Written by Alan Moore
Art by Eddie Campbell
Take a trip with the crew of the London Graphic Novel Network as we go for a meander around the architectural delights and horrors of From Hell. How is our history tied up with our present? Should you read the endnotes? And is Alan Moore more a social activist or a battle rapper?
“One measures a circle, beginning anywhere.”
Well. Ok. But that’s a circle. Where on earth am I supposed to begin with talking about From Hell? I mean – just look at the damn thing. You don’t even have to open it up to know that’s it a damn big undertaking. I mean – it’s massive. Colossal. Gargantuan. If you wanted to – you could kill someone with it. Easy.
“Graphic novel” isn’t my favourite term. For a whole bunch of reasons I prefer “comics” (yeah yeah – I know it’s the “London Graphic Novel Network”: but “London Comic Network” sounds too much like it’s for people telling jokes you know? Also: well – I kinda wasn’t the one who named it: but maybe that’s a story for another time?): but for my money From Hell is one of the few comics that come closest to earning (?) “graphic novel” as a suitable description: in that – well – it’s probably the best way to describe it – you know? In that – well: it feels like a novel in graphic form (hopefully you guys know enough about how I think at the this point to know that’s not exactly as laudatory coming from me as it might be coming from someone else…).
Because – well – this is what I think novels are: long, discursive, meandering, prestigious, ornate, big on themes, big on spending time with characters and big on scenes. Does that sound about right? I mean – if these are good or bad will depend on what turns you on as a person and what you’re into – but for me mostly I enjoy comics for the opposite of those kind of things: because you know – comics are short and quick and to the point. They act like they don’t have time to waste and so they go straight for the jugular. BAM! BAM! BAM! They’re dirty. Unkempt. Ill-behaved. They don’t have pretentions. They’re all about speed and motion and getting to the best part.
And ok yeah – so you might be thinking that this means that I’m building up to knock From Hell down (Who does this comic think it is? Why is it acting so big for it’s boots? Where’s all the bloody action?): but nah – come on. It’s not like that. I mean – come on: it’s Alan Frigging Moore: he’s probably affected how I think and who I am more than most of the other people on the planet (in fact I’m secretly ashamed that so far we’ve only done one other book of his: when really we probably should have started with everything he’s ever done and then gone into everything else: but can you do huh?
But yeah – From Hell is (obviously) really good, beautifully (dizzyingly) constructed and put together and yes: but my point is – very much in a certain novel-like mood. It’s pleasures are not immediate and it takes it’s time getting to places. But I guess what marks it out from other comics which attempt the same type of high-brow stuff (and hell – marks it out from non-graphic novels which also do this type of super serious now-we’re-putting-our-best-hats-on-and-being-clever type of thing) is that Alan Moore (and fine yes ok Eddie Campbell too – altho – am at the start his scratchy style makes it a little tough to kinda work out what’s going on? But that gets better right?) knows exactly what he’s doing.
Not everyone knows how to make a five course meal with all the trimmings – right?
Last night I read chapter 3 and 4 (oh come on – don’t look at me like that’s – it’s a big book ok?). I mean – this is obvious I know I know: but chapter 4 is so fucking cool.
It’s the one where Gull and Netley drive around London. Where Gull is basically Alan Moore and we’re all Netley (it’s also a bit like an episode of Doctor Who where the Doctor just does all the talking and oh my god how amazing would that be – and oh my god: is there any way anyone could get Alan Moore to write an episode of Doctor Who please please please?). But erm yeah: chapter 4: it’s good right? I mean – I feel like it’s something that we should have covered way earlier seeing how it’s basically all concentrated London London London but yeah – it’s very cool to see the world you know in the thing you’re reading huh? (there’s a part of me that is thinking maybe now I should move to Toronto in order to get the full Scott Pilgrim experience? Hmmm). But what’s also cool is the sense of history – not just in the oh this happened here stuff: but also in the way that – as it’s historical characters talking about history there’s this cool creeping sense of the realisation (how can I put this?) that time is not just a fixed thing where everyone was just a part of their period – like characters on a moving platform (each having a moment in the spotlight) – but more that: everything builds on top of each other in a messy haphazard kinda way. But also (and this is more from chapter 3) everything in the past is frozen. Like the whole “four whores of the apocalypse” scene: I mean – they’re all alive walking around – but also: they’re already dead. Already doomed.
But yeah – with chapter 4. Well – like I said – it’s like being on a tour with Moore and that would be a very cool thing. I used to work in a Mental Hospital Library (don’t ask) and seeing how there was almost literally nothing to do all day I made me way through every single Alan Moore interview on the internet (there was a website called something like Alan Moore Interviews: but doing a quick google – it doesn’t look like it exists anymore – sad face): and well yeah: he is very very good at talking and having cool ideas and making you see the world differently. Which chapter 4 is like a really nice distillation of. All that stuff about how reality is made up out of symbols: I mean – that’s the good stuff right?
“Other than that, I don’t think there’s been a single disagreement between us. That’s not to say Eddie hasn’t occasionally picked me up, quite correctly, on more important historical details, like the occasion where I had Netley driving Gull over a then-uncompleted Tower Bridge and received a stinging and sarcastic doctored photograph of the half-completed bridge with a little tiny coach and horses plunging over the unfinished edge of the structure and into the Thames below, complete with a little “Yaaaagh!” word balloon. He thinks he’s clever and funny, but he isn’t. It’s not big to make fun of people’s genuine and inadvertent mistakes like that; it’s just childish.”
Probs says a lot about me, but I thought the most interesting thing about From Hell was the endnotes. Reading Joel above, momentarily taken with the idea that being talked at by Alan Moore is better than reading his comics. Don’t think that holds true for everything he’s done, but From Hell (and Promethea) may well be on the wrong side of that balance.
I remember being rather confused / bemused by the themes within the comic itself, particularly the ending. What does it mean to link the Ripper killings with the outbreak of the First World War, or with the 20th century as a whole? Can such a comparison ever even be meaningful?
But the endnotes give you a bit more to dig into, particularly Alan Moore’s take on history:
“As with much of the evidence surrounding these murders, the data is ambiguous, a shifting cloud of facts and factoids onto which we project the fictions that seem most appropriate to our times and inclinations.”
That’s one way of describing what a historian does, although I think that would be slightly unfair (disclaimer: I did History at university). I think a proper historian would demur from projecting fictions onto the evidence, and instead show where the evidence gaps are and admit that the rest is guesswork. Moore’s theories in chapter 4 and elsewhere are fiction, not history. We don’t know who the Ripper was, or his motives. The historical work that can be done on the murders is mostly on the reaction to them — this was the first such scare of its kind, so what were the conditions that made it possible, and that are still with us (I don’t know, but the answer probs starts with a professional police force, a popular news media, and so on).
On Mazin’s best post-war novel game: don’t read enough such things, but susceptible to entertaining theories that the accolade should go to The Lord of the Rings, His Dark Materials, or some other piece of ‘genre’ fiction, rather than the ‘literary’ stuff that’s usually nominated for this sort of thing. Watchmen might just get a look in.
haven’t had any time to read any of these emails yet but just to mention that receiving an email with the subject ‘From Hell’ makes me feel as though I’m in a Neil Gaiman story
I really wanted to read the endnotes. Really I did. And I mean – I tried a little. But god – I mean: come on. Urg. It’s so boring. Facts and facts and facts. I mean – the really beauty of From Hell for me – the elegance of it’s trap is how it’s all Victorian life and period trappings and making you feel like you’re really there and under it’s historical spell and “ooh – so this is what the past must have been like then” then it throws in this: