Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Jack the Ripper: Hell Blade
London, 1888. The Ripper murders are taking place and London's police force feels helpless to stop them. Young detectives Roy and Harold have been assigned to the case and are less than pleased when they are informed that they will also be working with Ian, a representative of the Church of England who seems to know more about the killings and their origins than he's willing to share. To add to the difficulties, Roy's lover Susan, a wealthy widow, seems to be having some issues of her own...
It is 1888 in the Whitechapel district of London. Women are being murdered by a suspect known as “Jack the Ripper.” Police are baffled and on edge as more victims pile up. The whole city, it seems, is holding its breath to see who will die next. This set up is fairly familiar to most history or unsolved mystery buffs, and certainly it has been the subject of numerous works, both fiction and non, by authors attempting to solve the case. Korean manhwaga Je-Tae Yoo now has his take on the story brought to us in English by Seven Seas, and if it isn't the most historically accurate, it certainly is interesting.
Our story begins with young police inspector Roy getting out of bed. Also in the bed is Susan, a wealthy young widow he would like to marry, but whose mother-in-law feels that she should spend the rest of her life mourning her son. As Roy heads off to investigate the Ripper's latest victim, Susan remarks that if her mother-in-law finds out about their affair, she would have them killed. Roy seems to dismiss the idea, something he will regret later, and meets up with Harold, his partner, at the crime scene. Small details are provided that help set the period – Harold remarks that the victim's uterus has been mutilated, and later at police headquarters the chief rants that they know nothing about the killer: “Is he white, black...a Jew? Or God forbid, female?!” giving us a little glimpse into the mindset of the time. This all works to cover up some of the odder or more glaring time period issues, such as a phone with a rotary dial, which was not invented until 1891, inaccurate women's dress, and of course, the appearance of Jack himself, seen on the cover.
Overall, however, Yoo has done a fine job of bringing us into a dark, dank world where a deranged lunatic is on a murder spree. Roy encounters the man himself fairly early on, and the intertwined stories of Jack and Susan give a real sense of desperation to the narrative. The first five chapters, all titled “Walking in the Midnight,” feel a bit like a prologue to the rest of the series, although whether or not that is true remains to be seen. In these chapters we learn the identity of the killer and watch madness spread, as well as being introduced to the man who may well be the real protagonist of the story – Church of England investigator Ian Riley. Ian comes on board the investigation when Roy and Harold fail to produce satisfactory results. With a Van Hellsing air about him, Ian slouches through the pages wearing a maniacal grin, clearly knowing much more than he's sharing, followed by the slow-speaking lumbering giant Cain, his “assistant.” In his way, Ian is every bit as sinister as the killer he chases, and his appearance contrasts dramatically with the other men in the story.
Generally speaking, Yoo's art is dynamic and dramatic, full of terrible small moments (a cat munching a human finger) and larger terrors. People's expressions convey their feelings well and a heavy emphasis on gray and black spaces gives the book a nightmare feel. There are not many characters in this volume, and that gives everything a sense of being very contained, a private torture for the characters we do follow, as if this greater tragedy has very personal implications. As this is true of most, if not all, crimes, that helps to make the story more immediate, even with the more supernatural elements.
It is difficult to really discuss the direction Yoo takes with his alternate retelling of the murders that terrorized London in 1888-1889 (only five of which were officially attributed to Jack; the so-called “canonical” victims) without giving too much away, but if you enjoy a dark horror tale with plenty of blood and terror, this is the book for you. Nicely blending fact and fiction with a well done sense of a doomed place and time, Jack the Ripper: Hell Blade's first volume sets up a promising premise. With the story in line to take off, Yoo's take on the Ripper murders is a nice entry into the catalog of English-translated seinen titles and certainly bears keeping an eye on.
Overall : B
Story : B+
Art : B
+ Interesting take on the Ripper mythos, nicely established sense of a dark and troubled world. Expressive faces.
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