The first chapter in the second volume of our colourized series, Chapter Three (named Blackmail or Mrs. Barrett), is a reference to a painting by Walter Sickert. Sickert, you may remember, is the man who introduced Prince Albert to shopkeeper Annie Crook. The chapter begins with Marie Kelley bringing Alice, Albert and Annie’s lost baby, to Walter Sickert and dropping her off as Kelley is unwilling to take care of Alice any longer. You may also remember that Albert’s secret nest with Annie was forcibly sundered once Queen Victoria learned of its existence. During the course of their interaction at the beginning of our new volume, Sickert refers to Marie as Mrs. Barrett (she was living common-law with someone called Joe Barnett – or Barrett), hence the reference to the title of the chapter and the painting.
Having discharged the baby, Marie trudges through the seamy streets for a few wordless panels before engaging in a sordid, commonplace, dreary yet memorable act of prostitution. Coppers in hand, she takes them to the Britannia pub where she has a drink with Liz Stride, and is later joined by Annie Chapman and Polly Nichols. Polly Nicholls is quite scared because the Old Nichol Mob has threatened to cut them up if they don’t pay four pounds ‘insurance’ (extortion) money. At a loss for how to get the money, Marie suggests that they blackmail the Royal family (through Sickert) since she has knowledge of the scandal involving Albert and Annie’s love affair, and presumably what was done to Annie as a result. Thus the book’s plot is set in motion through one of the great ironies: to avoid being cut up, the women set out to blackmail the Royals, which eventually leads to…them being horrifically slashed and murdered.
I had the fortune to teach a continuing ed. course on graphic novels once. I placed From Hell at the end of the syllabus. Many of the students in my class were women and objected strongly to the contents of this book. It was a learning experience for me because I’d only thought of it as an immensely strong work of historical fiction, the most complex and ambitious book on our reading list. The students’ objections made me think of many things, one of which being: who the true protagonist(s) of the book were.
An obvious answer is William Gull whom we’ve already met. However, you can argue just as easily that it’s the women/victims who are the protagonists – the work is invested with enough complexity to delve into various characters’ lives. In these early chapters, the book is invested in comparing the two classes that the prostitutes and Gull come from, often in parallel or alternating chapters. In the screenshot below, we see them exiting the tavern after discussing their fledging plan, in the shadows of Hawksmoor’s Gothic edifice, their destinies already foreordained by the towering and oppressive architecture. It’s no surprise that Moore’s sympathies lie with the destitute women leading their hardscrabble lives, and yet there is simultaneously a great degree of identification with Gull. Perhaps ‘identification’ is too strong a word as he is a megalomanic and would-be serial killer but he is entertaining, spellbinding even – in the most literal sense as he sets out purposely to weave a spell with his ritual slashings. We’ll come to that later.
Moore takes a real interest in the lives of these women, living a marginalized alternative to the poorhouse, from the way they sleep (their doss, the cost of a penny, shows them sleeping while sitting up on a hard bench all night, in a line within a cell, a rope holding them from falling over) to the way they chatter about their business and personal lives. Each has been researched and individualized. They possess different voices and outlooks and are rendered with an eye to their individual movements and personalities. Though Gull is magnetic (in the way that V from V from Vendetta is both mad and prophetic in his magnetism), it’s the women I come to appreciate and relate with by the end of the book.
Another question I was confronted with (by my students) was whether Moore is exploiting women and more particularly, prostitutes, by casting them this way. I’ll try to return to this question in future reviews, but I don’t know if I’ll have any authoritative answers. I don’t feel that he is, but of course, in this age of reader response criticism, another reader’s interpretations are equally valid and heed-worthy. It’s a testament to the change in demographics and readership over the last generation that there is no consensus on what makes a book an untarnished work of acclaimed art versus one which is deeply problematic. Often, a great work can be both, depending upon one’s point of view. Complex works may evoke different associations, exhibit various sides and valences over time. Even works that aren’t complex often do this. A book written in the nineteen nineties about women in the late eighteen hundreds can have a very different reading for those picking it up in the early two thousands.
Which brings us to Chapter Four. Chapter Four is, in my opinion, the greatest chapter in the book and the one that really introduces us to Gull. It’s nothing short of a masterpiece, at once both a disquisition on history and a transcendent ode to the unconscious. Not to beleaguer the point, but it could also be the most odious chapter for someone else, future killings in its molten eyed stare. We’ve met Gull in hints and flashes in Chapter Two and seen sides of his personality that are disturbingly odd: he attends a corpse on p.22 of Chapter Two, and in front of the deceased’s horrified sister, cuts out the recently departed’s heart which Gull tucks into his pocket, informing the sister that he has found their ‘refusal to allow him to remove the organ for study quite tiresome.’ On the facing page, p.23, Gull visits Joseph Merrick, ‘The Elephant Man’, and is both sensitive and engaging with him.
With his coach driver Netley (assigned by the Royals to help Gull in his task), once again a visible member of the underclass, Gull rides around London pointing out monuments to the enslavement of women at the hands of men. Some of these are phallic like Cleopatra’s Needle and the obelisk style steeples on Hawksmoor’s churches. Others are sites where women’s power has been curtailed at the hands of men, such as Battle Bridge ‘where matriarchy fell with Boadicea’ and the Tower of London where famous women were imprisoned and sometimes beheaded. Gull operatically and methodically rhapsodizes to the reader (via Netley) about the connection between women, the moon, the right sides of our brains, poetry, and madness. Men are thus aligned with the sun and the left brain and severe rationality.
Here is one of the quotes from this lengthy oratory by Gull:
Man kills the moon, exalts the sun instead; sets antlered men to lead Diana’s hunt; attempts, like her, to bind the ocean to his will. With symbols man casts woman down, and then with symbols keeps her there. How STERN a sigil must it be, such power to suppress that which ruled eight million years beside which man’s six thousand is the merest blink.
Whether you subscribe to the theory of humankind’s first civilizations being matriarchies or not, Gull’s speeches are enchantingly convincing and suitably dramatic. Moore, employing that iambic rhythm of his that proves difficult to emulate and escape, weaves his own spell with words while blending a concoction of specialized history, Dionysian architecture, and ritual magic. His Gull is as charismatic, if not more so, than Moore’s other famous brilliant madmen who ply their poetic disquisitions, from V (in V for Vendetta), to the Joker (in The Killing Joke), not to mention Paul Saveen (in Tom Strong), and Dr. Gargunza (in Marvelman), to name a few. Moore loves giving voice to brilliant sociopaths who are both eloquent and elegant. Gull, through his sanctioned murders, intends to perpetuate these rites of ritual magic against women. Not because he is a Freemason, not because Queen Victoria has commanded him, as he tells Netley:
Averting Royal embarrassment is but a fraction of my work that’s visible above the waterline. The greater parts of an iceberg of significance that lurks below. Great works have many purposes. To aid her majesty’s but one… the rest are mine alone.
Netley, our agent to Gull’s speeches, the more human of the diabolical partnership, gets progressively more sick as the coach ride through London continues. Once the points of interest that have been visited are joined up, on a map, they reveal a pentagram: a seal of Solomon to contain women’s power. Netley throws up. Moore has done with his narrative the same thing that he claims Hawksmoor has done with his buildings: constructed histories frozen in stone, impressing his personality upon the consciousness of his beholder. Time frozen in words. One of those amazing acts of magic Moore routinely achieves, through narrative structure and words.
And for all this, Gull is a repulsive character. Despite his evident genius, he does not question the social order or his place in it at all. Though he intends to commit his murders as rituals on an esoteric plane in order to restrain women, whom he evidently despises, he is acting on the behest of a woman, the supreme power, Queen Victoria. He possesses civility and reflection but is seemingly without empathy or conscience. While Netley routinely acts like a sycophant, Gull mocks and belittles him, repeatedly insults him with the knowledge that his poor target is too simple to gainsay the barbs thrown at him.
Moore’s Gull is the kind of megalomaniac, obviously brilliant and beyond the reach of average men in the way Heart of Darkness’ Kurtz is beyond the reach of average men; yet there is an emptiness within him, an emptiness of purpose, a need to succumb to the visions brought upon by his recent heart attack and aphasia. With all his intelligence and brilliance and success, like Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein, it just isn’t enough – he must delve into the dark aspects beneath science, beneath rationality, to satisfy that which is missing within him. He’s certainly not the only one in Moore’s writing that operates this way – much of Moore’s latter work which deals with H. P. Lovecraft’s lore is focused on contiguous if not similar themes. For all of his progressive politics, Moore really has a fixed attraction towards the violent, the deep disastrous destruction, the dark desires and terrible temptations within the sinister side of the human heart. As I said, a work can have many different sides. And you can’t fit them all into a single box.
From Hell: Master Edition Volume 2 is currently available from Top Shelf/IDW.