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Monday, October 31, 2011

Death Panels, Part III: Jack the Ripper in
From Hell Leads Comics Whose Stories Go Epic

Posted By on Mon, Oct 31, 2011 at 12:30 PM

October calls for scares, and despite the very scary state of the world, there is still a desire for entertainment that frightens us. Here we look at the broad, deep legacy of horror comics in a series that delves into the genre's many variations and highlights from the 1940s to the present.

  • Jack Cole

The expansive visual format of comic books, along with the fact that they are published serially, encourages sprawling, epic stories with dozens of characters and webs of subplots. The possibility of epic storytelling in comics has served the horror genre particularly well. Several key horror epics have sold well, but, more importantly, stand as lasting contributions to the genre as a whole.


With the 1888 Jack the Ripper killings as its basis, Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's From Hell (1991-96) firmly broke from mainstream horror such as Tales from the Crypt and The Tomb of Dracula by taking a serious, historical approach to its subject. Moore's text is tight, literate, and deeply couched in English social history. Campbell's impressionistic black-and-white art evokes the London fog, the shadowy halls of ritual and power, and the inherent creepiness of the British royal family.

From Hell ravenously chews up and reassembles facets of the Jack the Ripper story -- many true, some famous speculation, and others invented. Moore and Campbell make familiar material compelling by creating characters who feel real, as opposed to just being types. And From Hell is nothing if not a series of miniature, detailed biographies, all of which interlock in ways that will seem surprising, even to those familiar with the Ripper story.

  • Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell

Whereas From Hell is a thoroughly researched blend of invention and history, the fictional realms of Mike Mignola and Eric Powell began more or less as larks, although each has since laid claim to significant territory in the realm of horror comics.

Hellboy with the B.P.R.D. crew - GUY DAVIS
  • Guy Davis
  • Hellboy with the B.P.R.D. crew

Through his interlocking Hellboy/B.P.R.D./Witchfinder constellation of stories, Mike Mignola is responsible for one of the largest and most successful ongoing bodies work in comics. Although it cribs from pulp horror and the "weird fiction" of H.P. Lovecraft, the larger Mignola universe reflects his own point of view, full of humor and an abiding interest in the deeper lives of his characters.

  • Mike Mignola

Hellboy (who first appeared in 1993 and who has been described as "a well-meaning demon") isn't tough because he's a muscled block of supernatural demon-flesh; he's tough because he doesn't give a shit and will stand up for what's right no matter what anyone else says or does to dissuade him. He wades into hazardous situations because he intends to kick ass, not because he's a symbol of justice or a self-aware hero concerned with abstractions like "duty." Some superhero comics get bogged down in their own mythology, but Hellboy's stories never do because he has humility on his side.

The world nearly ends -- again -- in MIgnola's B.P.R.D. - GUY DAVIS
  • Guy Davis
  • The world nearly ends -- again -- in MIgnola's B.P.R.D.

Hellboy's spinoff, the B.P.R.D. series, contains the stronger ongoing narrative thread of the two. B.P.R.D. embraces the Lovecraftian elements that inform Hellboy's backstory wholeheartedly. Its protagonists (including amphibi-man Abe Sapien, pyrokinetic Liz Sherman, Roger the homunculus, and ectoplasmic spirit Johann Kraus) are pitted against mysterious forces that have unleashed a worldwide plague of monsters. B.P.R.D. manages a massive plot without for a second abandoning its large cast of characters, which would be easy enough to do in this sprawling, writhing story, now spanning 15 collected volumes. Individual character stories combine the mythic and the quotidian. They ebb and flow throughout the series, maintaining forward momentum even while our heroes' world goes to shit around them on an enormous scale.

The Goon (cameo by Tippi Hedren) - ERIC POWELL
  • Eric Powell
  • The Goon (cameo by Tippi Hedren)

Eric Powell's The Goon is pure pulp that's been reduced to certain bare-bones elements and stripped of all pretension.* The Goon is a pastiche, but a pastiche that is executed with skill and confidence. Each issue contains something at its core that is much more ambitious and often more affecting than the material would suggest on its surface, and that alone sustains our interest in The Goon.

The Zombie Priest - ERIC POWELL
  • Eric Powell
  • The Zombie Priest

Powell's hero is a huge, punchy lug who, with his scrappy loudmouth sidekick Franky, is the only thing standing between his city and the zombie hordes that lurch nearby under the direction of the cretinous Zombie Priest, a greedy, grasping would-be mastermind who uses the skin of a human face as top-hat decor. The series progresses in fits and starts. Powell's appealing artwork has a solid, sculptural quality that keeps the eye very busy and fully satisfied even if the stories occasionally get a little weak.

But there are long, sustained stretches of greatness here as well, particularly in the alarmingly emotional story contained in "Chinatown and the Mystery of Mr. Wicker", the sixth collected volume of the series, in which certain shadowy corners of the Goon's past are illuminated. Namely, we discover how he got his scars, and why he has such a hang-dog, hopeless attitude toward relationships with women. In addition, the later, multivolume story known as "The Return of Labrazio" builds terrific suspense and plumbs similar emotional depths first tested in "Chinatown."

A page from "Chinatown" - ERIC POWELL
  • Eric Powell
  • A page from "Chinatown"

Of the three bodies of work described here, From Hell is the only one that stands finished. The others continue to develop and grow, with issues of Mignola's Hellboy, B.P.R.D., and Witchfinder, as well as Powell's The Goon, rolling out on a regular basis. Significant about the shared "epicness" of these various series is that each author's world is a fully imagined place, where things happen according to well-established rules. That these comics continue to introduce new characters, plot lines, and thematic ideas without nicking the integrity of their fictional universes is the best indication that their endurance is all but guaranteed.


* I'm referring to the kind of pretension that dogs the best-selling comic series The Walking Dead, which is marred by way too much plot that comes from the mouths of characters who wouldn't plausibly have the time to explain so much for fear of their brains being eaten.


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