Thursday, 21 March 2013

Most glorious and most horrible: Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell

Ever since I wrote about William Blake I’ve also been meaning to write about Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s magnificent comic book From Hell. Tenuous as the connection may be, any mention of Blake always makes me think about this book. In fact I’m sure much of my interest in the mad bard originated in its myth-addled pages. Comics, especially American superhero comics, have been my passion since I’m nine, and since this is the first time I write about this wonderful medium I figured the occasion demanded a very special comic book.

But first some biographical facts. Alan Moore (b. 1953) is a British writer from Northampton who started writing comics at the end of the 1970s, first newspaper strips and then for weekly magazines like 2000AD and the seminal Warrior, for which he created two of the most acclaimed comics of the modern era: Marvelman, a lyrical and melancholy-tinged exploration of how the world would be like if a superhero actually existed; and V for Vendetta, a science-fiction thriller set in a future fascist England terrorised by an anarchist vigilante. Moore’s comics were considered a bold new development in the medium’s writing, smarter, more mature, more elaborate, more profound. His work was so distinctive and impressive that editors of the American comics company DC Comics, home of Superman and Batman, invited him to try his hand at a second-rate title that was on the chopping block, a horror series called Swamp Thing. His now-legendary 1983-1987 run is considered a landmark on American comics, famous for having changed the way comics were made and lauded for having expanded the possibilities of what comics, as an art form, could achieve: Moore and his artistic collaborators started playing around with form, colour, panel layouts, themes, long-form storytelling, symbolism, using the strengths of comics medium as an integral aspect of the narrative. For a good reason he’s called the Orson Welles of comics. Still at DC Comics Moore and artist Dave Gibbons created Watchmen, the only comic book included on the Time’s 100 Best Novels, for those who care about such honours. Watchmen is considered one of the best comics ever made, some even argue the best ever made. Although I wouldn’t go so far, it is a remarkable example of alternative history that mixes Cold War tensions, superheroes, vigilantism, and shrewd ruminations on politics, ethics and the nature of time. Then in 1989 Moore had a falling out with DC Comics over creators’ rights and censorship and he started self-publishing his own comics. Although since the late eighties Moore has produced many memorable and ground-breaking comics, nothing surpasses what I consider to be his true masterpiece: From Hell.

It is hard to praise From Hell and then describe what the story is about without looking like a fool, so please bear with me. At its simplest, it’s a historical comic book about the Jack the Ripper murders, the title coming from the address written on the only letter reputed to have been sent by the killer (hundreds were sent, something I’ll come back to later). I know this doesn’t sound very spectacular but Moore isn’t really interested in another tiresome thriller about cops chasing a Victorian fog-veiled killer cutting up prostitutes in squalid West End back alleys, or in entertaining unverifiable and scandalous hypotheses about his identity. He’s not Patricia Cornwell, let’s make that clear. Back in 1989, when Moore started thinking about writing a big comic book on murder he didn’t even have the infamous serial killer in mind, too played out for him. But the centennial of the murders had taken place in 1988 and pop culture was ablaze with him. By chance he read Stephen Knight’s Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution (1976) and became interested in the possibilities of using the infamous serial killer after all. Knight’s non-fiction book, with its long debunked theory, proposed the wild and entertaining theory that the Ripper murders had been carried out by a Masonic agent of Queen Victoria in order to suppress the scandal that could possibly arise from the secret marriage between her grandson, Prince Albert Victor, and a commoner called Annie Crook. After doing away with the mother, who meanwhile had given birth to a baby girl, the Queen’s agent proceeded to execute a group of prostitutes who knew of the affair and were trying to blackmail the crown. Moore simply picked up this crackpot theory, which he didn’t believe in for a second, and used it as a skeleton to frame a more ambitious story. Pairing up with Australian comic book artist Eddie Campbell, he started serializing the story in 1989, finishing only in 1996, after three publishers had gone under. In the end, however, they had created a nearly 600-page-long masterpiece: fourteen chapters, a prologue and an epilogue, forty pages of end notes, and an appendix where Moore details the history of Ripperology, that is, the science, or pastime, of investigating the Ripper murders.

From Hell, then, is not a whodunit, the criminal investigation being very superficial and limited to a handful of chapters. Another simple way of describing the story is saying that it is a character study of Sir William Gull, the tentative author of the Ripper crimes, according to Knight’s book. Gull, incidentally, really did exist and was Physician-in-Ordinary of Queen Victoria, a title he received after curing her son, Prince Albert Edward, of typhoid fever. His connection to the murders is established early on, in chapter two, when he’s tasked with performing a rudimentary lobotomy on Annie Crook, wrongly detained in a hospital for madwomen. This chapter perhaps offers the first glimpse of the book’s distinction, for it is visually constructed completely from Gull’s point of view, his face being revealed only when Annie meets him, a very novel idea in comics at the time. In chapter four, after the letter of blackmail is transmitted to the royalty, he’s sent for by Queen Victoria, who instructs him to eliminate the four prostitutes that know of the royal affair: Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride and Mary Jane Kelly. (Catherine Eddowes, who makes part of the five canonical victims, is killed by Gull by mistake). Chapter four is widely reputed to be the book’s pièce de résistance, a coach ride across London during which Gull lectures his helper, John Netley, on the pagan history of London, druids, psychogeography, its monuments, churches, ghosts, and famous murders. This chapter was, according to Moore’s admission, inspired by Iain Sinclair’s poem Lud Heat, which was the first book to notice the strange patterns of Nicholas Hawksmoor’s London churches, famous for their pagan symbols and major settings in the novel. It is here that Gull’s full design is revealed: for him the murder of the blackmailers is merely the superficial aspect of his mission. Gull is a man of science, a Free Mason, and a misogynist conservative who opposes every sort of progress that may undermine the stability of the Empire and the hold of patriarchy. Explaining to Netley that women once held the power until men usurped it and then enslaved women through force, symbols and myths, he believes his real purpose is to cast a magical spell that will reinforce men’s power upon the world. Gull, as you may imagine, is completely insane:

Chapter Four: Gull begins his lecture

Although Moore takes many liberties with the facts concerning Gull’s life, reading the end notes it is astonishing how much of his real life Moore incorporated in his fictional rendering. Moore and Campbell did a laborious work of research in order to portray him, and everyone else in the book, as accurately as possible, save for necessary dramatic changes. For instance he must have been one of the few people in the modern era who has read William Withey Gull – A Biographical Sketch, written by Gull’s son-in-law, Theodore Dyke Acland, who in turn shows up in the book too. Equal research was done for the victims, secondary characters like Inspector Frederick Abberline and the psychic and spiritualist Robert James Lees, as well as on the history and architecture of London. As a result of such intense research, cameos in the story include Oscar Wilde, William Morris, Joseph Merrick, better known as the Elephant Man, the Native American writer Black Elk, a young Aleister Crowley, painter Walter Sickert, poet William Butler Yeats, and even William Blake, all adding textual density to the narrative.

Chapter Four: Gull on legendary queen Boudica
There are several themes that run throughout the book. Perhaps the most ordinary and didactic is the theme of social injustice at the time. More than in any other Jack the Ripper work of fiction I know, Moore and Campbell humanize the five canonical victims and show the whole sordid mechanism that turned these women into prostitutes vulnerable to predators. A recurrent leitmotif in the book is that these women were easy prey because they were walking in the streets late at night, looking for strangers to have sex with for money in order to pay for a spot in a lodging house to spend the night in. They don’t overlook their undernourishment, their drinking problems, their health problems. Perhaps the most efficient example occurs in chapter five, where Moore and Campbell visually juxtapose the lives of Gull and Polly Nichols: his scenes being painted in dreamlike watercolours, while hers are grittier and scratchier: 

Chapter Five: notice the change in style...

... emphasizing the social differences between Gull and his victims
The hypocrisy of the era is well captured, in the words and in the images (Campbell, it must be said, does a tremendous job in the art department). Still I fear the book does not advance anything new that we didn’t know about the Victorian era’s general inhumanity towards the wretched and its ugly ideas of social Darwinism. Moore doesn’t surpass the countless realist and naturalist writers of that era, either, in capturing the squalor of the slums and the moral turpitude of its unfortunate denizens. Still Moore deserves credit for paying so much attention to the victims’ lives.

A more interesting theme is the dichotomy Gull sees to exist in history between male and female symbols and archetypes, the Apollonian reason and the Dionysian imagination, solar and lunar deities. He believes he’s living in the age of Reason and science, threatened nevertheless by socialism, women suffragettes, the books of Madame Blavatsky, the theosophists, the séances, and other spiritualist entertainments Victorians were fascinated by at the end of the century. He believes a magical spell is necessary in order to reinforce the power of men upon the world, and his work is it. The murder of the prostitutes is in fact an intricate magical spell that seeks to bind women to men’s power. If this sounds absurd, believe me Moore and Campbell make it work with chilling seriousness and aplomb. The reason, I think, this book never falls into camp is because Moore knows how to temper it with irony. The most salient of course being that Sir William Gull claims to be a servant of Reason when he’s the member of a secret society full of arcane mystical rituals that worships a deity called Jah-Bul-On. And his method of preserving rationality is by counter-attacking with his own magical spell. Incidentally, it’s in chapter four that Gull eloquently discusses William Blake, and hence the reason I associate the two.

Chapter Four: Gull talks about William Blake

A fourth theme is a study of the end of the Victorian era itself: Moore postulates that the 1880s were, in a way, the progenitors of the 20th century: this magical decade saw the invention of the first cars, the rise of atomic science, the first Madhi uprising that foretold modern Islamic fundamentalism, even the conception of Adolf Hitler. The year 1888 itself, as Moore demonstrates, was a year rife with events of huge importance to the modern era. Another invention was the birth of modern-day tabloid press: the name Jack the Ripper, for instance, is believed to have been created by a journalist who sent a hoax letter signed with that name to the cops, in order to maintain the interest of the case alive and sell more newspapers. Also, hundreds of letters were sent pretending to be from the killer, made up by ordinary men and women drawn into this lurid story. Fascination with media murders, Moore points out, is not an invention of our times. He has lots of fun pointing out all these connections between this and our eras.

Chapter Two: Hinton explains his son's theories on time
For me, though, the most interesting theme is the exploration of a theory about time that says that all time – past, present, future – is occurring simultaneously, made to seem linear only because of our limited senses. Moore borrows this theory from a pamphlet of the time called ‘What is the fourth dimension?’ by C.H. Hinton (the name will not be completely meaningless to fans of Jorge Luis Borges), son of James Hinton, Gull’s best friend. Gull asks in wonder, “Can history then be said to have an architecture, Hinton? The notion is most glorious and most horrible.” Gull, however, in his ascension to godhood, becomes capable of seeing and influencing this architecture, as seen in chapter fourteen. As Moore explains in the end notes, while reading up on serial killers, he learned that usually these men have hallucinations during what is called the ‘aura phase’, prior to murders. Moore takes this one step further and makes Gull’s hallucinations into actual glimpses of the future. Each murder allows him to pierce the veil of time a bit more, receiving prophecies. For instance in his first murder he notices that it occurs near a Brady Street (and this is a fact, making the coincidence all the more chilling), wondering why the name is familiar to him, not yet knowing that he’ll influence a real 20th century serial killer called Ian Brady. In the final murder of Mary Kelly, as he slowly destroys her body, past and future mix: Gull hallucinates that he’s giving a lecture on anatomy to his students, but impossibly one of the spectators is Myra Hindley, Brady’s partner. The escalation of the murders’ brutality runs pari passu with the collapse of time itself, as each murder thrusts Sir William Gull deeper and deeper into the tangled strands of coincidences and patterns built on the legend of Jack the Ripper and propagated throughout the 20th century.

Although I said that chapter four is the highlight of the book, chapter fourteen is a serious contender to the title. Gull abandons his body and travels as spirit across time and space, to the past and the future, shaping and influencing both. Retreating in time, he becomes the nightmare that famously inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to write Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and moving further back he appears before William Blake as the scaly phantom that the mad bard renders in his famous painting, Ghost of a Flea:

William Blake's version

Chapter Fourteen: Eddie Campbell's rendition of Blake
Then propelled into the future, Gull gives commands to a young Ian Brady and to Peter Sutcliffe, a British serial killer that terrorised Yorkshire during the ‘70s. The reason they’re included is because they fit very well in the book’s theory of time architecture: in 1788 a real-life madman was caught in London after slashing the buttocks of several women; in 1888 Jack the Ripper kills five prostitutes; exactly fifty years later, in 1938, there is a scare known as the Halifax Slasher; twenty-five years later, in 1963, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley initiate their reign of terror; twelve years after them, in 1975, Sutcliffe kills his first victim. Thinking too long about this is not good for the mind. But it’s a testament to Moore’s research that he manages to make it all so plausible and persuasive.

I keep bringing up the research because it’s something that is critical to the success of this comic book. Without the countless, trivial coincidences that resonate throughout the story, much of its poignancy would dwindle. For instance, in chapter two Gull receives a letter from Hinton’s son informing him that his father passed away. A few scenes later, Gull is operating on an angry Annie Crook, who claims she was talking to a James Hinton when she was grabbed off the street. This unlikely mention of this name momentarily disturbs the aging physician. And yet, as Moore shows in the end notes, according to the electoral records of the time there was a James Hinton living in Annie’s building. This is but one example.

Equally fascinating are some tricks of irony Moore sprinkles throughout the book. Moore was one of the first comic book writers to appreciate the possibility of long-form storytelling, and he plans his stories carefully and plots them out in advance with a lot of attention to details. So his books are full of mirror images, little scenes that occur at the beginning and then are repeated, slightly distorted, later on.

For instance, in chapter two we see a young Gull capturing a mouse and gutting it, cruelty to animals being common in serial killers growing up. In the final chapter, when Gull is ascending to godhood, he witnesses the following scene:

Chapter Fourteen

Notice that the little girl has released the captured frog; instead of death, the little girl represent life. This whole page in itself is full of little payoffs. The ‘clear off back to hell’ is not only a reference to the title but also to the fact that the only letter believed to have been sent by the killer was addressed as ‘From Hell,’ metaphorically making that Gull’s abode. Another curious touch is that Gull is scared of this woman, Mary Kelly, the one victim that may have escaped him (the book is deliberately ambiguous on this point), and this is a counterpoint to his meeting with Annie Crook, who claims to be terrified by his face:

Chapter Two: in the next page we finally see Sir William Gull's for the first time
Another mirroring, both chapters are from Gull's perspective. Moore, it must also be acknowledged, is a masterful wordsmith. Almost everything he writes is pregnant with multiple meanings. For instance, in chapter ten, after he allegedly butchers the woman who may or may not be Mary Kelly, Gull confides to Netley: “For better or worse, the twentieth century. I have delivered it.” It’s an interesting verb, to deliver, because it can also mean to give birth to. Gull is working to contain and suppress the powers of women, giving birth being their most important, so this is quite ironic, and it also brings to mind Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, a novel written by the daughter of a famous feminist about a doctor who discovers the secret of giving life without involving the female sex. Another great trick Moore uses is reusing dialogue from a previous page on a completely different context:

Chapter Two

Chapter Ten

What’s impressive is that the dialogue fits each page, in a perfect marriage of words and pictures. Just how far Moore had planned his magnus opum in advance, which took him nearly a decade to finish, is unknown to me, but readers familiar with his long-form work in Watchmen and Promethea know that he’s a master at constructing intricate, complex narratives with several strands coming together seamlessly at the end.

But in terms of language his greatest feat is perfectly reproducing Victorianspeak. I’ve seen many writers try to imitate the way English people in the 19th century spoke, Hollywood’s historical dramas are great offenders in this regard, but no matter what there’s always something that betrays their attempts. In Moore’s case I can say there wasn’t a line I read that made me think I was standing before a character from the 20th century, or any anachronistic expression or syntax. His mastery of language never ceases to astonish me.

I really haven’t spoken much about Eddie Campbell, whose sketchy, seemingly unfinished artwork contributes to a gloomy atmosphere that is the unsettling but apt face of this horror story, but certainly all the panels I have posted so far will convince you that without him From Hell would be a far lesser book. Alan Moore has worked with many legendary artists, but Campbell may just be his best collaborator in terms of how writer and artist worked to each other’s strengths, achieving a unity of form full of lyricism and dread that remains unsurpassed in comics to me.

In trying to compare From Hell to a novel, there are many possible candidates. In terms of sheer narrative intricacy, I don’t think it’s inferior to Terra Nostra or La Saga/Fuga de J.B., with which it incidentally shares themes about history following patterns. Regarding the level of complexity of the book, Moore has cited Thomas Pynchon as an inspiration. Alas, I know nothing of Pynchon so it’s not for me to comment. Recently, though, I began thinking about the similarities between this comic book and Umberto Eco’s excellent Foucault’s Pendulum (1988). Eco’s novel is a work of vast erudition about a group of friends who start creating The Plan, the most overarching conspiracy theory ever set forth by anyone; it intends to connect everything: the Knights Templar, the Rosicrucian, the Free Masons, and just about every other known conspiracy into one big, coherent, plausible super-conspiracy. Like Moore’s theory about Jack the Ripper, The Plan is disturbingly plausible at first. Interestingly, both books contain their own negations of these same theories. In Eco’s novel much of the conspiracy theory is based on a coded manuscript Casaubon and his friends come upon; but when his girlfriend looks at the manuscript she dismantles its apparent coded messages as a mere medieval delivery list. This doesn’t stop the conspiracy, built on nothing, from taking a life of its own. Now in Moore and Campbell’s book, there isn’t really such a moment within the narrative. Instead they added an appendix called “The Dance of the Gull-Catchers,” in which Moore takes apart the history of Ripperology and, using the mathematical theory of the Koch snowflake, explains why the killer’s true identity can never be discovered. In this regard, From Hell shares similarities with another 1988 novel, Dom Delillo's Libra: in this novel about the life of Lee Harvey Oswald, there's a counter-narrative about a CIA agent in the archives trying to make sense of all the material written about the assassination of JFK, knowing that it's an impossible task, knowing that no answers can ever be found.  Moore, unlike others who have dabbled in the lore of Jack the Ripper, never forgets he’s writing fiction, the only place where answers can still be given. In writing a work of fiction, then, he has created an ambitious and interesting book that will likely outlive all the fanciful ‘final solutions' presented in the real world.


  1. Comics are indeed very entertaining. And Eco's Pendulum is one of the bests novels I've ever read. And Pynchon is insanely amusing. Check 'The crying of lot 49' because all others are massive works ranging to 1000 plus pages. And maybe you'll like this: Visit Modern and postmoder at Coursera...

  2. Your reading tastes are marvelously eclectic Miguel!

    I am an admirer of Moore's work but have not read this.

    I love the theory on time being a result of our senses and that everything really occurring simultaneously. I have entertained similar thoughts and think that there may be something to it.

  3. I wonder why I did not read any of this. I bought V for Vendetta as it was coming out; I used to own a complete set of Moore's Miracleman! For complicated reasons, Marvelman had to change its name in the U.S.

    I remember when From Hell was coming out - I must have picked up an issue or two and not quite gotten it. I should obviously try again.

    Also: what toutjour said about Pynchon.

  4. - toutjour, comics are wonderful! For me a well-made comic book is the best thing in the world. I've been curious about Pynchon for some years now, but I'll probably start with V. or Inherent Vice, in preparation for Paul Thomas Anderson's film adaptation.

    - Brian, how nice to find a fellow Moore fan! You should read this book, it's really, really great! What have you read by him?

    - Tom, you're a fan too? That's great! Yes, Marvelman became Miracleman because Marvel Comics threatened to sue. Needless to say Moore isn't in good terms with them either.

    You still picked up the individual titles, that's amazing! Perhaps I was luckier in reading the 2000 collected edition and getting the whole story at once. The beauty of Moore's comics is that the finale always pays off.

    I'll read Pynchon, but you have to read this ;)