From Hell
Alan Moore, writer,
Eddie Campbell, artist
(Top Shelf, 1999)

In the mid '80s Alan Moore became obsessed with Jack the Ripper. He began to collect every scrap of information he could lay his hands on about the infamous unsolved murders of five East End prostitutes that took place between August and October 1888. The result was From Hell, a collaboration with artist Eddie Campbell that began life as a serialized black-and-white comic published by Top Shelf Comix. Its run during the early '90s resulted in a number of well-earned awards and literary prizes. It was released as a graphic novel in 1999 and made into a big screen movie in 2001.

The graphic novel -- a long, meaty tome at about 500 hundred pages -- contains what has to be the most heartbreaking dedication in the history of Ripperdom: the women who were killed. I have never seen anyone take this simple step of offering a benediction of sorts for the unfortunate women who lost their lives not just because they were killed by a madman, but because they were, in so many ways, bartered away in streets of the East End, their souls as used as their bodies.

Somewhere in the Gordian knot of theories that has grown around the seed that these murders planted, these five women were lost again. For the most part they have served as props in television specials; as points of fact in one theory after another; as evidence. Everyone has seen the gruesome autopsy photos and shuddered at what sort of insanity could lead someone to commit such acts. This is how the women entered their now very public lives: as autopsy photos, as crudely drawn sketches, as Unfortunate Victims. They were the first women to become celebrities in their deaths, the first women who founded the media traditions that continue to the present day with fantastic cases like JonBenet Ramsey and Nicole Simpson. While their fame most certainly began with their murders, the cause of those murders begins elsewhere, in small unrelated beginnings that string together like a spider's web and suddenly ensnare them before they, or any of the other players in the macabre story, know quite what's happened.

Moore manages to spin several plates in the air at once. He creates a story of mythical proportions, a hard trick to accomplish when you consider the body of information that has been published on the world's most famous murderer. Yet it's all there, visions and rites and wrongs of all sizes. There are fake psychics, genuine psychics, visions of Egyptian gods and a secret society with connections to the throne of England, all of it very fitting when you consider the era in which these murders happened. It reflects eerily on today's murders, with their television coverages and helpful psychics and so on. It's tempting to say there has not been very much of a change.

In many ways, but most especially in the realm of myth and magic, we have changed very little. Somehow we still look to the gods for an answer when we are confronted by something we don't understand; somewhere inside the head of the Ripper, or so Moore's story delineates, there are also gods, powerful and terrible ones who tell him that he himself is a god, one who cannot be touched or judged by ordinary humans. The exploits of the Ripper excited the avid interest of many mediums and clairvoyants who claimed that psychic powers enabled them to determine where and when the Ripper would commit his next foul deed. Their validity is irrelevant, at least in Moore's world, for the supernatural has as much right to be there as any rational theory. The Ripper, after all, was genuinely thought to be a black magician who became invisible at will.

Visions and ancient rites go hand in hand, which brings us to another skillfully spun plate: the performing of rites and how they play a much bigger part in our lives than most of us realize. It is the hidden rites of that most feared of secret societies, the Masons, that are the foundation on which the actions are committed by a wayward member of that society. Our particular madman sees his actions not only as a royally sanctioned service but as a divinely sanctioned one as well, the murders nothing more than a ceremonial observance that will appease those mighty gods that sent him to defend the crown and, like the rituals of the Masonry itself, allow him to attain a kind of god-hood. From the very beginnings of ritual people have associated them with magic and the supernatural. Rituals represent the baptism of fire that we all crave as a passage into a fully realized human being, like a bar mitzvah or receiving communion for the first time. Whenever we throw a pinch of salt over our shoulder or say "bless you" when someone else sneezes, we are following a pattern as old as society itself. We still practice highly complex ceremonies to mark birth, puberty and death. In the mind of a madman these associations coalesce into a most destructive sense of purpose.

Moore's Ripper is perhaps the most complete fictional profile to surface. He is revealed quite early on in the story, as a quirky sort whose odd inclinations blossom into full-blown madness when presented with the oportunity to exercise freely his secret obsessions with no threat of consequence. In his eyes, the murders are a necessary sacrifice; the appropriate ritual will make him a whole human being. In a gruesome reciprocity, his victims are more and more dismembered, literally made less whole, as his madness progresses. So completely taken over is he by the end that the murder and dismemberment of Mary Kelly takes an entire chapter, a mirror of his obsessed state of mind.

There is an underlying pattern to the killings, the nature of which makes it seem very likely that someone was following a carefully composed scenario, carrying out a ghastly but elaborate ritual. There has been a great deal of extravagant theorizing, including the aforementioned theory that the murders were carried out by a gang of Freemasons acting on behalf of Great Britain's prime minister.

It's an odd tale, by far the least tenable theory yet created, but Moore makes it seem absolutely real and more than likely. You close the book thinking, well, nice idea, but it won't hold water ... will it? Perhaps it's the simple but beautifully drawn black-and-white artwork by Campbell, who turns a neat visual trick: each woman, as she goes about the grim work of her life, is drawn exactly as they appeared in the autopsy photos, posed in the positions they were found in, only as if they were whole. It's not gruesome so much as touching, for in our mind's eye, we perhaps all did the same thing, secretly envisioning what they looked like in life.

Campbell's artwork is of full of these humanistic touches. In five panels he limns a lifetime of pain and desperation for Kate Eddowes, the fourth woman to be killed. She leans against a soot-covered wall in the rain, much the worse for drink, bleeding from a fight in a tavern over scraps of food with another prostitute. She remains in that position as her friends check in on her, then leave her, returning hours later to find her still there, hanging in space like a fly trapped in a web, unable to move, unable to save herself. Campbell's light, feathery lines are finely drawn, so finely that the eye sometimes has trouble following what's happening, but the main intent of each panel is clear. You wince as you look at her adrift in the East End. In six hours or so, she will be dead, yet your mind urges her to move, to hide. She cannot. The moment of her predicament is more painful than an autoposy photo is capable of showing. According to Moore, those women were out on the streets fully aware that they were being watched by someone who wanted them dead, yet they could not refuse to work or their pimps would find them and cut their throats. Dead if they stayed inside, dead if they stayed outside. What killed them was the lack of hope. It's that which stands out against the dull background of soot and fog-infested England.

Moore has chosen this particular theory to flesh out not only because it allows him to indulge in the mythologies he loves so well, but because it also allows him to play around with so many noteworthy Victorian era figures such as Queen Victoria and the pejoratively named Elephant Man, John Merrick, both of whom make cameos during the long fall of 1888. They are connected to the series of events in a six degrees of Kevin Bacon sort of way, each of them representing the highest and lowest ends of Victorian society in its obsession with order and appearances. It is this driving compulsion that sets this series of events in motion.

Even more than toying around with historical figures, this elaborate and complex theory gives Moore a chance to fill in the lines of the lives of these women. The light that typically shines down on them tends to do so in the hours just before their death, with brief background descriptions of the events that led them to their current state. By fleshing out what has to be the most complicated story in the history of Ripperdom, Moore has allowed himself the necessary time to paint a Victorian world in which women were nothing without a husband, immigrants were granted little clemency, and the schism between the poor underclass and the rich overclass was becoming a chasm that was beginning to claim victims. That is the metaphorical hell from which the Ripper springs, a "glorious abyss" where the highest and lowest selves meet, or so killer himself says to his carriage driver.

The Ripper has passed beyond the confines of an unsolved mystery to become a literary art form unto himself. Moore delivers a lengthy but highly entertaining lecture in the epilogue about the nature of Ripper theory and why it has outgrown its original subject matter to become a field that anyone is free to play in. In a way it no longer matters who the murderer is. The only thing we know for certain, says Moore in his dedication, is that these five women died. Beyond that, little else matters. Moore has much to be proud of with this work, and nothing more so than his humanizing of those five women. They were more than their photos, more than the exaggerated artwork and purple prose that adorned the Times.

[ by Mary Harvey ]
Rambles: 16 June 2002

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