"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
If comic books have a “Citizen Kane,” the clear choice is “Watchmen,” written by Alan Moore and drawn by Dave Gibbons. Just as Orson Welles’ kaleidoscopic biography of a newspaper tycoon invariably tops cinematic best-ever lists, Moore and Gibbons’ apocalyptic yet intimate superhero tale commands a similar status in its medium. And as the flashbacks from Charles Foster Kane’s estranged loved ones come together to form a tragic portrait on film, so do the distinct voices and aspirations of Moore’s Watchmen coalesce into engrossing and credible human beings — never mind the cowls and capes. “Watchmen” proves that a story published in “funny book” form can be as perceptive, relevant and mature as any novel, film or television series.
When DC Comics published “Watchmen’s” 12 issues in the mid-1980s, comics were viewed as the bottom of the pop culture barrel, no more than adolescent fantasies of brightly-costumed characters in never-ending, rock ‘em-sock ‘em fight scenes. But “Watchmen” proved as far removed from standard superhero fare as “Trainspotting” is from “Reefer Madness,” and gave adventurous readers a brand-new addiction. “Watchmen” and its contemporaries not only popularized the term “graphic novel,” they made it a necessary distinction that set these new, deeper works apart from juvenile-sounding “comic books.”
Other comics depicted alienated supermen and antiheroic vigilantes before “Watchmen,” but never before had they seemed so much like people of flesh and blood, instead of ink and pulp. “Watchmen” also made the ordinary lives of street-corner bystanders as crucial as the doings of its atom-age |bermensch, and could intercut fate-of-the-world confrontations in Antarctica with quiet, awkward moments of middle-aged romance. Dr. Manhattan, the book’s only “super-powered” individual, becomes so detached he grows to prefer the surface of Mars to the company of his lover or colleagues. Like Billy Pilgrim in “Slaughterhouse-Five,” he perceives time from all angles, flashing backwards and forwards, from scenes of love and teamwork in his youth to his perfect isolation on Mars’ airless deserts.
Welles didn’t invent the landmark filmic techniques (as well as the ideas from radio and live theater) that he used in “Citizen Kane,” but he gave them an electrifying new showcase. Likewise, Moore drew diverse cinematic, literary and cartooning styles together in a style unprecedented in comics. But creating an encore to an instant classic is a tricky business, and Welles never equaled “Kane.” After “Watchmen,” the Moore’s most significant graphic novel is “From Hell,” an epic autopsy of the Jack the Ripper slayings, serialized through the 1990s and now finally being published in book form by Eddie Campbell Comics.
As ambitious and affecting as anything ever rendered in pictures and word balloons, “From Hell” combines an intricate mystery, insightful social criticism and unflinching brutality capable of unnerving the most desensitized pop audience. It’s publication as a book promises to give it a new lease on life. That’s what happened with Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer-Prize winning “Maus,” which was originally published in installments in the arty comic “Raw.” “From Hell” is the only graphic novel since “Maus” to rival its ambition and historical depth.
One of the rare comic book masters who’s solely a writer, Moore first made his mark in the 1980s with serials in British comic book anthologies. But he became a sensation when he took over DC Comics’ “Swamp Thing.” With Moore at the helm, the lurid horror title about a shambling plant man offered Hitchcockian thrills, debates about hot-button issues from gun control to incest and visual flights worthy of psychedelic rock album covers.
“Swamp Thing” shook up staid DC Comics, home of Batman and Superman, and became the first mainstream comic book to be published without the seal of the industry’s self-censoring Comics Code Authority. Moore began catching up with his earlier serials, including the British dystopian tale “V For Vendetta” and the first of his revisionist hero books, “Miracleman.” His work for DC culminated with the 12 issues of “Watchmen,” which perfected a cinematic writing style replete with jump cuts, “tracking shots” and close attention to recurring symbols; each issue had its own equivalents to the famous “Rosebud” sled and shattered snow-globe from “Kane.”
By the end of the 1980s, Moore felt disillusioned with mainstream comic publishing. As is standard practice in the industry’s nearly feudal system, he didn’t own “Watchmen” or any other characters he invented for DC, and he objected to the publisher putting “Suggested for Mature Readers” labels on his books, a criticized practice that paralleled the labeling of rock albums at the time. After leaving DC, in 1989 Moore and illustrator Eddie Campbell began working on “From Hell,” which was initially serialized in the fittingly-named anthology “Taboo.” When “Taboo” folded, “From Hell” came out in self-contained, glossy volumes through 1996, with a coda, “Dance of the Gull Catchers,” released in 1998.
Subtitled “Being a Melodrama in 16 Parts,” “From Hell” takes on the most notorious unsolved mystery in the annals of crime, the 1888 “Jack the Ripper” killings of five prostitutes in London’s East End. But Moore is more excited by history than he is by any horror show. In his introduction to the series, Moore wrote “It’s my belief that if you cut into a thing deeply enough, if your incisions are precise and persistent and conducted methodically, then you may reveal not only that thing’s inner workings, but also the meaning behind those workings … ‘From Hell’ is a post-mortem of a historical occurrence, using fiction as a scalpel.”
Open “From Hell” and you may involuntarily draw back — it feels like the dark, sooty atmosphere of Moore and Campbell’s Victorian London could seep into your own living room. Campbell renders “From Hell” in a scratchy, drippy black and white, with each panel seemingly drawn using a blend of London’s chimney ash and tabloid ink. With no campy sound effect balloons, “From Hell” unfolds in an eerie silence, its pauses worthy of Harold Pinter. Although it’s still a suspense-driven thriller, “From Hell” condemns the urban destitution and the maltreatment of women of the time in the starkest possible terms, with Moore and Campbell peering into the darkest corners of the victims’ squalid lives.
Inspired by the Ripper’s centennial, Moore found himself sucked into the lore of “Ripperology,” where wild suppositions and fierce factions rival the theorists of the Kennedy assassination. “Watchmen” is replete with Pynchonesque paranoia, and “From Hell” posits a similarly complex conspiracy at the heart of the slayings. Inspired by “Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution” by the late Stephen Knight, “From Hell” suggests that Prince Albert “Eddy” Victor had fathered an illegitimate child, and when four Whitechapel prostitutes attempted to exploit this information, they were executed (the fifth victim was allegedly a case of mistaken identity). Complicit parties include Scotland Yard, the Freemasons and Victoria herself, while such London notables as Oscar Wilde and James “Elephant Man” Merrick make cameo appearances.
For the killer, Moore’s finger falls on Sir William Withey Gull, Victoria’s royal physician. Though Gull was in his 70s in 1888 and had suffered a stroke, he had the surgical skill deemed necessary to commit the crimes. But throughout the book, Moore maintains that he’s more concerned with creating a tapestry of the era than unmasking a suspect, and that “From Hell” is not so much a “whodunnit” as a “wha’ happen.” In his own afterward, Campbell admits his belief in Gull’s innocence, but his pen depicts the top-hatted Gull and his shadowy, horse-drawn carriage as indelible images of doom.
You can read “From Hell” as a police procedural as it follows Scotland Yard’s Inspector Abberline through the case, but Moore’s larger point is that the Ripper murders were the fullest expression of 19th century injustices and hypocrisies. In one scene, reflecting the epidemic of fake “Jack the Ripper” letters at the time, Victorian men from all walks of life — a clergyman in his study, a laborer in a tub, two teenaged boys staying up late — are shown to be writing confessional letters to the police, grisly missives that flow together as if they’re the same letter.
Moore emphasizes the disparity between society’s highest and lowest members by using his signature juxtapositions, in which the dialogue or background details of one scene comment on another. (Think of the baptism scene intercut with images of Mob hits at the end of “The Godfather.”) Most of Chapter 7 alternates between Gull and the second victim, Annie Chapman, on the last day of her life, a telling contrast of privilege and poverty. While Gull arises from a luxurious bed, Chapman awakens in a seedy flophouse, sleeping along the same bench with other destitute women.
Amid “From Hell’s” chilling gloom are some embers of human warmth. Abberline, stifling in a loveless marriage, is drawn to an open-hearted working girl he meets at a corner pub, only to later face embittering disappointment. The most poignant figure is Marie Kelly, the least defeated of her fellow prostitutes, who makes it her mission to protect them along with cast-off street children. But when she begins to suspect that she’s the killer’s designated target, she abandons her dreams of a better life and fatalistically embraces alcohol and hedonism.
Moore and Campbell refuse to avert their eyes to even the most brutal or despairing content. Not only do we see the victims plying their trade in the least glamorous ways possible — hurried couplings against filthy alley walls for a handful of pence — but the murders are captured with ghastly precision. The book reaches its zenith (or nadir) in Chapter 10 with the last and grisliest of the killings, shown in such detail that it’s all you can do to keep your eyes on the page. Still, the graphic novelists aren’t in it for splatterpunk shock value. “From Hell” asserts that the Ripper killings provided a catalyst for the 20th century, both figuratively — the murders and their coverage anticipated tabloid journalism and the modern fascination with serial killers — and literally. As Gull goes about his dreadful business, he experiences increasingly vivid visions of London in the 1990s.
“From Hell” is as heavily researched as any scholarly work. Although the appendix is superfluous in the human body, here it’s as crucial as the heart. Almost every page features end-notes in which Moore not only cites his historica sources but muses on everything from London’s “dionysiac” architecture to streetwalking lingo like “thrupenny upright.” He writes, “Any adequate appendix listing Eddie’s sources [for the book's images] in the way I am listing mine would be twice as long as this current monstrosity, which in itself looks set to end up twice as long as the work to which it refers.”
You’d think that you’d flip past the end-notes with eyes glazing over, but instead the opposite happens. To read “From Hell” is to temporarily become a Ripperologist yourself, jazzed by the case’s facts, myths and weird coincidences. As you go, you realize that the hero isn’t Abberline pursuing his investigation but Moore conducting his own. In “Appendix II: Dance of the Gull Catchers,” Moore and Campbell use the comic form to recount, with tongue often in cheek, the strange history of Ripper theorizing. Ripperologists are shown as a mob of manic men with butterfly nets, and Moore himself eventually joins their ranks.
Alongside the multi-colored pages of most comics, “From Hell” is as grim and artfully ugly as the picture of Dorian Gray. And though “From Hell” has enjoyed auspicious awards and flattering imitations (Dave Sim, creator of the satiric “Cerebus” comic book, is using Moore’s method of historical recreation to create a fictionalized life of F. Scott Fitzgerald), it remains less well-known than “Watchmen” both inside and outside the comic book realm. The planned film adaptation of “From Hell” (frequently associated with “Menace II Society’s” Hughes Brothers) might raise its profile.
During the rest of the 1990s, when not meditating on the Ripper, Moore wrote the novel “Voice of the Fire” (unpublished in the U.S.) and has dabbled in shamanism. Lately, he’s been explosively productive, even cracking Entertainment Weekly’s “It” list last summer. He’s created a spate of new titles, including “Tom Strong,” about a square-jawed hero evocative of the 1930s pulps, and “Top 10,” about a superpowered police force that’s something like “Hill Street Blues” with capes.
The best of these is the six-issue “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” which is the souffli after the rich Victorian meal of “From Hell.” Set in 1898, Moore assembles fictitious figures like Allan Quartermain, Dr. Jekyll and Captain Nemo and pits them against such period villains as Fu Manchu. In a characteristic Moore touch, virtually all of the background figures come from literature; they include characters created by Henry James to Edgar Allen Poe.
Like the rest of Moore’s current comics, “League” is a lark. But nice as it is to see the comic book stores replenished with Moore’s work, none of his current stuff is nearly as challenging or innovative as “From Hell” or “Watchmen.” It would be a shame if he stays in the relative safety of the lite books at the expense of his deeper, more grown-up writing. Perhaps the second coming of “From Hell” will prompt him to make another stab at it.
Curt Holman is a freelance writer in Atlanta.More Curt Holman.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)