On Alan Moore’s From Hell

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“Murder, other than in the most strict forensic sense, is never soluble”

The above quote by author Alan Moore found within the appendices of his epic crime fiction saga—From Hell—explains in a single sentence how the author’s particular portrayal of this Jack the Ripper story distinguishes itself not only from the countless other version of this popular crime story, but from most works of crime fiction in general, and how this nuanced understanding to be explored over the five-hundred-plus page story allows the piece to rank amongst some of the best in the comic pantheon. Taking its premise from The Final Solution by Stephen Knight, From Hell adapts the theory that Dr. William Gull—the Queen’s Royal Physician—was ordered to kill the five prostitutes in Whitechapel, England in a conspiracy to protect an illegitimate son sired by Prince Albert Victor. With artist Eddie Campbell illustrating the gritty narrative with equally rough, yet impressionable images, From Hell brilliantly uses the unsolved murders as a vehicle for a larger examination into the psychological effects of the Ripper murders within Victorian society, its lasting legacy within the public sphere, and to consider the function of crime fiction as viewed through the prism of the police procedural.

Though the prologue and first chapter are a bit bewildering in the sheer amount of exposition and plotting thrown in the reader’s face (which pays off brilliantly by the epilogue), the second chapter stands as an excellent example of how this comic separates itself from its peers within the medium. Titled “The Fourth Dimension”, Moore utilizes the entire chapter for an intense character study into the psychology and backstory of Dr. William Gull: the posited Jack the Ripper of the tale. In doing so, Moore explicitly answers the identity of the infamous killer—eliminating the “whodunit” angle and the suspense that audiences are accustomed to finding within the genre, especially those other versions of the Ripper tale that use the killer’s identity as a means of exploiting the more sensationalistic aspects of the unsolved case.

Secondly, Moore allows a glimpse into the mind of the killer that—without necessarily imbuing empathy—offers insight into the psychosis behind the man ostensibly responsible for the crimes. Following the future Royal Physician from childhood, the chapter chronicles Gull’s early fascination and expertise with biology, through his introduction to Masonic society, and to his clandestine meeting with the Queen. Gull’s view of humanity is one fostered through years of simultaneous detachment and yet adoration for the human body as a work of art that finds a disturbing outlet through his surgical prowess. And while Gull certainly uses the murders as a demonstration for his own psychotic motives, Moore’s positioning of Gull as the killer also establishes how he could not have been so successful in this endeavor if he were acting alone. Instead, the extensive network of tacit agreement between the variegated levels of society expose a troubling web of gray morality that ranges from the Crown, to the underworld of the Freemasons, to the corrupted authorities, to the unsatisfied public and press.

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In the fourth chapter, entitled “What Doth the Lord Require of Thee”, Moore not only details the surface motives of Gull’s crimes but examines the thematic resonance of what these murders are intended to represent. Or as Gull describes it: “Averting Royal embarrassment is but the fraction of my work that’s visible above the waterline.” With his driver accompanying him for a tour around the city, Gull outlines the logic behind his motives and the choice of location for each murder. Though they are intended to silence the prostitutes hoping to blackmail the Crown, Gull further intends for the murders to serve as a symbolic act of suppressing female empowerment and upholding the deeply entrenched symbols of masculine hegemony found throughout the architecture of London. He specifically points to the Churches of Nicholas Hawksmoor as examples of the hidden, mystical symbology riddled throughout the city that have been disguised throughout Whitechapel.

Moreover, this idea of architecture emerges an important theme to the entirety of the piece; specifically, the architecture of time and history. The “Fourth Dimension” alluded to earlier explores the metaphysical concept of time as a single dimension outside the limits of humanity’s perception of time as a linear sequence. Moore mines this idea as a means of investigating violence that ripples over specific eras in human history with disturbing parallels—and examines the role of violence as a catalyst for these inevitable springs of human behavior brewing beneath the surface of society to emerge.

Furthermore, From Hell explores the significance of these crimes as a commentary on the power structure evident within Victorian era. As Moore notes extensively within the appendices, the women’s suffrage movement had started to gain momentum, and yet even these initial strokes of progressivism were born out of the enormous disparity between upper and lower class standards of living—especially for women. As living conditions became so destitute that enormous numbers turned to prostitution, the prostitute became a symbol in itself to represent the abysmal standards of the working-class. Moore further cites the motif of the prostitute found in Post-Impressionistic paintings and literature, while also emphasizing the importance of From Hell’s employment of the Crown/Freemasons approving the murders to uphold their world of decadent indulgence, rather than grant any form of Royal credence to the poor, as further support of this idea.

Additionally, Moore takes full advantage of his setting and depiction of Victorian England to conjure a feeling of verisimilitude on the page. While most authors struggle to organically incorporate noteworthy figures of the period without breaking this wall of reality, Moore finds intriguing and plausible means for such historical figures to be inserted into the story. Such prominent figures seen include: Joe Merrick—aka The Elephant Man, Oscar Wilde, Aleister Crowley, Walter Sickert, Black Elk, and a few other figures that may not be as immediately recognizable. (Moore also describes a scene that had to be cut due to historical inaccuracy that included Inspector Abberline meeting Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley.) In most authors’ hands, the inclusion of such otherwise famous figures may distract the reader from the story, but Moore ensures that these figures complement the larger themes of the piece. The Elephant Man’s inclusion remains a particular highlight for those interested in the deformed man’s tragic story, and the unique implementation of his condition in relation to Gull’s own gnostic beliefs.

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As often happens with Moore’s work due to the power of his writing, the importance of Campbell’s artistry that summons this world to life can be overshadowed. Some detractors have criticized Campbell’s style of gritty, rough, and more impressionable depictions of the period in a knee-jerk response to the distinct style. Nonetheless, this rougher representation of the era only further underlines the contrast between the idea of the Victorian era as a model of sophistication and cleanliness that was so at odds with the ugly morass beneath the surface. Like Moore’s narrative, these drawings develop a specific mood and atmosphere of Victorian society not as some enlightened era of human history, but one closer to a chaotic jungle of brute survival for those not holding status at the top of the food chain.

The ugly beauty of Campbell’s style culminates in Chapter Ten: “The Best of All Tailors”. In a chapter of sparse dialogue that again demonstrates the artists’ unique mastery of visual power in the comic medium, Campbell draws the savage, sadistic, and unthinkably cruel murder of Gull’s final victim—Mary Jane Kelly—to disturbing and emotional results. Those familiar with the famous photo depicting the gruesome crime scene will anticipate this murder with a mounting sense of dread, and the mostly nonverbal visuals panels only intensify the horrific murder in vivid detail. The reader’s eyes dart across the panels, watching with excruciating unease as Gull continues his heinous act without hesitation, and the reader can do nothing but watch the unavoidable horror.

Still, there are two more noteworthy sequences worth discussion for their similarly commanding and unforgettable display of craft. Following Gull’s internment to a mental institution, he undergoes a powerful religious experience that sends him soaring through the architecture of time previously mentioned. In his final moments, Gull’s given a glimpse into the metaphysical ripples of time across the eons. He views history in a number of forms: as seen through violence, vis-a-vis Renwick Williams/Peter Suttcliffe; through art, as seen through the paintings of William Blake and the literature of Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; and then through a more ambiguous yet very emotionally moving final sequence wherein Gull’s ghost ascends to the heavens.

Here, Gull finds himself upon an anonymous Irish hilltop at the beginning of the twentieth century—the century that he claims to have delivered shortly after his murder of Mary Jane Kelly. A possible interpretation for it being Ireland may be found in Moore’s note that two of Mary Jane Kelly’s various nicknames were “Ginger” and “Fair Emma”—suggesting an Irish heritage. Consequentially, Moore has returned the final victim back to her home country away from Whitechapel, where she now acts as a mother to four children. The four children’s names should be noted as: Anne, Katie, Lizzie, and Pol…aka the names of the four other prostitutes murdered by Jack the Ripper. (Annie Chapman, Kate Eddowes, Liz Stride, and Polly Nicholls.) The version of Mary Jane Kelly drawn here has had her face sewn back together, as indicated by the clear scar found across her right cheek. (Gull completely removed her face during the murder, leaving many to doubt whether he had even killed the real Mary Jane Kelly. As obviously, no DNA testing could verify her identity with scientific proof.)

And as Gull descends from the heavens to confront his four victims within this idyllic dream sequence, Mary Jane Kelly has the final victory. She stares directly at the ghost of Gull and commands him to: “Clear off BACK TO HELL and leave us be!” In effect, Mary Jane Kelly has cast Gull’s spirit away from the heavens to return to the realm from which he signed his letter sent to the police and which lends this entire crime saga its eponymous title:

From Hell.

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The second noteworthy sequence arrives after the conclusion of the comic’s narrative and can be found in the final epilogue entitled “Dance of the Gull Catchers”. Moore explains in compelling detail to the initial germs of the project’s conception and his own motives in choosing Gull for the Ripper, as he meditates on the elusive nature of the public’s limitless curiosity for attempting to solve this unsolvable crime from over a century ago—not only in the Ripper case but crime fiction at large.

As he describes the various Ripper theories over the years, some interesting and thought-provoking, but most appearing more ridiculous as the decades go by—Moore’s point emerges without his needing to spell it out. Theories and justifications for the Ripper murders will no doubt continue to materialize, and as there will never be any way to scientifically prove these murders—nor ANY murder outside a scientific scenario—people will return time and again to projecting their own identities and sensibilities into the causes and then simplifying incalculably complex events into a series of sequences that will somehow satisfy their rationalizing of such horror. As Moore explains in an expanded version of the opening quote:

“Our detective fictions tell us otherwise… Provide a murderer, a motive, and a means, you’ve solved the crime. Using this method, the solution to the Second World War is as follows: Hitler, the German economy, tanks. Thus, for convenience, we reduce the complex events. The greater part of any murder is the field of theory, fascination and hysteria that it is engenders. A black diaspora of our tireless, sinister enthusiasm…Jack mirrors our hysterias. Faceless, he is the receptacle for each new social panic. He’s a Jew, a Doctor, a Freemason or a wayward Royal.”

As this quote describes in the author’s own words, From Hell functions so well, on so many various levels, by offering commentary far past the surface of the premise and the plot. In not only telling a story whose plot points are well-documented, but by revealing the killer’s identity in the opening pages, From Hell instead offers a commentary on the follies of human nature found within this infamous era and the crime that came to represent it. Moreover, the author and illustrator have used the very police procedural that audiences are accustomed to satisfying their curiosities in order to eschew the expected clichés and provide a deeper understanding into the act of violence itself. In doing so, and despite a reader’s best attempts, despite so many popular depictions found in crime fiction otherwise, and despite human nature’s best attempts to rationalize these horrific incidents found throughout history, Moore has successfully shown what so many others have tried and failed to previously reconcile:

“Murder, other than in the most strict forensic sense, is never soluble”

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