Timeless Comics Review – Alan Moore’s From Hell

by Eric Gressman

I think the most obvious thing you take away from reading Alan Moore’s From Hell comic, drawn by Eddie Campbell, is that it is not for children. This is not exactly pushing the intellectual boat out. It is, after all, an epic imagining of the events and players surrounding the Jack the Ripper murders at the end of the 1800s. Even knowing that, and having already seen the film, the manchild in me was a little upset after finishing the graphic novel.

I saw the film adaptation of From Hell, directed by the Hughes brothers, while an undergraduate student at the University of Maryland. A great supporting cast of Robbie Coltrane, Ian Holm, and Jason Flemyng lay down some great old-London astroturf for Johnny Depp’s cockney accent, which I thought was quite good at the time, but since moving here, realise is very medium. The plot unfolds as a sinister whodunit, or a whydunit. Action pops with quick-cuts, a few compositions are lifted right from the panels of the comic, absinthe with laudanum has music video glamour, and I’m pretty sure Timothee Chalamet actually sprung from Johnny Depp’s hair in this movie, fully formed, a la Athena from Zeus’ forehead. At the end of all the murder and decrepitude, I found myself thinking: East London is cool.

With the exception of that lasting notion, the comic book is totally different. It’s a slow burn. Brilliant, at times confounding. The film was a stepping stone to get me to it.

From Hell treats you like an adult from the very start. Having just left DC comics as development began, Moore seems to have had completely free creative reign, as the comic originally rolled out in the indie anthology Taboo before moving to its own series with Tundra Publishing and then Kitchen Sink Press. Each chapter starts with quotes from Moore’s extensive research, ranging in density from one-line platitudes to impenetrable paragraphs from Vitruvius and your other favorite homies from antiquity.

There is no hand-holding in From Hell, quite the opposite. No hamfisted exposition, no immediate info-dumps on the characters as they appear. Moore expects you to be a smart reader, to pick up on characters based on their personalities, and the story painted in the negative space. A text bubble might be referring to a completely different scene than what is drawn in the panel. At the same time, when he leaves you in the dark intentionally, he expects you to trust him to give you the information when it suits the story best.

Where the film relies on the tension of discovering the murderer, the comic book has a more devious plan. In the film, the violence is balanced by its brevity. Quick flashes of grisly blood, then back to Johnny Depp’s goatee. In the book, however, Moore seems to say: this is the murderer. This is why he does it. Now you have to watch him do it. Much scarier, in my opinion.

The most bombastic maturity is certainly in Eddie Campbell’s art. Naturally, there is very graphic violence and anatomically-specific sex. One of the only things that balances some of the extremity is both the author and artists’ penchant for a dramatic final line and panel that borders on camp. At other times, the intensity of the art bordered on some of the most harrowing I’ve seen. Not because the drawings are rendered with particular care to gory detail, but because of the pacing that it unfolds. An entire issue is dedicated to an extremely thorough vivisection, and the insanity that goes along with it. It’s beautiful; a mastapeece, even. But also, like, Junji Ito-level creepy.

I think the most adult part of the whole thing is that it might be boring for some people. Characters have dense monologues about antiquated philosophies and the ancient history of London. Though these are absolutely in service to the narrative, building the texture of the madness that underscores the plot, it is writing that expects you to know yourself enough to have interests, or to at least be interested. Indeed, the last two chapters are appendices–block after block of Moore’s research. It’s certainly not the case that all appendices are fun to read, but From Hell’s was clearly fun for Moore to learn and write.

Unlike Zack Snyder’s Watchmen adaptation, which Moore has somehow managed to scrub his name from entirely, his name remains attached as the original writer of From Hell (2001). The lengths that Moore went to for this book, purportedly digging through old published theories at the British Library, suggest that he had an active interest in the murderous and decrepit history of London. If my experience with the film–that lead me to the amazing book–is any indication, I like to think that his name remains attached to this adaptation because he thought that, at least, it made the East End seem like a pretty interesting place (that is, if you’re not getting murdered).

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