For London <-|-> From Hell

November 12th, 2015

The following post was written as a response to The London Graphic Novel Network’s discussion of From Hell

Here’s Graphic Novel Network/Kraken bod Joel‘s final flourish, just so you have some idea what I’m arguing against:

when I read [Moore’s] stuff I get the feeling is that nothing has been lead to chance and everything is designed for very definite and exact reasons you know? If other comics are a little jelly and playful and “make your own mind up!” – Alan Moore in a labyrinth of cold hard steel: arranged in such a way that the only possible stance you’ll allowed is that of a mouse – desperately trying to find its way to the piece of cheese at the end.

And here’s my response:

Joel, the way you describe Alan Moore’s work there makes it sound hugely unappealing. I don’t think your account of how his art works is fundamentally untrue, mind, but it makes his work sound awful, tyrannical even – “Imagine being held in the iron grip of The World’s Mightiest Beard… FOREVER!”


And yet… the sense of total control is undeniably part of Moore’s appeal, always has been. It’s there in the famous grids of repeating imagery in Watchmen, in From Hell’s attempts to draw together an occult history of murder, in Promethea’s attempt to overlay scientific theories on Judeo-Christian creation myths. It’s even in the carefully synthesised pulp that fuels relatively Thrill Powered works like V for Vendetta and Halo Jones and (why not?!) Crossed 100
It’s also the aspect that can curdle his attempts at humour, the thing that sometimes makes his self-consciously light and playful comics feel like anything but, the… oh shit, is this why he always crams those bloody songs into his comics? Is it the final test of his mastery, the compunction to try and make you hear music in a comic? Will he manage it one day?

Maybe. Or maybe he just read too much Pynchon and smoked a little too much Tolkien before going to bed last night.

I once asked Glaswegian rapper Loki about whether he felt there was any tension between his social activism (which is all very much about community empowerment, allowing all voices to be heard no matter how rough or unfiltered they might be, politics not as a process of preparing for government but as a way of redistributing power) and the requirements of hip-hop, specifically battle rap (controlling/subverting an audience’s expectations through your superior use of language, destroying someone’s persona in the eyes of their peers, basically imposing your view of the world on the room).

His answer was that he didn’t feel any contradiction since these were two completely separate aspects of his life, but this still nags at me sometimes, and it occurs to me that similar paradox between aesthetic and political goals exists at the heart of Alan Moore’s work.
That having been said, Moore’s most community minded project, the one that gave the most space for other voices – Dodgem Logic magazine – was not one of his most artistically successful, so maybe there’s method to the magic!


That having been said, being on the other side of Alan Moore’s manipulations of reality – more specifically, of his battle rap – is obviously a lot less fun when his version of reality does violence to yours.
Other people who are on the receiving end of Moore’s assault on reality, albeit to a far lesser agree, at least until they fall out: his artists. And what’s more they’re expected to respond on some sort of schedule!

This correspondence between Alan Moore and Dave Sim is worth reading in this regard, what with Sim providing Moore with details on both Eddie Campbell’s disdain-tinged “Undramatic reading” of Moore’s script and his process for dealing with Moore’s notoriously wordy communications (“he would just get [his wife] Anne to go through them and underline what had to be in the panel and bollocks to all [Moore’s] windy exposition”).

This seems to me to present a far more agreeable sort of relationship with Moore’s work than the one Joel has offered us. Instead of being reduced to “a mouse – desperately trying to find its way to the piece of cheese at the end”, here we find the possibility of viewing Moore as a peer – a massively talented one, sure, capable of pushing your brain into strange new shapes and forcing you into confrontations you might never have known were possible, all that good shit, but still someone it is possible to take the piss out of in the end.


Those who find themselves drawn to the question of how exactly Moore and Campbell’s working relationship was conducted should read The From Hell Companion, in which Campbell provides excerpts from Moore’s script, notes on the development of his thinking on the project, thumbnail sketches, paintings of characters from the book, photographs of people drinking liquids, and so on.

Reading this Companion I found my easy assumptions about From Hell being overturned on a chapter-by-chapter basis, and the great big tour in chapter 4 is a perfect example of why.

It’s a classic bit of Alan Moore writing, a lecture to character and reader like in which the author/protagonist/villain explains arcane connections. This means that it’s Alan Moore’s chapter, right? A triumph of the verbal component of the book over the visual one, except… well, check out what the artist had to say:

“I saw it as my challenge to capture the environment of London in all the times of day in sequence, with their changes of light and atmosphere and even weather…

“In my youth I was avidly interested in Impressionism, with its focus on the optical appreciation of the contemporary world, the way light falls upon objects and landscapes and cityscapes… I started in on this chapter with a thrill of anticipation.”

If you doubt Campbell’s commitment to Sparkle Motion or find yourself yawning (Joel), just check the results, the pissing damp of this panel for example…

…or this drifting apparition:

For all the stuff about underlining the concrete detail and ignoring the rest, this is Campbell’s most vivid response to Moore’s maze: he graffitis all over the walls, layering scratchy line upon scratchy line both inside the panels and out to the point where these lines take on a life of their own, a life that matches, no, tops the lurid excesses and atmospherics of the script.

Campbell doesn’t replicate the effects of Moore’s text, which may be considered unrepeatable or unreadable depending on how much of it you’ve had to read on any given morning.  No, he does something better: he comes up with his own.


While discussing the art in From Hell‘s fourth chapter, we should really take a moment to shout out the excellent architectural drawing of Steve Stamatiadis:

The fourth chapter sees both Moore and Campbell finding ways to develop their own styles within the novelistic framework of From Hell. I believe that Pete Mullins assisted Campbell with the architectural drawing elsewhere (it’s been a while since I read the Companion from cover to cover), but without Stamatiadis’ assistance this crucial chapter wouldn’t have the solidity that makes their flights of fancy seem not just impressive but convincing.


Pulling back to look at the big picture for a minute, The From Hell Companion also makes a mockery of my easy understanding of the respective strengths of its two primary creators.  I had Moore on mythic architecture (cosmic innocence) and Campbell on dust and flesh and atmospherics (earthy experience), and yet there it is in black and white, page after page of evidence that Moore was deeply concerned with the lives of those brutally murdered women and that Campbell had the highest of high minded thoughts about the book’s overall construction.

This shouldn’t be surprising, of course, because Moore’s work is frequently concerned with our vulnerability in the face of inconceivable forces, while Campbell is – like Moore, and bearing in mind that this is a description of style rather than a value judgement – one of the few people in comics capable of creating work that has a genuinely literary quality.

Our thoughts can trap us like this; sometimes we need to come face to face with a person, or a group of people, or an artwork, or a fucking behind the scenes guide before we realise quite how trapped we’ve become.


“I just wanted to give the poor woman a happy ending.  I wanted to somehow – without actually going against what was possible, to giver her a way out…” 


“We might find ourselves agreeing with Gull’s profound soliloquy and then abruptly pull ourselves up and remember, as he in fact tells us, more or less, that it’s a Grand Guignol theatre of horrors we’re attending…”


The least successful of From Hell‘s later chapters is its fourteenth, ‘Gull Ascending’. This is also the point where it goes furthest to establish its own scope and vision, the one where the ripper experiences both the lowest ebb of his physical existence and life outside of time, conceived by Moore as “a dark knightmare vision of the “Stargate” sequence from Kubrick’s 2001.   Though of course, living in 2015, we all know what 2001 for serial killers really looks like:

It’s not that this chapter is bad, by any means, but as with the final season of The Wire you get the feeling that you’re watching some very talented people work a little bit too hard to impress their perspective on you – in this case, to give you a Gull’s eye view of heaven and hell.

‘Appendix II – Dance of the Gull-Catchers’ achieves the same effects far more subtly, and with considerable slyness. The storytelling style shifts to match that of Eddie Campbell’s autobiographical work, with words leading the pictures on a merry jig through metaphor and into slapstick and back.  The project’s considerable ambition is placed in a history of similar efforts; in riseable company, its theories seem riseable too, and yet… we find ourselves once again impressed by the authors’ cleverness, by the range of their erudition, and by their awareness of their own limitations.

Despite the considerable mastery of their design they’re not monsters like Gull, they’re just regular interested people like you and me, right?


And with this thought, the spell is completed and we are theirs again.


In an attempt to pattern myself after the master schemer himself, I sent this out a mere bawhair away from the midnight deadline for this conversation on the London Graphic Novel Network. As I move on to post it on the Mindless Ones site, I look forward to closing the comments.

I wouldn’t want to make you feel like mice even if I was capable of such a thing (I’m not), but getting the last word?  That seems to me to be a more acceptable sort of power play, or at least one that’s unlikely to disturb my sleep tonight.


From Hell is not so much a story as it is an overlapping 4D structure comprising of: one book length comic story, rife with allusion and possibility; a set of annotations that sprawl out into other dark corners of the Ripper murders, illuminating Moore’s working method; another Campbellian appendix that outlines the limits of this approach; a comics script by Alan Moore that is charged with details that most readers will never experience; a set of sketches by Eddie Campbell that try to find the relevant details in this fog of information; a set of thumbnail sketches by Alan Moore that do the same (these went unseen by Eddie Campbell until after the book itself was completed); a Companion book in which Eddie Campbell tries to make a story out of all of these stories; a movie which you should never watch; and somewhere, obscured beneath all of this and more, the story of a series of murders that actually happened in the world.

That the comic itself is the most vividly realised and captivating of these might seem to put us back where we started, as mice in some sort of cosmic maze, but fuck that.

You can stay there if you want, keep your hands clean, maybe live good lives, but me? I’m with Moore, Gull and Campbell – I’ve got plans to ascend.

Comments are closed.