Comic Review: From Hell

Donny literally gives us the review From Hell.

From Hell 1

From Hell
1989-1996, collected volume published 1999
Alan Moore (story)
Eddie Campbell (art)

Once, years ago, my wife tried reading From Hell while I was away for the weekend and she was home alone. Then, in the dead of night, our doorbell rang… and rang again, and kept ringing! It was just a short in the wiring, but it scared the beejeebiz out of her. She was so creeped out she couldn’t finish the book.

I encountered From Hell years before that but comparatively late in my intellectual development – it being 1999 and me already in grad school – but the foundations were already well laid: C.J. Jung, Julian Jaynes, John and Caitlin Matthews, Rudy Rucker, Meister Eckhart, and lots of Joseph Campbell. I already had an abundance of depth psychology, metaphysics, mysticism, and mythology percolating in my head. This was really the stuff of my college education, and From Hell was a Master’s class. I felt like I had gained from it some deep and powerful secret knowledge – some gnosis. A sacred text is one that presents your spiritual and metaphysical beliefs in narrative form (i.e. myth). From Hell became one of my sacred texts.

Flash forward 15 years. This now was the third time I’ve read From Hell, and it remains one of the best (and most unique) comics I’ve ever encountered. It’s a massive tome: a 572 page monster with a 42 page appendix of page-by-page notes (which I highly recommend you read as you go chapter-by-chapter). It’s kind of about Jack the Ripper, but it’s really about much, much more.

The project started with Moore wanting to do something about murder that wasn’t a whodoneit. “It struck me,” says Moore in Bill Baker’s 2005 Alan Moore Spells it Out, “that murder was a complex human event, but that… murder fiction tended to simplify things into a whodoneit… And when you have any knowledge of real murders, you see it’s not about Professor Plum in the conservatory with the lead pipe. It’s about what happens in communities, in people’s lives, in families. What happens in the vortex around the murder.”

Not being a whodoneit, many of the editions of From Hell show you the killer, Sir Dr. William Gull, on the front cover, and in any of them his role as the Whitechapel Killer is made clear by chapter 3. In fact, he is the chief protagonist of the book. Moore builds our identification with Gull by introducing him in Chapter 2 and for most of that chapter we are seeing everything from his POV. The use of Gull’s POV sets up, not one, but two extremely effective reveals in this chapter: Gull’s vision of God (the first splash page in the book, which gives it tremendous power) and the long held-off reveal of Gull’s face on the last page of the chapter when we switch from his POV to that of his first victim. (There are only three or four splash pages in this almost 600 page book, and each time they deliver an awesome, totally unexpected, narrative punch.)

Moore treats us to all the wonderful, formal tricks he’s famous for. The Ripper’s first victim, Polly Nichols, has a drink in a pub called the Frying Pan before her untimely death. Naturally Campbell draws a panel in which Polly walks out of the Frying Pan… Alan Moore comics are always like that. You have to pay attention to everything. Moore’s typed scripts are famously long and detailed, averaging two single-spaced typed pages for one page of comic art. His books are all good stories – but also games and Easter egg hunts.

The level of research that went into the details on every page is fantastic. Moore and Campbell conducted exhaustive research to make their incredible story of conspiracy and mysticism seem perfectly historically plausible. In the Appendix I, Moore tells us that, “Eddie’s backgrounds are, more often than not, precisely referenced shots of the areas mentioned in the text.” Campbell’s work was highly planned, but then quickly and loosely executed, giving it a deliberately spontaneous and sketchy look – pen and ink impressionism. The drawings look dirty, splattery, soot-covered, and clouded by fog and rain… in other words, perfect for a Victorian penny dreadful. This is such a dark, murky story that it would be wrong to draw it any other way. I even love Campbell’s cramped handwriting, spelling errors, and occasional missing words; it give the book a quality that is diary-like, personal, and intimate. Beyond that, Campbell’s boldly graphic depictions of sex, pissing, masturbation, and mutilation (reading this book requires a strong stomach) are so objective and so documentary style that they add to the this-is-real effect.

“What is the fourth dimension?”
– Sir William Gull to James Hinton

Moore’s primary source is the Stephen Knight Final Solution book, but he adds to it his own wild ideas about magic, metaphysics, and ritual murder. From Hell explores a certain metaphysical idea about time and the forth dimension. Sometimes it’s called tenseless time, static theory, or the block universe. The man on the street’s understanding of time, our intuitive understanding, is that time is “tensed” – that what’s done is done and gone and the future is unreal, a projection of the imagination that doesn’t really exist anywhere. However, most philosophers and physicists prefer the block universe model because it actually makes more rational sense and fits better with existing cosmological models – the math works this way. Time, in this approach, is a kind of fourth dimension, and along that dimension everything is all already, always there. In the block universe “now” functions like the spatial “here.” As Introducing Time (2001) explains: “In New York [“here”] refers to New York, in London to London and on the moon to the moon… We are happy to admit that Boston, London and Moscow are all equally real… [Likewise] the events of your birth and death exist but at different times.”

In tenseless time, motion and change are an illusion. The only thing that moves in a block universes is your consciousness – your awareness. In other words, according to most physicists, philosophers and mystics our universe is really most like a comic book! All the pages and all the panels are all there, all exist, all are real. What “moves” is our consciousness as we read through the comic experiencing first this panel and then that. This is part of the genius of what Alan Moore did! Beginning in the mid-80’s, Moore chose to deliberately concentrate on narrative techniques that only comics can do. This is why he says his books are intended to be un-filmable. He started depicting tensless time in Watchmen (Chapter IV) where Dr. Manhattan gains a forth dimensional awareness and, like the aliens in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, can see multiple points in time (what we might conventionally call past, present, and future) at once, but in From Hell Moore makes it integral to the over-all plot and point of the book, a book which is a metaphysical theory as much as a story about a serial killer and a conspiracy.

This concept of time as a fourth dimension was proposed by mathematician C. Howard Hinton (who also coined the term “tesseract”) whose father was a friend of Sir William Gull. In From Hell, he explains to Gull: “Forth dimensional patterns within eternity’s monolith would seem merely random events to third dimensional percipients… events rising towards inevitable convergence like an archway’s lines. Let’s say something peculiar happens in 1788… a century later related events take place. Then again 50 years later. Then 25 years. Then 12. An invisible curve rising through the centuries.”

1788: Renwick Williams, the Monster
1888: Jack the Ripper
1938: The Halifax Slasher
1963: Ian Bradly and Myra Hindley, the Moors Murderers
1975: Peter Sutcliff, The Yorkshire Ripper

In Moore and Campbell’s book, a powerful event like the ritual murders of Jack the Ripper doesn’t fit within a simple cause-effect chain of events in tensed time. It’s a hyper-event that moves back and forth in the fourth dimension and is made up of echoes and synchronicities.

“Can history be said to have an architecture, Hinton? The notion is most glorious and most horrible.”
– Gull to Hinton

From Hell 2

This book is about the psychic impact of the Ripper murders. Moore explains in the Appendix I: “Scotland Yard received dozens, perhaps hundreds, of letters purporting to come from the killer and rendered in a variety of handwriting styles. The fact that one man was actually killing and disemboweling prostitutes at this time almost pales into insignificance beside the fact that lots of ostensibly normal men throughout the country were fantasizing about doing the very same thing.” Moore is bold enough to suggest that perhaps all slasher books (including his) are masturbatory fantasies. And in the mouth of Inspector Aberline he is not above critiquing his own enterprise: “Four women get killed and it’s like the start of a new industry! Only the start mind you.” The Ripper himself becomes a kind of psychic entity, a hyper-man that is much more powerful than whoever literally held the physical knife. Jack the Ripper “never actually had a physical existence. He was a collage creature, made up from crank letters, hoaxes and sensational headlines,” (Alan Moore in a 2003 letter to David Sim).

So it doesn’t matter if it really happened like this, if it really was Gull who did it, or if Queen Victoria really set the ball rolling. Moore has stated that he doesn’t necessarily believe Stephen Knight’s theory about a Royal decree and a Masonic cover-up, but he found it a compelling starting point to explore the things he wanted to explore about murder. Not only is this book not a whodoneit, but the Ripper story, per say, isn’t even the main reason for its being. The book as a whole is about the reverberations of small but powerful actions (like cutting-up five women): psychologically, socially, historically, and metaphysically.

“Truth is, this has never been about the murders, not the killer, nor his victims. It’s about us. About our minds and how they dance.”
– Moore from the Appendix II

In the Appendix I, Moore explains that a central notion of From Hell is that the 1880’s contain the seeds of the 20th century in terms of politics, technology and philosophy… and that the Whitechapel murders embody the essence of the 1880’s. “Looking at most of the technological or political or artistic or literary advances of the 20th century,” Moore explained in a 2003 interview with Omar Martini, “most of them could be traced back to the 1880’s. Most of them, like France invading Indochina in the 1880’s, which lead to the Vietnam war… the Michelson-Morley experiments would lead, of course, to Einstein and the atom bomb… If the 1880’s were the 20th century in miniature, then maybe the Jack the Ripper murders were the absolute fulcrum of the 1880’s.”

“A great work must have many sides from which to consider it.”
– Sir William Gull to Netley

Moore’s work “holistically” looks at the murders from every conceivable angle (even in terms of architecture and art theory!), and he creates, for us, an obsessive connect-the-dots game. The connections, associations, and synchronicities (or, if you must, coincidences) are wild! They build into conspiracy theories, and you get sucked in. You buy in. You become, as Moore calls them in Appendix II, a “gull catcher.” You become a little crazy by reading this book. You go a touch mad. You dance. It casts a spell.

It’s chapter 4, where Gull explains his mad vision, where this book really jumps up (or descends down) to a whole, new level. This seriously unnerving chapter is where you realize that you are reading a masterpiece. Gull’s reasoning here is so compelling (yet twisted) that he, too, pulls you in and casts a spell. To read this book is to spend time, not only in the company of, but in the mind of a serial killer. You go a little mad with Moore on his Masonic conspiracy theories… even as you go a bit mad with Gull and his mystical, murder-induced visions. I remember my first time reading this book as being an unsettling, disturbing experience like I’ve rarely had with a work of art or literature.

Mathematician C. Howard Hinton, who proposed that time might be a forth dimension, believed that our universe had a hidden “4-D hyperthickness, so that the ultimate components of our nervous system are actually higher-dimensional…” (Rudy Rucker, Geometry, Relativity and the Fourth Dimension, 1977). Hinton further conjectured that mystical experiences and visions might be instances of “communing with space” – mentally accessing higher dimensions of space-time. In researching serial killers, Moore discovered that some killers experience hallucinations before, during, or after their murders – called the “aura phase.” At first the visions are a byproduct of the murders, but then they become the reason for them. Moore chose to interpret the Ripper’s aura phase as giving him access to the higher dimensions of space-time. (This might also explain the ancient practice of human sacrifice to commune with spirits or divine the future.) Thus From Hell is akin to Crime and Punishment except where Dostoevsky ends with emptiness and guilt, Dr. Gull ends in divine revelation.

“Scorn not the Gods; Despite their non-existence in material terms, they’re no less potent, no less terrible. The one place Gods inarguably exist is in our minds where they are real beyond refute, in all their grandeur and monstrosity.”
– Sir William Gull to Netley

“I believe in Superman. For real. I really believe in Wonder Woman, so help me. I believe in Santa Clause… I believe that every Passover Elija the prophet comes over for a sip of wine. I believe in metaphors. Metaphors are real.”
– Elliot S. Maggin (in the Introduction to Kingdom Come)

This I believe: Metaphors (including the gods), while not factual, are true and real and potent.

This I believe: We live in a block universe. Time is tenseless. Movement and change take place only in our consciousness as our attention shifts from one comic book panel to the next.

This I believe: If that is the case, and only consciousness is really “moving,” then it is possible for a consciousness to enter a hyper-state that has access to higher dimensions of space-time… as a mystical experience, shamanic flight, ghostly encounter, or prophetic vision.

This I believe: Past events can have mental ripple-effects and echoes into the future… or the past.

This I believe: Beginnings and endings are false constructions. Reality is a web of hyper-linked events, effects, and echoes that go on reverberating without end.

This I believe: From Hell is Alan Moore’s finest work. It’s better than Watchmen or V for Vendetta. It might fuck you up. Read it at your own risk.

Footnote: But never, never, never watch the awful 2001 movie that dares to go by the name “From Hell.” No! It’s just a dull, stupid Ripper whodoneit (with Johnny Depp as an opium addicted psychic detective – WTF!?) that has literally nothing to do with anything that made Moore and Campbell’s work special. (If anything, watch the 1988 Michael Caine Jack the Ripper, which is pretty good.) However, FX is presently developing a From Hell TV drama series. Maybe with the expanded format they will be able to do something at least approximating Moore and Campbell’s masterpiece…

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One Response to Comic Review: From Hell

  1. gegallas says:

    Hey there: Thanks for sharing your review! 🙂 I thought you might be interested in my graphic novel “The Poet and the Flea” (Volume 1) about the poet-painter William Blake: Please check it out and help spread the word! Thank you so much! —G. E.

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