When does exhaustive become exhausting?
From Hell, Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s 500-page comics series about Jack the Ripper, was a massive undertaking, even by Moore’s monumental standards. Serialized between 1989 and 1996, it was more than 500 pages long, crammed with historical research, geographic detail, esoteric references and cross references, and Campbell’s dense and detailed pen-and-ink hatchwork. Its collected edition was accompanied by two appendices: the first contains extensive page-by-page notes by Moore; the other, originally published in 1998 and titled “The Dance of the Gulls,” is an illustrated 24-page comic about the history of the Jack the Ripper case, Moore’s own interest in conspiracy theories about the identity of the slasher, and the production of the comic.
As a whole, it’s an encyclopedic work of reference and self-reference, and probably Moore’s masterpiece, or at least the definitive Moore comic—the single best expression of his career-long obsession with magic, myth, conspiracy, and the nature of reality and fiction. It’s exactly the kind of book that seems to deserve, and perhaps even demand, a companion guide. And now it has one.
But The From Hell Companion, released last month by Top Shelf, the publisher of the collected From Hell trade paperback, might just be too much of a good thing. The 288-page Companion is Campbell’s behind-the-scenes look at the production of From Hell—the graphic equivalent of a DVD commentary, plus another disc of extra features. The bulk of the book is a condensed version of Moore’s script with annotations by Campbell; it’s filled out with reproductions of original art and promo images, Moore’s own initial layouts, a selection of photographs and sketches by Moore that Campbell used for the series’ famous occult tour of London, and more. There are even drawings that Campbell’s daughter, Hayley, made during the years her father was illustrating From Hell; the series includes pieces titled “Death by Torture,” “Being Basht to Death,” and “When your cut up while your sleeping.”
More’s script itself, even in condensed form, is a wonder to behold. The text and directions for a single finished page, according to Campbell, ran about 1,000 words, with the longest one stretching to more than 2,000 words. Moore goes into almost novelistic depth; in fact, his script reads like an experimental novel from the 1960s. Take this excerpt for a single panel as an example:
AS SHE LIES THERE ON HER BACK, HER BODY, AS IF OBEYING SOME STRANGE PRE-MEMORY, ARRANGES HER LIMBS INTO AN EXACT DUPLICATE OF THE SPRAWL THAT THEY WILL OCCUPY IN DEATH: HER ARMS BY HER SIDE, RESTING WITH THE PALMS UPWARDS; HER LEGS STRAIGHT, ONLY SLIGHTLY PARTED; HER HEAD TURNED SLIGHTLY TO ONE SIDE. CONSIDERING THE UNGAINLINESS OF HER POSTURE AND THE RAVAGES OF HER AGE AND HER SOCIAL POSITION, SHE IS NOT AN UNATTRACTIVE WOMAN IN REPOSE. THE TOP HALF OF HER IS IN THE BRIGHT SUNLIGHT, BUT THE FLAT GREY SHADOW OF A CLOUD IS SLIDING UP OVER HER EXPOSED LOWER LIMBS, WHERE THE GOOSE FLESH STARTS TO BRISTLE. SHE DOES NOT MOVE. SHE MIGHT BE DEAD.
Campbell is a writer in addition to being an artist—his Alec and Bacchus series, which he wrote and drew, are his best-known works outside of From Hell—so his notes are more than just expository. He uses the script as a jumping-off point for occasionally insightful commentary on his relationship with Moore, the crackpot speculation that inspired From Hell, cricket, and the vicissitudes of independent comics publishing, among other subjects.
Ultimately, though, The From Hell Companion is a weird book. It’s odd to see a work as mysterious and mournful as From Hell turned inside out. There’s a not-quite quality here—Companion is too personal and idiosyncratic to be of strictly academic or historical value, but too big for a casual reader to get an easy grasp of. For all its pleasures, it feels unnecessary. That’s not a bad thing—necessity is a lousy standard for judging art. But it’s not always a bad way to measure whether to spend $29.95.