This week's installment of Bryant Has Issues is going to be dealing with only two new comics: Locke & Key: Omega #3 and Saga #10. A bit slow at the racks this week, but then again, when they're as good as these two, who needs more?
Here's what I'll say about Locke & Key: Omega #3: I can't say much of anything about it without being spoilery. I can hint at a few things; for example, I can say that there were at least three points in this comic at which I became literally tense with worry about what was potentially about to happen to certain characters.
And, of course, I can say that it was -- as is typical -- a damn fine comic book.
Can't do it without spoilers. So for now, I won't say much, except to note that there is an excellent Stephen King-related gag during one scene.
One of these days, this blog is going to have a long, hard look at Locke & Key; but for now, I'm going to give people a better chance to get caught up.
One of these days, this blog is going to have a long, hard look at Locke & Key; but for now, I'm going to give people a better chance to get caught up.
Elsewhere, in the wonderful world that is Saga, Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples continue to impress.
Yay! Izabel is back! She's not dead after all! Well...she's dead, but not DEAD, I guess you'd say. Either way, she's back, and that earns Vaughan and Staples a reprieve from my wrath. It's a short-lived reprieve, however, as the final page of this issue makes clear. Oh, don't worry about Izabel; she's fine. However, another character's fate is...less clear. To be honest, it looks as if that particular character is toast.
If so, Brian, Fiona...you're on my shit-list, y'all.
Time will tell.
Here's the first page of #10:
So far, every issue of Saga has begun with a splash page, and I'd wager that for many ladies, this particular one will earn that moniker moreso than is typically the case.
This issue gives you more backstory about Alana and Marko's relationship, all of which is good. Back in the present-tense, we find out what is hatching inside the planet Marko and his mother are on, and The Will finally catches up with his prey.
And then terrible shit happens.
I don't want to talk about it.
It's very upsetting. And it'd better prove to be a fake-out!
Here's an image from the issue which has nothing to do with those vague words of lamentation:
Bless your dark little heart, Saga; bless it.
And that's it for new comics this time.
And that's it for new comics this time.
Let's now turn our attentions to a few classic Alan Moore comics, starting with...
The Bojeffries Saga is a series of short tales (all featuring the same family of weirdos, the Bojeffries) published off and on between 1983 and 1992. If you want to get simplistic about it -- and I do -- then you could say that the Bojeffries are not unlike other families of weirdos, such as the Addamses and the Munsters.
Among the colorful members of the Bojeffries clan are a werewolf, a vampire, and a repugnant woman named Ginda, who is kinda wonderful in a horrifying way. As was sometimes the case with those other families of oddballs, the humor here -- which is plentiful -- comes from how weird normalcy seems when you stack it up against true weirdness. Put another way, the appeal is in making weirdness seem completely normal.
I could explain why I find this stuff to be so amusing, I guess. Or I could just give some examples of the terrific Steve Parkhouse art.
Yeah; let's do that.
Top-notch. Very funny stuff, and it's important to remember that Alan Moore can be funny. "Funny" won't enter into the equation when discussing the next two comics on our agenda...
In 1990, Moore and artist Bill Sienkiewicz (with whom the writer had previously collaborated on Brought to Light) published the first two issues of a twelve-issue epic that Moore later described as a potential magnum opus.
Key word there being "potential," as, sadly, only two issues were ever published. The reasons for this are complicated, and I'll just let Alan Moore tell you in his own words:
The idea was that we were going to produce a really good comic, publish it ourselves, we were really committed to it and it was my money that was kind of supporting the entire thing. What happened was that Bill Sienkiewicz, after promising to do it, he did a brilliant job on the first two episodes and then just seemed to stop working upon it and all the money was kind of pouring down a black hole, because we'd still got overheads but we couldn't actually get a comic out, because the artist wouldn't - and we kept saying "Look, Bill, if you don't want to do this work, just tell us and we'll think about something else, get a replacement in or something but just tell us so that we're not just having all of our money pouring down a drain" and Bill still didn't get up the nerve to tell us that he didn't want to do it for another few months, by which time our situation was desperate. Then Kevin Eastman, of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fame, he stepped in with his brave but doomed publishing venture Tundra and he was trying to produce Big Numbers. We tried to get Al Columbia, who'd been Bill Sienkiewicz's assistant, to continue with the strip. Now, I heard that Al did an issue of it but then, depending on which story to believe, either he destroyed the artwork or took it away or I don't know what happened but it meant that we'd had two artists sort of back out on the project.
That quotation comes from this interview, which is well worth reading. It's also worth pointing out that a third issue was eventually "published" online here, and that Moore gave his approval for these scans to be put up. Still, that seems destined to be all we ever get.
The question is: is that a bad thing?
For me, yes; I'd love to read the rest, even though I can't honestly say that the first two issues blew me away or anything. I've failed to mention what Big Numbers is about, haven't I? Well, the setup is this: an American-style shopping centre is going to be built in an English town (seemingly modeled after Moore's hometown of Northampton), and Big Numbers would examine the effects this would have upon a number of the residents. Lurking behind the project is an association with fractal mathematics, specifically the work of Benoit Mandelbrot. Moore hoped to call the series The Mandelbrot Set, in fact, but changed the title to Big Numbers when Mandelbrot balked at giving his permission.
Fans of Watchmen and V For Vendetta and Swamp Thing are forgiven if this sounds like somethig that might, perhaps, not be to their liking. If you described it to me without mentioning that it had been written by Alan Moore, I doubt I'd have any interest in it. However, it was written by Alan Moore, and believe you me, Moore's interest in things like politics and mathematics and chaos theory informed Watchmen, V For Vendetta, and Swamp Thing as surely as they informed Big Numbers, so it's not like this was a massive shift in tone and content for the writer.
As for the issues themselves (which I do not own; I, um, borrowed them from somebody), they are somewhat difficult to wrap your arms around, and knowing that you're never going to get to read the rest of the story increases the impenetrability significantly. However, by the end of the first issue, I was already bummed out by the permanent comicus interruptus that had befallen the series. Can I honestly say that I "enjoyed" the two/three extant issues? Only somewhat. And yet, I would love to somehow read the rest. I suspect that by the time the whole thing had been completed, it would have been a bit of a masterpiece.
As is, though, it seems destined to join the ranks of other famously unfinished works from great authors:
- The Mysterious Stranger (Mark Twain)
- The Mystery of Edwin Drood (Charles Dickens)
- The Love of the Last Tycoon (F. Scott Fitzgerald)
- Answered Prayers (Truman Capote)
- a seventh and final Dune novel (Frank Herbert)
- Weir of Hermiston (Robert Louis Stevenson)
(And don't you just know that at some point, Stephen King is going to kick the bucket from some masterwork half-finished? The odds against that are infinitesimal.)
I'd intended to toss in some more quotations, this time from an epic interview Moore gave to The Comics Journal in 1990. I couldn't decide which to cherry-pick from it, though, so I'm going to just post a bunch of pages from the interview and let you peruse 'em as you desire. They certainly shed light on the process behind Big Numbers, and they also make it plain that I could live three centuries and not be as smart as Alan Moore.
I don't know about you, but I'm feelin' a bit gumbyish.
In a good way, though. (By the way, I found an episode of the Doconstructing Comics podcast that deals specifically with Big Numbers. Here's a link. I haven't listened, so I can't vouch for it; but I've listened to other episodes in the past, and found them fun and entertaining.)
We now turn our attentions to another multi-issue epically-difficult-to-penetrate tale from Alan Moore: From Hell.
Rather than cover the whole dingaderry at once, though, we're going to go a bit slower, issue by issue.
I first read From Hell roundabout the year 2000; I came to it because I'd gone gaga for Watchmen (which I'd recently discovered in an X-Men-movie-fueled attempt to rediscover a love for comics), and was seeking out other things from the same author. Watchmen led to V For Vendetta, and to The Killing Joke, and to the then-current line of titles Moore was producing for ABC.
It also led to From Hell, a massive tome that the proprietor of the local comics shop sold me with the stipulation that I not return it because I thought it sucked. I guess that was an issue in his line of business.
I read it mostly at work, and my frequent comment when a co-worker would ask me how it was went something like, "Awesome, but I don't know what the fuck I'm reading."
It is indeed a challenging text, but rewarding in the extreme. For those of you who may be in the dark as to what the book is about, the short-hand version is to say that it is an examination of the Jack the Ripper murders. That statement is like saying that Lonesome Dove is about a cattle drive: not inaccurate, yet wholly inadequate.
Here's a somewhat lengthier explanation, courtesy of the comic's Wikipedia page:
From Hell was originally serialized as one of several features in Taboo, an anthology comic book published by Steve Bissette's Spiderbaby Grafix. After running in Taboo #2-7 (1989-1992), Moore and Campbell moved the project to its own series, published first by Tundra Publishing, then by Kitchen Sink Press. The series was published in ten volumes between 1991 and 1996, and an appendix, From Hell: The Dance of the Gull-catchers, was published in 1998. The entire series was collected in a trade paperback and published by Eddie Campbell Comics in 1999; trade paperback and hardcover versions are now published by Top Shelf Productions in the USA and Knockabout Comics in the UK.
From Hell takes as its premise Stephen Knight's theory that the Jack the Ripper murders were part of a conspiracy to conceal the birth of an illegitimate royal baby fathered by Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence, slightly modified: the involvement of Walter Sickert is reduced, and Knight's allegation that the child's mother was a Catholic has been dropped. Knight's theories have been described as "a good fictional read" whose "conclusions have been disproved numerous times". In an appendix added to the collected From Hell, Moore writes that he did not accept Knight's theory at face value (and he echoed the then-growing consensus that such claims were likely hoaxes), but considered it an interesting starting point for his own fictional examination of the Ripper murders, their era and impact. However, in the serialised publication of Dance of the Gull-Catchers Moore included an "author's statement" which consisted of a blown-up panel from the prologue, depicting the psychic Robert James Lees confessing that although his visions were fraudulent, they were accurate: "I made it all up, and it all came true anyway. That's the funny part."
Moore and Campbell conducted significant research to ensure plausibility and verisimilitude. The collected From Hell features over forty pages of page-by-page notes and references, indicating which scenes are based wholly on Moore's own imagination and which are based upon specific named sources. Moore's opinions on the reliability of those references are also listed, which often disagree quite dramatically with experts on the Ripper case and history. The annotations are followed by an epilogue in comics format, The Dance of the Gull-Catchers, in which Moore and Campbell expand on the various theories of the Ripper crimes and the likelihood—or rather, the near-impossibility—of the true identity of the culprit ever being identified.
Well, that'll do for a start.
I'm going to examine the contents of the first issue, and just say whatever comes to mind. I might even toss in a few graphical accompaniments to help illustrate my points. Here goes...
The first panel of the comic is this:
When the comic you're reading begins on a medium-shot of a decomposing bird that has flies swarming all about it, you know probably in for a grim read. But you've got to appreciate Moore and Campbell letting you know up front that things will not necessarily be pleasant going forward. 'Preciate it, y'all!
The prologue is set in 1923, and consists of two old men -- Abberline and Lees -- walking along the shore, talking politics. Abberline predicts a Tory win in the upcoming election, but Lees says Labour will win; Abberline asks him if he's had one of his visions, and Lees says that indeed he has. Silence follows as the two old men take seats upon some wooden stumps sticking out of the sand:
Lees, it runs out, has been merely pretending to be a psychic all these years. We have no context for who these two men are, and therefore no context for Lees' history as a clairvoyant; or at least, I did not (those deeply familiar with the Ripper story might be ahead of the curve in this regard). So by all rights, this section should be both confusing and boring; we don't know these people, and they are talking with intimate knowledge about details of their lives for which we have no context.
And yet, somehow it is utterly involving. This is due, I think to the simple communicative ability of Campbell's art (and to Moore's decisions in terms of how to break the action into a series of panels -- his "direction" of Campbell's art, if you will). Something about Campbell's style here tends to make me a bit grumpy ... until I actually ponder the art for a few moments and examine what it is offering in dramatic terms.
Take that first series of three panels, for example. In the first, pay attention to the way Abberline is sitting, clearly intent on taking a drink, perhaps feeling the need after being delivered what seems rock-solid psychic proof that his party will be defeated in the upcoming election. But for Lees, who continues to stand for a few moments more, something else is clearly going on; and when, two panels later, he declares that he "made it up," it becomes clear that in the first panel, he is deciding whether to unburden himself of a secret he has kept for literally decades. With that in mind, look again at that first panel; you can practically feel Lees wrestling with the decision. It is a simple moment, but, in context, rather amazing.
Less continues, and explains that he began faking clairvoyance at an early age, and kept right on doing it. He even demonstrates the resultant "seizures" he would occasionally have, which were just as fake. Abberline protests:
There is nothing flashy going on here; Campbell's art is plain, but stark, and communicates a tremendous amount of emotion. I don't know that I'd want to see him drawing something like Locke & Key or Saga, but I honestly can't think of how anyone would be better-suited to draw From Hell.
It is worth noting, at this point, that the movie version of From Hell not only makes the clairvoyance genuine, it transfers the prestidigitative powers from Lees to Abberline. Hard to imagine why Alan Moore spoke out against that movie at every turn...
Thins progress, with Abberline and Lees discovering a man and woman rutting in the sand; the woman is apparently a professional, and Abberline becomes incensed when she tells him off. This leads the two men to reminisce about a case they still remember vividly; in fact, neither of them even needs to refer to it with any specificity, needing only to use the word "it" to instantly communicate the nature of their thoughts. Assuming that the reader knows the comic is about the Jack the Ripper case, we, too, know immediately what they are talking about.
They ruminate a bit more, Abberline expressing some vague distaste for his role in hushing up whatever it was that he and Lees hushed up. The decision apparently paid handsomely.
And with that, the prologue is at an end.
We shift next into Chapter One, "The affections of young Mr. S," which begins in a confectioner's shop. The shopgirl, Annie, is talking to two young men, one of whom she refers to as "Mr. S." This, we will later learn, is Walter Sickert, an artist of some repute. Sickert's companion awkwardly flirts with Annie:
Sickert introduces his bumbling friend as his younger brother, Albert. Annie does not seem to be particularly bothered by Albert's stumbling affections; if anything, she is encouraging, and as the two young men leave, they discuss the girl:
Wait, wait ... why is the younger Sickert addressing the older one as "Sickert"? And why is the elder Sickert referring to Albert as "Eddy"? Something is amiss, here. The more learned among us might already know the score; the rest of us will eventually learn that this is actually Prince Albert Victor, who is moving amongst the common rabble for reasons unknown.
On the next page, we seemingly skip forward in time a bit so as to witness a rather graphic sexual encounter between Annie and Albert/Eddy. I'd show you what I'm talking about, but modesty has stayed my hand. Let's just say the shuttle Galileo is docking with the Enterprise. (Memorably, I once showed a friend this page, presumably because I made some of a "whoah...!" noise while reading it in his vicinity. He looked at it, and replied, "Yep; that's fuckin', alright.")
Another forward leap in time; Sickert discovers that Annie -- whom he has also apparently been courting -- is six months pregnant with "Albert's" child. Jump; Sickert is visiting Annie in the hospital post-delivery, with Albert nowhere to be found, Annie speaking happily of their impending marriage. Jump; Annie and "Albert" are indeed marrying, and Sickert is whispering to Eddy that he can't go through with it.
But he does.
Does anybody else have the feeling that this isn't going to end well?
Jump forward in time again; Sickert is taking Annie and a woman named Mary Kelly (a friend of Annie's) to France as a distraction while Albert is "away on business." Sickert and Mary discuss the issue of Irish home rule for a bit; Mary seems rather knowledgeable, and extremely disdainful of the monarchy.
Jump; Sickert runs into Mary ("Marie," he calls her -- referencing what she apparently called herself while on the sojourns to France with Sickert and Annie) in the street, and the two of them soon encounter some sort of disturbance on Cleveland Street. There are ruffians hanging about, and soon a fight erupts, drawing the attentions of everyone in the vicinity. I must confess to being a wee bit confused by this, but I think the idea is that the "ruffians" are paid men in charge of creating a distraction, so that as few eyes as possible will be on Sickert's studio, where Albert is.
Sickert knows something is amiss, and it doesn't take him long to figure out what:
Sickert reaches his studio, and from the shadows he watches as Prince Eddy and his wife are dragged out. Annie is taken away in one carriage; the Prince is placed in another, screaming for his Annie to no avail.
With that note of emptiness and distress, Chapter One has reached its end.
Chapter Two, "A state of darkness," begins thus:
This is a purposefully confusing page, and it might not be exaggeration to suggest that each reader's enjoyment of the text hinges on his or her willingness / ability to successfully deal with this page. I don't think it is possible for a first-time reader to know what is going on here; there is simply no context available, and as a result, confusion is the only possible outcome.
Moore is gambling on the confusion being a useful confusion; in other words, he is counting on the reader to understand that confusion is the correct response, and to engage with the material in a different way as a result. This is a tremendous show of faith in his audience, and I suspect that many readers have not been up to the challenge.
One of two interpretations seems the likely result for the first-time reader. The first, and by far the most likely, scenario is that you will assume these nine panels to represent a single conversation between two people in the dark. The second scenario is that you will (correctly) intuit that what you are seeing is a sort of collage of different conversations. Even if you accomplish that, you will not understand the implications of what you are reading for pages yet to come; as such, even if you make a genuinely outstanding intuitive leap, you are going to be confused by this page.
Comics that work with this type of device are almost certainly responsible for turning some readers off of comics altogether. Plenty of people don't take kindly to being confused, and if they are unable to understand more or less immediately that they are supposed to be confused, then they will simply feel that the comic is poorly-written, and will give up. There's nothing specific to the medium of comics in this approach; you can find it in prose, cinema, music, art, theater, television, or any other medium you'd care to name. It is always an unusual approach, and it tends to be most successful upon audience members who are well-versed in the medium at hand. A cinephile, for example, will immediately recognize when Kubrick is up to some trick like that; he may not know what Kubrick is aiming for, but he'll recognize that Kubrick knew we wouldn't know what he was going for, and counted on making that element of uncertainty a part of the process.
Alan Moore is definitely prone to doing that sort of thing, which is perhaps why people who love his work LOVE it despite the fact that it makes other people throw their hands up in dismay and ask what the hell all the rest of us are smoking.
It isn't an unreasonable reaction, to be honest. I get that an approach like this can, and does, put people at a remove. I wouldn't want every comic book I ever read to operate on that level; sometimes, I just want to see Spider-Man kick Doctor Octopus in the face and make some sort of wise-crack. There's nothing wrong with that.
Conversely, there's nothing wrong with being challenged once in a while to realize that while it's fun to see Spider-Man kicking Doctor Octopus in the face, there is perhaps also room to be challenged by a comic book. Life shouldn't be entirely easy; it should make us work a bit on occasion, even in terms of the entertainment we are consuming. So, yeah, give me Spidey some days; others, give me Alan Moore, and if you ever catch me saying that we should only have one or the other, feel free to box my ears; I'll deserve it.
In any case, the very next page allows us to make some sense out of this confusion, provided we're engaging with the material, rather than passively rushing through it:
If we're paying attention, we will notice that these words are in the traditional dialogue balloons, with the arrow pointing in the direction of the person who is speaking. The previous page contained balloons, but balloons without arrows. If you notice the difference in the dialogue balloons from one page to the next, then you are given the key to at least partially understanding what's going on on that first page of this chapter: those are thoughts, presumably the thoughts of one of the two people speaking on the next page (either William or his father, whoever they are).
We will in time discover that the truth is considerably more complex than that, but for now, we've gained sufficient understanding to proceed.
Let's have a look at the rest of the second page:
Art doesn't get much simpler than this, but it's extremely effective, and informs us that wherever we are, whoever we are with, they are in motion; on a boat, perhaps, or a carriage, moving without illumination through a darkened tunnel of some sort. (Given the discussion of the ocean, it's almost certainly a boat.) I'm probably not wrong to associate this with birth, because what we are seeing here is nothing less than the determination of Jack the Ripper to become ... well, if not to become Jack the Ripper, then to become something noteworthy. We don't know this at the time, of course, unless we are familiar with the idea that William Gull is thought by some to be the man better known as Jack; and unless we also associate this William with that William and intuit that they are one and the same (which, of course, they are).
If we make that association, however -- or if we are reading From Hell for a second time -- then William's words here are likely to chill us right to our core: "Well, if I may not work the ocean I should like to work with something of a kind to it ... something that flows like the ocean ... something salt and old."
That's chilling stuff, for sure, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that William's posture never changes from one panel to the next. He merely sits there, being as he is, and the world literally changes around him, thanks to the magic of art. There is something terrifying in that idea; I can't quite put my finger on it, and maybe I don't really want to.
The very next page finds William's father lying dead. I'm a bit hesitant to post the entire page, but I'm going to go ahead and do so. I definitely don't want to make it seem as though I'm tossing each page of the book up here for people to look at, lest accusations of piracy come flying in; however, I'm skipping plenty of pages/panels, and including only those which illustrate a point I feel needs to be made. There's definitely such a point with this particular page, so let's just go ahead and have a look at it:
You will note that the deceased Mr. Gull does not move at all here, except to the extent that his corpse is disturbed by William. That is no surprise; he's dead, so he shouldn't move. However, if we associate this non-movement with the similar non-movement of William on the previous page, things become rather unsettling, again in a way that I'm not immediately able to explicate.
Also unsettling: William's refusal to come into frame so that we may actually look upon his face. He lurks just beyond the panel, reaching into it, almost as though reaching past us. Maybe that helps to explain what is unsettling about Mr. Gull's staying in place in all nine panels; the tight focus of the art's perspective makes us participants in the scene, and the height from which we are observing things implies that we are observing them in the same way that William is observing them. We are almost seeing through his eyes; not quite, but almost. Moore and Campbell do not permit us to look away; we are held in place tightly, and while we are not AS moribund as poor Mr. Gull (we've got the option of closing the book or skipping to the next page), we are nevertheless being kept in one place, firmly.
Apart from that, this page is disturbing because of the implications about William it carries: that he is perfectly comfortable working with a dead body; that his mother is oblivious to her son's attitudes; that it is the societal climate of barge-folk that may have permitted someone like William to come into being. That list bit -- the hint that a Jack the Ripper does not merely spring into being, but is instead the product (if only partially) of the type of society from which he emerges -- is especially distressing.
The scene next shifts to Beaumont Rectory, where William's mother is apparently having some sort of tea date with the Rector. William is by now sixteen years old, but he is not being paid any more attention by his mother than was the case one page and many years ago.
I'm going to now post the two pages that follow the page on which Mr. Gull lies dead from cholera. As is the case throughout most of From Hell, these pages operate on a nine-panel layout. These two pages, then, contain eighteen panels of identical size and shape, and they alternate between (A) the conversation Mrs. Gull and the Rector are having and (B) the actions in which William is engaged during his mother's talk. The panels break down, then, in an A-B-A-B-A-B-A-B-A-B-A-B-A-B-A-B-A-B pattern, and the manner of layout causes an intriguing pattern to emerge. Let's look:
Arranging two different (though, here, related) events in that way creates -- depending on which you focus on -- a + or an X pattern on the page. I don't quite know how to describe this effect, but maybe that's enough of a suggestion to make it interesting. I think the power of laying things out visually in that specific manner lies in the slight ability it gives you to focus on one or another of the actions while ignoring -- but not forgetting -- the other set. For example, if you allow yourself to see the + pattern of William's actions on the first of the two pages, you are aware that the panels featuring Mrs. Gull and Rector Harrison are there, but you can diminish them, make them fade into the background somewhat.
Perhaps I find that compelling for no better reason than that it is an interesting layout, but there may also be something in the story that is complemented by the layout. Here, for example, you can easily make the argument that William is ignoring his mother in favor of his own pursuits, while Mrs. Gull is ignoring William in favor of her own pursuits (which are related to William on the surface, but are actually more to do with the idea of William than with William himself).
Moore also used that same type of two-page/eighteen-panel/A-B-A-B (and so forth) approach in Watchmen. Did Moore invent that type of layout or borrow it from someone else? Beats me. I'm inclined to give him credit it for it, though.
I don't want to get too terribly sidetracked here, but I thought a few brief examples of similar layouts from Watchmen might be instructive, so here goes. First, one from Watchmen #2:
And another, from Watchmen #8:
Alright, back to From Hell.
You might recall that the final image from the page we last examined was of William Gull letting blood from a rodent drip into the palm of his hand. (Boy, did I pick the wrong sentence to type while chewing on a cracker...) The next page finds us ten years further into the future, but things sure do seem to have not changed much:
We've picked back up with another bloody hand, but you may notice that this page also echoes the one on which William's father lay in the same position for nine straight panels. Here, there's another dead body occupying nine consecutive panels; Gull is performing an autopsy upon it, and just as we were unable to see him fully on the earlier pages, we see only his hands here.
The next page involves Gull being subjected to the initiation ceremony and becoming a Freemason. Something interesting happens at the bottom of the page:
That final panel should be ringing some bells. "Do you feel anything?" was one of the apparent thoughts William was having on the first page of the second chapter. By now, we've presumably become interested enough in what's going on -- thanks to the chilling way in which Gull's actions are being presented by Moore and Campbell -- that we've probably forgotten about that first page.
When last we considered it, we had decided that that page represented William -- or, possibly, his father -- thinking thoughts that we simply didn't have any context for understanding. Here, though, we are directly presented with one of those bits of dialogue, in a wildly different context. So does that perhaps mean that what we were seeing on that page was William remembering different moments from his own life? Okay, that makes sense; I get it now!
Except ... wait, hold on ... that page seemed to represent William when he was a child, and this Freemason induction is taking place when Gull is 26. Okay, so what the fuck?
That final panel and its "Do you feel anything?" simultaneously answers a question and makes us see that the question itself was inadequate. We are in much deeper, murkier waters here than we suspected.
We skip forward a few more years, into Gull's thirties. He meets James Hinton, a philosopher and fellow surgeon. Say, haven't we heard the name Hinton before? In any case, the two of them visit a madhouse for women, where Gull diagnoses a woman who has gone crazy due to a syphilitic sarcocele. She is raving about her husband Jack, wondering when he will be coming back. For all we -- and Gull and Hinton -- know, there may not even be such a person as Jack. The woman sure does seem convinced, though, which leads to this ominous moment:
This is the closest we have gotten yet to seeing Gull's face, and it is while he is being addressed as Jack.
Next, we find that Gull has married. We see one panel of his wife, who says she she wants to put the lamp out before their marriage night continues; then, we are again plunged into darkness. Before long, this happens:
Oh; we've definitely seen that first panel before, haven't we? Consider this, though; just as in its first appearance, this time the dialogue balloon carries no arrow. Technically-speaking, that is not a dialogue bubble, but a thought bubble. I don't want to read too much into things, but this seems to open the possibility that the panel as it appears on this page is not, in fact, dialogue, but represents Gull remembering a time when he was a child and the words presented in that panel appeared -- perhaps without his ability to understand them -- suddenly in his mind. Does his wife speak them aloud here as well? I would say that is likely; but the presentation suggests that it is not her that Gull hears, but the echo of her words returning to him from the past, which is odd, because then they would have been coming to him from the future...
You need a TARDIS to keep track of thoughts like that, practically.
We might now have cause to remember the prologue, in which old man Lees purported to not be a clairvoyant. What, then, is going on here? Evidence indicates that whereas Lees might not have had the powers he claimed to have, perhaps William Gull does have them.
Soon thereafter, Gull and Hinton are walking the streets, admiring architecture, stopping in a church. The page layouts shift from nine-panel arrangements to a four-panel scheme. Good luck not mentally inserting panel spaces and constructing your own nine-panel layout, though:
It's four panels, but ... it's also nine panels, kinda. They're not there, but they may as well be. What's happened is that Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell have trained you to see things a certain way; you are now complicit in what is happening; you are causing the art to bend to your sight, rigidly, in a nine-panel structure that is there even when it isn't there, in a way not dissimilar to William Gull's seeming singularity of vision, his determination to complete his arduous task (whatever it may be) even if nobody knows except for him and the Lord.
Folks, if you're not totally creeped out by this, then you and I are coming at things from very different angles.
Gull and Hinton talk more inside the church, and the conversation leads to these panels:
Okay, well now we're getting somewhere. "They suggest Time is a human Illusion" certainly ought to give us cause for reflection upon certain events of the past couple of pages, and the reappearance of the words "What is the fourth dimension?" connects the first page of the chapter with this idea.
Time -- or the illusion of time -- is clearly going to be a running theme in From Hell. This will not be a foreign concept to those who are familiar with Watchmen:
Doctor Manhattan in Watchmen exists, seemingly, in multiple times and places at once. What must that be like?
It is somewhat surprising to see similar ideas popping up in an ostensibly realistic work like From Hell; or, if not realistic, then not patently fantastical in nature. So what gives? Is this an odd misstep by Moore in From Hell?
It's hard to answer that without examining the rest of the comic, of course, but since I've read it (as you may well have done), I can say from memory that I do not think it is a misstep at all. Quite the contrary; if anything, it is a device that allows Moore to work in a theme that he had been working with for quite some time already at the point From Hell's publication commenced: a preoccupation with seeing the world in the way that a god -- or, if you prefer, a God -- might see it. What would that be like? It would be odd; it would be alien; it would, perhaps, be impossible for a human to attempt to understand without slipping into madness.
As the panels with Doctor Manhattan above demonstrate, Watchmen certainly contained the see-as-a-god-sees theme, but it was not the first time Moore had used it. It goes back at least as far as The Saga of the Swamp Thing, wherein Moore tries to get us to see how very differently a superhuman creature like Swamp Thing would think and behave. Predating even that, Moore's first few Marvelman stories hinted in that direction; when he finished it years later, under the title Miracleman, that theme came to the forefront. If you wish, you can overwrite certain elements of V For Vendetta with that theme in mind, and I feel fairly certain that the macro-view implied by Big Numbers would have hit some of the same notes.
I risk offense, possibly, by pointing out that Moore seems to be offering the hypothesis that in From Hell, Gull -- who will turn out to be the man guilty of the Whitechapel murders -- is operating in a manner not dissimilar to the way in which God operates. So far, in looking at From Hell #1, we have probably watched Gull's actions with a sense of creeping horror, what with all the rodent dissections and all. However, if we reflect on things, we will realize that Gull has not been cruel; he has merely been dispassionate, and curious. In the scene in which he interacts with the woman in the madhouse, he actually seemed rather compassionate. How, then, will this tie in with the idea of Gull being the man who viciously carves up prostitutes later in life?
We shall see. Not at any point soon; but stick with me, and eventually, we'll get there.
Meanwhile, Hinton and Gull continue their conversation:
Oh-ho, that fourth panel there seems familiar, doesn't it?
Well, we've now seen the context behind all but one of the panels from the first page of this chapter. Can the other be far off?
We next see Gull, older now (the year is 1870), progressing into higher level of Freemasonry. He is asked to attend Albert, Prince of Wales, who is ill and requires attention. Gull protests that surely the Royal physicians would be better-suited, but the Royal physicians, it seems, are not Masons.
Gull visits with Queen Victoria, having apparently been successful in healing the Prince. The Queen refers to "her son," which confuses me a bit, seeing as how Prince Albert Victor (also known as "Eddy") was her grandson, and not her son. Has Alan Moore goofed somehow? Or am I simply not seeing something? I'm going to say that I must be missing something.
We next see an even older Gull receiving news of Hinton's death; then, he attends a patient at his bedside and delivers bad news coldly, unpassionately. Soon thereafter, he -- for reasons unknown -- cuts out the dead man's heart while his sister looks on, horrified.
Next, he has an encounter with Joseph Merrick, better known to us as the Elephant Man. This bizarre section is an absolute delight, although parsing Merrick's language can prove to be a bit of a challenge:
What bearing this encounter has on the larger narrative, I am not sure. Does Merrick appear again? [Dashes to Google to find out...] Indeed he does; in issue #3. I don't recall the circumstances, but for now, perhaps we can assume that what is most important here is Gull's attitude toward Merrick: one of fascination and wonder. "By the Divine Creator," Gull says; again, the theme of Gull as representative, somehow, of God comes into play. Gull is seeing Merrick for what so many would claim him to be: a creation of the Lord.
Gull continues a few panels later:
The mention of Ganesa is interesting. I (purposefully) failed to mention earlier that the first page of From Hell, which contains epigraphs, begins with the phrase SALUTATION TO GANESA. A bit of research on this phrase turned up references to an 1824 book called (cumbersomely)
[By-the-way the second: while on that research jaunt finding out whether Merrick appears again, I had occasion to type the following sentence on Facebook: "If anyone COULD will themselves back in time so as to research the Jack the Ripper murders by actually committing them, it'd be Alan Moore." It delighted me so much I figured I had best just import it to this post.]
Next, Gull and his daughter are walking when the doctor suffers a stroke -- he begins seeing dead people, including Hinton and his father, and then he has a vision of ... well, I don't know how to describe it, except to say that Moore felt it important enough the he directed Campbell to devote an entire page to it. You'd think this would lead to me posting that page, but guess what? Not gonna do it.
After that, Gull speaks with Queen Victoria a second time, and guess what? Earlier, when I wondered if Moore had made a boo-boo or if I was missing something...? Yep; it was me.
That clears things up for sure. Things are looking pretty grim for Annie, though, aren't they?
No, indeed. Gull visits her in the madhouse where she has been tossed, and prepares to operate. Annie is understandably distressed. Here is the final panel of the penultimate page of issue #1:
And, now, the first panel of the next page:
Finally, we are allowed to gaze upon the face of William Gull. Moore has been waiting until he can show us what Gull looks like from the vantage point of a victim. To be clear, Gull is not killing Annie; he is merely rendering her insensible on a permanent basis, which some might argue is even worse than being murdered.
The issue ends with us continuing to look at Gull from Annie's point of view, until the anaesthetic takes hold and she slips into consciousness, not dead in a technical sense, but certainly doomed to no longer be the same person.
Powerful stuff, that.
That -- finally -- brings this installment of Bryant Has Issues to a close. We'll be continuing our micro-examination of From Hell at some point in the future, although I won't swear that it will be anytime particularly soon. I'm gearing up to take on one of the grandaddies of them all in the Stephen King world: The Stand. And if anything, I'll be looking at it even closer than I just finished looking at that issue of From Hell, so I'm sure you immediately sense what we're all in for as far as that goes. Plus, I'm still trying to power my way through the 007 movies over at You Only Blog Twice (where semi-recent posts have been devoted to the 1983 Battle of the Bonds flicks Octopussy and Never Say Never Again).
So many things to write about, so little time...!
See you soon, with one or another of these topics, Ganesa willing.