From Hell…A New Beginning

by Koom Kankesan

It is perhaps no simple coincidence that this book should be reissued around Samhain. At a time when horror movies find sequels and reboots decades after the birth of their original franchises, it seems fitting that Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell should be reincarnated as a colourized mini-series from Top Shelf and Knockabout.
From Hell, now some twenty years old, is newer than that wave of American Horror that birthed movies like Halloween, but it seems older. That may be because of it’s varied publishing history, from Stephen Bissette’s Taboo through Mad Love during the Kevin Eastman salad days to a stint where Eddie Campbell self published it himself before Chris Staros took the collection under his wing at Top Shelf. The project was originally released in dribs and drabs on the edges of the comics sphere. It seemed like Alan Moore had relegated himself to the margins after leaving DC Comics, choosing this story about Victoriana London with a gentrified Jack the Ripper as his guide, in the person of Sir William Gull, a suspect that he only half seemed to have believed in.
Moore picked Campbell as his collaborator, a wiry Scotch jack of all trades living in Australia who had published slices of life (Alec) that frolicked through his own experiences. Though marginal to the comics world, From Hell would very slowly garner a reputation as one of the most ambitious and sophisticated studies in the medium, its horror not just stretching back to the late Victorian but somehow encompassing the twentieth century and beyond. With its strange and echoing resonances, its detailed and (at the time) eccentric end notes, and its combination of history and shaky inky line, it was frankly unlike anything else indie or mainstream comics had hitherto known.
Which brings us a generation later to the reissued colourized version. Its length and square bound format evoke the Mad Love issues which in themselves evoked a classier version of the prestige format books that had become a thing in the nineties. The new copy in my hand isn’t as heavy as the older format; it uses a less heavy stock both on cover and page but it does have a similar glossy feel. The cover sports a close-up of the panel which inspires the title of the book although that particular chapter is further ahead. The first thing one notices beyond the handsome white margins and the blood red font are the computerized brush strokes accentuating William Gull’s pink flesh, weary muscles, and crease lines, his white wispy hair (the Victorian gentleman is about seventy when he ostensibly commits the murders).

It’s a shock to see the colourized pages; it seems almost unreal or lurid at first, like those heavily technicoloured movies – you can’t help but register the lushness and artificiality. The brush work and idiosyncratic pen line which made the work unique is now drenched in warm washes, its tone forever altered to a slightly cough syrupy flavoured, tweed textured, British amiability. The rich emerald grass and the corresponding pickle curtains of Gull’s childhood seem almost more violent than his murders. But then you get used to it and it’s almost like reading an alternate book from a parallel dimension, natural in itself, at once both familiar and new. I couldn’t help but flip between the new version and my old collection in an attempt to spot the differences, as if it was one of those simple visual puzzles in the Sunday newspaper. Take this early page for instance – almost every panel is slightly altered – the black and white original version first and the new colourized version below it:
panel 1- the texture in Prince Albert’s face has been minimized and his hair has been altered
panel 2- all three characters have been worked on, especially Sickert whose body is now turned the other way; perhaps only the candies in the shop have been allowed to retain their innocence and purity
panel 3- Annie’s mouth and hairline have been brushed up and Albert has been redrawn
panel 4- the shop’s been given an awning and the carriage has been changed
panel 5- the perspective on the coach and driver have been brought in line and the figures have been altered subtly
panel 6- Netley’s face is now angled downwards, and Sickert is now smiling at Netley’s joke, or perhaps simply at Netley’s digital shave
panel 7- a change in carriage, there is only now one horse and it is standing still which makes sense, given Netley’s urge to ‘Gyap!’
panel 8- change in the style of carriage
panel 9- the letters on the street sign have been made to look more even
Admittedly, not every page has been changed but there are enough noticeable differences. As he mentioned before, Campbell has made some of these corrections to fix perspective while others appeal to accuracy. Some of the simplifications in linework, especially when it comes to faces, are designed to accommodate the colour. This simplification reflects Campbell’s later style of drawing and makes me think of the art (especially because of the colour) in The Fate of the Artist:

What I really liked about the early chapters of From Hell was the intensity of the linework, the smoky and foggy textures, the fact that the artist’s subjects were often obscured in a haze that mimicked history and unreliability itself. Of course, none of this is going to matter to a new reader picking up the story for the first time. The art and storytelling are highly attractive and the writing is exquisite.

I envy the person reading this work for the first time. The first eight pages consist of a walk along the Bournemouth seaside, the strollers being an elderly retired Fred Abberline, the inspector who investigated the Whitechapel murders, and his friend Robert Lees, psychic to the Queen. It’s September in 1923 and the first panel is of a massive dead seagull, perhaps a reference to William Gull whom we’ll meet later or perhaps to the decaying entity and ghost of the British Empire, once thriving during Victoria’s time and now in decline. The two strollers reminisce about the time when Jack the Ripper’s crimes splashed across the headlines and their own part, complicit or otherwise, in the affairs. It ends with the two men entering Abberline’s house, purchased with the proceeds of his hush money, a house he refers to as ‘the house that Jack built.’ Moore employs language to great dramatic effect but also, I think, refers to the building of the twentieth century: he will try, in this book, to use the Ripper murders as a focal point leading to the birth of the nineteen hundreds.

The first proper section involves the introduction of the wayward Prince Albert to Annie Crook, a lower class shopkeeper that Albert becomes besotted with. Albert’s friend, the painter Walter Sickert, makes the introduction and in a way, Sickert is our conduit to the heart of the mystery. Albert and the poor Annie (who knows nothing about Albert’s royal identity, thinking him to be a brother of Sickert’s) marry in secret and a child is born. Annie enlists her friend Mary (sometimes called Marie) Kelly to help with the child. The chapter moves forward through time a little and ends with Sickert and Kelly and the baby stumbling onto a fight that spills out as they walk down the street. Sickert realizes, as a massive coach (which reminds me of a hearse) pulls ahead of them, that the fight is a diversion – the Royals have learned what has happened and intend to break up Albert and Annie’s love nest – and the hearse/coach has been dispatched during the confusion to spirit Annie away. Realizing what is happening, Sickert tells Mary Kelly to flee with the baby and as she does so, Mary drops her red neckerchief. Sickert picks up the conspicuous object and this becomes significant in future chapters.

The last chapter in this volume introduces us to William Gull. ‘Introduces’ is an inadequate word because this chapter spans his whole life – from childhood on the barges to his very successful appointment as Royal Physician to his duties at Guy’s Hospital to his walks with James Hinton, with a little bit of marriage and Nicholas Hawksmoor and serial-killer-like-tendency-and-experimentation and freemasonry thrown in. All in 32 pages that read like an airy symphony. At the time, this project’s material, being released in dribs and drabs as mentioned above, would have been seen as existing on the fringes. Now, I see its remarkable centrality within Moore’s oeuvre. It adheres to the nine panel grid-like pacing that Watchmen is famous for. Incidentally, Campbell said in an interview with Deconstructing Comics Podcast that these theories about the most perfect structure and pacing of comic book pages had been developed by him and were later adopted by Moore. The nine panel grid is only broken for very dramatic moments such as the walk through Christ Church, Spitalfields. It’s broken more often in later chapters but at this moment in the work, the musicality is tightly controlled – it may just not be as evident as Watchmen because of Campbell’s deliriously idiosyncratic shaky line.

Pages and scenes are composed with a Bach-like precision, a baroque-like harpsichord hymn to space and time. Moore adheres to his use of the single page (or two or three) to carve out very specific slices of events, measured, and never spilling over. This is doubly remarkable because this project was begun after the momentous decision to leave behind his legendary career at DC. Later episodes would be written during the dissolution of his home life and let’s not forget his decision to become a shaman/magician later on. This project spans a time of great upheaval (he might use the terms ‘apocalypse’ or ‘revelation’) for Moore.

Perhaps most interesting are the ideas of Gull’s friend Hinton that course through the chapter. Hinton introduces the idea of time as a four dimensional construct, all existing at once. Those familiar with Moore’s work will recognize the prevalence of this theme (perhaps most famously postulated in Jerusalem). Perhaps this is the work where Moore first consciously embraces the philosophy although trails of it are found in his writing from the very start. The idea of history as being an edifice, like a grand church or cathedral, is adopted by Gull and this will later tie into his murders and their midwifery of the twentieth century.
Moore, for his part, orders the chapter in a non-linear and resonant echo chamber of moments from Gull’s life that bears some (only some!) resemblance to the structure of the Dr. Manhattan chapter in Watchmen. The point of view, rendered non-linearly through the meticulous nine panel grid, is often from Gull’s perspective, planting the idea that in time, he may be able to traverse the linearity that binds other characters. This asynchronous composition culminates with Gull, seventy, more successful than anybody could have hoped for, still searching for a purpose in life. He finds it as Annie Crook is committed to Guy’s Hospital. Given instructions to clean things up for the Royal family, he proceeds to operate on Annie’s thyroid, rendering her an imbecile, and as he towers over her, we see him properly for the first time. Standing over Annie’s strapped down body, he is terrifying.
And thus it begins.

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