The day this column sees phosphorescent print is the day the FROM HELL movie arrives at a movie theater near you. It’s a movie much anticipated by the comics community. While the excitement is high, there’s also the dread fear that the screenwriters and directors just won’t get it. They could very well change everything that makes this retelling of the Jack the Ripper murders unique.
No matter what the movie does to the story, however, there will always be FROM HELL, the comic book. It’s a 500-page trade paperback, collecting the work of Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell that took nearly ten years to publish in the first place. It is exquisite in its telling, informative in its detail, and mind-bending in its imagination and narrative. It is definitely something that should go up on your shelf next to WATCHMEN and THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS as a comic book classic.
FROM HELL is “a melodrama in sixteen parts.” The story is gripping at the very surface. For me, the most impressive thing is how Moore combines fact and fiction to tell his tale. Moore did exhaustive research into the crimes and all the theories related to them. In the book, he expertly weaves together known facts with narrative inventions to create a gripping crime story that doesn’t rely on the shocking twist of “Who Done It?” at the end. He’s very much up front that the royal surgeon, Sir William Gull is the murderer. The excitement of the book comes from learning how and why he did the crimes. The story – ultimately one man’s theory on how and why the murders occurred — includes conspiracies, secret organizations, royal histrionics, blackmail, magic, and more.
Much of Moore’s theory centers around the royal family in combination with the Freemasons. The entirety of chapter four, for example, is William Gull taking a tour of the East End and explaining the importance of the layout and architecture of the area. It’s all directly related back to the freemasons, and sets the stage for the murders to come. It’s also perhaps the most indulgent chapter and most tedious to read. Unless you’re reading FROM HELL for the Freemason and Nicholas Hawksmoor history, it’ll be the chapter that annoys you the most.
Chapters two and eleven are the ones that work the best for me on their own merits. The second chapter firmly establishes the character of royal surgeon William Gull. We follow him through childhood to the events that compel him to become Jack the Ripper. Moore’s story is perfectly self-contained, with a nice narrative touch looping back the end of the chapter to its beginning. Chapter eleven follows the hapless Montague John Druitt, a schoolteacher who, Moore posits, was set up to take the blame for the Ripper murders. It’s a nicely done fall-from-grace storyline.
For forensic detail, the tenth chapter is a highlight. It’s a painstakingly detailed account of the murder of Marie Kelly, the final Ripper victim. Over the course of 34 pages, Moore and Campbell take the reader step by step through the mutilation of the prostitute and the thoughts that go through Gull’s mind as he performs the act. It goes on for pages at a stretch in silence, punctuated by flashes of character that hearken back to events earlier in the book. It is extremely well done, to the point where Moore’s notes in the appendix about the chapter are amongst his shortest. It’s all laid out in the story.
In the tenth chapter, as well as laced throughout the book, there are magical aspects to the story. It’s Alan Moore, so those aspects should come as no surprise. They don’t drag the book down as I feared they might. The story of Jack the Ripper is a true one. FROM HELL is a crime drama, at its heart. The insertion of magic into the storytelling is tricky. It is something just a bit too fantastical to allow the story to be believed, if not done right. It’s tough to rely on cynicism of the human condition and conspiratorial tones when you can whip out the old magic elixir at any time. Deus ex machina. Moore blends it in neatly to the story, however. The magic is an added element, occurring most often as visions to Gull. It is not intrinsic to the story, like in PROMETHEA. It’s not like the spirit of Jack the Ripper inhabits a person’s body and causes him to commit these crimes. (That would be STAR TREK…) It is, instead, just an extra layer on a story that is already capable of being read in a number of ways. Is FROM HELL a crime comic? Is it a political statement on cultural mores of the late 19th century? Is it a piece of feminist literature? Is it, perhaps, an essay on the effect of secret societies on European history? It’s all of that plus more.
I’m having flashbacks to my college English classes already…
If there’s one weakness in the storytelling for me, it’s that sometimes Moore gets too cute. I don’t consider it a strength in storytelling to force the reader to consult the appendix to understand what just happened on a page or a three-page sequence. That is something that happens frequently in the story. There is, for example, a sequence in which Adolph Hitler is conceived. It fits in really well with one of the overall themes of the piece. Taken on its own, though, it’s just confusing. Moore doesn’t explain at all what’s going on in the course of the narrative. Unless you know Hitler’s parents’ names, you are lost in the moment. All the dialogue is spoken in German. That’s the best example I can give you. Reading FROM HELL means reading the appendix as you go along. I can’t imagine not doing so and still getting an inkling of what the overall story is about. Moore’s inclusion of certain cultural elements and historical details of the time that don’t directly relate to the murders are fascinating, but aren’t always explained on the page. And for those like me who are process junkies, it’s a big help in separating fact from fiction from conjecture.
It is another way that FROM HELL is not the easiest book in the world to read. It’s dense. The storytelling doesn’t let up. The dialogue is packed tightly into all the pages. Moore’s notes on the story in the first appendix run for 42 pages in small type 3 column format. It’s the kind of thing you’ll probably read a chapter at a time to keep yourself from getting too tired. This isn’t Chuck Dixon or even Brian Bendis writing. You’re not going to blow through this thing in an evening. It is, however, well worth reading.
Eddie Campbell’s contribution to the book, perhaps, is overshadowed by Moore’s brilliant scripting. The art style he uses for this book is simple, stark, and black and white. It’s very detailed in its architecture and makes use of photographic models where available for its character work. FROM HELL is drawn in a 9-panel grid format. It rarely veers from that. Campbell’s genius in this volume is in the way he hides in the background of the story. His art is not flashy. There are no concessions made to the story for the sake of showing off his art. There are no times when Campbell makes showy storytelling choices. There aren’t Eisneresque reinventions of the medium for the sake of telling the story. There are no mirror image issues like there was in WATCHMEN, for example. Campbell tells the story here. He takes himself out of the way and gives you a panel by panel narrative. It’s almost a storyboard, which is what makes the movie such an interesting and obvious extension of the book. There are certain devices Campbell uses, such as the scenes in which the queen appears. They’re always told in the same single camera viewpoint and background texture.
Also, Campbell does his own lettering. It’s in a mixed case style straight from his hand that doesn’t look forced or slick. It’s the polar opposite of the font being used in ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN right now. It fits in naturally with the art. The thought of putting in some sort of computer lettering into this book is noxious. Thankfully, this story was started before the age of computer lettering, and Campbell was smart enough not to switch styles in the middle of the book. His lettering does improve over the chapters, though. It becomes smaller and better defined. It looks tighter by the end.
In the end, Eddie Campbell provides just the right artwork this story calls for. It’s moody. I think that’s what captures my interest the most. The art, complete with crosshatching and sketched-in vague background patterns, evokes the atmosphere of a dirty low class neighborhood in the London area of the late 1800s.
Campbell also draws “Dance of the gull catchers,” which is inserted in this book as the second appendix. Alan Moore makes use of the fact that his murderer shares a name with a kind of bird, and uses it as a visual metaphor for Ripperology. The 24-page story is a mini-history of Ripperology, from the earliest theories to the most recent, and what happened to some of those in the middle. Moore’s most brilliant point of the whole book, I think, occurs in here. He discusses a mathematic principle that applies neatly to the study of the Whitechapel murders. It states that while the perimeter of a shape may grow out to infinity, it’s still limited in total area. That is, there’s only so much information that can ever be gleaned about the period of the late-19th century. But the Ripperologists continue to create more and more out of that limited scope.
“What have we to look forward to?” Moore writes, “Abberline’s school nickname, or the make of Mary Kelly’s shoes?” It’s something that neatly echoes trends in the media today.
After reading the first 475 pages of the Ripper story, you’d think that an accompanying comic story about the study of the Ripper would be the last thing you’d care about. Oddly enough, Moore’s story is so gripping and so dense in detail that the historical study of the subject becomes a point of much interest. I don’t know that anyone’s ever sat down to write a book on the mutating theories of the Ripper killings, but it’s definitely an idea to explore.
Top Shelf combines with Eddie Campbell Comics to produce this epic tome. It’s a beautiful package. The book itself is fairly heavy, with a nice wide binding that’s more than an inch wide, but doesn’t break or lose its signatures (16-page sections). I’ve put this book through the ringer in reading it twice now. You can hardly tell it’s not new, except for the slight curl in the front cover that I put there by curling it underneath the book as I read it. I don’t even have any of those white crease marks I get when reading a paperback novel. The paper is a decent white bond, just a grade above newsprint. It’s not going to fall apart in your hands and the ink isn’t going to rub off and smear. Nor do pages bleed through, disrupting your reading. There’s a nice white border around the art on each page. Most importantly, the margin stays wide enough on the inside that you don’t lose portions of the art in the binding when you get closer to the middle of the book.
The entire package runs $35.00, but will give you more than that in entertainment value. For more information on it, check out Top Shelf’s web site.
It probably goes without saying, but I like to include it in this column when appropriate: This book is strictly for mature readers. I doubt too many kids would find the book exciting. It’s a black and white tale with lots of drab locations and “tedious” (to a child) storytelling. But there are plenty of sexual and extremely graphically violent scenes in here, along with some language. Really, though, the language is minor in comparison to the sex and violence. The Ripper’s crimes were brutal and Moore and Campbell don’t shy away from that for a second.
ON THE MOVIE
You may consider this section to be prime SPOILER SPACE.
There’s not much to tell from the commercials and trailers for the movie. Johnny Depp is playing Detective Abberline and Heather Graham is the final Ripper victim, Marie Kelly. It seems as if some characters were combined for the movie. Abberline is seen to have psychic powers and can see the future. He doesn’t do that in the book. The book does have Robert Lees, the royal psychic advisor, who Moore quickly debunks in the prologue as a quack. But he never claimed to see the future, just ghosts. (And, to be fair, Lees’ debunking is Moore’s assessment of the situation, and not an actual reported fact.)
In the book Abberline does have a relationship with a prostitute, but it’s one named Emma. It’s not Marie Kelly. (She’s much older than Heather Graham, in any case.) Abberline never gets anywhere with Kelly, although near the end he comes close.
It’s a strength of the book, actually, that Abberline is a completely sympathetic character. He is not superhuman. He is not the world’s greatest detective. He is a man who is called back into duty in the Whitechapel area. It’s the last place he wants to be and it affects him immediately. He doesn’t make all the right moves. He’s constrained by the events surrounding him, and gets caught up in the cover-up. But he never becomes callous. He’s not a heel. He’s a good guy caught up in a bad situation. It happens.
In any case, I’m looking forward to seeing the movie this weekend and will be sure to review it in Pipeline next week, either on Tuesday or Friday. In the meantime, I can’t recommend the book to you strongly enough. If nothing else, you’ll be able to impress your friends afterwards with Ripper minutia they never knew they didn’t know.
More than 250 columns are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They’re sorted chronologically. The first 100 columns or so are still available at the Original Pipeline page, a horrifically coded piece of HTML.