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Sunday, November 1, 2015

FROM HELL (1989)


OUT OF THE BACK ISSUE BIN

Views and Reviews of Comic Books from the Past

By
Reed Tucker
(via special arrangement by John "THE MEGO STRETCH HULK" Cimino)



FROM HELL (1989)


 Written by: Alan Moore
Drawn by: Eddie Campbell


I work as an entertainment reporter at the New York Post, and it is the newspaper’s (horribly misguided) policy to print my email address at the end of every article I write. As you might imagine, I fire up my computer each morning to find my in box clogged with all manner of e-garbage.

It’s almost impossible to overstate just how much of the unsolicited email I receive is absolutely useless.

“Would you be interested in writing about an exciting new carpet-cleaning technique?”

No.

“Expert available to talk about the latest Khloe Kardashian news.”

Not interested.

Scattered among the publicity pitches and the Chinese Viagra ads are also a few missives from real-life readers. This being the Internet, most begin with some variation of, “Dear dipshit,” and then go on to rip me a new one because of something seemingly harmless I’ve written about the latest Johnny Depp movie or whatever. But every once in a long while, something useful shows up in the in box -- something that’s interesting, and on target. Something that I can actually use.

And that’s how I met John.

He emailed me a link to a blog post he’d written about the potential ties between a 1950s children’s Halloween costume and Marvel’s Spider-Man. It was a fascinating story backed by research and reasoned speculation. My first thought was, this is insane. How come no major publication has written about this? If true, this information could rewrite the history of one of the most popular superheroes of all time. Even if not true, it still makes for a great read, check it out here: "The 1963 Ben Cooper Spider-Man Halloween Costume". The editors at the paper agreed, and I wrote an article for the Post summarizing John’s theory called: "The billion dollar Spider-man cover up".

I’ve since met John in person, and he probably has more knowledge of (as well as more enthusiasm for) comic books than anyone I’ve ever come across. Which is why he’s free to email me to tell me to write a review on my favorite book of all time for his blog. Just be sure to begin it, “Dear dipshit.”

Just the other day, a seasoned comics professional confessed to me that he thought Watchmen was -- there’s no easy way to put this -- “fucking overrated.”

“Well, someone had to say it,” he concluded.

I’m not sure I’d go that far, but when it comes to Alan Moore, I know what his most underrated work has to be: From Hell by Alan Moore and Eddie Campell.

As intelligent as Watchmen? Check. As dense and meticulously plotted? Check. Told with beautiful art that’s perfectly suited for the mood of this particular tale? Check. Completely transports the reader to another world? Check. Is populated with engaging and three-dimensional characters? Check. And yet this alterna-history of the Jack the Ripper murders is rarely mentioned in the same breath as Watchmen or even Swamp Thing.


When some rube starts banging on about how comic books are only good for telling juvenile superhero stories, I want to drop this 572-page baby on his toe. To me, this story proves that absolutely anything can be done in a graphic novel. It gets overlooked, I think, simply because it fell outside the whole offering-more-grown-up-spins-on-costumed-heroes revolution of the 1980s.

But From Hell is as satisfying as any historical-fiction novel I’ve ever read. I don’t even care that the theory behind the murders presented here has been mostly discredited. Moore makes it stand up, and that’s all that matters to me.

And he does it with a jaw-dropping amount of research -- most of which is recounted in the series’ extensive footnotes.

And what can you say about Eddie Campbell’s art? The scratchy pen work on display here is so singular, so perfectly adapted for this book. Show someone just one panel, and if they’re a comic fan, I’ll bet you they could tell you immediately where it came from. Even if they’ve never cracked open a comic book in their life, I’d bet they could make a pretty strong guess about the kind of story this is.

It’s amazing what Campbell does with what appears to be little more than a black ink pen. Look at the way he textures a character’s plaid overcoat or creates the outline of a distant building, shadowed in fog, with just a few vertical slashes. Look at the way he creates eerie backgrounds out of violently criss-crossed lines.


I shudder to think how many books of Victorian reference must populate Campbell’s bookshelf. Every detail here feels authentic, from the clothes to the grimy streets to the gruesome murder scenes. I can still see his drawing of Mary Kelly -- victim #5 -- her eviscerated body spread across a bed.

This is one of the best marriages of art and story I’ve ever come across.


Hollywood tried adapting From Hell a few years ago, and of course, the movie stunk. But instead of diminishing my enjoyment of the source material, it just made me appreciate it more. From Hell is a dense, unwieldy beast that’s impossible to compress into a two-hour movie without taking so many shortcuts that something gets lost. Like any good comic book, it’s a story that’s meant to be appreciated one way and one way only: in comic book form.

And truth be told, I also have an extra bit of fondness for this series because it represents one of the last works Moore released before he turned into a crusty old grump, producing increasingly impenetrable (to me anyway) books about ritual magic involving bear urine and H.P. Lovecraft monsters. The Moore of From Hell represents the writer at the height of his mainstream powers, and it’s the version of the author I like best.




HERO ENVY REPORT CARD
Story: 5
Art: 4
Action: 3
Flow: 4
Reread Factor: 5
Overall Grade: 4
(grading numbers 1 thru 5, with 5 being the highest)



Agree, disagree? Let's hear it fanboys!


OTHER "OUT OF THE BACK ISSUE BIN" REVIEWS

AVENGERS #164, 165, 166 (1977)

Reed Tucker is a features writer for the New York Post covering entertainment and movies -- a position that generously allows him to see crap films like "Tomorrowland" before the general public. He's also written for the New York Times, Time Out NY and Oprah magazine. Still not quite sure how that last one happened. He lives in Brooklyn, just down the street from the late, great Bergen Street Comics. Contact @reed_tucker

www.heroenvy.com