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From Hell
Reviewed by Chris Roberson, ©

Format: Comics
By:   Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell
Genre:   Suspense
Review Date:  
RevSF Rating:   10/10 (What Is This?)

It has been said that comics as an art form has not reached its true potential as an art form in that it has yet to produce a Citizen Kane.  That is, until a comic is produced which breaks down all preconceived notions about what a comic book should or shouldn't be, and is universally recognized as a high water mark in the field, comics will forever be in the popular imagination relegated as a form intended for children or subliterates. 

Enter Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's gargantuan From Hell.

From Hell is a difficult book.  Difficult to read, difficult to categorize, difficult to completely understand.  Any summary of its contents would fail to encompass the full scope of the work, and previous attempts to do so have failed miserably.  Ostensibly a study of the Jack the Ripper legend and its origins, From Hell in fact is a great deal more, so much more that the Ripper himself quickly becomes secondary to weightier concerns.

From Hell is not a mystery in the conventional sense, though there are police, and detectives, and murders to solve.  The reader knows early on the identity of the Ripper, within the first few chapters, and the final murder is committed just halfway through the story.  Likewise, it is not a suspense thriller, in that the story doesn't revolve around the authorities' efforts to catch the killer before he kills again.  Not really, in any case, though there are elements of the hunt presented, and a certain tension on the part of the police.  In fact, when the detective pursuing the Ripper finally catches up with him, the result is anticlimactic to say the least.

From Hell is about structure, more than anything else.  Oh, there is quite a lot besides going on, no question about it:  the role of women in Victorian society, and the collective neurosis of a culture which produced a killer like the Ripper in the first place;  the influence of the Ripper on the Twentieth Century, from the rise of the serial killer, to sensationalism in the media, to shifts in attitudes about sexuality and the sexes; and the view of the present day from the dawning of the modern era.  Whole books could be filled with in-depth analyses of any one of these threads, and justifiably so.  But in the end, it call comes down to structure.

Maybe it's the result of my own prejudices as a writer, but again and again in the course of From Hell I was reminded about structure.  First, there is the intricate organization of the plot itself, in which dozens of characters appear on stage for a few panels at a time, each contributing a single brick in the wall of the story.  Moore does this deftly, seeming effortless, but there is intricate organization at work. 

Second, there is a great deal of discussion about structure on the part of the characters themselves.  In an early chapter, one of the characters takes another on a rambling tour of London, pointing out the history of the places and buildings they pass.  Before they are through, the character on the receiving end of the tour is overcome, driven to nausea and near catatonia by a glimpse of an underlying structure he'd lived with every day of his life but never seen.  Then, at the end of the story, this same tour guide himself is taken on a similar journey, but is made to see not the physical structure of London, but its architecture through Time.  This is a difficult concept to explain, but in essence it boils down to this:  just as the physical space of the city is organized into complex structures, so the history of the city is organized along the same lines.  In this way, the events of the story come to serve as corner stones of a sprawling architecture which extends both physically and temporally throughout the whole of London.

I'm going to take a stand.  I'll be the first to stick his head up from the foxhole of our marginalized medium, and see if the shelling has stopped.  The day when comics were for children or subliterates has passed, and no longer will they appeal only to a select minority.  Comics has at last produced its Citizen Kane, and it is From Hell

From Hell, formerly available only in individual issues, has been collected into a single volume by Eddie Campbell Comics. All comics readers owe it to themselves to buy a copy, and owe it to the industry to make sure a copy ends up in the hands of every non-comics reader they know.

Chris Roberson is the author of Voices of Thunder, and the forthcoming Cybermancy, Incorporated, both from Clockwork Storybook.

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