My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The first achievement of Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s great Jack-the-Ripper saga, From Hell (1989-98), is surviving its ridiculous premise. Moore borrowed his historical graphic novel’s central conceit from a sensationalist conspiracy theory of yesteryear (see this Adam Curtis essay for the details). In Moore’s telling, an imposingly evil Queen Victoria herself commissions her Royal Surgeon to murder a company of prostitutes who are ineffectually trying to blackmail the Crown with knowledge of a princeling’s illegitimate baby, sired while he was slumming in the East End. Furthermore, the Royal Surgeon, Sir William Withey Gull, is a Freemason who turns this murder-for-hire into a series of occult rites meant to reinforce men’s reign over the matriarchy overthrown with the establishment of solar deities at the dawn of recorded history. When the decent Inspector Abberline, a working-class detective who hails from the East End, uncovers this conspiracy—mainly because Gull confesses to him—a Masonic cover-up ensues, and the Ripper passes into legend, his apocalyptic violence birthing the subsequent century with its orgy of war and cataclysm.
Readers of Moore’s legendarily dense scripts as reprinted in the out-of-print From Hell: The Compleat Scripts and the recent From Hell Companion (see the appendix below) will discern that the author originally intended this, his first completed major project after Watchmen and his major opus of the 1990s, to be a work of Watchmen-like clockwork precision; fittingly, Watchmen’s signal formal device, the metronomic nine-panel grid, does recur in From Hell. But in Eddie Campbell, mainly known before From Hell as a wryly humorous autobiographical cartoonist, Moore found a collaborator who wouldn’t settle for acting as his hands—for serving as a literalist illustrator of his authorial vision—but who instead brought a distinct style, sensibility, and set of aesthetic theories to the project.
From Hell rises above an overly-intricate plot that by all accounts Campbell himself found unconvincing through the artist’s free style of drawing. His irrepressible hand packs the tiny panels with more lines than they look like they could possibly contain, tangled skeins of hatching that seem to drift and billow like the miasma of London fog. Alan Moore’s otherworldly occultism and William Gull’s uncompromising idealism, the latter’s conviction that imagination transforms reality as rational man subdues irrational woman, meets its match in the insubordinate physical reality of Campbell’s linework. From Hell itself, therefore, embodies the inner conflict at its core between man and woman, spirit and flesh, mind and world. Campbell’s style evidently inspired Moore to relax his own grip on the story, letting it unfold in slow, lyrical, often wordless moments of London life and its ordinary pleasures and pains, this to measure what is lost when the galloping blood and thunder of Gull’s apocalyptic terror rear up in the cobbled streets.
If this isn’t Moore’s greatest graphic novel—I still think Watchmen as an integral whole deserves the laurel—it still contains several of the most bravura passages in all his work: the architectural survey of London disclosing the rule of solar man over lunar woman in Chapter Four, for example, or Chapter Ten’s long and hallucinatory slaughter in Miller’s Court (the first time I read that scene, in my mid-teens, I flung the book down on the floor as if it had burned my fingers). Campbell’s art is a vital force in all its sometimes deliberate unintelligibility, but so is Moore’s hyper-articulate dialogue, perhaps unequalled elsewhere in his oeuvre. He moves with almost Shakespearean authority up and down English registers from Gull’s sublimely designed sentences to the cant of an emerging legal bureaucracy and journalistic profession to working-class speech in all its demotic inventiveness and energy. He immerses himself and us in the setting, nothing less than London as nightmarish and labyrinthine hell ruled over by a demonically criminal aristocracy, its common citizens struggling to survive as best they can. With his command of the historical moment, Moore offers walk-on parts for Aleister Crowley, W. B. Yeats, Oscar Wilde, and—in flashback—William Blake.
As in most of his graphic novels, Moore provides a sometimes extraneous and always prolix prose supplement, this time in the form of an ostensibly bibliographical appendix that at its best unfolds into a series of brief essays on his historical thinking and creative process. Ever the postmodern pasticheur, he’s generous with crediting his precursors—not only the hapless Stephen Knight, from whom he took the Royals-Freemason conspiracy conceit he confesses he only uses as a hook for his tale’s philosophical preoccupations, but also the London psychogeographers (Peter Ackroyd, Iain Sinclair) whose occult approach to the city’s monuments he popularized for a global audience that might not have encountered them otherwise.
Not all of Moore’s gambits pay off. The book’s celebrated and climactic plot twist—that Gull’s final victim secretly escapes and lives to dismiss his wandering shade in the Irish countryside as if to give woman and colony a triumphant final word against imperial masculinity—is intensely moving on a first and even second reading of the novel, until you remember that some undeveloped character was butchered in her stead, a fact that doesn’t alter the moral balance as Moore seems to think it does. The book’s surface politics are also too simplistic, from the New Age matriarchy-vs.-patriarchy premise to the portrayal of a ruling class literally murdering its subordinates without mediating institutions (did Marx develop his theories of ideology and superstructure in vain?). This very shallowness, this un-dialectical materialism, probably tempted Moore to the extreme counter-reaction of adopting Gull’s idealist perspective; he confesses in several interviews to having persuaded himself into well-known magical worldview during the composition of Gull’s monologues.
The question of Moore’s spiritual allegiances brings us to final question: should we read works or should we read authors? Each category is equally metaphysical, carved from the chaos of experience. Those deconstructionist heirs of the Nietzsche who equated belief in God with belief in grammar construed all texts as reticulations of almost infinitely divisible linguistic and ideological atoms, while today’s English-department nihilists in the digital humanities reduce “monuments of unageing intellect” to modular aggregates of data. With the mage Moore, however, I share some loyalty to a Romantic and modernist tradition that valued the holistic shaping power of imagination, so I continue to profess faith in both text and oeuvre as proper objects of critical attention—let the professors complain about metaphysics if they will, and perhaps justifiably when we consider where metaphysics led Sir William Gull.
As a creative writer myself, I want my works taken one by one, each with its own unique speed and density, its own brand-new cast of characters and capacity to startle, arrest, or console. But as a longtime reader, I know that even the most adventurous writers, the ones who cross genres, leap media, rarely write about the same setting twice, and even don and doff different political or religious beliefs over the course of their lives can never outrun certain basic imaginative configurations, recurring images, stubborn scenarios, philosophical dilemmas, and commanding personae.
Moore is among the most adventurous of writers, and From Hell often considered one of his best and most unique books; yet it is one in a series about a charismatic man-become-god whose transfiguration discloses the secrets of the universe and especially of the temporal delusion behind which our existence in eternity is concealed from us; yet this god-man’s apotheosis threatens to depart from—where it does not promise to destroy—the common humanity the book elsewhere extols, almost always in the form of one or more earthy, sensuous women. Miracleman, V, Swamp Thing, Doctor Manhattan, Moore himself in Voice of the Fire and the spoken-word albums, the H. P. Lovecraft of Providence—and, in From Hell, Moore’s prime Ripper suspect, Gull.
From Hell is in fact a severe revision of V for Vendetta. This time Moore locates England’s fascist dystopia not in a post-apocalyptic future but in the Victorian past, but again he elevates a hero whose rhetoric is seductive enough to persuade even himself. Meanwhile, Moore unflinchingly depicts the torture this protagonist-spokesman unleashes on a recalcitrantly imperfect reality. Moore is an anarchist like V, but became an occultist with Gull; he was convinced by the very speeches he wrote for his hero-villain, apparently undeterred by Gull’s conviction that practicing this idealist art necessarily involves the brutal subjection of female flesh. (Gull’s nearest literary kin outside Moore’s work might be Cormac McCarthy’s Judge Holden, just as the historical-apocalyptic violence of From Hell might be compared to the massacres in Blood Meridian.)
Our own time of severe moral criticism—itself nigh-Victorian in its self-righteous hypocrisy and abusive weaponization of sentiment—would censure and has censured Moore for the extraordinary and almost intolerable passages of blood-soaked ritual misogynist murder in From Hell, especially when accompanied by a version of the author’s own well-known metaphysics issuing from the killer’s eloquent mouth. Yet I don’t censure. I only wish more writers-with-ideas were so fearlessly, tactlessly, offensively honest about what those ideas might cost if we ever encountered them on the streets of our cities or the privacy of our bedrooms.
 At the risk of being merely unpleasant, I have to comment on the release in 2020 of a colorized version of From Hell, advertised with the tasteless tag line, “Jack is back—and this time, the blood is red.” Campbell’s pen-work, deliberately drawn for a black-and-white final product, looks sloppy and incongruous when overlaid with digital color gradients. The often bright shades of blue, green, and orange defeat the original portrait of London as a hellish dark warren without exit. Moore invited Campbell to draw the book because he believed the down-to-earth artist wouldn’t be “seduced” by the tale’s violence, but the great gouts of digital red blood splattered everywhere in the colorized version are B-movie tacky. I can’t imagine why Moore consented to this sensationalist “improvement” of his most somber work, and I wish I could judge it as anything other than the needless exploitation of an existing property. I recommend the black-and-white edition to new readers.
 The several departures from this configuration in Moore’s oeuvre—Promethea, Lost Girls, and maybe (not that I’ve finished it) Jerusalem—feature heroines rather than heroes, women who occupy the god-like role. That these are also later works may be explained by Moore’s own comment in this interview on the changing gendered position of the occult initiate:
As an artist, as a magician, whatever gender you are, you start out as a man because you are the thing that penetrates or is attempting to penetrate the mystery, whether that mystery be Magic or art. At a certain point in your career, you find that you have become female. That you have become the mystery that others are trying to penetrate. Your polarity has changed. That change is what the High Priestess path is talking about.
From Hell Companion by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This book—consisting largely of excerpts from Alan Moore’s famously dense scripts with Campbell’s comments on how he translated them into the finished pages, along with Moore’s own hand-drawn layouts and plentiful photo reference—should be read by all students of comics form.
Ironically, Moore is known for leaving a trail of broken friendships in the wake of his famous collaborations, usually because he and his collaborators couldn’t agree on the ethics of the business side; but it is with the assured Campbell, still his friend, that he seems to have had the most substantial aesthetic dispute, of which this book is the subtle record.
Campbell aptly quotes a 1994 review of the ill-fated volume one of From Hell: The Compleat Scripts—itself one occasion for Moore’s severed friendship with Stephen R. Bissette—to capture the rare merit of Moore’s script-writing:
The sensibility that animates this book, this series of instructions, is an incessant and irrepressible evocation of the full range of human faculties. There’s an inextinguishable headlong precision, an unapologetic pan-sensual pungency utilized to establish mood, action, and motivation.
And the well-read Campbell has a sharp eye for the all-caps panel descriptions’ beautifully gratuitous literary virtues, which seem to be the basis for his selected excerpts:
THE RECTOR, IN DANGER OF BECOMING AN ERECTOR, CROSSES HIS OWN LEGS CONCEALINGLY AND SHIFTS A LITTLE AGAINST THE HARDNESS OF HIS CHAIR. SOMEWHERE WITHIN THE ROOM, A CLOCK TICKS AS DUST MOTES TUMBLE IN THE SUNBEAMS. THE LACE OF MRS. GULL’S UNDERSKIRT RUSTLES INAUDIBLY AGAINST THE CHEAP SILK OF HER STOCKINGS. THE RECTOR SWEATS.
ALTHOUGH MOSTLY GULL’S COMPOSURE IS AS PERFECT AS COLD MARBLE, FULL OF SILENT DIGNITY AND POWER AND PRESENCE, SOMETIMES IN HIS EYES WE SHOULD CATCH JUST A GLIMPSE OF SOMETHING MAD AND ALIEN AND EVIL, LIKE THE GLIMPSES YOU CAN SOMETIMES CATCH WITHIN THE EYES OF THOSE CARRION BIRDS THAT GULL IS NAMED FOR. IT IS A MIND THAT CAN CONSIDER CENTURIES OF WAR AND SLAUGHTER WITH THE FULL KNOWLEDGE OF THEIR IMPLICATIONS, YET REMAIN AMUSED.
BENEATH THEIR FLAKING SKIN OF PASTRY THE KIDNEYS STEAM LURIDLY.
I SEE THE PANEL AS HAVING AN ALMOST CLASSICAL COMPOSITION: LIKE SHOTS OF DIANA AND HER NYMPHS BATHING BESIDE A POOL, BUT GRIMLY TRANSPOSED TO A SQUALID NINETEENTH CENTURY URBAN SETTING SO THAT THE THE GODDESS AND HER NYMPHS BECOME AGEING VAGRANT PROSTITUTES, AND THEIR POOL A WATER TROUGH. BEHIND THEM, BLIGHTED TERRACES REPLACE THE SYLVAN GLADES.
GULL JUST STANDS THERE IMPASSIVELY AND WATCHES HIM GO, COLOSSAL SLEEPING KINGS AND JACKAL-HEADED DEITIES KEEPING THEIR ETERNAL SILENT VIGIL ALL ABOUT HIM. HALF-HOUR OLD ECHOES STILL WHISPER AND CLATTER FAINTLY. A ZOMBIE SIBILANCE IN THE FAR CORNERS OF THE ROOM. MAYBE GULL EATS A GRAPE.
Et cetera. Yet Campbell’s self-described “classical sense of form,” according to which “the parameters are laid out at the onset” and “new material must not be introduced at the denouement,” constantly conflicts with Moore’s literary and cinematic romantic maximalism, from the opening anecdote where Campbell refused to draw an alligator wading through the Victorian gutter to his final insistence on not presenting William Gull’s dying visions in a more psychedelic style than he’d theretofore used. Campbell quotes Bernard Krigstein on the possibility that Will Eisner’s virtuosic storytelling with its “excessive fragmentation,” as well as a prevailing bias toward the cinematic, sent comics form down the wrong path. He makes slighting remarks about Moore’s insistence on “moving a hypothetical camera” around the inner space of the panels, and elaborates,
One of my guiding principles in making comics…was to eliminate unnecessary cutting and replace it with an observation of body language. In order to record subtle interactions between two bodies, they both need to be seen in each and all of the pictures.
Campbell prefers stable, human-scale viewpoints without dramatic cuts that allow the gradual revelation of gesture and character. He also adumbrates Moore’s postmodern view of his own work’s historical premise with “a drawing style that could embrace ambiguity and hypothesis while still presenting a literal narrative happening in front of us.” This is why a set of scripts that initially read as if they were written for Dave Gibbons produced a finished graphic novel that feels so much more intimate and alive, even when it’s storming the heavens, than Moore’s prior and most of his subsequent work. That it doesn’t quite convey the occult sublime Moore was obviously intending in some sequences might as legitimately be read as an ethical and political choice as a “merely” aesthetic one.