Bob's Comics Reviews January 2002 Arrows


I'll make no attempt to link these two spectacularly different comics-- they're just two good comics that I've read lately.

Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell: From Hell
Now, doesn't this sound like a good time: a 500-page comic about Jack the Ripper? If it does sound like fun, it's probably not for you. If not, I could claim, like defenders of highbrow soft porn, that it's not at all vulgar or exploitative. Somber and reflective, really. Filthy rich in redeeming social value.

Moore, author of Watchmen, takes the opportunity to offer not only a grand tour of Victorian England from head to grimy toes, but his theory that the Ripper crimes were the symbolic beginning of the vastly nastier 20th century.

The Ripper was the first serial killer-- the first one in the modern mode, at least: the random, media-savvy maniac terrorizing a society which prefers to veil its brutalities. The case also has an enduring fascination because it was never solved, which of course means one author or another solves it all over again every few years. Moore's point of departure is a 1978 work by journalist Stephen Knight (itself based on a 1973 BBC film) which attributes the murders to a vast Masonic conspiracy: the prostitutes were supposedly murdered because they knew that Queen Victoria's grandson Eddy had had a child with an Irish girl from the slums.

Moore did a good deal of research on his own, and filled in some of the bigger holes in Knight's theory-- discarding, for instance, Knight's contention that the painter Walter Sickert was involved in the conspiracy, and explaining a discrepancy on the birth certificate of Eddy's supposed daughter. Knight apparently presented the murders as a Masonic plot to forestall revolution; Moore keeps the idea, but makes it more plausible by making it the delusions of the culprit alone. (The book isn't a whodunnit, more of a howdunnit; but to preserve the interest of the first few chapters for those who haven't read it, I won't name the culprit.)

(I haven't seen the recent movie based on the comic, but it apparently invents quite a bit-- making Inspector Abberline into an opium addict and a suicide, for instance, and having him meet Mary Kelly before her death. Moore refuses to take such liberties.)

Moore's copious annotations, as well as an afterword decrying Ripper journalism as "gull-chasing", make it clear that Moore doesn't really believe in his own solution. He just wanted a good story that hangs together on its own terms and doesn't contradict any known facts. And by cracky he's got one. Perusing websites on Jack the Ripper and From Hell, even the Masons have to admit that it's carefully researched and nuanced, while the conspiracy nuts read it as it if actually proved something.

I've also read a few interviews with the ferociously intelligent Moore, whose interest in the occult is mixed with a disarming good sense... he tells us, for instance, that the appeal of conspiracy theories is precisely that we like the idea that someone's in charge and responsible for it all-- though most likely no one is.

Moore says that one of his aims was to treat a sensational affair without sensationalism-- to eschew all the time-honored tricks that place horror films and comics into a never-never-land where the gore can be enjoyed as fantasy. His main technique is inclusion: From Hell contains everything in life-- scandals and corruption, love and death, what Whitechapel prostitutes do on and off duty, philosophy and ritual, celebrity cameos from Oscar Wilde to Aleister Crowley to Buffalo Bill to Queen Victoria, as well as a host of unknown journalists, policemen, and paupers.

A 40-page chapter covers the last murder, that of Mary Kelly, in gruesome detail. The mood is certainly a million miles away from the '50s horror comics or '80s slasher movies. By this point we've already come to know Mary Kelly, so of course the crime is, as Moore puts it, "a sordid, miserable, unfair little death". The murder itself is over with quickly-- from the evidence, the murderer (the name "Jack the Ripper" was invented by a journalist) did not torture or rape the victims; his interest was apparently in the corpse. Moore himself simply wants to show what happened, and to try to figure out what could be going through the mind of a man who could spend a night this way. Moore's Jack is no Lecterian supervillain, more of a disturbed madman following rituals known only to himself.

From Hell is one of the few comics that really use length to its advantage (Cerebus and Nausicaa are among its few rivals, and Moore runs rings around Dave Sim). There is time to get to know a wide variety of characters, time for long philosophical asides, time to fully explore Mary Kelly's last desperate days. There is no nice wrap-up or happy ending (there could hardly be one, in the story of an unsolved serial killing); but you leave the book feeling that you've gotten past the genteel Victoriana of pop culture-- Lewis Carroll and Ebenezer Scrooge and Sherlock Holmes-- into the real, rich, seamy London of 1888. (In this it resembles Mike Leigh's Topsy-Turvy, such a wonderful surprise after his pugnaciously nasty earlier films.)

Moore's writing is fully equalled by Eddie Campbell's quiet, dark black-and-white art. Campbell's line is a bit sketchy, but somehow this perfectly suits the story. There's nothing cartoonish about it; rather it evokes period illustration.

Gus Arriola: Gordo
Gordo seems to be the Classic Strip Nobody Knows. Though it ran for nearly half a century (1941 to 1985) and was a favorite of professionals, it appeared in no more than 270 papers (compare 2500 for Peanuts), and has never been decently collected. The first book to offer more than a taste is R.C. Harvey's Accidental Ambassador Gordo (2000), which is about half a biography of Arriola and half selections from the strip.

Looking for an angle to break into the comics racket, Arriola looked to his origins, and created a strip set in Mexico. Gordo, a fat little guy with a Cantinflas moustache, started as "the best bean farmer in Mexico"-- though he spent most of his time resting and chasing girls, leaving his nephew Pepito to till the fields. In the '60s he became a tour guide instead, which better suited Arriola's penchant for explaining Mexican culture to the gringos (and offered even better access to girls).

Arriola started at a time when the concept of a "burrito" or a "piñata", to say nothing of refried beans, had to be carefully explained to shocked Americans. More interestingly, he incorporated themes from Mexican folk art into the strip, which gave it a look spectacularly unlike anything else on the comics page.

Besides Gordo the major characters were the handsome and erudite Poet; misplaced Texas rich girl Mary Frances; Gus's pals Juan Pablo and Pelón; his housekeeper Tehuana Mama; his temperamental bus, "Haley's Comet", which runs on booze; local witch Trini; the Widow González, the one woman Gordo runs away from; and a small menagerie of domestic animals, notably a jazz-crooning spider named Bug Rogers.

The humor is gentle and whimsical... it's sometimes satirical, notably in an episode where Juan Pablo creates a piano roll at random that becomes a big hit, but it never approaches the misanthropic bite of Al Capp. (An earlier collection, Gordo's Critters, focusses on the Mutts-like interactions of Gordo's pets, which I can get too much of. I like the humans in the strip better.)

Despite Arriola's own Mexican-American origins, the strip started out rather stereotypical-- Gordo was unshaven and lazy, the Poet was ugly, with bulbous lips; and everyone tolked weeth a beeg occent. Thankfully, Arriola soon realized that this was unnecessary (though it occasionally surfaced, as in the rather amusing "rottle" sound effect in the sample strip above). At first the art derived from the animation studios where Arriola had worked; it then passed through a hyper-realistic phase before settling on a simple, stylized line, with some striking graphic exploration, mostly on Sundays.

I hope the latest book raises interest in more collections; this is a strip I'd like to see more of.

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