The New From Hell Graphic Novel Companion Reveals the Live-Action Adaptation that Could Have Been
From Hell, the film directed by the Hughes Brothers and starring a pre-Jack Sparrow Johnny Depp as the prettied-and-powered up Inspector Fred Abberline, first hit theaters in 2001 and I had already become a stalwart fan of the comic work done by Alan Moore, who wrote the original serialized graphic novel. Moore was already a legend for classics like V for Vendetta and Watchmen, not to mention his work on characters like Batman and Swamp Thing. In 1999, he was in the midst of a personal rebranding that involved the cynical nostalgia of America's Best Comics. I devoured all these with the gusto of a burgeoning heroin addict. But I'd never heard of From Hell, illustrated by underground comix artist Eddie Campbell, his treatise on the ordinariness of human evil as seen through the fictionalized eyes of Jack the Ripper. Naturally, I was pretty excited to see something brand new (to me) that was connected to one of my favorite writers. Remember: This was before The League of Extraordinary Gentleman was brutally transformed into LXG.
I saw the movie. I didn't hate it. But I was confused why Moore would bother writing a fairly typical horror-slasher story with the Ripper standing in for any other Hollywood movie monster. When I finally read the book, I was blown away by how different the source was to the adaptation. This wasn't like most book-to-screen projects, where characters and scenes are mashed together for the sake of time, or new scenes crafted from others to capitalize on the visual capacities of filmmaking. From Hell, the movie, merely utilized the conspiracy theory "espoused" in Moore's story, only winking at Campbell's art and losing the context, and thus the power, of both. This was a book that didn't even advertise it was a Ripper tale until chapter five (of fourteen), unless you knew about the players' and victims' lives prior to the White Chapel murders; a book that didn't bother to hide its proposed identity of the killer, because the point wasn't who killed those five women in London, 1888, but why. The movie dispensed with all that to instead give us a Victorian era Scream-lite, tonally dissonant comedy included. To borrow a line from Roger Ebert, after reading the book I retroactively hate, hate, hated the movie.
Now, a decade removed and given the chance to read the new From Hell Companion by original creators Moore and Campbell, I find myself actively hating the film adaptation even more. The new book makes it clear that the movie really was everything the comic was trying not to be. Of course, the original book still exists and has been in print for that same decade, so it isn't worth getting into a lather. But, boy, seeing in precise and minute detail how the graphic novel came together over the course of an earlier decade (circa 1989-1999) is breathtaking. The Companion, published by Top Shelf Comix, is not unlike the best making-of documentaries for your favorite films, consisting primarily of excerpted pages from Moore's original scripts and Campbell's finished artwork for side-by-side comparisons. The artist also includes preambles of commentary that provide contemporary context and explanations for why he did or didn't follow the writer's panel descriptions to the exact letter. One of the more interesting and humorous bits Campbell includes are the word counts for each of the script pages - a sort-of running gag about Moore's unrestrained verbosity - the highest of which surpasses 2000; more than even this review.
More often than not, when Campbell diverged from Moore's heavily staged panels, he seems to have made the right calls in terms of good sequential art storytelling. As the artist says throughout the Companion, comics can be a unique and stimulating medium wholly on their own terms and don't need to be so reliant on filmic techniques, something that most comics published today still rely upon, and too easily. It is Campbell's lack of obvious flash, of choosing the simplicity and guttered grounding for his black-and-white inks, which makes the Ripper murders as terrifying as they ought to be in From Hell. For his part, Moore, despite his initial lengthy scene descriptions, is uncharacteristically deferent to his artist's alterations and is always quick to add a note at the end of scenes that reads like, "Unless you have something better, Eddie." Besides being a thought-provoking look behind-the-scenes of the comic process, the Companion is a much needed demystifying of Alan Moore, who is often portrayed in the media as, in a word, insane.
That seems patently unfair in light of the humane, if passionate, personality revealed in these scripts, which are the real meat of this book with their lengthy, finely detailed panel and page descriptions. I didn't think I would fall so heavily enraptured with reading what should mostly amount to dry table setting and meticulously depicted actions, both big and small. It isn't that all the pages are beautifully written prose, but many, many are; or that playing Abberline between the text and the images isn't fun, thought it definitely is. It's that reading through the script, one thing becomes inescapably clear: Comic books are not the medium Alan Moore should be working in. Or, at least, his particular vision of From Hell, as brilliantly filtered through Eddie Campbell, is too much, too big, too sensorial for the comic book page. There are mini-stories in panels here that call to mind great novels, with background information that would be impossible to include in a visual narrative without feeling shoehorned in. But those aren't really the story.
At one point in the Companion, Campbell says it himself, that From Hell was meant to be all about show and not tell. Sometimes that "showing" includes more than the visuals, but also the sounds, smells, and the textures, too. The movie that was made obfuscates and clouds what the graphic novel highlights, but a "Game of Thrones"-style mini-series based, not on the actual comic but on the comic scripts, is undoubtedly the format From Hell always really aspired to, whether Moore and Campbell knew it or not. Of course it isn't possible for television or film to acutely capture scent and touch any easier than comic art, but highly defined moving images can certainly fill in those mental blanks better than empty spaces between panels can provide the illusion of movement. The point is, Moore's scripts for From Hell are so pointedly told, with nearly every detail functioning not as extraneous but indelible foundations for mood, tone, and pacing.
In the Companion's introduction, Campbell quotes Moore from an earlier collected edition that also featured selections from the scripts, wherein the writer wonders aloud what use anyone could find in reading the barest skeletons of his work, with no flesh and blood to make them live. Undoubtedly, this book and that one weren't intended for everyone, just like non-screenwriters don't need to worry themselves over Syd Field or Robert McKee. Yet there is value in seeing how the sausage was made, how it was perfectly executed here or could have been improved upon there, or completely re-imagined from conception to production if only the ingredients and circumstances had been different. It's a learning tool for those who want to follow in his footsteps, and perhaps more useful than typical creative "How To" books. Bearing removed witness to the working relationship between two comic creators - especially two as epically talented as Moore and Campbell - is as intriguing as it is admittedly thrilling for someone who dreams of reaching even the base of their artistic mountain.
The "true" story of Jack the Ripper that Moore and Campbell constructed in From Hell is one that really needs as much room as possible to breathe and amble and build before it plunges into oceans of blood in cobblestone streets. The scripts, and thus the artistic sacrifices that were made to fit in the confined spaces between comic book covers, accentuate this. That kind of endeavor is something only cable TV seems capable of delivering for now. (Or, Netflix, I guess). I still love reading Moore's comic work, From Hell included, but after combing through the Companion, I think I love the imagined 14-part BBC adaptation in my head even more. A fantasy where the reclusive writer could have been a legendary showrunner of esoteric and prodding dramas; the creator of live-action works so much more enduring than trite monster movies that just happen to have the same basic DNA.
Then again, Alan Moore's ideas are perhaps, simply, too big for any medium to do them justice. The From Hell Companion certainly provides ample evidence of a man both freed and caged by his own mad genius.
Rob Payne also writes the comic The Unstoppable Force, tweets on the Twitter, tumbls on the Tumblr, and his wares can be purchased here. He really didn't expect to wade through nearly every lengthy page set-up in the scripts, but he was too fascinated to stop.