It takes a great master to reach into the past and infuse life into one of history’s most well known figures. All the more so when the historical figure in question is one of the most notorious of all time, the center of a mystery that has, tantalizingly, never been solved.
I’ve mentioned Alan Moore a few times in this column (and how could any column about literary comics and graphic novels not?), discussing the renewed timeliness of his brilliant V for Vendetta and touching upon his merciless deconstruction of superheroes in Watchmen. As far as I’m concerned, his tome of a graphic novel about Jack the Ripper, From Hell, is on par with these more famous works. It was made into a movie in 2002, if that’s any sort of seal of approval—starring Johnny Depp, no less. Sadly the film was a bit forgettable and questionably adapted (more on this in a bit), though not as dreadful as most comics or graphic novel adaptations I’ve seen on the big screen.
The story of From Hell, like much of Moore’s work, was originally serialized (from 1989-1996) then released as a collected graphic novel (in 1999). Its peculiar title is taken from one of the letters believed by some (though not all) to be from the famous Victorian serial killer that was published in various London newspapers. I say “believed to be” because many such notes were sent in to the newspapers during the spree of bizarre murders, and to this day, we aren’t sure all of the murders in question were committed by the same killer, nor do we know for sure which (if any) of the letters were in fact from “Jack.”
The circumstances of the murders are very well recorded, though we lack proof even today that they were definitely connected or committed by one person. They concerned the murder of a number of prostitutes in London’s Whitechapel district. Some of the killings were remarkably, almost indescribably gruesome, involving dismemberment, vivisection, and mutilation of a sort that seemed to suggest ritual. Some of the murders were committed with a sort of surgical precision, others with a bestial level of violence. Reports of the deaths held Victorian London society in thrall, selling papers like never before and engendering police task forces and neighborhood “protection committees” comprised of local worthies, all designed to keep the city’s residents safe at night.
We know all these details in part because of the column inches lavished upon Jack by the London papers. They competed with each other frantically, vying to outdo each other with torrid details and the publication of letters (at least some of them, perhaps all of them, as I mentioned, spurious or fabricated by the papers themselves). Yet, despite the careful documentation of everything to do with the crimes and every bit of speculation about them, we still don’t know to this day who Jack was—or, indeed, who was responsible for any (or all) of the murders.
The police detectives of the time assumed that the murderer must have been an aristocrat, perhaps a medical man, due in part to the elaborate mutilation to be seen in some of the corpses. The idea of a gentleman killer inflamed the imagination of both the upper and lower classes of England. Victorian London was a study in contrasts in search of a real crisis through which to express itself, the height of genteel English society overlaid with the decadence of red light districts and a dangerous, sinister quality that invaded the city by night—the very contrast so effectively illuminated in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey. Nonetheless, the idea of an educated, privileged killer is not borne out by some of the letters published by the papers, adding another element of contradiction and confusion to what is already a mind-bending puzzle.
The Jack the Ripper mythos intrigues us to this day because of this very tension. Victorian times recorded and retained every bit of available information: Scotland Yard of the 1880s had rigorous methods and a surprisingly advanced forensic science, as a reading of the contemporaneous Sherlock Holmes will reveal (Arthur Conan Doyle was particularly interested in the murders, and, thanks to his interest in the supernatural, advanced some of the weirder speculations about them that persist to this day).
Still, the Whitechapel murders defied all understanding, at the time they happened and to all investigators since. The undisputed facts we do have, however they are connected up, seem to create more contradictions than they answer. Since they have yet to be conclusively solved, the murders have naturally also generated endless speculation of the more creative variety, hatching conspiracy theories that probed secret societies, the involvement of the British royal family, supernatural incursions, and even extraterrestrial interference.
Alan Moore is indisputably one of the more intriguing figures in comics, not least because of his personal beliefs and way of life. At last report, Moore was living in Northampton, England, practicing a religion of his own invention and dabbling in the magical arts. As such, his perspective on the peculiar events of 1888 was never destined to be a dreary attempt to solve an old historical puzzle. It would be, at its very least, an exploration of some of the more colorful conspiracy theories surrounding the murders. Without giving absolutely everything away, I’ll say that Moore managed to incorporate hundreds of speculations on the events, ones both credible and a bit more taxing to the imagination, leaving out only the aliens. (Perhaps there’s room for a sequel?)
In typical fashion, Moore builds his twisting story upon a few basic points. There is speculation among Jack the Ripper buffs that the murders had some connection to the royal family, perhaps somehow to Queen Victoria herself. The book considers this option and builds some of its tapestry around this premise. (The book’s portrayal of Victoria, dour and funereal, feels spot on.) Moore speculates that a royal physician, Sir William Gull, was at the epicenter of a number of secret, hushed-up events that might have driven him mad enough to become the Ripper. Simultaneously, Gull’s associations with the Freemasons gave Moore room to speculate that the secret society’s weirder mystical rituals might have come into play.
Tasked by Victoria herself to help clean up a royal scion’s indiscretions, Gull forms the idea—fed by his association with the Freemasonry, including a gripping vision of the Masonic deity—a mystical “working” might be accomplished through ritualistic murders and give him a glimpse of the future a hundred years ahead. This idea is drawn in part from one of the declarations in a Jack the Ripper letter sent to the newspapers in which the writer proclaims, “one day men will look back and say that I gave birth to the twentieth century.” Moore combines a number of other speculative elements into his version of the murders, like the idea that their geographic location forms a sort of cypher or diagram on a map of London. Gull, Moore’s theory maintains, undertakes a Masonic ritual as his sanity teeters. What follows might be some combination of Gull’s hallucinations as his mind and health unravel and actual mystical events.
There’s one funny story from the creation of From Hell that involves Neil Gaiman, whom I’ve also written about in this column. At some point while working on the book, Moore took a few of his intimates out for dinner and decided to spoil their appetites by engaging in a graphic description of one of the murders. Evidently he described the scene so vividly that Gaiman fled and retched in solitude outside, prompting Moore to say: “well, well, well … Neil ‘Scary Trousers’ Gaiman, master of modern horror.”
As for the film, it’s generated as much discussion for the way in which it departs from Moore’s story than anything. Perhaps the production had to write in a new main character because it managed to score Johnny Depp (or, one dares wonder, the actor may have demanded some level of creative control over the production, veering it away from the source material). In any event, unlike the book, the lead character is not Sir William Gull, but a Scotland Yard detective. He speaks in a salt-of-the-earth Cockney accent, guzzles absinthe and puffs on opium, and has clairvoyant visions that aid in his investigations. He takes up with a Whitechapel prostitute, giving us the Hollywood-ready combination of a tortured anti-hero confronted with a supernatural evil, protecting an anti-damsel. Moore’s story gives us only the hideous figure of Gull, losing his mind (we think?), stringing his victims’ entrails around a room in a ritualistic fashion, appearing for a brief moment in the middle of a bustling office in the 1990s, leaving us wondering whether the ritual actually worked or didn’t. The story could be read either way; the film picks a direction and avoids the ambiguity altogether.
Don’t get me wrong. Though it was panned when it came out, I didn’t think the film was all that bad. It did a reasonably good job of recreating Victorian society and its mixture of prim propriety and barely concealed decadence, and Johnny Depp, who ordinarily I can’t stand, didn’t mangle his written-in role, though I did resent the intrusion of his silly visions into Moore’s already convoluted story. The addition of hokey elements to ground the otherwise completely otherworldly story didn’t help at all.
One thing that’s absolutely amazing about the film version is Ian Holm, who, let’s face it, is fantastic in basically every film in which he’s ever appeared. Naturally, he plays William Gull, adding an edge of mass audience-ready evil that still manages to add gravitas to what might otherwise have been a surprisingly bland business for a film that traffics casually with gory murders and Masonic rituals.
Like most writers, I’m cursed to deconstruct stories I encounter rather than just enjoying them. One of the questions I always ask is, in what way does this particular story reflect our times? And if it doesn’t obviously (by design or for any other reason), what does the other period, whether it’s faithfully or phantasmagorically reproduced, offer us by way of contrast to the time in which we live?
For me, the Jack the Ripper story resonates with modern developments in a few ways. One is the speed and intensity with which incidents fly into the public consciousness by means of a media trying all it can do to catch more eyeballs. The feeding frenzy of the London papers in the 1880s may have started the phenomenon we know all too well today as the sensationalist news cycle. The Ripper mythos also may have given birth to the modern, media-fueled conspiracy theory. When an event is too confusing and horrific to be properly understood by a terrified public (think 9/11), it will inevitably generate speculation of every imaginable sort. Suddenly numerology becomes significant, shadowy secret societies appear, and every gap in a logical explanation becomes wide enough to fit a conspiracy protecting the misdeeds of the mighty and powerful. Some events, too, disturb us so deeply that we crave to know more about them, through that odd combination that all of us feel at some time or another, of horror and aversion mixed with a sort of prurient interest that forces us to look.
From Hell, like all of Moore’s work, is absolutely worth a read, indeed, at least two. It’s a massive thing, weighing in at nearly 600 pages. I flatter myself that I’ve attempted an epic period piece, but my work could never compare in heft or intricacy (to say nothing of mastery of craft) to what Moore did with this Victorian masterpiece. In composition, From Hell is a bit unusual in that it dispenses with Moore’s typical sweep of varied panel sizes and shapes, his drastic changes in point of view and scale. Moore’s collaboration with the book’s artist, Eddie Campbell, makes for an unusual and memorable combination. The artwork unfolds almost like a cinematic documentary, changing scale here and there but for the most part marching along in a rigid 9-panel grid. The artwork is rendered in stark black and white, blending a harsh film noir-inspired look that contrasts vividly with the way in the period is typically rendered, in comics and otherwise.
And you might like the film, if you haven’t seen it—as I said, it’s not terrible. Just make sure you read the book first. And come back here to tell me what you thought.