An interview with Alan Moore, comics legend and creator of the epic Jack the Ripper graphic novel From Hell.
Originally published in What DVD, October 2002
“Murder’s an extreme human event of a kind that doesn’t happen to most of us. It’s a little apocalypse… where social constraints, all the barriers of the world have suddenly fallen away and there’s something immensely powerful and primeval going on;- something able to affect society, and send out ripples. It struck me that if you observed an intense human event like murder in enough detail, you might be able to make some broader conclusions about the world in which it happened.”
The name Jack the Ripper holds a host of associations, most of them involving buxom prostitutes being stalked through foggy Whitechapel streets by a menacing figure in a cloak and top hat. It’s over a hundred years since the five brutal murders in London’s East End, and thanks to the lack of a definite culprit and the rise of the early tabloid press, the killings have lodged in the collective consciousness and taken on a life of their own. Most of the popular retellings of the Ripper killings bear little resemblance to reality, and every few years a new book appears claiming to hold the definitive “unmasking” of the infamous serial murderer.
FROM HELL, however, is something different. A massive graphic novel by British writer Alan Moore, who’s been creating highly acclaimed and breathtaking comics such as WATCHMEN, V FOR VENDETTA and SWAMP THING for the past twenty years, FROM HELL is an intensely researched examination of the Jack the Ripper murders, taking one particularly lurid theory concerning the killings, and using this as a backdrop to paint a harrowing social history of London in the 1880s. An absorbing and deeply unsettling read which goes out of it’s way to present a realistic view of life in the Victorian age, it combines a chilly, detached documentary style with bursts of hallucinatory menace and unflinchingly brutal recreations of the Ripper’s crimes.
“It started from wanting to do a lengthy comic book about a murder.” says Moore, “Something with enough scope to treat it properly- instead of regarding it as a standard murder mystery, where once you’ve got a forensic solution and ticked off the boxes on your Cluedo scorecard, the case is solved. I wanted a holistic view, to examine the murder as happening within a whole system, and the kind of effects it can have on society.”
“Initially, I disregarded Jack the Ripper;- too played out and obvious. This was at the end of 1988 though, on the centenary of the Ripper murders, and while I looked at other possibilities there was this sudden barrage of material on the Ripper;- most of it very unsatisfying… but it did make me start considering if there was something which would allow for a different way of telling this familiar story.”
The way was found in JACK THE RIPPER- THE FINAL SOLUTION by Stephen Knight (1987), a book which details a complex theory and alleges that the five prostitutes killed were victims of a conspiracy of Freemasons to cover up the existence of an illegitimate Royal baby, and were murdered by the Queen’s Surgeon, Sir William Withey Gull. “Once I read the florid and fabulous allegations in Knight’s book, I thought ‘This has got the bones of something’,” says Moore, “and then I read everything on the subject I could find, starting to put it all together into this huge edifice. I was fitting in all kinds of different stuff into the story- about the architecture of London, and Nicholas Hawksmoor, the Freemasons, the Dionysiac architects, patterns in time… and as the story grew, my understanding of the murders grew as well. The original idea was so elastic that if some new material surfaced, as it occasionally did, it could be slotted into the story with very little difficulty.”
The result is an intensely researched fiction, not afraid to place particular interpretations on the detailed evidence, but also including as many theories and possibilities as Moore could get away with. “In fact, I was unnerved and amazed by the amount of confirming “evidence” that turned up to support my “theory”, precisely because I knew it wasn’t a theory: it was fiction. I really didn’t want to put a toe into the inviting pool of “the truth”, because Truth is a well-documented pathological liar. Self-proclaimed fiction, on the other hand, is entirely honest- it says “I’m a Liar” right there on the dust jacket. If I read a biography of Tony Blair, at the end of it I still wouldn’t know where I stood with him. I do, however, know where I stand with Hannibal Lecter and the Wizard of Oz.”
Following the terrifying “mission” of Dr Gull, as well as the attempts by Inspector Fred Abberline to solve the crimes, FROM HELL is an examination of the Ripper phenomenon and the Victorian era itself, rather than simply about the Ripper. An atmosphere of grimy reality pervades the book, assisted ably by the dark and atmospheric artwork of the Australian-based independent comic artist Eddie Campbell. “I knew I wanted something that wasn’t an ordinary comics style,” says Moore of his collaborator, “and once the idea came up, I really couldn’t think of anyone other than Eddie for the book.”
“I’ve heard less-informed people describe his art as scratchy, or unfinished and unrealistic, and these are generally people whose idea of realism is over-rendered superhero comics. Eddie’s stuff is actually very realistic, because when you look at things in life they don’t have a fine line drawn around them, every detail is not immediately apparent. He creates an incredibly believable naturalism and all the scenes look like they’re taking place in the same world;- there’s no sudden excursion into “Horror World”. If the characters are having sex, or buying a candle at the corner shop, or having a conversation, or ritually disembowelling a prostitute…. it all happens in the same absolutely credible world.”
The choice of Eddie Campbell affected the whole visual language of the story, and is one of the reasons why FROM HELL manages to create such an effective sense of unease. “The thinking behind the choice of Eddie is probably best illustrated by the old British boys comic ACTION. It was kind of a pre-2000AD which was very violent, and one of the strips in it was a lame JAWS knock-off called HOOKJAW. The original artist on this was very much in the in-your face, grue and gore EC tradition;- if the script for a severed arm to be found on the beach, then the way he’d draw it would be to have your point of view down in the sand, and the bloody stump thrust up in the foreground towards you so that you could see every glistening vein and fractured bone… and all the horrified people would be staring down with exaggerated expressions of terror.”
“While it’s all good fun, there’s something about that which signals straight away that you’re now in “Horror Comic world”. When you see the severed heads and the gore, the effect is pretty much the same as in a contemporary horror film. You know that it’s all ketchup, that it’s grand guignol, and you don’t take it seriously.”
“On this HOOKJAW strip, the original artist was replaced by someone who’d only previously worked upon the British girl’s comics of the period- which were always very sedate stories about the three pluckiest girls in the Lower Fourth. The visual storytelling would always be pretty well unvarying middle distance shots of people standing around talking, and the range of emotions on their faces and their body language was very limited in comparison to what was allowed in action or horror strips. If he was asked to draw a severed arm on the beach, it would be a middle-distance shot, and there would be a group of people, none of them reacting them much, which would give an eerie air of credibility to the scene, staring down on this little strip of coastline at a human arm lying there in the sand. There was something about the detachment of that which made it ten times more horrible, because it wasn’t saying “horror film” it was saying “girls adventure story”… and then there’s a severed arm on the beach. And it struck me that with Eddie Campbell you could get much the same kind of effect.”
This detachment is shown to the full during the most disturbing aspects of the book;- the graphic and detailed reconstructions of the Ripper murders. Gruesome in the extreme, they’re a harrowing read, particularly in Chapter 10, which shows in intense detail the last killing and the mutilation that follows. The scenes are horrific and disturbing in their treatment, and have resulted in the series being banned in a number of countries, but Moore maintains this full-on treatment was the only possible way of doing it. “Most of the treatments of the Ripper murders in the past have verged on the pornographic- there are so many cliches used, and most of them are there to “dress it up” and make it exciting. I can’t be the only person who thinks doing that is completely inappropriate when you’re talking about the murder of a woman in a miserable backstreet of Whitechapel.”
Moore’s aim was to recreate the murders as closely as possible, and he did a massive amount of research to describe them from the point of view of the murderer and the victim, without making the sequences voyeuristic. “The first four murders don’t take very long;- they’re sudden, brutal, and they happen as closely as possible to the way they were described forensically. The final killing- Marie Kelly- is the emblematic Ripper murder, the one everyone remembers. To get it right, I knew I was going to have to go into that room in Miller’s Court with the reader, and stay there as long as the Ripper did. He was there for a couple of hours, and I was going to have to try to reconstruct those couple of hours in painful detail.”
“It wasn’t something I was looking forward to, but I felt that in order to be respectful to the women and the circumstance that I was fictionalising… I had to show it exactly as it was, so that any “armchair murderers” in the audience would be made aware of exactly what it was like spending two hours in an overheated, stifling little East End flat cutting up a woman, and to do it in a way which was not glamorous or at all exciting. I wanted to make it into the kind of apocalyptic scene that I felt it was, and to make it a scene of the cultural importance I felt it was. There’s a quote from Gull just after that scene where he says that he has “delivered the Twentieth Century”, and in a sense it was a kind of ghastly nativity. That was where the Twentieth Century was born… in that little room in Millers Court, in November 1888.