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Considering comics as medium, art, and culture - the case of From Hell

Simon Locke

This paper raises some doubts about how we view comics as medium, art, and culture using Moore and Campbell’s From Hell, a fictionalised re-telling of the case of Jack the Ripper, as an illustrative focus. Specifically, it points to a number of ironies in some recent attempts to define the medium and the aesthetics of comics ‘art’ in formal terms that undermine their apparent ‘neutrality’ and show they need to be understood in relation to the cultural context from which they have developed. Thus, although comics are commonly said to be a “hybrid” medium and/or art-form that combines words and pictures (Bongco 2000: 49; cf. Eisner 1985; Harvey 1996; Hatfield 2005; Round 2007; Varnum and Gibbons 2001), some attempts at definition interpret this in a manner that “overprivileges the image” (Jacobs 2007: 505; cf. Hatfield 2005: 36). It is argued here that this can be understood by locating these efforts in the context of a cultural struggle over the meaning of “a comic” that involved both matters of content and processes of production. I view this struggle through a metaphor of argument understood in rhetorical terms as “the available means of persuasion” (Aristotle 1946: 1355b, 26; see also Billig 1996; Gross 1996). This does not mean emptying the struggle of value or reducing arguments to mere bombast; rather, it is to recognise that cultural products are signifiers carrying “evaluative accentuation” (Volosinov 1973: 21) positioning them in a context of contrastive evaluations with which they stand in varying degrees and forms of contestation. Thus, using “the available means of persuasion” means mobilising cultural resources to legitimise one position against contending others (Potter 1996).

The recent history of comics in Britain and North America provides good illustration of this kind of struggle. It has been a struggle undertaken by ordinary members of society who happen to be involved in making comics, including the creators of From Hell, especially the writer Alan Moore, and so the comic (or “graphic novel” – itself, of course, a contested term) can be used to bring this out. It should be noted that other comics could probably serve equally well for this purpose, but From Hell did appear at a time when the battle-lines were being drawn sharply and provides a handy lens to focus them. As discussed in the next section, a key point of appeal in the struggle was to an idea of “art” drawn from the Western “high” cultural tradition, involving the identification of formal, universal, or ahistorical, aesthetic qualities (Wolff 1993), resulting in attempts to define the comics medium in such terms. Such definitions were advanced with the intention of liberating comics from a supposedly prevailing counterview in which they were seen as rightly limited to generic children’s fare, notably superheroes.

Formal definitions led to attempts to identify formal aesthetics, such as the view that comics involve combining words and pictures to serve a single narrative and artistic vision, something, I argue that can be suggested of From Hell. However, whilst it may then be said to constitute a work of comics “art”, in other respects the comic displays features and qualities that call such views into ironic doubt. To bring these out, I focus first on the claim that comics art has a cultural universality based in ‘simplification’. Against this, I use From Hell to argue that what constitutes simplification will depend on prevailing cultural aesthetics and the way these are employed in the context of a specific text. The irony here is that the bid to defend comics by appeal to cultural universality threatens to undermine the very struggle it intends to support. This leads onto questioning of how combinations of words and pictures are to be judged as to their narrative and artistic ‘effectiveness’, bringing out the visual bias in supposedly ‘neutral’ definitions. Here, the irony is that in making such definitions in the attempt to advance the cause of artistic freedom, this very freedom is threatened. Seen this way, such definitions might be deemed ‘ideological’, serving the interests of one set of comics producers, writer-artists, over others. As such, there is one further irony, that the use of a “high” cultural definition to defend a popular cultural medium has left it lacking clear cultural status and facing an uncertain future. This again is illustrated by From Hell, which, whilst it may exemplify qualities taken to be characteristic of “high” cultural works of “art”, is also firmly grounded in the very popular cultural genre those qualities were defined against – superheroes, notably in the characterisation of Jack the Ripper as a “mad doctor”.

It should be stressed that none of these arguments are made with the intention of criticising From Hell, whose merits as a work of “art” – in one further, reflexive, ironic twist – I do not doubt in any way at all.

Definitions From Hell

That recent attempts to define comics emerge from a context of cultural struggle is readily shown by brief consideration of a couple of earlier definitions. Sabin (1996: 27) notes that in 1965, the Oxford English Dictionary defined comics as “a publication for children designed to excite mirth”. A few years later, Robert Crumb (1969: back cover) proposed a rather broader view: “only lines on paper”. Clearly, there is an argument going on here. Crumb’s statement, designed to minimise the significance of comics and defuse cultural criticism – why get fussed about only lines on paper – was made in a context where there was a good deal of fuss about underground comics. These were produced by creators who deliberately set out to challenge the prevailing cultural prejudices that, so the argument runs, restricted the artistic possibilities of comics (Rosenkranz 2002). With presumably deliberate irony, Crumb’s move downplays the significance of comics and so can be used as a defence of more ambitious artistic ends - because mere lines on paper are unimportant. Despite the irony, then, there is in this an appeal to an idea of creative freedom that is a key point of connection to more recent attempts to define comics, which need then to be seen against this background of cultural struggle.

Thus, to take the most prominent example, McCloud’s (1993: 9) view of comics as “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence”, although seen by some as “neutral” (Bongco 2000: 54), should be viewed as continuing Crumb’s argument – indeed, McCloud (1993: 50) effectively incorporates Crumb’s remark in his notion of “art objects” as “ink on paper”. The point is apparent from Bongco’s own discussion, as she (2000: 50) explicitly presents her call for clear definition of the “structural and stylistic principles behind successful comics art” against the “popular connotation of “comics” as humorous or simple illustrated reading materials”. There is more to this though. In his wider discussion, McCloud (1993: 6) conflates “medium” and “artform” (sic), stating: “The artform – the medium – known as comics is a vessel which can hold any number of ideas and images”. Comics creators, therefore, are free to fill it with whatever they want, the content of the “lines on paper” is unrestricted. Thus, the conflation continues to argue and does so in a very specific way: it validates a particular cultural struggle by representing it as a universal matter. In treating the medium as the art-form, comics as a whole are rallied to support the fight by some creators in some late twentieth century Western nations to escape a prevailing cultural view that disassociates comics from “art”. Their particular struggle becomes universalised to be about the medium itself, rather than just their artistic pretensions. Thus, the struggle loses its situated cultural dimension taking on the grander form of a fight for the right, not just to draw whatever “lines on paper” they choose, but to define “comics” as a whole.

Part of this universalising strategy is the invocation of historical precursors, such as Egyptian hieroglyphs (McCloud 1993: 13-15; cf. Perry and Aldridge 1971), as examples of the cultural commonality of comics. But whilst this has the advantage of turning the resources of Western “high” culture against itself in a bid to legitimise comics (Reynolds 1992) and expose an arbitrary cultural prejudice, it may also contribute to the reproduction of a similar prejudice within the comics community, where the rhetoric of art is used to judge not only the quality of comics but also their readers (Pustz 1999; cf. Locke 1998). This rhetoric also draws on “high” culture, where art is seen as breaking established social conventions and the artist, by virtue of their outsider status, provides transcendent, critical vision (Adorno 2001). Universalistic notions of art draw upon and feed into this kind of ideal by seeking to identify its transcendent qualities over and above any particular works, but do so to justify and legitimise some particular works as exemplifications of the transcendent form. Attempts to define comics in a universal way likewise draw on and feed into the same cultural logic: the artist as transcendent visionary, and the artwork as a holistic expression of this transcendent ideal – the product of a single, creative imagination (Eisner 1985).

These points are illustrated by From Hell. After a preview in Cerebus 124, (Aardvark-Vanaheim, July 1989), the comic began in serial form in the independent horror anthology, Taboo (SpiderBaby Grafix), published by Steve Bissette with whom Moore had worked on DC’s Swamp Thing. It was then published in collected editions initially by Moore’s own company, Mad Love, in association with Kevin Eastman’s Tundra, established after his success with the black and white independent, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Mirage Studios). After two of the ten volumes, Kitchen Sink, once an underground publisher, took over as associate. Thus, From Hell was a product of a time of change in the US comics industry, when a number of creators, having worked on properties owned by mainstream publishers, sought independence to escape what were seen as restrictive practices in both type of material and working conditions. Here, they were aligned with the underground tradition and echoed earlier arguments linking artistic freedom with defence of the medium in general. Mainstream publishers, especially the “Big Two” of Marvel and DC, were presented as dominating the market with material that unduly limited the possibilities of the medium, by confining it largely to one genre – superheroes – pitched at one sector of the population – adolescent males. Additionally, by maintaining ownership over characters and imposing a particular contractual relationship, “work-made-for-hire”, the publishers inhibited creativity as creators had only limited control over the products of their artistic imaginations (Harvey 1996; Hatfield 2005).

From Hell is representative of these arguments as it breaks the mainstream mould in a number of ways, in addition to its independent publishing history. As a fictionalised re-telling of the series of murders that took place in the Whitechapel district of East London in the late summer and autumn of 1888 associated with the unidentified killer commonly known as Jack the Ripper, it is, at least ostensibly, generically far removed from superheroes. Unusually for a work of fiction in comics, it is based on documented historical evidence detailed in extensive appendices. It was also printed in black and white, which, aside from any economic reasons, signified commitment to alternative creative possibilities beyond the four-coloured world of mainstream superheroes.

Thus, From Hell can be seen as a product of a historical and cultural struggle over the definition of “comics”. It was part of a more general challenge to the prevailing configuration of the industry, championed as a defence of comics art and the medium itself. Equally, McCloud’s definition must be seen within this context. It is not “neutral”, but part of a culturally situated struggle, in which defending the rights of some creators to produce comics of a particular kind, ones that broke the conventional mould and addressed topics beyond those “designed to excite mirth” amongst children (or pander to adolescent angst), became written as defending “comics” treated as a single, universal form.

Aesthetics From Hell

Perceiving comics through the idea of a universal definition feeds attempts to specify aesthetic criteria in formal terms, which From Hell can also be used to illustrate. Central here is the view that a comic should express a single artistic vision in how words and pictures are combined. This is most prominently associated with Eisner (1986), but I will refer chiefly to Bongco (2000), who, although principally concerned with superhero comics, does nonetheless present a more encompassing discussion along similar lines. She (2000: 49) is explicit in stating that comics should not be seen as primarily a visual medium, but a “hybrid” in which words and pictures work in conjunction: “the key to understanding comics does not lie in the words or pictures themselves but in the interaction and relationships between them.” Her attempt to develop an aesthetics from this, however, exposes the culturally situated character of how “combining words and pictures” has been interpreted.

That From Hell expresses a single creative vision might be questioned given that the writer and artist (in the sense of penciller-inker) are two separate people. It might then be thought a product of what Harvey (1996: 26) calls “the assembly-line or committee-work method of production” associated with “work-made-for-hire”, rather than “art”. However, at the risk of overstatement, a case can be made for seeing From Hell as principally an expression of Moore’s creative vision, for which Campbell’s artistry provides the tools of visual realisation albeit through “lines on paper” crafted in his own unique style. Whilst I do not wish to underplay the importance of Campbell’s contribution to the atmosphere and story-telling, two points can be made in support of viewing the narrative vision and story-line as Moore’s. One concerns the reported attitude of Campbell towards Moore’s notoriously detailed scripts, as described by Dave Sim: “he would just get Anne to go through them and underline what had to be in the panel and bollocks to all your [i.e., Moore’s] windy exposition” (Sim and Moore, 2003: 308). Of more significance to the present discussion, however, is the central story-line, which uses the events associated with Jack the Ripper to set out a grand vision of history that informs some of Moore’s other comics and his “magical” performances (Di Liddio 2005).

Moore builds his story from Knight (1976), who attributes the murders to an establishment conspiracy involving high-positioned Freemasons in the police and the artist, Walter Sickert, confidant of Queen Victoria’s grandson, popularly known as “Prince Eddie”. Eddie supposedly secretly wed and had child with Annie Crook, a Roman Catholic, creating a potential constitutional crisis for the British monarchy. The Ripper’s victims, a group of Whitechapel prostitutes referred to as “the canonical five” (Rumbelow 2004), discovered this and had to be silenced. Moore imagines a scenario in which Queen Victoria calls upon a loyal servant to do the deed, Sir William Gull. Gull is a genuine historical figure who, in 1887, had been made “Royal Physician in Extraordinary” (Moore and Campbell 2000: 2, 19; references to From Hell include chapter and page). Moore, following Knight, depicts Gull as a Freemason, with a strong conviction that his life was intended for a “special task” (Moore and Campbell 2000: 2, 25). At the age of seventy, Gull suffered a stroke, which Moore postulates led to a visionary encounter with the “Great Architect of the Universe”, Jahbulon. The experience leaves Gull convinced his special task is about to be made plain; soon thereafter he is called to deal with the prostitutes.

Gull interprets the Royal command as divine calling to undertake a “grand work” (Moore and Campbell 2000: 4, 6), a magical rite based on a psychogeography (Di Liddio 2005) of London as a city built by patriarchal force over the dead bodies of women, representatives of matriarchy and goddess worship. Ferried by his coachman, John Netley, Gull maps out pagan sites across the city, tracing an enormous pentangle that incorporates six churches designed by the seventeenth-century architect, Nicholas Hawksmoor (an idea Moore borrows from Iain Sinclair’s Lud Heat). Gull describes Hawksmoor as basing his designs on “the pagan traditions of the ancient Dionysiac architects” (Moore and Campbell 2000: 2, 13), so that, despite their Christian trappings, they are rich with pagan symbolism, such as obelisks, “altar[s] to the Sun, and Masculinity, and Reason” (Moore and Campbell 2000: 4, 13). The grand pentangle unites the churches along a series of lines that Gull perceives as “luminous filaments [which] connect the City’s stones into a circuit ... a profound and radiant design” (Moore and Campbell 2000: 14, 8-9) centred on St. Paul’s. Thus, says Gull:

“It surrounds us... this pentacle of sun gods, obelisks and rational male fire, wherein unconsciousness, the moon and womanhood are chained. Its lines of power and meaning must be reinforced according to the ancient ways ... What better sacrifice than “Heiros Gamos”? Than Diana’s priestesses?” (Moore and Campbell 2000: 4, 37)

By which he means prostitutes. Accordingly, he sets out to make such sacrifices, five blood-lettings undertaken in accord with Masonic ritual procedure. Gull’s pentangle is on a smaller scale, confined to the streets around Whitechapel and centred on Christchurch, Spitalfields, perhaps the most imposing of Hawksmoor’s churches.

In effect, then, Moore uses Gull to articulate a visionary narrative informed by an occult cosmology, in which historical events are symbolically connected across ostensibly distinct periods. Time is patterned at levels that vastly transcend the individual life, or even whole epochs; thus, the killing of five women in London’s East End is a resonant echo of prior (and future) events, a vibratory ripple linking moments across millennia. Elsewhere, Moore expresses this through an image of “space-time” as a single crystalline order, in which all that was and will be co-exists as a single, eternal, structured moment (Moore et al. 2004). Individual lives exist in this structure like flies caught in amber, a foetus at one end, a corpse at the other.

Crucially, this vision is represented in From Hell in both words and pictures; they “interact” and “relate” in a manner that seems in keeping with Bongco’s aesthetics. In elaborating her view of how they should be combined, she (2000: 49) emphasises “effectiveness”, specifying “how absorbingly and dynamically a story is related in pictures and texts”. Fundamental to this is “narrative breakdowns”, in respect of which “a smooth sequential progression and narrative coherence” is important that “must be served by both the visual impact and the nuances of the story” (Bongco 2000: 58). This applies also to panels, how their “choice and organisation … function to advance the story. Controlling the focus of the reader is important; one way to effectively do this is to select a “camera” distance so that each panel contains only the minimum essentials of a scene while maximising story-telling.” (Bongco 2000: 62-3)

These features seem to inform From Hell, as can be particularly illustrated by the use of a nine-panel grid, which seems to function as a basic template for the narrative breakdowns. Throughout, there is little variation from this layout and a case can be made for seeing this as a key expression of the artistic vision informing the comic. It is a very constrained and disciplined format that lends a particular kind of atmosphere and feel. Generally, it holds to a methodical pace, in which the time periodicity between panels remains consistent within a scene (Alaniz 2003). The grid thus boxes in the characters and their actions, depicting them confined within a tightly controlled world enjoying little freedom of movement.

This resonates with the narrative in two significant ways: first, along with the stark black and white of Campbell’s art, it conveys a sense of the depressed urban existence of the residents of Whitechapel, people trapped in circumstances of grim and grinding poverty, caught in claustrophobic social and economic circumstances with little room to manoeuvre and less chance of escape. This sense of limitation is overlain by the deterministic worldview Moore infuses into the story, in which the characters so often seem to be playing out lives already lived, forever caught in a four-dimensional structure visually represented by the enclosed limitations of the comics page, panel by panel. Inside the nine-panel grid, the characters are visibly shown constrained by a structure that orders their action with inescapable inevitability, a slow but relentless march to a fateful and irresistible conclusion.

A good example of this is a sequence showing Gull’s coachmen, Netley (Moore and Campbell 2000: 8, 18-19) (fig. 1). Netley is a forlorn figure: forced by Gull to participate in his brutal ritual, he epitomises the individual caught up in circumstances beyond his control; an impoverished, reluctant co-conspirator, destined for a tragic end, to be as forgotten after death as he and his ilk were neglected in life. Netley’s perpetual tragedy is beautifully caught in this sequence, which opens in continuity from the preceding page with him drowning his sorrows in cheap gin and pornography, vainly seeking solace from his damned fate. Eventually, resigned, he turns to his few shabby and meagre belongings, the equipment of his trade, and shuffles out into the cold, dark night. Campbell’s movement-by-movement/ panel-by-panel depiction of this scene conveys a sense of desperate unwillingness, a performance unwanted but filled with the weight of inevitability. Netley acts despite himself; caught within the panels, he is unable to step in any direction except between their imprisoning gutters. He is trapped inside this pen-and-ink cage of temporality, just as all the moments of his life are caught in threads of blood and viscera knitted through history.

Fig. 1


In contrast, where the nine-panel grid is broken, there is a sense of relief, of freedom from oppression and openness to possibility that Moore uses to convey a sense of grandeur and power. When Gull encounters Jahbulon, for example (Moore and Campbell 2000: 2, 26) (fig. 2), a full-page splash is used, the image unrestricted by panel lines, rising out of and into a blank beyond, empty space of limitless possibility.

Fig. 2


A similar means of conveying power, though with rather different impact, is used for Gull’s first audience with Queen Victoria (Moore and Campbell 2000: 2, 18-19) (fig. 3). Here, Bongco’s remarks concerning “camera distance” and composition of panels are relevant. The scene occurs in a chapter devoted to Gull’s life up to his calling to his “special task”, all of which, bar the final page, is shown from his point of view, so here we see the Queen from his position and perspective. At the start of the sequence, she seems to dominate the page in a single image occupying two-thirds of the nine-panel grid, giving her a seemingly large and significant presence, just as she is likely to have appeared in the eyes of a man like Gull. In fact, her actual figure is scarcely bigger than those in the following “normal-sized” panels, implying she has a greater imagined than real presence, a sense enhanced by background shadows that impart a pervading sense of lurking, if gloomy, power, of uncertain form and extent. Yet they shortly evaporate into blankness, suggesting her power may be less than at first it seems and that what lies beyond is open territory, outside her control and awaiting delineation. It is with this sense of limitation that the scene concludes, as Victoria recedes into a darkened background, again cast in shadows, but now securely enclosed within the well-defined frame of the nine-panel grid. The darkness, as her speech makes clear, comes from within, seeping out of her across the tier, a condensation of her grief over her beloved Albert. It encloses her as a shroud, not a sign of power at all, but one of self-imposed restriction, diminishing her presence in Gull’s eyes. As the scene closes, she is literally a shadow of her former self, the seemingly dominating matriarch shrunken into miniature, well-bounded and contained – and conversely, Gull is now empowered, free to undertake his patriarchal reaffirmation.

Fig. 3


Many further examples of the “artistry” of From Hell could be given that are in conformity with the aesthetic qualities identified by Bongco. Hopefully, however, sufficient has been said on this, so that attention can now turn to some troubling questions, first returning to matters of definition.

Simplification From Hell

As argued above, McCloud’s approach to definition uses a universalising strategy in order to validate the struggle of some comics artists in a particular cultural context. One aspect of this From Hell specifically troubles is the claim that our “involvement” (McCloud 1993: 30) with comics resides in general human psychological processes. We become so involved with them, McCloud suggests, because there is a simplifying abstraction of detail, epitomised in cartoon images, that enables wide and potentially universal identification, such that readers, especially children, can see themselves in the characters. The apparent strength of this argument is that it naturalises comics, making them seem an inherent feature of being human. It seems to account for their apparent popularity, especially across cultures and amongst children; if everybody makes them and children love them, they must be natural. And if they are natural, it is surely a mistake to try to resist them.

Problems with this become evident, however, when we try to account for specific variation. If they are universal, then why do the things McCloud calls “comics” vary so much historically and culturally? Why do we find Egyptian hieroglyphs only in ancient Egypt? And why do we find the plethora of modern cartoon characters specifically appearing in our time and culture? For all their supposed simplification, different cartoon characters are remarkably distinctive; the likes of Mickey Mouse and Bart Simpson are recognisably different not only from each other, but also from the “Smiley”-type face McCloud treats as a base-line. This suggests there is a cultural stylistics involved and the appeal of cartoons is not a matter of just simplification, but of the right kind of simplification, a point McCloud (1993: 77-82) himself provides some support for in the case of manga.

More broadly, what constitutes “simplification” will depend upon context. To an extent, McCloud (1993: 42-44) acknowledges this, noting that particular artists may incorporate varying degrees of “realism” or “simplification”. However, he interprets this through a notion of reader identification, suggesting that it is backgrounds that are rendered more realistically and thus “objectively” while main characters are left in cartoon form to enable (presumably “subjective”) identification. Apart from the objection that some readers might possibly “identify” more with “realistic” rendering, this neglects the possibility that an artist may use variation in “realism” and “simplification” to accomplish different narrative effects, as is done in From Hell.

An example of this is the sequence depicting the stark contrast between the lives of Gull and his first victim, Polly Nicholls (Moore and Campbell, 2000: 5, 4-9). Campbell accentuates this by rendering the two life-styles in quite different ways: Nicholls’ in starkly delineated pen and ink; Gull’s in soft, smooth washes. Thus, Nicholls’ life appears harsh and hard in relation to which Gull’s appears a cosy fantasy, as though they occupy two different realities. Indeed, in being juxtaposed as tiered rectangles (fig. 4), it is almost as though Gull dreams of Nicholls’ world and she of his. Both are equally a fantasy to each other; both lives equally “real” and equally “unreal” – a relativism in keeping with Moore’s notion of “Ideaspace” as a place where fantasy is reality (Alaniz 2003). But this is achieved by their panel-by-panel juxtaposition in situ. Lacking words, the scene poses the reader a question to make sense of the difference, to comprehend just how vast was the gap between rich and poor – an understanding sharpened by the realisation that Polly is to be the Ripper’s victim. Concomitantly, it poses us a moral dilemma: who should we “identify” with? Is it Nicholls, the poor, sad, desperately downtrodden prostitute, her grim life of suffering soon to be ended by the comfortable, complacent Gull? Or is it then Gull himself, whose murderous act, regardless of its motivation, at least brought about an end to that suffering – and maybe gave the whore what she deserved? Or perhaps then it is neither individual, but the relation between them that captivates?

Fig. 4


It is then not obvious that either “realism” or “simplification” invites “identification” – itself a more problematic notion than McCloud suggests (see Barker 1989) – because what these mean depends on context. The terms are relative, both to each other, but also to the wider culture within which creators and readers are situated and their aesthetic sensibilities formed. In countries like Britain and the USA, this is a context in which the view of comics as for children has had considerable purchase and our aesthetic sensibilities have been shaped accordingly. The basis of comics appeal, then, may not be their simplified form as such but that children have been directed towards them as a primary source of entertainment. Where comics were defined as being “for children”, is it surprising that many children developed a sense of ownership of them (Barker, 1989)? By the same token, comics were produced in accord with prevailing notions of what appealed to children, such as things said to be “simple”. There is, in other words, a notion of what children are like that overlaps and mutually reinforces a notion of what comics are like. Hence, if children become “involved” with comics – and not all do, nor do they necessarily in the same ways – it is because they are encouraged to do so by their culture; adults on the other hand have been discouraged from such “involvement”, even if this is now changing.

A further implication is that ostensibly the same comics image may be employed for quite different purposes in different contexts with different consequences for audience involvement, such as the parody of Mickey Mouse in Air Pirates, or Moore and Gibbons’ use of the “Smiley” face in Watchmen. Both of these were comics produced in contexts of cultural struggle over what comics could and should be. If we argue that the iconic images of comics are grounded in human psychology, we fail to recognise the importance of this context, with the devastating irony that we effectively undermine the value of the struggle. Naturalising comics is not evidence of their grounding in inherent features of being human, but itself part of this cultural struggle; it is a strategy, however, that threatens to disable itself.

Words and pictures From Hell

Ironic troubles arise also in McCloud’s definition of comics that cast further doubt on its “neutrality”. As stated, this neutrality is part of the universalising strategy of argument adopted to free comics artists from the perceived restrictions of prevailing cultural prejudice. The irony is that despite being formulated explicitly to enable the medium/ art-form to be filled with whatever creators want it is nonetheless restrictive through privileging the visual. This shows its grounding in a context of struggle between artists and other comics producers, especially what Harvey (1996: 27) calls “the tyranny of writers”.

This then has implications for the attempt to build an aesthetics on this basis, as can be seen again from Bongco, who, although explicitly arguing against a visual view, nonetheless swings in this direction. As seen, she specifies that the “effectiveness” of the word-picture combination depends on criteria of being “absorbing” and “dynamic”, but leaves unclear how this is to be judged. This is confusing, because the terms have the potential to conflict. It could, for example, be suggested that words are more absorbing and pictures more dynamic; thus, the more dependent a narrative on words, the more absorbing and, hence, “effective” in one sense, but the less dynamic and “effective” in the other – and vice versa. On the other hand, if we took the view that words anchor images (Barthes 1977) – a view, incidentally, denied by McCloud
(1993: 49), who sees pictures as “instantaneous” in their message, again showing visual bias – the absence of words might be thought to decrease dynamism but make the pictures more absorbing as the reader has to try to figure out what they mean. Correspondingly, scenes with many words would presumably be less absorbing. Would that then make them more dynamic?

This might seem to be quibbling over a choice of descriptive terms. However, the difficulty I am pointing to is about recognising that attempts to define comics and their aesthetics are not neutral; they are presented as neutral because they purport to be referring purely to formal qualities of the medium. This, however, does rhetorical work within the wider cultural context in which they appear: it is one thing to say that comics combine words and pictures, but another thing entirely to claim that some ways of doing so are better – more “effective” – than others.

In the case of From Hell, for instance, we have seen sequences in which the ratio of words to pictures varies: the scenes of Netley, and Gull and Nicholls are wordless, whilst that of Gull and Victoria contains many words. Are any more or less “absorbing” or “dynamic” – and hence “effective” – than the others? How do we judge? Or consider the scenes depicting Hawksmoor’s churches, laid out differently in each case in ways that break the strict tempo of the nine-panel grid, perhaps signifying their temporal transcendence. Correspondingly, each scene varies the relation between words and pictures, but so as to be mutually reinforcing, visually in terms of layout, perspective, “lighting”, and mood, and lexically in terms of the kind of descriptions Gull provides. Thus, with St. Luke’s (fig. 5), narrow layouts, sweeping from bird’s-eye to worm’s-eye, emphasise height and the thrusting presence of the obelisk, described as a “cold erection stabbing at the sky” (Moore and Campbell 2000: 4, 13). With St. George’s Bloomsbury (fig. 6), meanwhile, a full-frontal, high-angle image occupying six of the nine-panel grid enhances its square, Masonic paganism, as Gull tells of the Dionysiac architects and their ancient temples (Moore and Campbell 2000: 4, 16). St. John’s Horsleydown, (fig. 7) by contrast, is shown at an oblique angle, its obelisk disappearing into the page, edges softly blurred into lines of rain, while Gull speaks of the veiled metaphors of symbols, drawn from the submerged depths of dream and reverie (Moore and Campbell 2000: 4, 26). Then again, St. George’s-in-the-East (fig. 8) is seen close up, in fragments, a clutter of tight cuts, leaving behind a hasty, untidy sketch, while Gull tells how the church is flawed in design and alignment (Moore and Campbell 2000: 4, 29). Are these combinations of words and pictures effective? Do they not make each other redundant in their mutual reflection? Or do they rather mutually enhance? How are we to decide? Who is to decide?

Fig. 5Fig. 6Fig. 7Fig. 8


What these examples show is that skilled creators like Moore and Campbell can vary the combination of words and pictures to achieve different “effects”, sometimes absorbing, sometimes dynamic, sometimes other things besides. But these are all achieved in situ. Thus, what the effect is will depend not just on the words and pictures, however combined, but also on context. This context is not just given by the individual comic; it also includes the wider culture within which the comic appears and the aesthetic sensibilities of both creators and readers are constituted. At the time of From Hell, this was a culture struggling to escape a prevailing view said to be restrictive of comics “art” and it is perhaps unsurprising then to find aesthetic descriptions emphasising the visual. Thus, when Bongco discusses narrative breakdowns she specifies “visual impact and nuances”; similarly, with respect to panels, she writes of “composition”, “camera distance”, “perspective”, “narrational clarity” and so on, all with reference to visual features. Nothing is said about how words might be used to explicate an image, as Moore does in the case of St. George’s-in-the-East; or how they might provide additional information beyond the images presented on the page, as Moore does in all the church scenes; or that images may be used as decoration to a story told primarily in words, arguably what is done throughout the whole chapter in which these scenes appear, a lengthy psychogeography documenting the “luminous filaments” of the grand pentangle, imparted to the reader through Gull’s extensive exposition, all stated in words and simply incomprehensible without them.

Thus, for all the talk of “combining” words and pictures, Bongco’s aesthetics firmly stresses the character of comics as visual sights (and sites). Visuality is taken to do the primary work of narration just as McCloud’s definition “juxtaposes” not words and pictures, but “pictorial and other images”. This is far from neutral. It is, rather, formulated to do specific rhetorical work within a given cultural context. In prioritising the visual it prioritises the interests of artists and/or writer-artists. It is formulated in conjunction with appeals to broader cultural understandings of “art” that define this in universalistic and culturally transcendent terms as the expression of an individual artist’s visionary ideal. Thus, it arises from a specific cultural struggle, but is designed to disguise this through being formulated to refer solely to formal features of the medium, treated as the “art-form”.

This brings us to yet another, but quite different definition: “a comic is what has been produced under the definition of a “comic”” (Barker 1989: 8). Barker’s point is that what is produced as “comics” is determined by a dominant cultural viewpoint of what comics can be. As he puts it: “There has been a historical process whereby public arguments about comics, and what is acceptable under that name, have become ... powerful determinants of what is produced.” This is shown very clearly in the case of Britain, where, because comics were always seen as potentially dangerous, they were constrained, “guaranteed to be non-serious literature, specially suited to children” – hence the dictionary definition from the 1960s. Significantly, Barker (1989: 9) concludes from this that “we cannot answer the question “What is a comic?” by formal qualities alone. A comic is what has been produced under the controlling definition.”

Seen in this light, the problem with attempts to define comics “art” is precisely that they try to do so by identifying “formal qualities”, even when acknowledging Barker’s point, as does Bongco (2000: 54). She (2000: 42) also supports Barker’s criticism of much media studies as containing unacknowledged “ideological determination”, highlighting as “deplorable” that authors are unaware “they are espousing a particular theory or ideology”. Unfortunately, one might say the same of Bongco. In asserting that comics should be considered for their “effectiveness” in combining words and pictures, she imports a standard that might be called “ideological” in so far as it works in the interests of some creators, who sought to re-define comics in ways that would free them from what they presented as undue interference in their work. They sought freedom to create whatever they liked in whatever way they wanted, to fill the “vessel” with whatever “lines on paper” fitted their “artistic” vision and from which emerged a view of comics that privileged the visual.

Rather than call this “ideological”, however, I prefer to see it as a resource of argument, a rhetorical move within a cultural struggle, one that draws on a representation of the “artist” as creative visionary to legitimise this call for artistic freedom. But this representation itself is part of a “controlling definition”, albeit of “art” rather than “comics”. As much as we might define comics as “what has been produced under the definition of a “comic””, so we might define “art” as “what has been produced under the definition of “art”” – except what constitutes “art” is routinely contested, as is what constitutes “comics”. In this respect, for all its valuable historicising emphasis, Barker’s definition risks losing sight of the very feature that has characterised the recent history of comics in Britain and North America: struggle. Indeed, it could be argued that in this, comics creators are simply continuing a longer history of struggles against conventional wisdom, precisely why comics have provoked so much discontent (Sabin 1996). Comics creators have regularly produced comics that have challenged conventional views of what comics are or should be. In more recent times, some of them have sought justification by resort to universalistic definitions drawing in part on one prevailing cultural view of the nature of “art”. This, however, has produced a peculiar confusion within the comics community: comics, traditionally seen as part of “low” culture, have sought reinvention in “high” cultural terms. Where, then, does this leave them?

From Hell and back

From Hell illustrates this conundrum as, despite bearing qualities that mark it as “art”, it also bears the marks of “low” culture. This is apparent both in its choice of subject matter and in Moore’s characterisation of Gull as a “mad doctor”. Jack the Ripper, although a subject of some academic work, is often seen as a topic of popular appeal, especially concerning the question of identity; Walkowitz (1991: 302, n.3), for example, distinguishes such interest from “more serious” studies. In postulating “Saucy Jack” to have been a “mad doctor”, Moore shows continuity with his earlier “work-made-for-hire” in the generic mould of superhero comics informed by wider rhetorics of science in popular culture (Locke 2005). The “mad doctor” is a recurring popular image of the scientist (Skal 1998) and also a recurring stereotype in putative identities for Jack the Ripper (Frayling 1986) dating from contemporary press speculations about the murderer (Walkowitz 1991). In this respect, From Hell merely reprises a well worn theme within “Ripperature”. Moore is well aware of this (Moore and Campbell 2000: Appendix II), even if he does endeavour to substantiate his depiction of Gull by reference to biographical sources about the man and his life, such as his somewhat attenuated bedside manner (Moore and Campbell 2000: 2, 21). However, in extrapolating from this to a character capable of the stark instrumentalism of the experimental vivisectionist, Moore takes him in the direction of generic type. It is this characteristic Moore accentuates in the imagined treatment of Annie Crook, where Gull uses her as a test subject for his theory about iodine levels and mental functioning (Moore and Campbell 2000: 2, 32). This is the page (fig. 9) where our perspective shifts for the first time from Gull’s point of view and we see him instead from Crook’s – a remarkably “effective” piece of story-telling that prefigures the Ripper killings to follow, told as much from the female victims’ perspective as from Gull’s … and it ends in solid black panels the only content of which is words.

Fig. 9


But is it “art”? Seen one way, Moore is doing no more than expected of a skilled writer in constructing his villain with a coherent set of motivations. But however sophisticated this may be, Gull still cuts a melodramatic figure etched from the same cloth as the vaudevillian version of Stephenson’s Mr. Hyde that provided stimulus for press speculation about the murderer. Just as the “urbane Dr. Jekyll” (Walkowitz 1991: 206) transformed into the monstrous, powerful Hyde, so the respectable Dr. Gull transforms into the possessed Ripper, with strength beyond his seventy years sufficient to carve deep through flesh and sinew, and time-slip divinations conjured during his bloody shamanistic rites. He is a veritable superhuman, a super-villain no less, bearing comparison with the “super-mad doctors” of superhero comics, not least those written by Moore himself. In his Mengele-like willingness to experiment on people, Gull can be compared to Miracleman’s Dr. Gargunza; in the transformation of his consciousness into a four-dimensional state of perception, he is not dissimilar to Watchmen’s Dr. Manhattan. There are differences of course, but they draw from the same cultural well-spring, a pool of images of the scientist as a figure with a particular type of moral character (Toumey 1992), as amoral, expressed through a detached attitude towards living things especially people. People are reduced to phenomena, extensions of the natural world and, like the rest of nature, made into objects of experimentation, albeit justified in the name of some higher, transcendent ideal. Such a characterisation of the scientist is also rhetorical, part of a wider argument modernity has over the nature and implications of science (Locke 2005), in which perspectives are packaged as personalities amongst whom the “mad doctor” strides forth most dramatically. Their presence is especially manifest within the pages of superhero comics, that same four-colour genre against which comics like From Hell were produced in opposition. Gull shows his roots, as does Alan Moore and they are firmly grounded in popular culture.

There is then an irony in the appeal to the “high” cultural conception of “art” as a legitimising resource for comics. It is a conception forged in part from a rejection of superheroes as epitomising the worst kind of “hackwork”; but in so far as From Hell qualifies as a work of comics art, then it is one informed by the resources of that very genre. In appealing to the “high” cultural conception, comics creators may well have been inspired to break away from what they saw as the restrictions placed on the medium by the “controlling definition” of the established industry, but in so doing they advanced a new “controlling definition” which does not itself stand up to scrutiny – a point Moore himself has alluded to (Sim and Moore 1997). This definition not only privileges the visual, an unacknowledged bias disguised by universalistic discursive form, but in this very universalism it adopts the discourse of the culture that sought to impose the earlier “controlling definition” and, arguably, thereby contributes to a divisive split within comics culture. Have comics creators then overthrown the “tyranny of the writer” only to substitute the “tyranny of the artist”? But without this, would wonderfully artful comics like From Hell ever have been made?


Thanks are due to Lorraine Allibone for help in the drafting of this paper and for general support and encouragement. Thanks are also due to an anonymous referee for constructive suggestions to improve the paper.


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