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Cultural Critique 63 (2006) 99-121

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Postimperial Landscapes

"Psychogeography" and Englishness in Alan Moore's Graphic Novel from Hell: A Melodrama In Sixteen Parts

Jack the Ripper as a "Surreptitious" Discourse of Englishness

On November 9th, 1888, in 13 Miller's Court, Jack the Ripper executed his masterpiece, the violent mutilation of his final victim Mary Jeanette Kelly. In the graphic novel From Hell: A Melodrama in Sixteen Parts, a comprehensive study and fictionalization of the Whitechapel murders, which decisively entertains the notion that the Ripper is none other than Sir William Gull, Royal Physician in Extraordinary to Queen Victoria, Alan Moore devotes an entire chapter to this most romanticized and vicious attack in the Whitechapel murders. In Moore's version, Kelly's death marks the zenith of Sir William Gull's madness and the fulfillment of his mythological beliefs. Eddie Campbell's illustrations here are primarily abstract close-ups of knife hitting arteries, organs, and flesh, and of Gull lovingly arranging Kelly's body into the chaos that was captured in the now-infamous police photographs of what is presumed to be Kelly's corpse. The energy required to kill Kelly causes the boundaries of time to dissolve: Gull hallucinates back to his days as a surgeon performing an autopsy in an operating theater but also forward in time to the present as his exertions cause him to burst into the twentieth century. In an ecstatic hallucinatory state, Gull suddenly finds himself triumphantly brandishing a scalpel in themiddle of an open-walled office (see Figure 1). He accuses the workers around him of being "numbed" by the "shimmering numbers and . . . lights" of the twentieth century. "Think not to be inured to history," he announces, "its black root succours you. It is inside you. Are you asleep to it, that cannot feel its breath upon your neck, not see what [End Page 99]

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Figure 1
Gull and Thatcher's "enterprise culture" (10:20). From Hell, copyright 1999 by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell.

soaks its cuffs? See me! Wake up and look upon me! I am come amongst you. I am with you always!" As Gull remains invisible to the present, he delivers his final condemnation: "You are the sum of all preceding you, yet you seem indifferent to yourselves. A culture grown disinterested even in its own abysmal wounds" (10:21).1 This accusation of disinterestedness is not only a postmodern loss of historicity but also the tendency in celebrations of the national past to gloss over the dark spots of imperial history and other traumas in the past. Desensitized by the "shimmering numbers . . . and lights," the office workers take no notice as Gull hugs Kelly's broken body to him- self. This scene of the 1880s bleeding into the enterprise culture of the 1980s is an explicit use of Jack the Ripper to comment on the present's relationship to the past. The aristocratic Gull's "work" on East End prostitutes is set up to articulate his own sense of himself as an [End Page 100] apocalyptic theorist while Campbell's graphics of twentieth-century Thatcherite "enterprise culture" serves to mirror Thatcher's economic restructuring of the welfare state that created both "an age of popular capitalism" and a "decade of growing inequality" (Corner and Harvey, 4) (see Figure 2).

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Figure 2
Gull in the twentieth century (8:40). From Hell, copyright 1999 by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell.
[End Page 101]

From Hell began its serial run in 1988 to mark the centenary of the Whitechapel murders; the series ended in 1996, and the second appendix, "The Dance of the Gull Catchers," which dramatized the genealogy of Ripperology and the "vast theme-park" (II:22) of the Ripper industry, was not released until 1998. The series was gathered into its current book form in 1999 to coincide conspicuously with England's lackluster millennium celebrations. With the inclusion of the second appendix, the novel, in effect, looks back to the Thatcher...


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