Alan Moore’s perspective on the present, mediated by past views of the future, is a recurring theme in his career. An early job was working on that most Victorian of postwar speculative conceits: Dr Who (in printed form). His later work on 2000AD had him obsessively interbreeding H.G.Wells and Jules Verne with Phillip K Dick, in his work on the ‘Future Shocks’ Series.
It was always his desire to challenge the givens of the medium he was working in. His ‘Ballad of Halo Jones’ was originally designed to take place in a future revolving around soap operas and shopping bags rather than guns and space cowboys. It was to be a future world neither dys- nor utopic just, well everyday. This ideal proved challenging to some of his employers: by Book 3 Halo was a gun-toting gal like all the others, albeit a gun-toting gal with issues.
It has been this ambiguous relationship with the comic biz that explains a career that has seen as many false starts as pristine multi volumes, and a lot of time leaving and rejoining the ‘mainstream’.
His subsequent work shows an obsession with the constraints of story telling and the constraints of history, as well as a desire to show that in many cases they are one and the same thing. From Hell, newly collected in the UK and now a forthcoming blockbuster film, complete with Jonny Depp and Heather Graham, is a ‘melodrama’, a ‘dance’ and an autopsy. It is the most internally coherent long work he has produced since Watchmen, and at the same time an utterly unstable edifice.
On reflection, the dedication of the book strikes the tone at once: ‘This book is dedicated to Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Liz Stride, Kate Eddowes, and Marie Jeanette Kelly. You and your demise: of these things alone we are certain. Goodnight ladies.’
Dedicating this telling of the/a Jack the Ripper story, ‘a melodrama in sixteen parts’, to the victims themselves strikes an easy and compassionate chord. The use of their names delineates the extent of the revisionist trickery within the telling (‘of these things alone we are certain’). The technique is a miasmic line in the sand.
Moore is keen to remind us in his footnotes that he is playing fast an loose with notions of veracity, knowability, and so on (sprinkle ironic shrugs according to taste). He employs sources with varied relationships with truths, big or small : John Stow, Aleister Crowley, Vitruvius, The Fortean Times. His autodidactic zeal in their juxtaposition suggests an author in slightly wry thrall to the machine washable fabrics of time. A necronaut, as he calls his psycho-geographical chum Iain Sinclair, strung out in the various versions of past as it is approached from this end of things.
The trouble is, as Moore is clearly aware, that for all the games he and the Ripperologists before him have played, the central events revolve around the savage butchery of a number of the most voiceless people in 19th century English society were savagely butchered. For all the lateral thinking used to involve Buffalo Bill or the Elephant Man in the story, Moore is caught between the instinct to tell these women’s stories and his avowed suspicion of the story as a whole. He attempts to center the tale around the women’s lives and their idiosyncrasies, to use the known facts to present them as more than a sum total of race, class, gender, occupation and means of death, but in doing so must make much of his own ‘intuition.
Moore clearly feels the need to grant these victims a solid and respectful position in the telling, in history, distinguishing him from the bulk of Ripper writers immediately. This might be behind the arch, lascivious tone that surfaces from time to time in the authorial voice (‘Goodnight ladies’). It is hard to see the exact difference between Moore and the other ‘gull-catchers’ or Ripper exploiting hacks by the end (of which Moore is quite aware) at times it is hard to tell quite where the authorial voice ends and that of William Gull, the Ripper of this telling, begins.
One of the most unsettling sections of the book is in Chapter Nine where the reader is introduced to the writer’s of the hoax Ripper letters. The artist Eddie Campbells restless and inventive lines, hatching and inkings pull the reader’s eye through this cross section of society. The clergyman pretending to prepare scripture readings for his children, the working man making up threats with a pint nearby, the masturbator reveling in the language of violence that the Ripper crimes brought into the popular press. Theirs is represented as both an ordinary response to culture and the state, and as the sickest sort of pranksterism.
Moore sets himself a difficult narrative problem in using Gull/Jack as his vehicle. The book is clearly about, to some degree, the sort of historical musings that his version of Gull obsesses over. Moore’s research becomes interwoven with the serial killer’s as Gull takes the reader on a guided tour of mystical London and Moore provides footnotes, sources, further musings.
Later, in the Ripper’s dying moments, Gull seems to inseminate himself into the 20th century: Ian Brady, the Yorkshire Ripper, and so on. These are the death dreams of a deluded psychopath. Elsewhere, Campbell/ Moore are traversing the ‘architecture of history’ themselves: visually implying a link between the conception of Adolf Hitler and the first day of the Gull’s bloody crimes, for example. Just as Gull is an awestruck and appalled subjective viewer of London life a century after his death (finding himself in the streets, back alleys and office spaces of 20th Century Whitechapel) Moore and Campbell are haunting, preaching to another time.
To a degree, we follow as Gull becomes a part of a girder running through English history, linking with sick men who performed unspeakable crimes on women and children in our own time. At the same time, however one cannot avoid the sensation that, for Moore, the big ideas of then and now are as arbitrary, deluded, and messy as the ravings of a learning drunk intellectual psychopath. So Gull is stitched into ‘real events’ of the 20th century, but the trajectories and structures that this might imply are utterly illusory as the text itself is hardly more reliable than the letters that flooded into Whitechapel police station claiming to be the Ripper. Moore has Robert Lees, the Queen’s psychic admit: he didn’t make it happen, he just made it up and it happened anyway.
Although Gull’s pre-eminence makes some interaction between him and John Merrick (known as ‘the Elephant Man’ because of the extremity of his hydro-encephalitis) possible, or even likely, it is Moore’s ‘intuition’ twinned with that of Iain Sinclair that involves him in the case. It is hard to shake off the feeling that Gull is not the only one rabidly looking for symbols, making sense of the senseless from a ragbag of belief systems that gain power from the ‘exoticism’ and the supposedly hidden wisdom that there obscurity grants them. The further playing with the symbol of the elephant man, making John Merrick into Ganesha, blessing the voyage to come, is a genuinely disturbing authorial device that sees Gull himself as a puppet of a control freak comics writer organizing congruence from the found substances of history.
Simultaneously, Gull’s London is a text laced with the first steps of modernist twentieth century. The Pinkerton agency, Yeats, Fabianism, the Wilde coterie, finger prints, the few miles squared of London that fall within the pentagram of mystical London, are also filled with the joists, struts and girders of official history: the big ideas of Modernism. As is evident from such a list, these two versions of history are not distinct, but profoundly related. That’s the problem.
On the other hand, the man in charge of the police enquiry Inspector Abberline is locked in his own time, laughing at the idea of modern policing methods, at the possibilities of modernism. In the last chapter the policeman is aware of his obsolescence: “We’ve outlived our times, ‘aven’t we, you and me? . . . I mean the century we ‘ad our day in when we were important; that’s all done with, sunk. Gone down with all ‘ands…”. The most disturbing side to From Hell is the sensation that pretty much everyone has gone down. Apart from Jack, and us.