earlier. In real life, Abberline worked for the Pinkertons for years after leaving England, and as Moore reports in the annotations, “strangely, in his later writings on his own life, Abberline dwells for the most part on his admittedly impressive Monaco experiences. The Whitechapel crimes and Jack the Ripper hardly get a mention.”

Moore concludes the book with a series of symbolic scenes, heavily laden with mysticism (the images of poet and painter William Blake figure strongly) as he pulls back the curtain on the story of Jack the Ripper to show it resonate throughout London, and into the present. Moore and Campbell layer in connections – implied, symbolic – to later serial killers, as if the ghost of the Ripper myth influenced what was yet to come. But there’s a glimmer of hope, too, in a dream-like scene from faraway Ireland, where we see that not everyone was caught in the killer’s web after all. Moore coyly abstains from comment, even in his annotations, which read, regarding the scene of hopefulness, “the cryptic scene upon page twenty-three must go without an explanation for the moment. Work it out for yourself.”

Ha! A small bit of comedy, finally, from a work bound in darkness.

And the Epilogue closes the whole thing out, framing the story with old Abberline and Lees, once again walking along the beach together, secret sharers of the true nightmare of what happened in Whitechapel. Looking out into the ocean, sensitive to the knowledge that, as the early 20th century unfolds, worse is likely to come soon enough.

So that’s the end, then, except for 66 additional pages of appendices in the collected edition, 42 of which filled with dense annotations from Moore, and another 24 filled with a kind of bonus story about the story, written by Moore and drawn by Campbell. That second appendix, titled “Dance of the gull catchers,” undermines any real sense that Moore is “solving” anything in From Hell or even positing a single version of events. Instead, as he makes clear in this appendix, this version they have told is just one kind of version, one that he found particularly interesting because of the ripples it would have on other aspects of the story he wanted to explore. Campbell diagrams the fractals inside a circumscribed circle, following Moore’s captions that “each new book [on the Ripper killings] provides fresh details, finer crennelations of the subject’s edge. Its area, however, can’t extend past the initial circle: Autumn, 1888. Whitechapel.”

Moore ends with a declaration about the strength of base desires, sex and money, to overwhelm any particular curiosity. And that’s where he leaves it. With the corruption of humanity, or the acceptance that pleasure and power will always win out over truth.

Bleak. Powerful. From Hell.

As I’m prone to do when I can’t think of anything else to say, I’ll let the writer of the comic give the final words on the matter: “Yeah, From Hell, I’m very proud of it. It’s a big, black, monumental work.”


NEXT TIME: Flashing back to 2000 AD with the hijinx of D.R. and Quinch


Tim Callahan writes about comics for Tor.com, Comic Book Resources, and Back Issue magazine. Follow him on Twitter.

5 comments
alastair chadwin
1. a-j
The illustrated appendice giving a history of ripperology is the final gloss on an astoundingly good work. Its mordant humour and commentary on our fascination with the murders acts as an excellent conclusion to a remarkable work. The best thing I've read of Alan Moore, so far anyway.
nickyowen666
2. nickyowen666
Personal bias here, but I still nerd-out everytime a young Aleister Crowley shows up...I'm willing to bet Mr. Moore does too
nickyowen666
3. stevies
Campbell deserves the props you give him here, and more. The style he uses remains consistent throughout the book and he finds ways to work with it, and make it modern, which, considering, as you say, it's based on the contemporary-with-the-story illustration style of magazines like The Strand (see Sidney Paget's illustrations for the Sherlock Holmes stories serialised in that magazine, and contemporary with the Whitechapel murders) is a great achievement in a book full of great achievements. I'm amazed that he could have remained so faithful to the style from the first panel to the last, almost as if he'd drawn it all out in advance. Colossal.
nickyowen666
4. Kieron Gillen
Yeah. From Hell is the big one. I dunno if I'd read the Moore quote, but an obsidian monolith is how I always think of it.

Think I've pastiched the opening of it in Phonogram 3 times, by my count. Or maybe four. Man!

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