The genre of graphic novels has stepped tentatively into the limelight in recent years – with old classics such as Alan Moore’s From Hell finding itself read alongside other more traditional, literary greats. The transliminal position that such works now occupy is testament both to the progress that has been made as well as the resistance that still exists. On the one hand, there has been an increasing acceptance that such pieces of graphic literature can be read by those beyond the traditional circle of male youths that make up the comic book market; while, on the other hand, there is still a belief that such writing constitutes an inferior form that is read only by those who cannot sustain reading without the inclusion of images. However, this position is one that I think graphic literature neither wants nor deserves. Rather than looking at how these pieces of literature compare with more traditional forms of storytelling, one needs to shed preconceived ideas and embrace the form with a pre-lapsarian innocence.
Focusing on the Jack the Ripper story, From Hell, serialised between 1991 and 1996, is the collaborative creation of comic writing veteran Alan Moore and graphic artist Eddie Campbell. Having been released as single issues, all ten were recompiled in 1999 as a collected edition. Since then, there have been numerous other releases, including the 2007 hardback with which many will be familiar. By placing the disparate chapters of the work within a single volume, the novel takes on a more coherent structure. This becomes inherent to the reading process, as we are able easily to work forwards and backward through the novel; however, we would be wise not to forget the fragmentary nature of its initial publication. Through serialisation, there is an onus places on the writer to create sufficient high-points within each chapter of the novel in order to maintain the reader’s interest; in effect, there cannot be a dull chapter. We can observe the implicit fragmentation of the novel not only in the scene jumps that mark the opening of a new chapter, but also in the literary quotations that precede them. Ranging from contemporary quotations about the case to philosophical musings, these opening statements both inform and inflect our reading of the chapter.
Moore’s own take on the Jack the Ripper narrative draws on the widely discredited account by Stephen Knight known as the Masonic/Royal theory. In Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution, Knight placed the Royal Family and the Freemasons at the heart of his conspiracy. From Hell sees Moore explore Masonic traditions within London and has Sir William Gull and coachman John Netley as the Whitechapel Murder. However, despite propelling this particular theory, Moore always has one eye on the project itself. Indeed, an illustrated appendix included in the collected editions demonstrates Moore’s awareness of the multifarious Ripper theories. The ultimate conclusion to the work pokes fun at the reader, suggesting that the very interest in the Jack the Ripper story is a voyeuristic fantasy, which has now gone beyond criminal investigation and into human mythology; Jack the Ripper becomes a symbol for the darkness of human nature.
Cinemagoers will be aware that graphic novels and comic characters have dominated the big screens for years; From Hell is no exception, with Johnny Depp starring in a 2001 adaptation of the novel. However, it is entirely unsurprising that this transition from page to screen occurs so frequently. The cinematic nature of the graphic novel is no accident, in fact, they read as if they were the polished story-boards for a film. The entire writing in From Hell is dialogue and the images themselves play frequently with perspective and camera angling. For those used to reading more traditional literary works, there is a remarkable likeness between the graphic novel and the closet drama; the only difference being that the imagery, where only imagined in the closet drama, is visualised for the reader in the graphic novel by an artist.
Credit must go also to Eddie Campbell for the meticulous research done in the presentation of London’s iconic and less well-known features. The art is uncoloured, unlike Moore’s other works; however, this adds to the urban squalor of the setting and the nocturnal feel, in which much of the more gruesome action takes place. As an entrance into the genre of graphic literature, one could do little better than From Hell. The adult themes and the lack of superhero characters makes this work feel appropriate for those outside the core comic book fan base. However, Moore’s unique style of writing quickly entices the reader’s interest, and an exploration of his other works becomes almost obligatory.
W. J. Humphries