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I like taking a literary approach to genre works like fantasy, sci fi, and supernatural horror and seeing what comes of it.

To Hell and Back Again

From Hell - Eddie Campbell, Pete Mullins, Alan Moore

Ripperology is a mess of theories and conspiracies, an impossible puzzle which obsessive writers turn into narratives that tell us more about the author than about crime or murder. Moore knows this as well as anyone, pointing out in his afterward that the whole thing has become a silly game, a masturbatory one which would be immediately recognizable to the sort of reader who likes discussing the levels of Star Wars canon and Gandalf's particular racial background.


I read this not with a notion that by the end I'd come to understand the ins and outs of the Ripper case, but to witness yet another of Moore's masterful deconstructions of the stories we like to tell ourselves. If the story had followed the approach laid out in the afterward, I'd be writing a much different review today, one about the presentation of truths and untruths, of allowing the narrative to deconstruct itself, to fall apart while at the same time drawing ever closer to some fundamental truth about storytelling, about our need for stories, for making patterns out of nonsense


That is an approach I'd expect from Moore--but Moore's presentation is altogether too precise, too small, too lucid to really capture the grand mythology of The Ripper, a figure larger than any one story, any one account. There are a few excellent moments that draw this simple little story out of itself: strange glimpses of the future, a recognition of an age that is dying (which is in fact about to be brutally murdered, its blood flowing through the gutters of all the great cities of Europe) but these threads are not fully explored. They are secondary to the neatly tied-up story, rather than its nebulous core.

The long chapter where the killer wanders the city, explaining all the little particulars of his madness, was less than I have come to expect from Moore. Such a lengthy and unbroken piece of naked exposition detracted from the notion that this was a story at all. As a reader, I want to be shown ideas, I want them to dance before me in all their permutations, then gradually coalesce into something more--a task which I know is not too great for Moore. Instead I received a lecture. Never have I known Moore to do so little to take advantage of the unique physical capabilities of the comic medium.

I also found Eddie Campbell's artwork terribly disappointing. The Mid- to Late Victorian is the single most fruitful period in the history of the pen and ink drawing style. Everything that we have done since then is merely a rehash of the pure variety and invention developed by those artists. One can study the art of the period to the exclusion of all else for a lifetime, and after fifty years, still keep discovering new masters, new styles and forms you've never even heard of before--an embarrassment of riches fathomless to plumb.

With so much to choose from, so much material from which to take inspiration, I was nonplussed by the sketchy, lackluster lines chosen define this story. The sense of individual characters is simply not there--instead we tend to see the same faces and forms, over and over. There is little sense of form or gesture, flow and movement are lacking, and worse, the stark balance between the white and black spaces--the very power of pen-and-ink work--is absent.

The anatomy is particularly slipshod--especially when aping a period when anatomical precision was such a central, defining aspect of art. I don't merely mean classical forms--the Victorian was also notable for stylized caricatures, as in Punch's--but there still must be a precision there, a delineation of lines, a purpose within the artist's hand. I understand the concept of an unsure, muddy world, a world of the past, seen through a thousand conspiracy theories and lies, but that thrust of history must still be presented with a sense of forcefulness, a trajectory--or better yet, many trajectories.

I think of Duncan Fegredo, the greatest living comic artist, and his work on Peter Milligan's remarkable Enigma: it was slipshod, loose, and fluid, refusing to be confined, yet it still managed to be forceful, impressionistic, and vividly alive. Some of Campbell's panels are better than others, reaching a height which would have easily carried the book, but alas, the common lot is of (literally) shaky quality.

That is the visual form I would have hoped for here, but overall, the work seems to be a case of good ideas lacking the execution to match them. Moore's concept was beautifully grand and imprecise, but the end result was a narrative much too narrow to hold it. Contrarily, Campbell's art was too broad and nonspecific to capture the weight and thrust of history--even if it is an invented history.