Delivering the Twentieth Century, Part 1:

Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell

If you’re like me, you’ve read with interest the recent news stories about a man named Russell Edwards who claims to have finally and definitively solved the mystery of Jack the Ripper.  Much like the previous final and definitive solution by Patricia Cornwell, this one boasts DNA evidence.  According to the story, a policeman took a shawl that supposedly belonged to Catherine Eddowes, one of the murder victims, and brought it home as a gift for his wife.  After all, what woman wouldn’t want a blood and semen-stained shawl recovered from a grisly murder scene?

Apparently the policeman’s wife was less than enamored with this gift, so she put it in a box where it remained (on a shelf next to Van Gogh’s ear in the Museum of Epic Valentine’s Fails, I like to think) until, over a century later, Edwards happened to buy it at an auction.  Then, with a magic combination of DNA testing and a fat book contract, Edwards managed to prove that Jack the Ripper was actually a man named Aaron Kosminski.

If my tone sounds dismissive, it’s not because the solution is implausible—Kosminski has always been one of the more popular suspects—but rather that the story of the shawl seems … well, the most neutral word I can summon up is “convenient.”  But assuming that the story is true and Edwards is awarded the Nobel Prize for achievements in Lucrative Forensics, it still won’t matter.  Because the best book on the Whitechapel murders will always be From Hell—the epic comic book by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell.

The project began in 1988 following Moore’s wildly successful run at DC Comics.  That period, as many of you probably know, ended badly with Moore walking away from DC after a contract dispute over Watchmen.  DC still had a couple of his projects in the pipeline, including the conclusion to V for Vendetta, but Moore otherwise severed ties, both with DC and with mainstream genre comics as a whole.

So perhaps it’s no surprise that in the fall of 1988 Alan Moore had murder on his mind.  Of course for Moore, thinking about murder involved typewriter ribbons and writing pads rather than guns and garrotes.  Moore wanted to write about murder, about the repercussions and ripple effects that come from a murder, about the interconnectedness and randomness of it all.  But choosing a particular murder to write about was difficult.  What he knew for sure was that he wasn’t at all interested in anything so cliché as Jack the Ripper:  “By autumn 1988 I’m thinking seriously about writing something lengthy on a murder.  The Whitechapel killings aren’t even considered.  Too played-out.  Too obvious.”[1] However, the 100th anniversary of the murders led him to a relatively famous book on the subject, Stephen Knight’s Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution.  Knight’s account was based largely on the testimony of a man who claimed to be the child of the famous painter, Walter Sickert, as well as the grandson of Prince Albert Edward.  According to Knight, “Prince Eddy,” the grandson of Queen Victoria, secretly married a shopgirl and fathered a child before the crown covered it up.  Then, when some East End prostitutes began talking about what they knew, the Freemasons helped engineer the means to silence them.  Knight ultimately suggests that one of the royal physicians, Sir William Gull, took on the “duty” of murdering the five women.

After reading the book, Moore was struck by the many possibilities of writing about the Whitechapel murders, and as 1988 came to a close, he called his former Swamp Thing collaborator, Stephen Bissette, who was publishing a creator-owned anthology comic, Taboo, to make his pitch.  Bissette listened, liked what he heard, and recommended Eddie Campbell as artist.

In concept, the Whitechapel murders provided a logical transition for Moore to move from mainstream genre comics to independent art comics.  On its surface, the new project sounded like a high concept—easily commercial and instantly recognizable to readers and retailers alike.  After all, Jack the Ripper was a legend and a pop culture mainstay—a haunt of films, books, television programs, and comics.[2] In fact, if the fictional, Victorian-era Sherlock Holmes was a prototype of the superhero, surely the Victorian-era Ripper was the corresponding supervillain.  With the extreme nature of his crimes, the obsessive news coverage, and the melodramatic bits like his letters to the police, Jack the Ripper might as well have been a Batman villain.[3]

However, despite the “high concept,” nothing about the execution of From Hell was mainstream.  Published by a small, non-corporate, artist-run company, the series was published irregularly, often just one or two chapters per year, in black and white, punctuated by Campbell’s matter-of-fact artwork.  Campbell, in particular, seemed intent on keeping the story pure by avoiding any fancy visual tricks or artificial gimmicks, and he and Moore sometimes found themselves pulling in different directions.  Some of the funniest moments from reading Moore’s original scripts come from comparing his ornate panel descriptions with Campbell’s eventual drawings.  For example, when Moore first introduces Netley, the coach driver who assists Gull in the murders, Moore’s script offers a long, detailed portrait of Netley and calls for Campbell to create a particularly memorable face that would haunt readers for the rest of the book:

We don’t see Netley again for a couple more episodes, but I want to fix his face in readers’ minds since he plays quite a large part later.  Bear in mind when giving him a face that this is the man who wrote the “From Hell” letter:  He’s a cocky and egotistical little sod who’s ruthlessly ambitious and wants to get to the top by the shortest route possible.[4]

Moore’s scripts are famously dense with description, but this moment stands out in particular because physically there is no way to accomplish what he’s after in the limited space of a panel, and even if there were, Campbell seems more interested in muting these types of orchestrated moments.  The face Campbell actually draws doesn’t really stand out at all.  It’s half obscured by a hat and brim, leaving barely more than a quarter-of-an-inch of space to “fix his face in readers’ minds.”  Besides the hint of a mustache, there is nothing at all particularly striking about the tiny little image.[5]

It’s also fun in the early chapters to see the ways in which Moore attempts to communicate with Campbell since the pair were clearly still learning how to collaborate with one another.  For instance, in the second chapter, Moore calls for a sequence of alternating panels to tell two simultaneous events from Gull’s childhood.  It’s the sort of narrative technique Moore might use in a mainstream series, but in his script he’s clearly worried about how Campbell will react.  As a result, he strikes a balance between defensiveness and charm:

What I’m trying to explain here is that I don’t think the use of this technique violates the avowed simplicity of our story structure.  Both strands are clearly explained in the very first panel, and both happen at the same time, albeit in different parts of the same rectory.  Because one of the strands of narrative is wholly silent, and because the scenes with William are also all seen from his point of view, then I think the whole thing will add up to a fairly simple and coherent reading experience.  (See how nervous I get when I’m working with a respected comic book theorist like yourself?  All that writing and wriggling just to assure you I’m not getting flashy.)[6]

If this denotes any insecurity on Moore’s part, it’s clearly the kind of insecurity that inspires rather than debilitates.  Both Moore and Campbell have obviously committed to “simplicity” for the storytelling—avoiding the “flashy,” attention-grabbing kind of self-consciousness that Moore had made famous in his mainstream comics.

But while the art was restrained, everything else about the story was unbridled.  In addition to his desire to explore the ramifications and ripple effects of a murder, Moore was intent on pursuing a flurry of other big ideas.  Before the story was done, he would explore the history of the Victorian era, complete with examinations of every social class from Queen Victoria’s throne room to an East End prostitute’s bedroom.  The story also lent itself to big ideas and social and political issues including misogyny, anti-Semitism, jingoism, conspiracy theories, architecture theory, temporal theory, the nature of violence, the history of England, and the rise of Modernism.   Moore seemed determined to take full advantage of being free from the generic constraints that came with writing for DC.  The Whitechapel murders would serve as Alan Moore’s “Big Bang,” hurling a universe of thematic debris in all directions.

Next week, we’ll take a closer look at the book, including two chapters that comprise the most remarkable writing of Moore’s entire career.

[1] Moore, Alan, and Eddie Campbell.  From Hell.  Marietta, GA:  Top Shelf, 1999.  Appendix II. p. 16. Print.

[2] As Moore was diving into From Hell, Grant Morrison was drafting his own take on Jack the Ripper in Doom Patrol.

[3] As indeed he would be in Gotham by Gaslight.

[4] Moore, Alan.  From Hell: The Compleat Scripts. Baltimore:  Borderlands Press, 1994. p. 64. Print.

[5] Moore, Alan, and Eddie Campbell.  From Hell.  Marietta, GA:  Top Shelf, 1999.  Ch. 1, p. 2. Print.

[6] Moore, Alan.  From Hell: The Compleat Scripts. Baltimore:  Borderlands Press, 1994. p. 120.

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Greg Carpenter is a writer, teacher, and recovering coffee addict. He is the author of The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer. In addition to producing a weekly column for Sequart for almost two years, he has also written for and PopMatters. He has published essays on a variety of writers and artists including Moore, Gaiman, Morrison, Jerry Robinson, August Wilson, and Tennessee Williams, and he has taught a wide variety of classes, including Comics, Shakespeare, Modern American Literature, and Screenwriting/Playwriting. He currently teaches at a university in Nashville.

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Also by Greg Carpenter:

The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer


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