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#98 [Jan. 8th, 2008|04:04 pm]

100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)

#98 FROM HELL – Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell
(Eddie Campbell Comics)

"I made it all up, and it all came true anyway."

Murder stories often begin after the good bit – the murder – and work their way towards solutions that are as neat as a game of Cluedo. From Hell, however, tells its version of the Jack the Ripper murders in a way that’s never as simple as “It was the Queen’s physician in Whitechapel with the blunt force of historical inevitability.” Taking the explanation of the killings from Stephen Knight’s books, it widens its focus and lets its belt out far enough to encompass the police investigation, the drab awfulness of the victims’ lives, the murderer’s descent into madness, his accomplice’s feelings of disgust and guilt, the newspapers’ complicity in sensationalising of the story and London society’s grim fascination with every sordid and trivial detail. Along the way it touches on the birth of the twentieth century, has cameos from historical characters like the Elephant Man and Oscar Wilde and works in a Masonic conspiracy. Each chapter was allowed to swell to whatever size it needed to be to cover all the ground and still it needs its two appendices.

The first thing to note about From Hell then is that it’s fucking huge and the second that it’s fucking dense. It averages seven to nine panels a page, filled with architectural detail and vertical lines almost as stiff as the repressed society they show. Bleakly black-and-white, it looks like it’s been pulled out of a chimney by a starving Cockney orphan. “’Ere you go, guvna. ’Ave some refreshingly stark ’istorical comics. Get that in ya.”

All that detail, both artistic and historical, is essential, as the movie adaptation proved by dropping it to its loss. In one appendix Moore scrupulously annotates his sources for every event in a conversational fashion, making his aim plain – not to prove the identity of Jack the Ripper but to prove that you can make an equally convincing case for a dozen different Rippers if you put in the effort. With over 100 years of history between us and Jack, any chance of finding a neat solution is lost to us. New attempts to make sense of the crimes are doomed to say more about us, every bit as obsessed with murder as the Victorians, than they do about the killer. That’s the subject of the second appendix, a brief and entertaining history of ‘Ripperology’ that shows Moore and Campbell being sucked into a field of study full of lunatics and charlatans.

Through covering every angle of the story you can think of, From Hell succeeds not only as an autopsy of the murders, but of our enduring fascination with them.