3 out of 5
My first exposure to ‘From Hell’ was, for better or worse, the movie. I had semi-recently gotten back into comics at that point, enough to be a Wednesday shopper with preferred writers, and it was during that wave that I had my first introduction to Alan Moore with Watchmen, and LXG. I loved the former, as most comic readers do, and appreciated the latter, though I didn’t have enough patience with it at that time. (And being a Stephen Norrington appreciator, as well as rather accepting of differentiating material based on the medium, I didn’t mind the movie…)
I worked at a music store that carried comics, and though I can’t remember for sure if we carried From Hell, once it was a movie, the book was obviously everywhere, and I certainly flipped through it. While I didn’t think much of the movie, I knew just from the way its story went that there was no way it was an accurate-ish representation of the comic; I also recognized Moore as a “literary” sort, and so had some assumptions about what the book might be like. But looking at one of those dense, collected versions, I was still surprised by how dry it all seemed, and promptly recognized that the book was likely too dry for me, setting it into a figurative pile of “one day I’ll read this”es.
Well that day is now, motherfuckers.
I have a lot of Moore reading under my belt at this point. I have my opinions; I have a better sense of his evolution as a writer over the years, as well as a much better grasp on comics and comics history and reading experience with comics from different eras. But un-Moore-educated me was still right: From Hell is pretty dry.
In Taboo, in which the chapters initially started to appear, Steve Bissette muses on witnessing the then up-and-coming creator having achieved enough creative leeway to be able to pursue something solely because it interested him, and not because it was a profitable, reader-baiting venture. And I very much agree that that sensibility courses through From Hell: it is a document, created for Moore’s benefit. Woe to the reader that didn’t have Alan’s annotations (which appear in current TPB versions) to explain the reason for random character inclusions and asides, or to clarify what are some very muddy panels from Eddie Campbell’s sketchy hand, because my most frequent questions throughout the book were: What the Hell am I look at? and What does this have to do with the story?
From Hell is a study of a time and place: the London which allowed the Jack the Ripper murders to occur in the fashion that they did. The identity of the killer is incidental; imagining the world at that time and in that place is where Moore’s interests had lain. As such, the story isn’t structured in a way that has beginnings and climaxes and whodunnits: it doesn’t even do the typical thing of hinting what it’s about. Only until you start hearing some recognizable names – if you had zero context otherwise – would you be likely to guess where things are leading. Otherwise, we start far afield with the potential inciting incident – Prince Albert Victor’s secret child with a lowly shop girl – and then vaguely circle around to mason and royal physician William Gull being asked to quiet the matter, which becomes complicated by a network of prostitutes who learn of the situation and try to blackmail the prince over it. Those prostitutes are the “Ripper’s” victims.
The core premise here is taken (from Moore’s annotations) from a book by Stephen Knight, but the writer would also go far and wide with research to try to represent as many factual (or documented) conversations / situations as possible, which also results in the wandering, non-comicy way the story moves, shifting to chapters / sections which cover people we only meet once, because they’re a part of the history that Moore wanted to document. It’s definitely an interesting venture, but not always interesting to read.
Complicating things: Campbell. While I sincerely cannot name a more fitting style that Campbell’s scratchy line, the heavy inking and the artist’s looseness makes some actions / panels especially inscrutable, and when characters aren’t easily defined by a mustache or whatnot, forget telling them apart until someone says a name aloud (or they are mentioned in the annotations). I again feel sorry for those who read the initial versions of these in Taboo, as the printings there are darker and less clear and thus even harder to read; modern collections have cleaned the art up significantly.
Moore mostly sticks to Knight’s telling, which involves a lot of Freemasonry, and adds his own interests in cyclical history via Gull’s (as he imagines it here) slowly discombobulating grasp on reality, which gets worse as his crimes get more violent. The long asides into occultism (tracing a pentagram across important landmarks in London) are, again, interesting conceptually, but are very wordy, and arted to us via panel after panel of talking heads, and don’t function as “usual” story motivators; they are just details.
So this is a historical fiction novel, told in graphic form. ‘From Hell’ the movie tried to latch on to the Ripper murders, as though those are the main point of interest in the book, but again, they’re just one piece of the factoid puzzle Moore was fascinated enough to construct at length. I’m glad to have read the book, finally, but more for how it helps to frame how the creator’s creator would ebb and flow thereafter, as opposed to being especially riveted by anything it contains. It is undeniably an admirable, dedicated piece of work, but perhaps of a lot more interest to history fans who are also comic fans that those of us who are just the latter, though I think in both cases, there are some barriers to entry in terms of the book’s construction and art that make it a challenging read.