Eddie Campbell and Alan Moore’s comic book “From Hell” came out back in the 1990’s. I bought the first couple of issues and then decided to stop buying the single issues and wait until it was all finished and released all together in a collected edition. That’s not something I usually did and I can’t quite remember the reason I did so with this comic but it probably had something to do with the format.

The individual comics of “From Hell” were printed in a square bound format and that is a format I’ve never liked. I prefer my comics bound with staples rather than a glued spine because I find them easier to read. A stapled comic opens flat and stays that way. A glued spine doesn’t open flat and constantly wants to close itself. I’ve never appreciated that.

The “From Hell” collected edition that I have is a softcover book with a glued spine (as are all softcovers) but despite being a thick book opens up well and lays pretty flat. It has a lot of pages to it. According to Amazon the page count is 565 pages but I can’t verify that because the book doesn’t have overall page numbers. It has chapter page numbers that start over at number one with every new chapter. There are 14 chapters of at least 40 pages a piece. At a quick glance at least one chapter was longer.

This collected edition was originally printed back in 1999. That’s when I first read it. It’s hard to believe that 20 years have slipped by between readings. That seems impossible but of course it’s not. I remember enjoying those first two issues of “From Hell” when I read them individually but when I read the whole graphic novel in 1999 I remember it leaving me frustrated. I found it a bit confusing and impenetrable. When I reached the end of the book I found the forty pages of tightly packed author’s notes and couldn’t even read them because of the frustration. I figured I’d reread the book along with the author’s notes sometime in the future when I wasn’t so frustrated. Then those twenty years slipped by and here we are.

The only other comic book I can think of with such extensive author’s notes are Carla Speed McNeil’s “Finder” collected editions. But with “Finder” the story makes perfect sense without the notes but you can read them at the end and enhance your knowledge and enjoyment of the story. I read all the “Finder” stories as individual issues first and they became favorites of mine long before the collected editions with author’s notes in them were published.

The second time around I read “From Hell in a completely different way than normal. The author’s notes in back were broken down by chapter and page number. The notes referred to scenes that were broken down into one to four page increments. A single note might be a few paragraphs long and refer to three pages in the book. So I would read three pages of the comic and then flip to the back to read that notes about those three pages. That turned out pretty well for me because things became a lot clearer.

In case you don’t know “From Hell” is about Jack the Ripper. I don’t think I have to explain who he is but I will tell you that the story takes place in London in 1888. I don’t know a ton about the subject but being that I’m a history fan I do know a little. I’ve never read a book about the Ripper but I have read some short articles and seen at least half a dozen TV documentaries on the subject. That’s why, with my first reading twenty years ago, I was so frustrated. A comic about Jack the Ripper shouldn’t have confused me so much.

First of all I’m an Eddie Campbell fan. I bought his work before “From Hell” and have bought other stuff since. But his indistinct art style often confused me in this book. He uses a very expressive but sketchy line that didn’t always serve the reader in this book. That’s because there are a lot of characters in this black and white book and sometimes I couldn’t tell one from the other. When there are fourteen middle age London men to draw it’s tough to make each one distinct. Especially when that’s not your style. The same with the fourteen women. That made for some confusion but not the impenetrability. That was all Alan Moore.

I’ll give you an example of a scene that confused me. Chapter 2 starts with a three page flashback to 1827. Two of the pages are almost all black with dialogue until the final panel reveals a little boy with his dad on a boat. What was the point of that? I had no idea until I read the notes. It was William Gull (the doctor the story says is Jack The Ripper) as a boy. Why was it there? Because in his research Moore found out some stuff about Gull’s childhood.

Another example of an impenetrable scene was that one of the chapters began with three pages of a couple having sex with a panel that had blood gushing down some steps somewhere. Or maybe the blood rushed through doors. I can’t quite remember. I had no idea why that was there. Upon reading the notes it was made clear. Turns out that Moore had calculated that Adolf Hitler had to be conceived at sometime around the Ripper murders. So this scene was of Hitler’s parents having sex. Foreshadowing the violence of the 20th Century. Makes sense with the author’s notes but doesn’t without them.

There are lots of other scenes in this book that I didn’t get without the notes. That was the source of my frustration twenty years ago. In reading the book with the notes I did come to a new conclusion. This isn’t a book about Jack the Ripper. This is a book about Alan Moore researching Jack the Ripper. This isn’t Jack the Ripper’s story. It’s the story of everything that Moore found out about what went on around Jack the Ripper’s story. There are scenes of the coroner’s inquest taken verbatim from the inquest, scenes of what witnesses were doing taken from their testimony, and scenes of speculative fiction built from what Moore thought some of the characters would have been doing. There is a lot of detail that shows us what was going on that isn’t necessarily there for story purposes.

I really have enjoyed this reread of “From Hell.” With the author’s notes all the confusion and frustration went away. Though it may not be the ideal way to read a comic reading this one along with the author’s notes was a good time. I think I understand the book a lot more now and coming to the realization that it’s not about Jack the Ripper but about Moore’s research into Jack the Ripper was the key for me.