Inside the Ripper’s Hell
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"Murder is a messy, horrible thing," said Eddie Campbell, "it's not a game." He grimaced, and downed the glass of cognac he was holding. Campbell was discussing the movie based on From Hell, the graphic novel he drew and Alan Moore wrote as a series through the 1990s. He was unimpressed. "From Hell is a much more intelligent work than the movie," he said.
Why have there been so many bad adaptions of comics into films? "I think the problem is that the best comics have become so good, so intelligent that in order to make a movie, they have to dumb it down. I think that's a terrible state of affairs when you have to dumb down a comic to turn it into something else," he said with a laugh. "What's gone wrong with the world?"
We were in Angouleme in the south of France. Last month, the medieval town was in the grip of an annual comic-book fever, the 39th edition of one the biggest comics fests in Europe, the Festival International de la Bande Dessinée.
The cognac was from Cognac, which was a few dozen miles to the west. The bartender had made something interesting out of it, making it glitter. A man took one look and exclaimed, "In America, we don't do anything to cognac except drink it."
I asked him about working with the legendary Alan Moore, famous for the extraordinary detail he packs into his scripts. "Alan writes far too much. He gives you more information than you could possibly get into one little picture." In one celebrated example, Moore took seven pages just to describe one panel. "I used to always say that I could write my own script in half the time it takes to read Alan's. And it's true."
Campbell went on, "You've got to set time aside, you've got to read it, you've got to make marginal notes so that you can find your way back around inside it."
The interview was taking place in a salon adjoining the ballroom in the Hotel de Ville. The hotel was built in the 19th century over the ruins of the chateau where the Counts of Angouleme once held sway. King John of England owned it once. All that remains are two colossal towers. And the dungeons.
Far below, the Charente, described by King Henry IV as the "most beautiful stream in France", flowed through the valley. It was the level temperatures of the Charente,
ideal for paper-making, that made a name for Angouleme. It was on Angouleme paper that so many treaties and pacts of Europe were printed, it was Angouleme paper which beheld generations of diplomas and certificates.
The liquid light flooding from the French windows lit up Campbell's shock of white hair. Tall, with piercing blue eyes, Campbell exuded the look of a semi-retired filmstar viewing the world with an aloof amusement. He was at the fest to promote the French edition of his monumental autobiographical work Alec. The publisher hovered around anxiously. Someone had goofed up somewhere and the journalists were not present in numbers.
The work that first blazed a trail, From Hell, is ostensibly an investigation into the murderous spree of Jack the Ripper over the course of several months in 1888 in the slums of London. It is more than that — it is also a book of excavations and exhumations, about the dead past which sometimes doesn't stay dead, and the dissections of time on both body and memory. It is an exhumation as much as an investigation into the Ripper's crimes.
Moore has said, "The idea was to do a documentary comic about a murder. I changed the emphasis from 'whodunit?' to 'what happened?'". In this, Moore was inspired by Douglas Adams's Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency. As he explained, "You wouldn't just have to solve the crime, you'd have to solve the entire world that the crime happened in. That was the twist I needed." This meant that Moore and Campbell gave away right at the beginning that the murderer is Sir William Gull, physician to Queen Victoria, driven mad by apocalyptic visions from the deep.
Jack the Ripper was the world's first serial killer, capturing the public's imagination in ways that have never been equalled. A combination of factors led to it — the ultradense population at the city's core, tensions from contact with "foreigners" — sailors and immigrants from the periphery of empire — the rise of a mass media desperate for sensation, as well as the city's architecture itself, all conspiring to create an uncatchable killer seemingly made of the fog and despair of London. Above all, the Ripper enjoyed excellent branding. "Leather Apron" was the police's uninspiring monicker. Jack the Ripper comes from a letter purportedly sent by the killer and was almost certainly the invention of a journalist.
The architecture conspired too. You can't go around murdering people, with the same modus operandi in, let's say, Munich — the streets are too wide, too orderly. But the cramped alleys, sprawling red-light areas and fog all meant it was possible in London. (In Munich, on the other hand, the wide boulevards, monumental architecture and obedient population saw the rise of an altogether different type of evil.)
It was as if the city itself conspired with the Ripper. The high point of the book is a spectacular sequence where the occult architecture of London is laid bare, and a theosophy in stone is disclosed.
The Citizen Kane of graphic novels is Moore and Dave Gibbons's Watchmen. Campbell said, "I thought the movie of Watchmen was ridiculous . The book was brilliant." He asked angrily: "Why get rid of the squid? Why get rid of the giant squid?" He was referring to the spectacular climax of Watchmen with the appearance of a giant, tentacled alien monster in New York.
The rationale for the scene is embedded in the alternate universe that Moore and Gibbons conjure, Campbell explained. "It is a world where everybody is reading pirate comics and so the most horrible thing they can imagine is a deep sea monster. So the first thing they say, we'll get rid of the squid and we'll have a nuclear blast over Manhattan. What? How many brains are working on this? Why don't you stick with the one decent brain that thought the thing up in the first place?"
Going onto his own experience, he wryly commented, "With From Hell, they said, we are going to do it just like the book except we've got a great idea, you don't know who the villain is, till right at the end! So the first thing we said is that we don't want to do a whodunit, we want it to be much more sophisticated than that, (than a) cheap comic Agatha Christie. We don't want to turn murder into a parlour game."
Campbell has been praised for his "pen-and-ink style of high contrast art with deep pools of shadowy black", the style working perfectly to recreate the fog-haunted delirium that was London of those times.
I asked him about the interaction between him and the writer, when he cut me off peremptorily. "No," he said. I tried to pursue the point, which earned me a glare. "No, there is no back-and-forth between the writer and the artist. The writer writes it and the artist draws it."
He explained how he worked independently. "Once Alan had a carriage going over a bridge that wasn't built then, it hadn't been opened yet. I simply sent them down further along the river and they went over another bridge. I didn't talk to Alan about it, I just fixed it. I just stretched the dialogue over an extra page."
As our interview wound down, I asked him if he was tired of answering the same questions. "I have been answering questions on From Hell for 22 years," he said in resignation. But Campbell was here to promote his book after all. "You should mention Alec," he said, "that is another work of genius." He smiled: "That is one of the works of genius that Alan Moore wasn't involved in."