Book Club / Our Thoughts Can Trap Us

From Hell
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?
Also: well – there’s nice stuff like this from his interview here
“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


If anyone wants additional work then here ( starts correspondence between Alan Moore and Dave Sim which, at several points, touches on Moore’s reasons for writing ‘From Hell’ and how he went about it.


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: 
I mean – I know this is a little reductive: but it’s just really damn cool isn’t it? I mean complete and perfect world of historical accuracy sprinkled with this small moments of – well how to describe it? – I mean: it’s just our world isn’t it? But from the perspective of the world of the book (and the characters within) it’s science-fiction isn’t it? (and isn’t that cool?). Ilia I can understand your confusement / bemudament by the sense of “well yeah – but what does this mean?” (Although I do think that there is an answer there for sure – I mean: this isn’t Neil Gaiman we’re dealing with here). But I think the important thing (for me anyhow): is oh my god: check out how this feels you know? It’s like the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey: only the creatures at the end of the Stargate are us ( – that would be my pull quote for the From Hell poster). 
This is probably going to be the sole mention of the From Hell film (which no sensible person has ever seen right?) – but did they keep these super cool glimpses of the future stuff in the movie? I was just about to say that it would be kinda cool to see Johnny Depp dressed in Victorian garb freaking out in an office but – stupid me – Johnny was Abberline wasn’t he? Because yeah – gotta love the system that’s like: well obviously the main part is the Inspector because ideology etc. When anyone anyone who had read the book would be like: oh my god it’s all about Gull (hell – I haven’t done acting stuff since I was at secondary school – but come on: who wouldn’t want to wrap their mouth around dialogue like this: “I am not man so much as syndrome; as a voice that bellows in the human heart. I am rain. I cannot be contained” ?) 
Wait. Who did play Gull? (checks wikipedia page) Oh fuck yeah! Ian Holm! (Damn it – maybe I should watch the film after all….). 
(Has anyone seen it? Should I watch it?) 
Best part of the wikipedia page is the description of Abberline – “a brilliant, yet troubled, man.” LOL. How long did that take to write? He sounds like Jack Cloth


Do not watch the film. Repeat- DO NOT watch the film.


Well obviously now I really really really wanna watch the film. 

(And zigazig ah). 


Watch the film! It has Heather Graham speaking cockernay for about 2 seconds and then she just goes gwyneth paltrow posh. 


My ideal / dream idea of the From Hell film would be some middlebrow BBC kinda period drama director type doing all the scene setting and stuff. Introducing the main players. Lots of shots of poor people on the street. That slightly cramped / unreal feeling that you get where they can’t do that many exterior shots because Victorian London doesn’t really exist anymore and so you can only point the camera in few places. And then when Gull gets his freak on: you parachute in some crazy director type like – I dunno – Terrence Malick? Shane Carruth? – to do all the “Oh my god Netley – it’s full of stars” etc. 
Of course I just this moment realised that maybe that’s what A Field in England was trying to be. The only problem with that obviously is that A Field in England wasn’t really that good… 


And you really couldn’t read the end-notes? I mean, if this were some dusty Dark Ages tablet and the notes were written by some guy who’s lived in Oxbridge all his life and isn’t even aware there are girls, let alone that he might have had a more fun existence if he’d talked to some of them, then fair enough. But this is Alan Moore. This is the Magician doing the magic trick, then pulling back the curtain to show you how it’s done and somehow that makes it better not worse. For my money they are just as interesting as the fiction, as is ‘Dance of the Gull-Catchers’.


I read Crossed +100. 

 You know: Alan Moore And Gabriel Andrade. Set in the “world of the Crossed” (which if you’ve never heard of it then well – we talked about it here) only you know – set a hundred years in the future. Which oh my god you know when I heard that I was basically just: shut up and take my money.  
And well yeah – I mean: I am very far from being a fan of latter day Moore. I mean honestly – the best thing about reading the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen stuff was reading the Mindless Ones talk about it afterwards (If you’re still trying to get to grips with Century then I totally recommend you read THISTHIS and THIS)  and yeah yeah: I know that I’m kinda been on a little bit of a Mindless Ones kick recently so erm – pestering them to join the LGNN, inviting them to speak at S.M.A.S.H., even commenting in the comments  (there’s a small voice in my head yelling out at me: “If you love them so much why don’t you marry them?”) but well – what can I say? They’re good people. They do good work. 
(Also: well – I kinda nicked the whole format of the London Graphic Novel Network from how I imagined their annotations work so erm yeah that too I guess – thanks guys!). 
And Neonomicon. I mean – well yeah. It was kinda cool I guess? And certainly pretty affecting. I definitely remember the feeling of the first time I read it and that kinda sense of trapedness and horror which I guess is all it was going for. But I dunno – there was a sense of it that still left me feeling a little – I dunno – unsatisfied? (Hmmm – maybe we should add it to the list of books to talk about and really get on in there and poke around?).
But yeah: I guess this is all just pre-amble to talk about Crossed +100. Because yeah – I mean: I really wanted to love it but there was also this sense of “oh boy – but I’m also kinda scared that it’s gonna be a let down…”
I mean: I kinda don’t want to say anything about it because it’s cool just to experience something fresh for the first time without having any preconceptions in your head (which I guess is one of the things that pisses me off so much about spoilers / or even when someone is all “Ok – so this doesn’t count as a spoiler but…” because yeah: don’t tell me anything. I’d much rather go in not knowing anything you know? Which – hey is also to say: if you’ve read Crossed +100 don’t be like giving all the good stuff away on here ok?) but well yeah – I liked it. I thought it was good. But then that made me think – well – how does it compare to From Hell you know? And are they both good in the same way or different or what? 
And man: I can kinda feel Ilia rolling his eyes at me even as I type this: but yeah I mean I think the connection between post-apocalyptic future zombies and Victorian murder mystery intrigue is – and forgive me for being sounding a little bit obvious – is that when he’s not messing around with the entirety landscape of the human imagination (that’s the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) or getting into Lovecraft and instead is just like: well I mean I guess with Crossed +100 it is kinda the same (only with something I’m way more familiar with: although the thing he’s dealing with is a lot more simple (rage zombies) – altho damn: if you’ve read the first Crossed cool original flavour – there is the thing with the salt…) but wait sorry – I’m going off on tangents – the main thing is that the guy really really knows how to construct a story. And I think that apart from all the political stuff (which I’m pretty much mainly on-board for: you know – be nice to people and treat them equally and etc): it’s the feeling of being in the grips of an intelligence and having my mind lead into certain directions that I really love. 
I mean: to make a reference to S.M.A.S.H. (and man if you weren’t there you really should have been!) in the second panel when people were talking about stories – there was a general feeling / attitude of like: oh well yeah – I just write my thing and then people can interpret it how they like: which I mean – I get and is cool and I’m not in anyway trying to disrespect at all: because yeah – I think that’s how most stories and whatever work. You do a thing and you let the world decide. 
Only the thing with Alan Moore (and the thing that I think is why I respond to him so fucking strongly) is that when I read his 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. 
Only it turns out that the cheese is a giant alien squid or whatever.


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 (yes!) 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  – 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! 

That correspondence between Alan Moore and Dave Sim that Lawrence linked to earlier is worth reading in this regard, with Sim relaying From Hell artist 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 your [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…

stop ahead on the right
…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 and excessive 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:

st pauls
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 Gull is both  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.
‘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 am sending this out a mere bawhair away from the midnight deadline for this conversation thread. 

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. 

One comment

  1. I was so impressed when I read From Hell. It's the kind of book that you could never forget, even if you try to. By the way, I just read your post about Ian Gibson and it was great. You seem to be a bit of an expert in British comics. Anyway, I just wrote about Wagner and Gibson's Robo-Hunter Sam Slade in my blog (wich I encourage you to visit):

    I hope you enjoy my review, and please feel free to leave me a comment over there or add yourself as a follower (or both), and I promise I'll reciprocate.




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