Comics

Thoughts on From Hell

If you know me, you know that I have a soft spot for Alan Moore – which is an understatement equivalent to saying that Salma Hayek is just another pretty face, or that GTA is a mildly deviant video game. So you would understand that normally it’s tough for me to sit and write objectively about Moore’s books. The first review I wrote for Rolling Stone was The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier, and it was devilishly tough to write, as I sought to bring objectiveness to a wannabe rave bubbling with latent fan-frenzy. After that, I’ve played it safe, and have avoided talking about Moore and his writings. But just this morning I finished rereading From Hell, and the physical need to talk about this work is just too much right now.

From Hell is a 572 page graphic novel that presents a version – Moore’s version – of the Jack the Ripper murders. Again an understatement, the book is not so much about Jack the Ripper as it is a deconstruction of Victorian society, as Moore spirals into the murders as the center of a vortex of personalities, (both real and imaginary), coincidences and actual events that spun into and out of Whitechapel in the summer of 1888. The writer is well-known for moulding his scripts to suit the strengths of his collaborator, and Eddie Campbell’s scratchy, black-and-white style is perfect for the book, filtering the image of a sooty, grimy London through jagged lines and blobs of dark ink.

But before I talk about the work, it is necessary to put it in context, both from the perspective of American comics as well as from a personal standpoint. Indulge me here, will you?

Somehow, post-Swamp Thing, The Killing Joke and Watchmen, Alan Moore seemed to have vanished from mainstream comics. Of course, the facts behind what had happened to make Moore disillusioned with the comics industry are public knowledge now, and I needn’t go into them in detail ( if you’re interested, you should check out interview here. The Wikipedia page should also give a fairly detailed picture of what transpired ). He took a much-deserved sabbatical from the genre that he single-handedly deconstructed in the early part of the 80s, and the later part of the decade saw him being involved with a number of independent, idiosyncratic projects – a mathematics-inspired series called Big Numbers, and a treatise on covert CIA operations named Brought To Light – both illustrated by painter Bill Sienkiewicz, whose own experiments with storytelling were stretching the boundaries of what people perceived as “normal” artwork; there was Lost Girls, a sexually-explicit look at familiar characters from Victorian literature ( a theme that Moore would return to, time and again, in his later work) in collaboration with artist Melinda Gebbie. A Small Killing with Argentine illustrator Oscar Zarate was about a white-collar worker in a typical advertising agency, the work serving as a commentary of corporate culture in the 80s. And there was From Hell.

How did From Hell come about? It started in a small independent magazine called Taboo, the brainchild of artist Steven Bissette, the penciller from Moore’s Swamp Thing days. Bissette’s idea was to create a horror anthology comic that was “radical and unfettered” (in his own words). Horror comics in the eighties were still laboring under the legacy of the 1950s – mainstream comics stuck to “safe” subjects that were okayed by the comics code authority, and the indies could not venture beyond a template referred to as “the EC hangover”, stories featuring giggling horror hosts, an old witch or a graveyard keeper, who would serve as the narrators, the tales themselves building up to a twist in the end that one could see coming from a mile away. Taboo was intended to be the complete antithesis of the average horror comic, it was invite-only for a bunch of contemporary artists and writers who could really deliver something out of the ordinary. As Bissette made it amply clear in his “Taboo manifesto”, the intention was “to show the unshowable, to speak the unspeakable” (a phrase borrowed from David Cronenberg), and the invitees were given three guidelines – “it shouldn’t be easy, it should be uneasy, it should make us uneasy”. Taboo was not a spectacular success –it closed shop after ten issues and an annual – self-publishing comics at that time was a hit-and-miss affair, and the adult nature of Taboo’s content did not make its existence too easy. The line-up in those ten issues was stellar – Charles Burns’ Black Hole was first published in Taboo, as was Neil Gaiman’s Sweeney Todd. And Alan Moore, responding to his former colleague’s call to arms, submitted a draft of his holistic approach to the Jack the Ripper murders, due to be illustrated by an Australian artist named Eddie Campbell. Thus was From Hell born (You could do well to read the complete account of the formation of Taboo, in Bissette’s own words here).

Obviously, even with Taboo’s failure, Moore and Campbell’s collaboration was taken to its logical conclusion of fourteen chapters, at first published as single issues by Kitchen Sink/Tundra, and then collected and published by Campbell himself as a gigantic paperback in 1999, with a prologue and an epilogue added in the collected edition. After a brief period when it went out of print, it was then taken up by Top Shelf Comix (Moore’s publisher of choice currently for all his ongoing projects), and is available still. ( To the left, you see the original cover of the first trade paperback collection, which I like a lot for its iconography. The current cover, which shows William Gull in the middle of his…uh…work is another beautiful Campbell painting, but somewhat lacks the subtlety of the original.)

I had heard about From Hell in about 2002, just after watching the movie. I had just gotten a job, and a new credit card, and the wonders of eBay were just making themselves known to me. Add to it the presence of an enthusiastic senior in the US, who agreed to help accept shipped items and send them later to India, and I was a happy camper. If I remember correctly, I paid exact cover price for the book because I had no idea of the concept of sniping and just ended up systematically overbidding. (Apparently the version I own is the movie cover edition, which is no longer in print, and has a slightly higher value in the secondary market. Just saying) It took six months for the book to arrive, along with other assorted comics (Sin City runs, Sandman story arcs, and the first 23 issues of a series called Hitman). It came in through someone who was travelling to Hyderabad for winter vacations, and I remember the fluttery feeling in my tummy as I walked to the address my friend had given me, a little nervousness at whether everything had made it through airport customs safely, and whether the courier himself had any idea of how important this package was to me. Hasty greetings were exchanged, and I fled, taking the books with me. Home had never seemed so far away.

I did not read From Hell immediately, though. A lack of comics (if I were to write an autobiography of my life, it would probably be called “a lack of comics”) ensured that I would ration my reading habits, circling around my reading pile by going through the least-important ones first. But there came a day when I could not wait any longer, I just had to read the book, lack of reading material be damned. I read it at white-heat, until I came to chapter 4, where Sir William Gull, physician to the queen, already having been introduced to us as the future Ripper, goes for a ride through London with Netley the coachman. The chapter is dedicated entirely to Gull’s (or rather, Moore’s) commentary on the city – and that’s all I am saying without giving anything away – and reading it made me feel terrible. I remember that I had bad dreams that night, and let me tell you, it’s very very rare that a work of fiction edges into my subconscious. I did finish it, and by the time chapter 10 came along – a chapter devoted to the systematic degradation of Marie Kelly’s body – I had inured myself enough to just take in the panels clinically, marveling at Moore and Campbell’s masterful use of the three-by-three panel structure. When the book was done, I closed it and carefully put it away on my bookshelf.

It would be 6 years before I would attempt to reread the book. I had bought a copy as a gift for a friend recently, and while she and I discussed it, I realized I did not remember too much of it, other than major plot points and some key events. Somehow, I dreaded having to flip through the Comic That Gave Me Nightmares. Yes, it was also fear of a different kind– sometimes the second read throws up flaws that one glazes over during the first read. The other was that of experience garnered from reading more and more comics over the years – what if I enjoyed the book more, I wondered, because of my naiveté in 2003? What if it could not yield the same kind of emotional response in 2009? Young Master Crowley has something to say about that, though.

Needless to say, I shouldn’t have worried. While I didn’t get nightmares this time ( so far! ), the book still gave me that queasy feeling as I trudged through the streets of London, peeking into the imaginary lives of the four women and the people around them. Chapter 4 and chapter 10 still evoked that potent combination of awe and revulsion that I had nearly forgotten – Gull’s soliloquoy in the middle of the Marie Kelly incident, in particular, took more of my attention this time around. The burn-down chapters – 11 to 14 feel more satisfying because I recognize more of the references this time, and because I have been paying more attention to the story – one of the perks of rereading a book the second time – I found myself able to analyze and correlate the overall characters and events much more carefully. In a way, the second read has helped me appreciate the book even more.

Some things of note:

For a long time after reading From Hell, I found myself unable to watch movies set in London during that time period. I had to switch off My Fair Lady after about 10 minutes into the movie, because my brain just could not process the antiseptic sets and the overall bonhomie in the most dangerous area of the city.

The excitement when Gull uses the phrase “Salutation to Ganesa” the second time, when I finally realize the reason why Moore introduced a real-world character into the story. Incidentally, the book, which is dedicated to the four women (“You and your demise: of these things alone are we certain”), also begins with the same phrase.

The first time Queen Victoria appears in the narrative is drawn in a way that takes you completely by surprise. Not just because Campbell’s style changes drastically on that page, but because the entire chapter is written in a way that enhances the overall effect of that scene. It rattles you, the moment when you turn the page and Victoria looms on the page. “Will no one help the widow’s son?” Phew.

I had missed out the German dialogue in the beginning of chapter 5. Well, not any more. Thanks, E. :)

Campbell’s art changes style substantially in some parts, almost as if there were portions where he was trying out different approaches. Things get a little jarring with the ink wash effect used in chapter 5, when Gull’s everyday life is presented in parallel with that of the prostitutes in the East End.

There’s a level of ambiguity in the ending – part of it because of the scratchy artwork, which conveys a more impressionistic version of events, rather than spoon-feeding the story. Which fits in with the theme of the story itself being a filter of the events that we know of, but cannot really verify.

The way the last chapter wraps up every theme, every throwaway ( or so one thinks) line from the beginning of the book is very very satisfying.

On the negative side, Moore sometimes forces real-world characters too ham-handedly. He also goes to great lengths to identify every historical person being mentioned, and some of the dialog comes out clunky and a little forced.

It’s a brand New Year, and a brand new collecting goal is called for. I think I desperately need a page from the book, preferably Chapter 4 or Chapter 10.

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5 thoughts on “Thoughts on From Hell

  1. Will you believe I never got to finish it? I have the spanish TPB edition, signed by Campbell to Ana (Who loved it). I gave it up because got me bored, but I will give it a second chance any time this year.

  2. Michelle says:

    What I don’t understand is the fear of being subjective. Objectivity as a concept is somewhat Utopian and the best literary reviews are written with creative enthusiasm (as in “I just *had to* review this!”) and a clear head. I think.

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