The From Hell Companion

Perhaps writing a short review of a companion book to a tome-sized graphic novel is a pretty unusual way to reboot your blog after a month’s hiatus from a giddy, excited first post, but oh well. A review of From Hell itself, and then this, would indeed probably be the better way to do things, but that would mean re-reading the god-only-knows-how-long book, and I don’t currently feel like I could manage that underneath all the other books I plan to read (more on this in a forthcoming blog post). Besides, my sole caveat to people who’d consider picking up From Hell’s complete edition would be that it’s a graphic novel, wordy in length itself with something like sixteen chapters (that includes the Prologue and Epilogue), which has a further ridiculous number of words on top of all that with a 42 page appendix. Indeed, this is no small book.

Incidentally, that’s a great starting point for talking about its Companion. You see, as Alan Moore says in his long appendix to all the chapters of the book, it took over a decade for he, Eddie Campbell, and others who assisted with the book to finish it. This is partly due to the comic’s difficult publication life, as Eddie outlines throughout this companion, and – wait. I should probably explain what this companion is exactly. It’s written from Eddie’s – he’s the wonderful artist of this comic, by the way – perspective, and what he’s done is split the book into separate parts around various themes. Taking up the bulk of the book is Alan Moore’s insightful script (which I’ll talk about a little later) but he does find time to talk about his own job as the artist; as the man who brings Alan’s story to life. Okay, so where was I? Ah, yes. Well, although trouble with publishing the comic in its serial format proved difficult, especially with censorship butting in (if you’re not in the know-how, the story’s centred around the Whitechapel murders, known more famously as the Jack the Ripper killings, in 1888 so, needless to say, this is a rather violent comic we have here), the thing is, so much research went into this book, and to such an extent, that at one point – as I found out from reading this book – Alan had to have the murderer change the position of one of our main character’s cut-off breasts because he found out that where he initially had Eddie place it was in the incorrect position that forensic evidence had revealed. And this was apparently on a re-read of such an investigation into the final murder. If you’re wondering how this mistake was made in the first place, it’s because Moore would send Eddie his scripts quite irregularly over the years so that, in this case, he’d already drawn the murderer place the breast in one place when Moore was on the next part of the script and realised he’d made a mistake.  This irregularity certainly must have lent itself to the long time it took to complete this too, no doubt, but that would only be because, as you find out in the first appendix, Moore read quite a lot of books on this grisly subject to such an extent, as it happens, that he and Eddie mock themselves in the second appendix alongside others who have obsessed over this unsolved series  of murders.

And hopefully that large paragraph illustrates why a Companion of 288 pages isn’t as unnecessary as you might think. Trust me, this is one hell of an ambitious book for the comic medium. The good news is that they pulled it off, as I’ll one day discuss in the future, I hope. This Companion admittedly isn’t as amazing as I’d hoped it’d be, however, and that’s for a few reasons. The biggest reason, and only one I’ll bother to discuss, is that 288 pages isn’t enough! That must sound quite silly but, as I’ve said, the bulk of this book is Alan Moore’s script. That isn’t a slight against his writing, of course – in fact, I found it to be very revealing not only about From Hell itself, but how to write about the comic book medium. In double fact, it’s a shame more graphic novels don’t have accompanying Companions like this, as I feel like there’s quite a lot that could really benefit from such treatment, albeit perhaps on a shorter scale than this.

But where I was a little disappointed was that such a large amount of this book being given to the script means we don’t really get to explore what drawing for the comic book medium is like, which was really bloody strange since this was written by the artist. Certainly, you see Eddie’s finished pages to compare with Alan’s scripts on every page the two share, which is fascinating in itself, but he doesn’t always spare time to explain his thought process before we dive off into the script. Certainly too, he does spare several pages of the book to talk about what went into the art, but it’s never in-depth unfortunately, which is a great shame because he talks a lot about his thoughts on things like panel compositions in comics, with some great examples no less (his knots and crosses analogy of the nine panel page blew my mind, especially when he pointed out a diagonal sequence that I completely missed in From Hell), leading me to believe he’s a very interesting men. As it is, though, the book’s main focus is on Alan. Perhaps if it were a bit lengthier, say by an extra hundred pages, the book could have been split in focus between the writer and artist. Then again, I imagine it must be quite difficult to talk about your own work, so I don’t know if I necessarily blame Eddie, to be honest.

Whatever the case, although I left a little disappointed because of this big reason, and some smaller ones, it won’t stop me from recommending this Companion to the following people: to those who take a great interest in how comics are written and drawn, and to those who loved From Hell, and appreciated its chunky appendix. Just bear in mind that, in terms of insight into the craft of making comics, this is mainly focused on the writer so, if you’re looking for insight into the drawing aspect, you’re better off picking up something like Hush Unwrapped.

Before I sign off, I’ll just point out something that amused me. I own several first edition copies of books, several of which are ones collectors would probably freak out over, and this is another, having pre-ordered it, but funnily enough the first I’ve consistently noticed mistakes with the printing and spelling in. For example on the former, Eddie, as I’ve said, splits the book into several parts, and these come with page references for that theme. But, quite humorously, they are almost never correct, to the point that one part actually begins two pages before it’s supposed to. Sometimes he’ll even say something along the lines of, “I talk about this some more on pages 232-233”, only this is usually incorrect. Remind me never to buy a second edition copy of this book, ever, because finally I have a first edition book with plenty of mistakes to treasure.

In my next blog post, I’m probably going to talk about the frankly insane amount of graphic novels I’ve bought over the last several months, and how I intend to tackle them, because I will indeed be talking about them here. Until then, cheerio.

– Jordan Smith

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