Jack the Ripper, Now With Extra Red

Is colorizing the comic From Hell a betrayal of the groundbreaking original?

Side by side image: black and white and colorized red handkerchief
Top Shelf

Suppose the Criterion Collection abruptly calls a press conference. The 80th anniversary of Citizen Kane’s 1941 release looms, they announce to a room full of film critics, and that anniversary will be celebrated by the release of a new version in full color. Yes, color. The film was fine in black and white in 1941, but now that color technology has gotten better, they’re going to have a technician sit down and painstakingly rework the film to bring it into modern, vivid color. What better way to celebrate the anniversary? No, this is not a joke. Criterion would not joke.

That’s essentially what happened this year when Top Shelf Comics announced that, in honor of the 20th anniversary of the Alan Moore’s and Eddie Campbell’s landmark comic From Hell, the book would receive a 10-part serial re-release in color. At the news, my monocle flew across the room. Is this an outrage? This seems like an outrage. Wait, Campbell’s personally doing the colorization? Maybe this isn’t an outrage.

Side by side images: black and white and colorized "From Hell, Netley" panels.
Top Shelf

From Hell, originally released serially and then collected as a single book in 1999 (the color serialization will wrap in 2019, preserving the 20-year interval), represents writer Alan Moore’s investigation into the body of myth around Jack the Ripper. On a surface level, it works as a relatively straightforward, meticulously assembled Victorian police procedural. On a level of just-barely-subtext, Moore’s script is an assault on the idea that the identity of Jack the Ripper is even knowable, given a century’s worth of murky sensationalism and conspiracy-mongering. This second level is engaged most tightly in the book’s copious footnotes, and in a postscript comic wherein Moore and Campbell, in high postmodernist fashion, draw themselves into an illustration of a crowd of half-crazed conspiracy theorists tramping all over any clues left on the ground.

This multileveled significance stood out in the late ’90s, an era when patronizing headlines along the lines of “Comics! They’re Not Just for Kids Anymore!” were still endemic. The ambition and quality of its script turned From Hell into a statement of what the comics medium was capable of, even more than Watchmen, Moore’s best-known work. Watchmen may have reinvented superheroes, but the equally provocative From Hell interrogated literary, historical fiction, a culturally prestigious realm that comics weren’t previously known for inhabiting.

Both Citizen Kane and From Hell stand as boundary-expanding statements of what a new and relatively unrespected medium is capable of. Both combine superlative scripts with daring and innovative visuals. Both eventually became benchmarks within their art forms. And both look quite striking in black and white. Until now.

One of the reasons that Top Shelf’s announcement of a colorized From Hell was so monocle-popping was that the book’s black-and-white aesthetic was central to its success. Eddie Campbell’s moody hatchwork was as important to the comic’s evocation of an era as Moore’s detailed, carefully researched script. The Ripper murders occurred in 1888; many of Campbell’s panels, especially wide shots showing urban architecture buried in moody, sooty layers of tight cross-hatching, could be passed off as Victorian-era illustrations on their own. Messing with that artwork meant messing with a key element of what makes the book great to begin with. In comics, the art does the mood-conveying work that a writer’s style and syntax do in prose. If Jennifer Egan were to announce a new version of A Visit From the Goon Squad with twice as many adjectives, you’d think that was crazy. Was a colorized From Hell any crazier?

Side by side images of black and white and colorized panels.
Top Shelf

However, even at the first announcement, there were reasons to believe that a color edition might not be a total hash. While Campbell’s original black and white artwork somewhat resembles work from 1888, judiciously-used color wouldn’t necessarily upset this dynamic. Color printing existed in the late 19th century, often dominated by a distinct, muted set of colors, and the use of a period-appropriate color palette would have the potential to stick the reader just as firmly into the story’s milieu. And one of the few weaknesses of Campbell’s original art in From Hell is that some characters, with similar Victorian costumes and hairstyles, can be difficult to distinguish from each other.

Perhaps most importantly, Eddie Campbell thought it was worth doing, and would be doing the work himself. If he knew how to be so effective the first time around, why not trust him to do something interesting with color? (Contrast this attitude with that of Orson Welles, who took great pains to ensure his work wouldn’t be altered in any way, going so far as to plead successfully with the Director’s Guild of America not to “let Ted Turner deface my movie with his crayons” in 1989 when Turner selected Kane as the jewel in his project to use the magic of late-’80s technology to bring color to classic movies.) Even if the results didn’t work, the black and white edition wouldn’t be going anywhere.

Side by side images of black and white and colorized panels
Top Shelf

So does it work? I’m pleased to say that it does. In the first serial installment, out this month—which includes the prologue and first two chapters—Campbell’s new color adds visual interest and occasional clarity without detracting or distracting from the work. Campbell’s muted palette and wouldn’t be at all out of place in a print from 1888. (The main deviation from that muted palette is an occasional, effective appearance of bright, shocking red; this is a book about Jack the Ripper, after all.) To take one example of improved effect, the text makes note of a red scarf owned by the painter Walter Sickert; in the black and white version, the scarf just looks like another piece of clothing with no significance beyond the footnotes mentioning it. In this “Master Edition,” it leaps off the page.

It’s clear to anyone who’s spent time making comics that Campbell took time and care with the colorization. The simplest way to add color to black and white art would be to import the line art into Photoshop (or its equivalent) and spread colors underneath on a separate image layer, so that the existing black lines sit “above” areas of color. This is what Campbell does most of the time, but not always. In some panels, he redraws formerly-black linework in a new color. This care allows the color to do its work without interference, preventing grotesqueries. Color outlined by black lines tends to pop out of an image, an effect desirable some, but not all, of the time; sometimes you want a more subtle effect, as in the “Morgan’s Tobacconist” sign in the street scene panel above.

In some panels the effect is strikingly new and effective, especially in close-ups of characters’ faces where features had been formerly delineated by masses of black lines. Note the eyebrows and hair in the “From Hell, Netley” panels above, or the details of the woman’s face and her slightly smaller hat in the “Not your brother” panels. In the end, then, Campbell’s care and craft are succeeding, so far, in threading the needle. Everything that made From Hell great in black and white is still there, and the new elements add a lot more than they subtract. The art just looks great.

Orson Welles never went back and added color to Citizen Kane. But he did famously specify a series of modifications to the 1958 studio cut of Touch of Evil, changes that weren’t enacted until after his death. The re-edited version was released in 1998 to wide acclaim and is now considered the definitive cut of the movie. Going back and messing with a classic isn’t always a great idea, but sometimes it works out just fine.

From Hell cover
Top Shelf

From Hell: Master Edition, Volume 1

by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell. Top Shelf.