Delivering the 20th Century, Part 2:

Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell

Last week’s column looked at the origins of Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell.  This week it’s time to dive into some of the highlights from the first half of the book.

The Prologue, which appeared in Taboo #2 in 1989, begins with a close-up of a dead bird—a “gull” of course—decomposing on the beach, food for a swarm of flies.  As with the blood-splattered smiley face button of Watchmen, Moore and Campbell begin with an iconic image to symbolize what is to come.  From Hell would spring from the grisly corpses of five mutilated women whose bodies have fed a century’s worth of “flies,” including the doctors, detectives, psychics, politicians, and royals of the story and the criminologists, conspiracy theorists, historians, filmmakers, comics creators, and readers of the future.  In this sense, we’re all maggots-turned-flies, desperate for just one more little nip from the decomposing corpse. [1]

As with Watchmen, the first page of From Hell’s prologue holds this static shot of the bird, while two older men, Detective Frederick Abberline and the psychic, Robert Lees, walk toward the bird.  Rather than Watchmen’s zoom-out, this shot remains stationary as the two men get closer and closer with each panel.  Clearly, the storyteller’s “camera” was not going to manipulate this story; the characters and events would come to us instead.

The opening lines also give a pretty good indication of Moore’s state of mind in 1989 following his tenure at DC.  On the surface, Abberline’s opening line, “Bloody shambles this last six years,” as well as Lees’s clarification, “a shambles inflicted from without,” both refer to the state of Europe following the Russian Revolution and the end of World War I.[2] But those lines also reflect Moore’s own experiences of a half-dozen years writing mainstream comics.  Despite his many successes, Moore’s time had gradually turned into a series of disappointments including fights over ownership, royalties, censorship, exploitation, and ever-expanding corporate power— or “a shambles inflicted from without” as Lees puts it.

The opening prologue certainly sets the stage for the expansive way in which Moore would use this story.  This ever-expanding scope becomes clearer in Chapter Two, which introduces readers to Moore’s Whitechapel murderer, Dr. William Gull, detailing his life story up to the time of the murders.  Whereas most writers, from Stephen Knight to Patricia Cornwell, focus on proving the identity of the murderer, Moore introduces his killer early, refusing to waste his energy “proving” anything or holding back information for dramatic effect.  Moore’s not proving a theory.  In fact, it’s not even his theory; it’s Knight’s.  For Moore, the “solution” to the mystery is merely a conceit.

Once he settled on the practical use of Gull, Moore devotes his energy to examining the monster.  We meet the young Gull, whom Moore describes as looking like Napoleon and obsessed with nature, architecture, and vivisection.  Moore shows us the young Gull, prankishly opening the eyes on his father’s corpse and killing and dissecting a rat in a field.  The chapter—which also includes detailed analysis of the architect, Nicholas Hawskmoor, the construction of Christ Church, the Freemason rituals, and Queen Victoria’s political pragmatism—provides the foundation for the origins of Moore’s Jack the Ripper.  Because Gull is first and foremost Moore’s Jack, not history’s.

It’s clear that Moore wants to look at the murders from a global perspective.  He directly implicates Queen Victoria, a decision that met some resistance from Campbell.  In the script, Moore calls for an unusual visual approach, explaining to Campbell that Victoria had essentially “died” years before her body expired.  He calls for her to be presented as a frozen image, perhaps even Xeroxed, he suggests, in part because she stopped moving long before.  By the end of the scene where she promotes Gull to his position as Physician Outstanding, Moore writes in his original script, “Beyond her chamber walls, the once bright Empire grows faded and moribund, as if infected by the widow queen’s morbidity.  Slowly, perhaps even literally, England goes to hell one step at time.”[3]

What began as an exploration of murder has become a commentary on the whole British Empire.  Like a great prose novel, From Hell deliberately interrogates every strata of society—prostitutes, shopgirls, doctors, performers, artists, nobles, and even the Queen.  And the repercussions resonate from the plight of the poor to the state of England to the introduction of the modern world.  From Hell, in keeping with its title, emerges from the pit but aims heavenward—a comic book Tower of Babel, piling on level after level of ideas with the kind of ambition that make the former superhero work of its own King Nimrod seem written in a different language.

Nowhere does this become more apparent than in Chapter Four.  In one of the book’s most maddening, exhilarating, and audacious chapters, Gull explains to his coachman, Netley, the architectural history of the buildings of London.  The chapter itself represents a real break in tone and style.  It is long, detailed, and unequivocally self-indulgent, but it also provides Moore with a kind of virtuoso moment we hadn’t fully seen from him before—a young writer’s flourish.  One thinks of the young Shakespeare, providing Romeo with the most preposterously excessive listing of oxymorons in his first major speech; or Faulkner, who turns over a fourth of the narration in The Sound and the Fury to a mentally impaired man; or Kerouac, who recorded his paragraph-less first draft of On the Road in a fevered two-week typing spree on an unbroken scroll of paper.  Moore’s 38-page lecture on London architecture is self-indulgent, but giddily so—both mesmerizing and brilliant.

As an information dump of monumental proportions, the chapter doesn’t even serve the practical purpose of providing the sort of exposition you might expect from a clumsy novel.  Like the legendary “Cetology” chapters from Melville’s Moby-Dick, most of the information in the chapter is completely irrelevant to the plot of From Hell, but it’s crucial to the vision of the story.  Taking a Gothic perspective, Moore is highlighting the intangible forces driving the horrific events that occurred in Whitechapel.

The chapter focuses almost entirely on two characters, Gull, who takes on the Moore role as lecturer, and Netley, the coachman who, like us, listens, tries to absorb, and privately wonders to what extent Gull, and perhaps Moore, has drifted into madness.  Gull claims that what he’s about to commence will be a great work, and his dialogue very quickly begins to sound like metafiction:

Do you begin to grasp how truly great a work is London?  A veritable textbook we may draw upon in formulating great works of our own!  We’ll penetrate its metaphors, lay bare its structure and thus come at last upon its meaning.  As befits great work, we’ll read it carefully, and with respect.[4]

Gull then begins recounting the history of a London that has been systematically destroying women from as early as the days of Boadicea.

His lecture draws historical and philosophical battle lines between sun and moon, Apollo and Dionysus, reason and madness.  According to Gull, the history of architecture shows man’s attempts to confine madness within walls of reason, chaining the Dionysian within the Apollonian, and thus, symbolically, enslaving women.

In this eternal battle, Moore positions himself—the principled artist who has already spent a career fighting with the corporate suits—clearly on the side of the moon:  “Lunatics are soldiers of the moon, alongside poets, artists, sorcerers, all warring on the stars which are but distant suns.”[5] The opponents, representing reason, are also the spokespersons for institutionalized misogyny, having waged a centuries-old war on the forces of imagination, creating symbols to chain women:  “Our grand symbolic magic chaining womankind thus must often be reinforced, carved deeper yet in History’s flesh, enduring ’til the Earth’s demise … when this world and its sisters shall at last be swallowed by a father sun grown red and bloated.”[6] Gull positions himself as a proud participant, standing—ironically considering his madness—with the forces of reason.

This ideological struggle, couched as Apollo vs. Dionysus, Reason vs. Imagination, Sun vs. Moon, and Man vs. Woman, explains the manner in which the city of London has been constructed, with the Freemasons using special symbols to help bind the power of women.  This is central to From Hell because it is the ideological context for the murders.  Unlike most explorations of the Whitechapel killings, From Hell is about the context and effect of the murders, but in tapping into those issues, Moore winds up making much larger implications, suggesting that Gull’s war on the prostitutes emanates from the city itself—a city built on such actions—and Gull is following a long tradition.  It’s a history of culture and crime that will ultimately doom the British Empire.

From a storytelling standpoint, the decision to present the chapter as a barely interrupted lecture is incredibly bold.  Moore, himself, expressed his doubts to Eddie Campbell in the opening notes to his script:

I spent a long while trying to think of ways to tart the strip up using continuous background panels or similar visual devices.  I thought of liberally sprinkling the story with flashback panels to the ancient times that Gull is talking about, so that we could liven things up by showing Boadicea in the heat of battle, or Hawksmoor cackling, rubbing his hands together and sacrificing chickens as they lay the foundations to Christ Church.  Thinking about it, however, I thought, “Nahh.”[7]

However, as the chapter proceeds Moore’s script suggests that he began to doubt himself:  “I dunno … To be frank, Ed, I’m having a bit of a crisis of confidence about these panel descriptions and I’m not sure whether I’m just winging it or what.  I don’t know if this relentless and limited series of images [ … ] is enough to hang the strip on visually.”[8]

Moore was always looking for ways to do things that were impossible in other mediums.  Certainly, this chapter, with its cumulative power, would be impossible in most other forms.  Gull relays too much information for the ear, and as a piece of written prose, the text is dry enough to send even the most dedicated Melville devotee stumbling towards the espresso machine.  But as a comic, Moore and Campbell are able to stay true to the single-mindedness of the concept, while making small, visual decisions that keep the reader engaged.

For example, when Gull describes the relationship of the gods to the human mind, he does so while he and Netley share a lunch break.  Unlike most of the chapter, where Gull and Netley are walking or riding past buildings in their coach, the lunch scene puts all the visual focus on close-ups of the food and utensils.  As Moore’s script insists:  “We can see Gull’s fork as it pierces a whole kidney, the tines puncturing the smooth outer membrane and then sliding the organ about on the plate in order that it might soak up a little more gravy.”[9] In this way, Moore and Campbell are able to transform the theological discussion into a visual precursor of the murders themselves, all with a mundane plate of kidney pie.  Because it’s comics, we can think about the conversation, experience the meal, and dread the coming murders, all at the same time.

Through it all, Gull never worries about revealing too much to the simple-minded Netley because the coachman lacks “cognizance.”  At the end of the chapter, he proclaims that “Our story’s written, Netley, inked in blood long dry … engraved in stone,” while Campbell ends on a splash page of the now-complicit city of London.[10]

It’s a stunning piece of work, made all the more audacious by the fact that, as Campbell later wrote, “We were 109 pages and some three and a half years in, and we’d only just arrived at the first murder.”[11]

Next week we will conclude our analysis with a detailed look at the only comic book chapter that has ever given me nightmares.

[1] Art Spiegelman plays with this same metaphor in the contemporaneous chapter of Maus called “Time Flies.”

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

[3] Moore, Alan.  From Hell: The Compleat Scripts.  Baltimore:  Borderlands Press, 1994. p. 183. Print.

[4] Moore, Alan, and Eddie Campbell.  From Hell.  Marietta, GA:  Top Shelf, 1999.  Chapter 4. p. 9. Print.

[5] Ibid. Chapter 4. p. 21. Print.

[6] Ibid. Chapter 4. p. 25.  Print.

[7] Campbell, Eddie.  The From Hell Companion.  Marietta, GA: Top Shelf, 2013. Kindle edition.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Moore, Alan, and Eddie Campbell.  From Hell.  Marietta, GA: Top Shelf, 1999. Chapter 4. p. 37-38. Print.

[11] Campbell, Eddie.  The From Hell Companion.  Marietta, GA: Top Shelf, 2013. Kindle edition.

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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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