Friday, November 28, 2014

Favourite illustrations: a coach from hell

[Was originally going to write this for a publisher’s website as part of an “Illustrations I love” series I had been invited to contribute to – but I procrastinated with such fierce determination that the series winded up before the piece could be done]

Page 24 of chapter 5 of Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s stunning From Hell ends with this wide panel, which holds me in thrall whenever I look at it – though there is also a tiny fear that I will be sucked into the scene it depicts.

As you can see, these are the main elements of the drawing: a woman walking along a dark, deserted road, a coach coming up behind her, the silhouettes of two men visible in the driver’s seat– the coachman holding his whip, sitting next to him a man wearing a top hat. Most of the light in this scratchy black-and-white image is behind the coach, giving the impression that it has emerged from some great mist. (Or through a magic portal. There are concentric circles in the portion of the drawing that frames the carriage – swirling fog, or a vortex to hell?) The woman’s features are indistinct but her face is lit up as if by the coach’s lamp, enough for the reader to register that she has only just noticed the vehicle and is looking up at it with childlike curiosity.

The scene could be from fairytale or myth, a version of the Wolf stalking Red Riding Hood, but it is a fictionalised depiction of an encounter that really did take place around 3 AM on August 31, 1888 near the Whitechapel Road in London’s squalid East End. Purely at the level of narrative, this is a crucial panel in From Hell: the first meeting between the serial killer widely known as “Jack the Ripper” and one of his victims (the prostitute Polly Nichols). A full 130 pages (and at least 800 drawings – I’m not counting) into a graphic novel that uses the Ripper murders as a sharp dissection of the Victorian Age, an unveiling of London’s architectural secrets and a foreshadowing of the 20th century, this is the first time we see killer and victim together in the same frame. (No spoiler alert needed – this book is not a whodunit.)

Thematic importance aside, I love the image on its own terms. There is something almost impressionistic about it – no real detailing, just light and shadow used so skilfully (see how the right side of Polly's dress is partly illuminated while the left remains in darkness) that one gets the gist of what is happening without being able to describe the specifics. Elsewhere in the story, including in the panels that neighbour this one, you can see Polly’s features clearly, but that isn’t necessary in this drawing, which has a symbolic function and is also a sort of punctuation mark – dramatically ending a page that has, over the previous six panels, shown us this poor woman staggering along the road, looking for a customer so she can earn the “doss money” she needs to sleep in a boarding house at night, singing a song to herself while the light of the coach slowly, slowly creeps up behind her...and then.

(“I want this to be dramatic, with the coach a large and dark engine of the apocalypse,” wrote Alan Moore in his panel description to Eddie Campbell; you can see the whole page and Moore’s script for it here.)

To really appreciate the drawing, you have to see it not just in the context of the rest of the page, but the rest of the chapter, and finally the whole book taken together. In the scenes that follow this image, the Ripper – cast here as the royal surgeon Sir William Gull – will invite Polly into his carriage, offer her opium-laced grapes and direct the coach to the nearby London Hospital, in the gardens
of which a lonesome figure – the deformed “Elephant Man”, Joseph Merrick – can be seen from a distance. After asking Polly to say the words “Salutation to Ganesha”, Gull will strangle her, thus commencing – with the blessings of the elephant-headed God – what he sees as a sacred mission. Sir William’s delusion is that by killing these women according to Masonic ritual, he is performing the divinely mandate task of suppressing the “irrational”, feminine side of the human consciousness. In this view of things, the coming together of killer and victim is a moment with cosmic significance: as Gull puts it elsewhere, they are to be “wed in eternity”. (Note: this is true of the Jack the Ripper story even at a more mundane level, beyond the colourful conspiracies involving the Royal family and Freemasons: a never-identified assailant and his destitute victims are entwined for all time in the popular imagination.)

The coach image is also an arresting one given the overall visual language of chapter 5 (titled “The Nemesis of Neglect”). Early in the chapter, there have been a series of pages that have contrasted Gull’s privileged life with Polly’s hand-to-mouth existence. Thus, the doctor wakes and stretches languidly in his plush bedchamber, while the unfortunates of the East End sleep in the cold, sitting up against a wall, with a rope stretched out in front of them to prevent them from falling forward. And Campbell employs different drawing styles to emphasise the divide between the two settings: water-colour drawings make Gull’s world lush, while Polly and her friends are drawn in the gravelly black ink that is more typical of the book.

This juxtaposition continues for a few pages. And it is apt that the drawing which finally unites ("weds") the two characters has an abstract quality: it definitely isn’t the smooth water-colour style employed for the earlier Gull scenes, but it is dreamier, more poetic than the deliberately coarse style that Campbell uses elsewhere.

Choosing this image to discuss here doesn’t mean it is my favourite drawing in From Hell – there are dozens of others I could just as easily have cited. When I first read this book years ago, I concentrated on the story – on the brilliant wealth and depth of detail Moore brings to his central conceit, and how he fits the facts of the Ripper case to his own speculative fiction. But as I revisit it these days I find myself looking ever more closely at the images and discovering new things in them. (This is even more rewarding if you have the book on DVD and can look at large versions of the pictures – though that is a time-consuming process since there are thousands of them.)

P.S. As a From Hell obsessive, I can't believe I didn't know about this new companion volume. Put together by Campbell, it includes (among other things) many of the detailed scripts Moore wrote for each of the 500 pages - a fascinating insight into the writer's incredible mind, as well as into the process of creative collaboration.


  1. From Hell is brilliant, though a very uncomfortable and disturbing read. It is like getting introduced to insanity at very close quarters. V for Vendetta and Watchmen are still my favorite reads because they are a bit more 'joyous'.

    1. Grinning at the thought of the word "joyous" being used to describe either Vendetta or Watchmen, but get what you mean. Still, I stick with the old principle: if something is brilliantly executed, then it is essentially uplifting, even if the content is disturbing/depressive.

  2. @Jai - I understand the post is about illustrations and the novel is chock full of good ones. There is something very uneasing about the illustrations and full credit to Eddie campbell.

    About the novel itself, ofcourse it is one of most engaging and complex ones, but I fond the novel unduly sympathetic to the killer. There is an attempt to excuse the wrongdoings and paint him as doing something which good. And also, I find the whole theme of the novel misogynistic.

    Still doesnt take away from how gripping this novel is though

    1. Sid: completely disagree. Nothing remotely misogynistic about it, and it certainly doesn't "excuse" the killings. Depicting what is going on in William Gull's fevered mind - and presenting his perspective and the things that drive him - doesn't at all imply that the authors themselves are on his side. The main obligation of a creative work is to be truthful to its characters and the world they live in - not to be politically correct and affirmative in such a heavy-handed way that every last reader can understand that the writers regard THIS as good and THAT as bad. The "misogyny" allegation is particularly strange given that far and away the most moving and empathetic passages in the book are the ones about the daily struggles of these poor women, and the circumstances that lead them to desperate measures. Moore and Campbell even dedicate the book to the five canonical victims, saying their existence is about the only thing they can be certain of.

      In general, one should be very careful while accusing a book or film of "misogyny" (or "racism", or whatever) simply based on its discomfiting content. Have written about that in one form or the other before, and I continue to encounter it.

    2. @Jai - Agree on your comments. Need to re read this and do so more carefully before forming such impressions or such a comment. That bit where he felt he was "Ascending" because he was doing the society a favor was the part where I was hoping he wud feel remorse.

      Also agree on your comment about balance between political correctness and non compromise on the content. I support freedom to express and lean towards non compromise. However, if you completely lean towards non compromise, at some point things may turn out to be distasteful right ? Just to be clear I am not supporting curbing / censorship externally, just what the writers themselves should think about. Some good works such as triumph of the will can come across as distasteful no?

    3. Coincidentally I just came across this Philip Roth quote today (context: Portnoy's Complaint) - "One writes a repellent book not to be repellent but to represent the repellent, to air the repellent, to expose it, to reveal how it looks and what it is. Chekhov wisely advised that the writer’s task lies not in solving problems but in properly presenting the problem." (Link here)

    4. Also, Sid, I'd say Triumph of the Will is a very different matter (though again I won't pretend to know everything Riefenstahl was thinking when she made it) - that was explicitly a work of propaganda for the Nazi regime, and a depiction of Hitler as a deity. (Interesting connection btw between AH flying through the clouds in that opening scene and William Gull's ascent in From Hell!)

  3. Just a word on the 'possible misogyny' aspect above, it sounds astounding given a bit more familiarity with Moore's work. I've found an aspect of 'holy feminine power being subjugated by dull modern patriarchal orthodoxy' in at least Promethea, LXG Black Dossier, and quite notably in From Hell in the chapter where they drive around London. I don't know if this due to some preoccupation of his shining through or coz he believes in witchcraft :)
    The biggest rebuttal is in the book itself. In the chapter where Gull hallucinates himself ascending, the image of the woman on the hillside with her children goes unexplained. So I went googling, and to paraphrase Moore, he was so sick of crazy psychos after all his research, that he really wanted Gull to fail. That image was his FU to every psycho killer who consider themselves a Lecter like genius, when they're really just pathetic.
    Sorry for rambling J, as I'm sure you already know all this :)

    1. No rambling at all - thanks for the comment. (I could go on endlessly about all this, but that might result in a From Hell-sized book about From Hell - need to keep myself in check!)

      That image of Mary Kelly (having survived and fled to Ireland, and now mothering little girls - her biological or adopted children - who are named after her dead friends) is one of the most stirring things in the book. And I love the completely blank page just after it, where Gull proudly proclaims " I become God" but then, at the bottom of the page, are the words "And then I..." Which in a way exposes all his delusions about "ascending" to a final state of Divinity. (I fill in the gaps in that last line with "And then I...very momentarily, in the last microsecond of my life, come to my senses and realise that I'm not becoming Jahbulon or any such thing; all I'm doing is dying pathetically on a filthy, urine-soaked floor in a dingy asylum, so decrepit and disrespected that two people see fit to have casual, rough sex in front of me.")

      I think it's entirely possible - given the book's inner logic - that Gull does have genuinely mystical experiences as his "spirit" moves around in time (the whole of the last chapter has flashbacks and flashforwards into actual events), which means there is a supernatural component to his story - but that he doesn't really become a divinity or get rewarded at the end of it all.

  4. To add: Mary Kelly has a symbolic function in this telling, almost from the beginning - as someone who is mothering/nursing orphans or consoling destitutes like the terrified Polly; in fact, the very plot-mover - the blackmail attempt - comes out of Mary's well-meaning attempt to get the money that will save her friends from the "protection gangs". Even though she sinks into despair and hedonism late in the story, that essential symbolic quality stays in place. Which is why her survival is such a crucial part of the book's overall design. (Otherwise of course, at a purely realist, human level, one would say: the real Mary wasn't butchered in Miller's Court, but another woman was, so what's the difference?)

  5. Panel 7's horse-drawn duo, both depraved men 'saddled' with a lantern each, seem to have their complementary wills (i.e. volitional dynamics) bloated molten within the equine hologram emanating from those very carriage-bound lanterns (i.e. eyes leering deadpan).