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The greatest comic book tome of all, considered – From Hell

August 28, 2013

fh

This year marks the 125th anniversary of the Jack the Ripper murders, a grim remembrance if there ever was. From August 31st to November 9th of 1888, an unknown assailant — if the killings were even perpetrated by the same man — assaulted the London underclass and struck fear into the heart of Victorian England, all the way from squalid doss houses to sylvan Balmoral. In the century and a quarter since, the Ripper has become the paragon of violent evil, a byword for seemingly random, definitely senseless savagery, a handy ghoul to silence unruly children. Dozens of works of fiction, both in print and on screen, have further sensationalized his milieu and his grisly work — his unbound spirit, Redjac, even made it onto Jim Kirk’s U.S.S. Enterprise. Countless books have been published about the Whitechapel murders, with most trying to put a name and a face to the mystery man who — maybe — addressed a taunting note to the constabulary “From Hell.”

And the cruel twist about all those books, whether factual or fanciful? They’re all fiction. No one knows a damn thing more now than the befuddled bobbies did in 1888. In a new millennia, Jack the Ripper is still maddening, an edifice without a capstone.

One thing is fairly certain, though. All of those books and all of those movies pale in comparison to the greatest Ripper rumination of them all, the one that took that infamous, chilling return address for its title: Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell.  

If you’re a devotee of the comic medium, you likely have a shortlist of books that you go to when you want to recommend a title to someone not as inclined as you towards graphic storytelling. There’s very likely a health dose of Moore’s work on that list. No one needs to restate that he’s the Merlin of the medium, that he combines the fictional accessibility of Steinbeck, the dreamy artistry of Faulkner and the author’s-name-bigger-than-the-title selling power of Stephen King. If you’re whittling down that shortlist, and only want to put one Moore work on there, you might find the choice Solomon-like in its difficulty. Do you go with that old standby, Watchmen? Something short and sweet, like the classic Superman Annual tale, “For the Man Who Has Everything”? A superhero tale a bit off the beaten path, like MiraclemanThe Killing Joke? Something a little risqué, like Lost Girls?

If you just want the best, though, there’s only one option: From Hell. It’s Moore’s finest work. More than that, it might be the best comic story ever forged. And, on a larger and more important level, it might be the best book, fiction or non-fiction, ever written about the Jack the Ripper murders. Period. End of sentence. Chisel it into a tablet and take it home and bury it in your backyard.

Make no mistake, From Hell takes wild leaps in its fictionalization of the Whitechapel slaughter. Piggybacking heavily on Stephen Knight’s Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution (a title that mixes infamous micro and macro bloodbaths), Moore wastes no time identifying who the killer is and establishing the reasons why seemingly random prostitutes were butchered in alleys and rented rooms. But reading through the many, many pages of the book (the collected edition is phone bookish in its density) leaves you breathless. From Hell is a veritable gem, its facets dazzling the eye and entrancing its beholder.

How do we love thee? Let us count (some of) the ways.

Oh well, never mind. I’ll soon ‘ave me doss money. See what a jolly bonnet I’ve got now.

fhalley

It’s hard to quantify what it’s like to read From Hell for the first time, to plunge head-long into a world that existed not so long ago, one that feels simultaneously alien yet all too familiar. The book, serialized (like so many great 19th century stories) between 1989 and 1996, is unsettlingly evocative, a capsule of a place and time beyond living memory. (Indeed, time was, as we shall see, one of the overriding themes of the book.) The immense research conducted by Moore and Campbell, as hinted at in the first Appendix (a magisterial work unto itself) shines through on every page. Every. Single. One. It gets to the point where you wonder if the two of them made up any of the characters, or whether they’re all drawn with painstaking exactitude from real people.

Never before or since has there been as successful a transport of a comic reader from his own environs to another. The dialogue isn’t simply culled from every grimy chimney sweep glimpsed in old movies, but instead rings fresh and true in your inner ear. (One of the more amusing credits to this goes to Neil Gaiman, who according to Moore in Appendix I, “has a dirty mouth in at least seven centuries.” And he’s always seemed like such a nice boy.) Even the depth gone into concerning living conditions amongst the lower classes is harrowing in its odd detail. Who could ever forget the sight of sleeping indigents held upright on a bench by a length of rope, its release their rude wake up call? Or the same miserable souls doing their morning ablutions at the publicly maintained horse trough?

London is herself a central personality. Campbell’s artistic depiction of the late-Victorian slums is no less evocative than Jacob Riis’s contemporary photographs of New York City’s squalor. You can hear the shod hooves clopping over cobblestones. You can smell intermingled garbage and filth rotting in the alleys. Your nose crinkles with the odor of the flophouses, which surely must have been some of the mustiest spaces in recorded history. Someone just flipping open the book might be put off by the apparent crudity of the art, but such a first impression is oh so wrong. What Campbell does with his characters has such rich subtlety, it sometimes stops you in your reading tracks. His obvious and extensive use of visual reference material allows him to explore further than he might otherwise the quirks and tics of the denizens of this past world. The result is some of the finest sequential art you’ll ever see.

There’s great delicacy hidden in the brutalism, lurking in both the words and the art.

Oh dear God, when I look upon your face I am afraid and cannot help it…

fhgull

What makes things most unsettling to the story is that our central character, and in many respects our “hero,” is the Ripper himself. Sir William Withey Gull, physician to the Queen, is the only character to have an entire chapter devoted to his origin (his senses-shattering origin, if you will), one that traces his relatively humble beginnings — we first meet him as a silhouetted boy, on a boat, emerging from a tunnel with his ailing father, in one of the many, many striking images Campbell crafts  – all the way to his life as a brilliant, dignified, supremely arrogant, thoroughly bourgeois physician. It’s a life condensed into a single comic’s pages, and at no point does it feel rushed. It’s like that episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, when Picard (in Patrick Stewart’s finest hour) lived another man’s life in an hour slot.

This early chapter is our first true hint of the coming artistic brilliance in Moore and Campbell’s work. We never see Gull’s face for the great bulk of it, not until the last page in the panel you see above. The point of view methodology here contributes to the feel of detachment. Gull’s life up to the point of the tale’s main narrative is told through the conversations of others and Gull’s interactions with colleagues and friends. He kills dissects small animals. He shows a fascination with his father’s corpse. He goes through the Freemason rites — something that will have great significance both for himself and others. And, of course, he receives his royal command to eliminate a threat to the monarchy. We come to feel his distance from the world he inhabits, his clinical, strange way of viewing those in his orbit. We come to understand that he’s a progenitor of the 20th century phenomenon that we know all too well as we sit on our 21st perch: the murderous psychopath. The serial killer is a breed apart, and our first impressions of him drive this home in some very subliminal ways.

To say that Gull is the hero is not to say that he’s admirable, likable, or any of the other myriad traits that are embodied by those that normally fit into that slot. He isn’t. He has the studied nonchalance of the amoral, of those who care so little for the pains and joys of others. He goes about his business with no remorse. But in his mind — as with many serial killers — he thinks he’s doing something grand, something that rises above the sum of his crimes. He sees himself as a selfless warrior. Jeffrey Dahmer thought he could absorb the strength of his victims by devouring their flesh — indeed, he hoped to build an altar of human skulls so that he could acquire a Darth Vader-like potency (seriously). What Gull wants is something spiritually transcendent, a work in service of the Grand Architect who is the god of his universe. More importantly, he wants to preserve the reasoned order of that universe. What are a few vivisected whores when weighed against such things?

Will no one help the widow’s son?

fhmason

We all love conspiracy theories. We may roll our eyes at them — more specifically at the colorful cooks who expound them — but we love them all the same. They bring an imagined if sinister order to a chaotic, frightening world. From Hell is conspiracy writ large, with Queen Victoria herself sending Gull off on his mission to quell the small, hapless cabal of prostitutes attempting to drain a little royal treasury coinage in exchange for silence. The cause of this — that a homosexual heir to the throne sired a child with a candy store clerk — has obvious internal irony, though the process unleashed is a source of anything but wry amusement.

The organizational framework for the Ripper bloodbath is that bogeyman of so many conspiracy theories: Freemasonry. Gull is a Mason in good standing, and has already fostered death in service of those fraternal bonds by the time of the Whitechapel slaughter. We glimpse the initiation ceremonies, with their blindfolds and blades and assurances of fealty and fraternity. We hear of the secret grip. We drown in the manufactured mysticism. We share Gull’s vision of Jahbulon, his Masonic ideal of God himself. We have that odd call-sign referenced above, which compels a Mason to aid the commission or omission the speaker. The imagery of the square and compasses recurs throughout, sometimes overtly, sometimes subtly, as above. And when Gull is finally unmasked, as it were, it’s the Masons who secretly try and condemn him. The Mason angle was one of the prime cohesive elements in Knight’s far-fetched Ripper inquiry, and Moore embraces it with both arms, both for its connective tissue and its bite — because being involved in the Jack the Ripper affair is just something they would do.

The Masons are an ever-ready conspiracy standby, high up on the Alex Jones checklist of usual suspects. One might critique their usage here as too obvious — but the incisive, spiritual angle they bring is both critical and illuminative.

And even the Masons here are taken aback by Gull’s deeds. Fruity ceremonies are one thing, but this….

(I’ve always found the Masons-rule-the-world angst, despite the pyramid on the dollar bill and everything else, to be most improbable. My high school girlfriend’s father was a high-ranking Mason, and if that guy was part of any global conspiracy, then I’ll eat my hat. I’ll eat your hat. I’d have an easier time believing that world leaders are reptilian shape-shifters from another dimension.)

You can’t outrun it, Netley. It surrounds us…

fhnotyours

The chapter of the book you’re most likely to skim on first reading is the fourth, in which Victoria sets Gull to his task, and the latter then drags his coachman and accomplice, the dim-witted John Netley, on a guided tour of London. It’s long. It’s wordy and dense. A small part of you is yearning to get back to the Ripper story proper, not this late 19th century travel guide. Yet the chapter rewards close reading, since it’s one of the richest veins of history and creepy evil in the entire work. As Gull himself says to the befuddled Netley, “Averting Royal embarrassment is but the fraction of my work that’s visible above the waterline. The greater part’s an iceberg of significance that lurks below.”

Gull directs Netley to and fro across London, from cemeteries to Nicholas Hawksmoor’s great churches, between obelisks and fields, to old sites of sacrifice long subsumed in progress and the simple passage of years, to phantom structures destroyed in the great 1666 fire and the spires risen in their stead. Along the way he retraces the ages old war between the sun and the moon, of patriarchy with the original matriarchy. Of the left brain versus the right. Of reason battling with unreason. Of man against woman, which is what, in Gull’s eyes, it all boils down to.

The odd presence of Dionysian architecture mixed amidst the sober Christian edifices of London marks the pagan struggle between the sexes, literally so, as tracings on a map now reveal to a horrified Netley in the chapter’s great reveal (above). London — the world — is nothing but a prison keeping the emotionalism of women is psychic chains, one that “must be reinforced according to the ancient ways.” A sacrifice, to be specific. A ritual spilling of blood. A ritual only lacking its conductor — until now.

From Hell thus posits the Ripper as a madman, but a madman who’s the product of tribal contests, of subconscious symbology written in the very streets. Something more than a single deranged murderer, something even more than a Freemason conspiracy of silence. Something much more frightening: a war against womankind beyond the slashing knives scope previously imagined. A contest truly “etched in stone.”

What is the fourth dimension?

fhabb1         fhabb2

Time has always been of interest in Moore’s work. One has only to look as far as the unforgettably blue and nude Dr. Manhattan, who perceives past, present and future all at once as “a puppet who can see the strings.” Moore’s first prose novel, Voice of the Fire, would deal with the interconnectivity of people living in the same space over almost the entire span of human history. These recurrent themes are often present in Moore’s oeuvre, which tries to engage us on a level beyond our usual perceptions. And in From Hell, the deja vu swirl of time and the strands connecting the most disparate souls to one another braided together like never before.

At many points the story folds back in upon itself, harkening back to earlier panels, like as if the reader is travelling through small wormholes. This is constant and mostly subtle, operating on an almost subconscious level. Sometimes it’s clear, though hard to spot because of the great spans between similar instances. Take the above images, the first coming in the opening chapter, which has retired Ripper inspector Abberline walking along the beach with his old friend (and fellow refugee from the Ripper Days), “psychic” Robert Lees. They eventually come upon a young couple caught up in a little sandy coitus, which sends Abberline into an apoplectic rage. The second comes in Chapter 11, hundreds of pages later, after Abberline is stood up by a woman of the night he’s come to know (and we might have too), and is propositioned by another. Age may have bowed him slightly, but the eye still closes, and the hand still balls into a fist.

Also take for example the first time we see the Elephant Man himself, Joseph Merrick, and compare it to the grand entrance of William Gull referenced earlier. They’re distorted mirror images of one another, their poses the same, yet one twisted and misshapen on the outside while refined and kind in his soul, the other the exact opposite. (Of all the famous personages winding their way in and out of the plot – from Alistair Crowley to William Butler Yeats to Oscar Wilde to Hitler’s parents – the disfigured, difficult to understand Mr. Merrick is the most fascinating. Gull’s second visit to him deftly foretells the fall of the British Empire, an omen that will come true when a man simply eschews the bank of pillows glimpsed in the background, and lays down on his back to sleep. And: Worfipped?) These similarities are things you fail to pick up on your first reading. Or even your second. You wonder if Moore or Campbell even knew that they had a connection. But they’re there, and they’re what brings you back time and time again.

Of course, there’s also literal time-travel of sorts in the book, not just visual and verbal call-backs. Some comes during Gull’s final, unbelievably savage murder and vivisection of “Mary Kelly,” in which he experiences visions of his past and his future in the midst of his sanguinary apotheosis. At one point he finds himself in a modern, computerized office, railing futilely against its denizens’ feeble sanitization. There’s also a memorable diversion earlier on in the narrative, when he peeks in a window while on one of his lethal assignations and sees a surprised man, with a television blaring behind him, staring back. And then there are his final moments in the book, as Gull’s body rots in an asylum, his spirit comes unglued, and it causes the death of his chief confederate while inspiring future killers and a noted but grim work of art. (He doesn’t make it onto the Enterprise, though.) Is he mad? Or is he just perceiving time on another level, one that the rest of us are unable to tap — seeing the strings, as it were? Is this just part of the euphoric state experienced by serial killers during the act? Does he “become God” at his end, or is this just the final firing neuron in his diseased mind? It has to be — right?

——————

From Hell got a teeth-achingly mediocre film adaptation in 2001, starring the not-yet-Jack-Sparrow Johnny Depp and the listless Heather Graham, with Ian Holm as Gull (more in his Ash/Alien mode than his Bilbo Baggins spiritual raiment). It would be 2003′s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen that would completely sour Moore on the movie business, when he was forced to testify in a civil case claiming he had pilfered his original comic idea from an unproduced screenplay. (His quote about the deposition process — that it made him feel like he “molested and murdered a busload of retarded children after giving them heroin” — was/is fantastic, if insensitive.) The Depp-infused Hell was surely just as disappointing, a dagger — no pun intended — to the creative soul. How could it be anything but, when a sprawling, white-hot masterpiece was condensed into two focus-grouped hours? (If you need a refresher course on how bad it was, all you have to do is watch the trailer — and try to refrain from slamming your head into the nearest wall.)

Yet the book can’t be dinged. Yes, From Hell is a far-fetched work, but this is a necessity, something Moore and Campbell address in the second Appendix, a comic essay of sorts, entitled “Dance of the gull catchers.” In it, Moore lays out the pitfalls in Ripperology, with every year making the already infinitesimal odds of identifying the most notorious serial killer in history more and more remote. He alludes to how he once viewed Ripper “scholars” at an amused distance, but increasingly was drawn into their orbit, until he found himself among their ranks. Another catcher, speculating wildly.

And he and Campbell made gull-catchers of us all.

One hundred and twenty-five years since the Ripper and seventeen since the final pages were flung to the reading public, their work still holds the power to amaze. It’s truly a triumph unlike any other. I only listed a few of the entry points for enjoyment. Anyone who’s read it surely has their own. For this reader, it’s the finest exemplar the medium has ever produced. Perhaps it is for you too. It should be.

From Hell has remained in print since its initial collection, and it remains an eminently worthy, if grim, read.

fhgull21stcentury

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. August 29, 2013 12:15 am

    Great article. I consider From Hell to be the pinnacle of comics, as well. What an amazing collaboration between two massively talented creators.

  2. Paul Terwilliger permalink
    August 31, 2013 5:37 pm

    “From Hell is conspiracy writ large, with Queen Victoria herself sending [Jack the Ripper] off on his mission to quell the small, hapless cabal of prostitutes attempting to drain a little royal treasury coinage in exchange for silence”. And you found the premise of The Shaggy Dog too stupid for words to describe? Riigght~!

    • September 1, 2013 11:52 am

      I don’t know how to respond to this. Other than, yes, however unlikely, I find Ripper-as-royal-henchman more plausible and less stupid than Tommy Kirk becoming a dog.

      • Paul Terwilliger permalink
        September 1, 2013 12:33 pm

        Yes, well, each to his own. If you see art as a form of play, then an implausible premise presents no difficulty. The question isn’t ‘could this happen?’ — who cares? — but ‘how much fun could we get out of the notion that this could happen?” It also occurred to me that people will exalt From Hell and denigrate The Shaggy Dog because there’s a current bias in favour of the squalid and against the wholesome (Miley Cyrus’s twerk-dancing, anyone?). Your praise for From Hell includes this: “You can smell intermingled garbage and filth rotting in the alleys”. Kind of says it all about where the culture is going and what’s currently admired.

      • September 1, 2013 1:25 pm

        Now you’re comparing From Hell to Miley Cyrus — another Disney product, oddly enough. Fine.

        The question isn’t plausibility, it’s craft. From Hell is a triumph of craft, an evocation of a real, if dark, time and place. The Shaggy Dog is a forgettable diversion, good or bad. It’s really comparing apples to oranges. From Hell isn’t admirable because of the content, though, truth be told, violence and the darker side of life have always been a part of great fiction. It’s the intellectual component that raises its bar. It’s smart. It’s many things, but stupid isn’t one of them, and that seemed to be the main alluded charge in your first comment, which brought the whole element of plausibility into this (my fault, I guess). It’s so far beyond voyeuristic slasher-fare that serves only to titillate.

        One could probably argue that the vapid, flaccid, dumb Shaggy Dog is more indicative of a culture in decline, some benchmark point in a future Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the American Empire. There’s no there there. I wouldn’t make that case, as it’s perfectly fine for a younger viewer (and reader), though not for someone, like me, who’s older, and who can handle less inoffensive fare (pardon the double negative, it seems appropriate). These stories have their place. Yet if a boy-becomes-dog story had the gem-like structure of FH, then it too might be great entertainment/art (we need a new Kafka), rather than a baby boomer relic starring a young man who’d be cast to the side by his Disney overlords as soon as his homosexuality or assignations with young boys became too uncomfortable for them, one or the other. Yes, there are dark underbellies even amongst the wholesome.

        Anyway, as you say, each to his own, and art is an infinitely subjective medium. That people can argue the merits of things as diverse as From Hell, The Shaggy Dog, and Miley Cyrus twerking encapsulates the odd richness of the human experience.

      • Paul Terwilliger permalink
        September 1, 2013 2:51 pm

        Not to protract this, but….Hanna Montana was a Disney product, the present Myley Cyrus isn’t, and in any case a half-century separates Hanna Montana from The Shaggy Dog, with a cultural revolution occupying the space between them; so no point conflating them. Anyway, The Shaggy Dog has its admirers 50 years on, I suppose neither of us will be around to see whether the same is true for Alan Moore; I’m betting not. Your dragging in the firing of Tommy Kirk suggests a political grudge that may be coloring your aesthetic judgments, though again, each to his own taste. Pax.

      • September 1, 2013 3:48 pm

        I’m conflating things? You brought The Shaggy Dog and Miley Cyrus into a post about From Hell, and I’m dragging things in? This is getting out of control — which I say in a good-natured way. But, because why not — I have no political grudge against Disney, have liked any number of movies they’ve put out over the years, and only brought the old Kirk fiasco into this because it seemed appropriate when discussing the outwardly pure, wholesome, four-cornered 1950s Middle-America brand that brought us TSD — the fortress of unalloyed decency apparently under assault by people who like From Hell. And half the news headlines about Cyrus that God help me I had to sift through this week had “Disney” in the copy, so it’s not like her association is centuries past. I think Hannah Montana was still being broadcast a year or two ago, DVDs are still available for purchase, and young girls still have the merch, but hey, I could be wrong. Maybe Cyrus spending the bulk of her adolescence as part of the Disney machine doesn’t make her a Disney product, if one now off the rails. Again, could be wrong.

        Are these things beside the point? Yes, but that might apply to this entire discussion.

        Also: Have you read From Hell? I’m not asking this in a dickish way, just wondering if your beef is generally about it being emblematic of a decay of cultural mores or a gripe with its content. Because it really is a beautifully constructed work, and venerating it isn’t wallowing in society’s filth.

        Lastly: Did you have to get into life expectancies? Thanks for the truncation of my far in the future golden years. I don’t think mid-80s is out of reach for me, but you never know, a falling anvil might be waiting outside. I’ll bet that Alan Moore will still have his admirers in fifty years, though, and more than dog-Kirk has now. Even adjusted for population increases.

        Really lastly: I begrudge no one their fandom, even of The Shaggy Dog. Like what you like. And that you found your way to this blog indicates that perhaps we aren’t as far apart as this thread would indicate.

      • Paul Terwilliger permalink
        September 1, 2013 5:14 pm

        You’re probably right on the last point. I’ve read enough Moore to know that he isn’t to my taste, and yup, you’re bang-on, I do find him (and Frank Miller, while we’re at it) ‘emblematic of cultural decay’. But in view of your praise for From Hell, I’ll take a look at it, and if it has more to recommend it than the accurately-rendered stench of garbage in Victorian alleyways — and again, having read a lot of Moore, I really have my doubts — but if it does, great, I’ll give it a fair chance.
        No, I wasn’t disputing that Cyrus has worked for Disney, I was taking about her current twerksome self, the responsibility for which can’t be laid at the feet of the Disney machine. The ‘conflation’ I spoke of had nothing to do with ‘dragging’ Cyrus and TSD into the discussion, but with identifying Hanna Montana/Disney with the monstrosity we saw on MTV. As you say — off the rails.
        I won’t get into the long provenance of people-transformed-into-animals literature, but there is, you know, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Apuleius’s The Golden Ass, and the same or similar ‘ridiculous’ premises in The Arabian Nights, Grimm, etc. Not saying that TSD is of the same importance, obviously, but dismissing the premise as ‘stupid’ is questionable. So I questioned it.
        Sorry for the momento mori, I wish you a long and healthy life! and I look forward to reading more of your blog.

      • September 1, 2013 10:50 pm

        That you haven’t read From Hell only makes this whole thing all the mo(o)re infuriating. But your promise to read it is a balm, and we’ll leave it at that. Do come again.

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