In subject matter, history, and art style, From Hell stands apart from other works written by Alan Moore, but that hasn’t made it obscure, rather notorious. If its Jack the Ripper subject matter was less well-known in the popular imagination, perhaps it would have been viewed as a more “indie” work like Snakes and Ladders or The Birth Caul as adapted by Campbell. The work itself deserves to be notorious for a host of reasons, but within the context of both Moore’s life, and Eddie Campbell’s, who illustrated it, it stands as a megalith that changed the direction of their future output. The fact that it took ten years to complete already argues for its significance because of the long period it spanned in Moore’s and Campbell’s career, but as we’ve seen with V for Vendetta and the perambulating histories of some of Moore’s less conventional work, those kind of time-spans are not that unusual when it comes to the Magus. It seems rare for him to give up on a project that still has some life left in it, particularly if its trajectory and outcome have already been established in his mind. While Moore’s work may have phases of interest that he moves through, he doesn’t seem to totally discard the materials or concerns of previous eras, making a completion of seemingly undead projects possible. From Hell took its own toll to complete both for Moore and for Campbell, and even for fans who might not have ever read the work, the writer and artist they consider today continue to bear the indelible stamp of that project in a variety of ways.
Discussing a tome like From Hell fully in short format is an impossible task, so for the purposes of discussion, because readers should discuss the text despite it’s often intimidating breadth and scope, I will just hit on some key ideas that fit into a wider discussion of magic in Moore’s work. To establish a few facts about the work’s origin and history, it was presented as a continuing series in Stephen Bissette’s Taboo Magazine for a period of three years, but due to press closures and failures at Taboo, then Tundra and Kitchen Sink Press, the series was never presented in collected form until after its epilogue was published in 1998. When it did appear, it was due to the great determination and true grit of Eddie Campbell, who collected it in his own imprint. The book was later, in 2000, taken up by Top Shelf, who still publishes it. This “big, black, monumental work” had further obstacles in distribution due to customs challenges from various countries in objection to the few sex scenes it contained (Moore qtd. in Millidge 180).
While it may seem like a forgone conclusion now that Moore and Campbell would see the work through, fans should thank their lucky stars that it didn’t become too much of a burden for either creator to maintain. It was also an international effort, with Moore faxing material to Campbell between Northampton and Australia, producing a continuous scroll of communication including photo references, scripts, and thumbnails. Moore’s thumbnails for the series are almost overwhelming in their precision and complexity, seeming akin to the planning behind Big Numbers. The level of organization they display confirms what Stephen Bissette says of his early days working with Moore and Campbell on the project, that Moore had carefully planned the sixteen chapters of the work, while allowing for elasticity in their length. Or, as Bissette says pointedly:” “It was all in his fucking head from the start”(Bissette qtd. in Millidge 176). Campbell has frankly commented on not being fully aware of what a vast work it could become, assuming each chapter would be fairly short and manageable. Gary Spencer Millidge has pointed out that the position of Campbell’s career at the time, working as a fairly new artist in the field, allowed him to remain “indie” on his own schedule and “stick with” the series despite its surprises and time-lapses (176). All of these factors enabled the series to survive into collected form: Moore’s forward planning to give the tale some firm structure and Campbell’s ability to commit to a marathon of a work.
Magic and History
A pertinent question to ask, however, is why both comics creators were prepared to “stick with it”. It certainly wasn’t for monetary gain or the assumption of fame or prestige (both of which were more than tenuous). The key may lie in one of the broadest concepts that Moore applied to the work, one which enabled Campbell to create an entire world on a historical basis; this was the assumption that magical concepts and history could form certain intersections which would be intriguing and enlightening to explore in depth. Though the story, outwardly, is a “documentary comic about a murder”, Moore’s caveat on the subject is that it needed to be an “interesting enough murder” to “follow threads out” which would enable Moore, and the reader, to “almost solve the entire culture” (Moore qtd. in Millidge 174). In other words, a specific event or situation in history might stand as a microcosm of the wider universe of its time, representing in condensed form the big ideas governing the tides of culture.
Moore had also chosen a moment in time that he perceived to be a turning point for culture, paving the way for the twentieth century. Not only, then, would the Whitechapel murders stand as a kind of litmus test of culture the world over at that time, but also as a symptomatic indication of the approaching trends of twentieth century life. This microcosmic/macrocosmic relationship is a fairly magical concept, but Moore, who was not yet an identifying magician at the time of planning the work, suggests even more strongly the mystical associations suggested by the actual murders when he asks “How could this crime have somehow blossomed into all these mythic dimensions?” (qtd. in Millidge 174). For Moore, the mythology and popular culture obsessions that has developed around the series of killings suggested added “dimensions” for exploration. Original illustrations that Moore produced for Bissette’s Taboo Magazine also present conceptual figures from the Crowleyan Tarot such as the Hermit and Hierophant. It would seem that momentum toward magic was building as Moore worked on the concepts he wished to explore in From Hell.
There was a very important component in trying to render history in magical terms, particularly in comic format, and it was brought to the table by Campbell: a sense of concrete historical illustration. Prior to this project, Campbell’s style might have seemed like the least likely match for a work by Moore, who was still known for his super-hero and horror work in a more traditional vein despite his move into independent work. Campbell, in “trying to imitate the drawing of the period” creates an eerie sense of resonance that perfectly captures the levels of reality Moore is trying to convey and brings home the more abstract symbolic functions of architecture in the narrative. In fact, Campbell’s rigorous inclusion of “extras” in his street scenes, his emphasis on rain and weather, as well as light and shadow, all suggest a dimension of historical texture without which the story would be far less grounded for the reader, and therefore less engaging, and even less shocking. Campbell’s lettering also makes an invaluable contribution to the storytelling. It’s spidery scrawl, quick changes between dense and sparse text, and emphasis handle the often heavy conversations between characters with an almost fastidious flare. The perfect fit between the lettering and the artwork is a particular bonus: the spell of complete historicity remains unbroken.
Why is it so important that readers believe in the historical aspects of the narrative? Moore himself admits that because the story has been told over and over, and only a certain amount of information about the White Chapel murders exists, there is nothing new to say on a practical level. For that reason, Moore goes beyond the practical layer to say something else, to pose a significant “What if?”. In what is emphatically not a mystery story, since Sir William Gull is presented as the killer early on, the exploration becomes a matter of try to see the “big picture” that Moore is exploring, often visually through the geography rendered so distinctly by Campbell, and that big picture is about the permeability of history and magical meaning in relationship to one another. As Moore says, the “fiction” of the story, the “what ifs” that he pursues, are a “scalpel” through which to examine greater truths about the time (qtd. in Millidge 179). This is one of Moore first works wherein he overtly considers the patterning of “psychogeography” also, an area that has since become a particular concern of his. Psychogeography in From Hell essentially posits the overlay of spiritual significance based on historical events in particular geographical locations.
Moore gives psychogeography an interesting twist in From Hell by also proposing that resonance in a particular location can be both backward and forward flowing. Moore flips the paradigm and suggests in several scenes that characters present during moments of extreme significance can “see” or at least “sense” the shadows of things to come and be influenced by them. For Moore, this is possible within the unusual narrative because of the “connectiveness of all this”. This principle, which relates to the ideas of microcosm/macrocosm is one which Moore developed much more fully when working on this particular series than he ever had before, and it may well have been part of the basis for his own magical revelations shortly thereafter. Regarding From Hell, Moore says “It was trying to get people to see the connectiveness of things”, an experience that Moore felt might allow the readers to subsequently apply as a “richer experience of life” (qtd. in Millidge 179). Moore’s character Gull, “a visionary bordering on a madman”, perhaps because of this specific combination of traits, is able to “glimps various moments from the future hundred years” precisely because he is involved in the murders that Moore feels “gave birth to the twentieth century” (Moore qtd. in Millidge 176, 179). Gull has privileged status within that nexus of historical and magical trends due to his ritual participation in both spheres.
Part of the treatment of historical material in From Hell results in intentional and “extreme brutality” (Moore qtd. in Millidge 179). In fact, Moore wanted to convey the murders quite “realitistically” (179). Both Moore and Campbell say in various locations that they wished to dispel the romance and false suspense associated with the murders in popular perception, a romance which Moore bluntly calls “a kind of pornography” (qtd. in Berlatsky 100). Avoiding this unrealistic view of the murders was part of making “a genuine horror book” for Moore. It was important to him that the reader be aware that the gruesome murders carried out by Gull in the service of his great cause be clearly part of the “same world” as everyday life, otherwise the “interconnectiveness” he wished to display in the work would break down (qtd. in Berlatsky 101). If history and magic are interconnected for Moore, then the degree of credulity with which readers perceive the historical elements of the narrative will also dictate the manner in which they perceive magic in the text. Both are, indeed, handled “seriously” as worthy subject matter.
Gods and Demons
From Hell is the text that launched Eddie Campbell into his publishing career and reinforced his desire to pursue creator-owned projects of a personal nature. It gave him an international reputation but it also took vast amounts of time and energy away from other projects. From Hell also led to the collaboration with Moore on Snakes and Ladders and The Birth Caul, both of which continue to display the unique synergy between Moore and Campbell in expressing psychological states and esoteric concepts, as well as the role of psychogeography. From Hell is also the text that reminded Moore that non-superhero works were a major option for him, and personal motivation should continue to play a role in his choice of projects. From Hell’s biggest impact on Moore, however, was the personal revelation that he experienced which led to his pursuit of magic.
“The one place in which Gods and demons inarguably exist is in the human mind where they are real in all their grandeur and monstrosity”(Moore and Campbell).
Taken at face value, this line from the text could easily explain the main themes of the work in short form. The Gods and demons of the From Hell narrative are essentially the characters and their ideas. They all exist within our “human minds” when we read the work and they are certainly full of both “grandeur and monstrosity”. They become a new and significant mythology for us as we read, and indeed, they even bring readers together the world over to discuss and appreciate the work itself. I have made several comics-reading friends over discussions of From Hell myself, and seen the text erupt into academic dissertations in several countries spurring further discussion. If this doesn’t argue for the mythological status of the characters, what does? But for Moore, writing those lines took on a different meaning in his own historical reality. This is a revelation attributed to Gull, but as Gull’s writer, Moore experienced these ideas as well. Moore states simply: “Having written that, I realized that it was true, and I was going to have to reorganize my entire life around that statement”(qtd. in Millidge 179). In fact, Moore’s statement is rather shocking because of its simplicity and its direct impact on his mode of life. To “reorganize” one’s “entire life” is a tall order, particularly around a new guiding principle. Then there’s also the ambiguity of interpreting the quote from the text and deciding what exactly the “true” aspect was that impacted Moore so greatly.
While it’s open to interpretation, of course, most readers tend to interpret Gull’s statement, and Moore’s revelation, as a realization that the world inside is somehow the level of greater reality within existence. The outside/inside dynamic discussed in connection with Moore’s A Small Killing applies. If the “grandeur” of deific beings has a pronounced reality inside an individual, and if that truth does not, in fact, diminish the impact of those beings, then acknowledging that would be enough to cause someone to rearrange their way of life. They would no longer be looking for external proof or evidence of the existence of “Gods and demons”, but exploring the ways in which internal realities impact external factors. For one thing, psychogeography would suddenly become a double-layered map of both outer and inner realities.
The “Gods and demons” principle raises many questions, but one is particularly disturbing in terms of traditional thinking. While it’s a common trope to recognize that everyone has a lighter side and a darker side to their personalities, to elevate those lighter and darker elements to the level of Gods and demons is to suggest the magnificent and terrible capabilities of human beings. A human being could, perhaps, be as “visionary” as Gull, even glimpsing the future upon occasion, and yet be as demonic as Jack the Ripper. In truth, the Gods/demons principle may be the greatest truth expressed in From Hell because it renders the psychology of Gull credible, and therefore the narrative retains its unity and consistency for the reader.
It was not until two years after writing this section of the narrative, on his 40th birthday, that Moore announced his intentions to pursue the life of a magician, however, this was still long before the completion of the narrative’s publication or collection into a single edition. This makes From Hell a transitional text for Moore as well as an initiatory text. It spans his conversion, so to speak, as well as his first epoch engaging directly with magic. Performances of The Grand Egyptian Theatre of Marvels and The Birth Caul would also take place before the collected edition saw print. In the next decade, Moore would produce a number of works, both comics and performance-based, that handled magical themes in an overt, often educational manner, and the sudden burst of magical productivity might seem a strange phenomenon from too distant a perspective. When viewed from the textual level, it wasn’t an unusual development, considering the building up of concepts earlier in Moore’s oeuvre that finally formed a clearer pattern of relationship for Moore while working on From Hell.
Berlatsky, Eric, ed. Alan Moore: Conversations. Jackson, MI: University Press of Mississippi, 2012.
Millidge, Gary Spencer. Alan Moore: Storyteller. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 2011.
Moore, Alan, and Eddie Campbell. From Hell. Portland, OR: Top Shelf Productions, 2000.
Coming up next: The Final Installment! Meet the Magus 10, The Magus in Time: From Hell, Part II.