It has been said that comics as an art form has not reached its true potential
as an art form in that it has yet to produce a Citizen Kane. That
is, until a comic is produced which breaks down all preconceived notions about
what a comic book should or shouldn't be, and is universally recognized as a
high water mark in the field, comics will forever be in the popular imagination
relegated as a form intended for children or subliterates.
Enter Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's gargantuan From Hell.
From Hell is a difficult book. Difficult to read, difficult to
categorize, difficult to completely understand. Any summary of its contents
would fail to encompass the full scope of the work, and previous attempts to
do so have failed miserably. Ostensibly a study of the Jack the Ripper
legend and its origins, From Hell in fact is a great deal more, so much
more that the Ripper himself quickly becomes secondary to weightier concerns.
From Hell is not a mystery in the conventional sense, though there are
police, and detectives, and murders to solve. The reader knows early on
the identity of the Ripper, within the first few chapters, and the final murder
is committed just halfway through the story. Likewise, it is not a suspense
thriller, in that the story doesn't revolve around the authorities' efforts
to catch the killer before he kills again. Not really, in any case, though
there are elements of the hunt presented, and a certain tension on the part
of the police. In fact, when the detective pursuing the Ripper finally
catches up with him, the result is anticlimactic to say the least.
From Hell is about structure, more than anything else. Oh, there
is quite a lot besides going on, no question about it: the role of women
in Victorian society, and the collective neurosis of a culture which produced
a killer like the Ripper in the first place; the influence of the Ripper
on the Twentieth Century, from the rise of the serial killer, to sensationalism
in the media, to shifts in attitudes about sexuality and the sexes; and the
view of the present day from the dawning of the modern era. Whole books
could be filled with in-depth analyses of any one of these threads, and justifiably
so. But in the end, it call comes down to structure.
Maybe it's the result of my own prejudices as a writer, but again and again
in the course of From Hell I was reminded about structure. First,
there is the intricate organization of the plot itself, in which dozens of characters
appear on stage for a few panels at a time, each contributing a single brick
in the wall of the story. Moore does this deftly, seeming effortless,
but there is intricate organization at work.
Second, there is a great deal of discussion about structure on the part of
the characters themselves. In an early chapter, one of the characters
takes another on a rambling tour of London, pointing out the history of the
places and buildings they pass. Before they are through, the character
on the receiving end of the tour is overcome, driven to nausea and near catatonia
by a glimpse of an underlying structure he'd lived with every day of his life
but never seen. Then, at the end of the story, this same tour guide himself
is taken on a similar journey, but is made to see not the physical structure
of London, but its architecture through Time. This is a difficult concept
to explain, but in essence it boils down to this: just as the physical
space of the city is organized into complex structures, so the history of the
city is organized along the same lines. In this way, the events of the
story come to serve as corner stones of a sprawling architecture which extends
both physically and temporally throughout the whole of London.
I'm going to take a stand. I'll be the first to stick his head up from
the foxhole of our marginalized medium, and see if the shelling has stopped.
The day when comics were for children or subliterates has passed, and no longer
will they appeal only to a select minority. Comics has at last produced
its Citizen Kane, and it is From Hell.
From Hell, formerly available only in individual issues, has been collected
into a single volume by Eddie Campbell Comics. All comics readers owe it
to themselves to buy a copy, and owe it to the industry to make sure a copy
ends up in the hands of every non-comics reader they know.