Reviewing From Hell Master Edition Volume # 3: The First Murder
by Koom Kankesan
There’s really no point in me (at this point) continuing to compare the differences in experience between reading the older black and white version of the book and the new colour release. Suffice to say that it’s all fine – one becomes used to the colour, finds it charming even as it softens the textures of the original, and the casual reader begins to lose interest in deducing the changes (“corrections” as he would say) that Eddie Campbell makes to the art.
Volume Three brings us to the first murder concerning the working women of Whitechapel. The first victim: Polly Nichols. The chapter begins with two epigraphs. The first is by Brian Catling, from The Stumbling Block Its Index, and I won’t even attempt to understand its meaning as it’s too difficult for me. The other is a quote by Sir Ernest Budge, the wonderfully named Keeper of Assyrian and Egyptian Antiquities at the British Museum during the time of our tale (and afterwards). His quote is: “Never print what I say in my lifetime, but that mummy-case caused the war.”
The war (and I assume by that, the Great War is what he means, although by association World War Two follows on its heels) and the end of Empire are very much central to this chapter. The Elephant Man (John Merrick), whom Gull has visited before, is on the cover of this volume. The Elephant Man is tending to some roses (while donning a head sack that hides his ‘deformity’) outside the hospital where he resides and this moment, as John Merrick tends his roses, is crucial to the narrative of the death of Polly Nichols. More on that later.
Much of the early part of this volume is concerned with contrasting the lives of Sir William Gull and Polly Nichols. Alan Moore’s structure alternates between moments in Gull’s life – where he sleeps, eats, visits the mummy at the British Museum (the tie in with the Budge quote above), visits acquaintances, etc. – with the sad corresponding facets of Nichols’ life: sleeping at the doss house, soliciting prostitution in the streets and back alleys, spending her earnings on beer before having to go out again, etc. –and Eddie Campbell renders the contrast by drawing Nichols’ goings on with his scratchy pen stroke and harsh contours while Gull’s daily episodes are rendered in soft watercolour strokes, lush soft moments that only the upper class can aspire to.
One of Gull’s moments shows him visiting The Elephant Man and telling him about a man in India who resembles Ganesha –the elephant headed God whom one prays to at the start of a voyage or endeavour –apparently, according to Gull, some Indians believe this man resembling Ganesha is an incarnation of the Elephant God and that his movements during sleep are premonitions for the nation. Gull then instructs The Elephant Man to not make any sudden moves during sleep or their own British Empire might feel the effects. The Elephant Man responds with an appropriate chuckle. It all seems rather foreboding.
Art-wise, the chapter is anything but foreboding. The rigorous nine panel grid of the earlier episodes is now broken in favour of the odd longer wide shot that allows the story to breathe and exert itself. There are more silent moments than in previous chapters; silent in terms of the absence of speech although not atmosphere and ambient evocative sound which can be heard in the reader’s mind due to Moore and Campbell’s hard work. We move forward to the beginning of our murder plot proper.
I don’t want to say too much about the plot elements because I think you should read them for yourselves. Let me focus on the figurative resonances instead. The war (and now we’re talking about the second World War) is referenced and foreshadowed in the first few pages where an anonymous Austrian couple are having sex and speaking in German. One can broadly guess at what they say. They have conceived and the woman is fairly distraught as she has a premonition of what her seed is to bring forth. This is intercut with a historical episode where a lot of blood inexplicably bursts out from the doors of a building in a Jewish quarter of London. We find out from Moore’s notes at the back of the book that the couple who were copulating are none other than the parents of Adolf Hitler. So now there is even a link between the Whitechapel murders and World War II/the Third Reich.
Besides the two epigraphs mentioned above, the chapter is preceded by an excerpt from the Victorian magazine Punch – a ‘poem’ called The Nemesis of Neglect and its attendant illustration by none other than John Tenniel (the guy who drew those amazing illustrations for Alice in Wonderland). The satirical poem is concerned with the idea of neglecting the poor. Anybody with a cursory knowledge of Dickens or Engels knows that the poor had it pretty bad in Victorian England. In concordance with Moore’s sympathies and concerns, especially connected to The Boroughs and his hometown of Northampton, he highlights the lives of the working women as emblems and victims simply because they belong to the abject poor.
Poverty dictates the various events in their lives, their conditions and fates. So Gull’s evisceration and dismembering of their bodies is not simply an act of violence against women (as discussed in the last volume) but one of the upper class against the lower. A telling moment is when after eviscerating Nichols’ belly, Gull takes out what must be one of her organs. However, he (and we) see the object as light. “Can you see it Netley?” asks Gull, “…she was filled with light.” Netley cannot see it just as he cannot slash Nichols’ neck when Gull asks him to perform the required ritualistic action – Netley’s thrust glances off the collar bone.
Nichols’ life is not neglected in all of this. She relates dreams that prophesy her own demise. She dreams of her brother burning along Ratcliffe Highway and indeed, there is a fire there on the night of her death. Her death is sealed once she accepts the bonnet that Netley gives her so that the nefarious pair (Netley and Gull) can spot her out later. Gull invites her into their hansom cab, itself a potent symbol of death, in resemblance not unlike a hearse, and lulls her into stupefication by plying her with grapes laced with tincture of laudanum. As he squeezes the life from her with his hands, Gull forces Nichols’ face against the glass of the cab and makes her recite an invocation to Ganesha. All the while, The Elephant Man tends to his roses, the moment that is evoked on the cover.
It all has the sad slow inevitability of some terrible, old swinging pendulum.