‘“Be vewy vewy quiet. We’re hunting Wippers.” A Barthesian analysis of the construction of fact and fiction in Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell
Authors: Round, J.
Editors: Goggin, J. and Hassler-Forest, D.
Place of Publication: Jefferson, NC., USA
“I made it up and it all came true anyway” says the pseudo-psychic Mr Lees in the prologue to From Hell. However, it seems that this statement applies equally to the Jack the Ripper saga as a whole, whose contradictory stories and elements have been mythologised by the passage of time. This article considers the factional tale presented by Moore and Campbell in From Hell; a story largely based on Stephen Knight’s The Final Solution, a publication that has been marketed as both a serious exposé and elaborate hoax. Using the narrative models of word and image proposed by Roland Barthes (in ‘The Structural Analysis of Narrative’, ‘The Rhetoric of the Image’, S/Z and The Pleasure of the Text), this article examines the essentiality of the comics medium in successfully conveying the duality of fact and fiction present in the Ripper myth. It initially examines the tropes and ideas used by the creators to illustrate Knight’s theory, specifically with reference to the psychogeographic notion of the city as a divided body (and the potential link to the superhero motif: where one half is the antithesis of the other), and the architecture of history (illustrating time as co-present rather than a linear progression). It identifies a common theme of duality in these symbols and notes the role of this duality in creating a tale that is located on the boundary between fact and fiction. The article proceeds to focus on the role of the comics medium in constructing faction. It will: - analyse From Hell’s model of co-present time in light of the comics medium’s depiction of time-as-space (where all moments are simultaneously present on the page) and relate this to Roland Barthes’s observations on the ‘chronological illusion’ of narrative; - address the notion of fictional seeing: considering the veracity of hand-drawn art (as opposed to photographic replication) with reference to Barthes’s model of the drawn image as a coded message; - discuss how the alternate worlds of comics (whose settings, while they may bear a resemblance to our world, are necessarily removed from the same both visually and by their fantastic nature) illustrate Barthes’s observations on the non-mimetic nature of narrative; - extend this discussion to the fiction of fonts (that may be lettered by hand while giving the appearance of computerisation, or vice versa); and how this further illustrates Barthes’s discussion of the fiction of the narrative voice; - examine the medium’s presentation of a fragmented narrative (in the spatial arrangement of panels that provides for both syntagmatic and paradigmatic reading opportunities and links) with reference to the writerly/readerly text, and Barthes’s identification of coexistent (horizontal and vertical) narrative relations.
The article concludes by reviewing these points in light of Moore’s conception of fiction as a modern form of magic. It summarises the ways in which From Hell uses the comics medium to demonstrate the shared qualities of fact/fiction across narrative and image, and the ways in which the boundaries between the two can be blurred. It ultimately concludes that the qualities of the comics medium make it ideally suited to conveying such a blend as is observable in the Ripper mythos.
Preferred by: Julia Round