Every now and then a piece of literature will come along that I, quite frankly, do not feel entirely qualified to review. Such is the case with Alan Moore and artist Eddie Campbell’s enormously dense tome of Ripperology: the ground-breaking graphic novel From Hell. Based on a conspiracy theory put forth by Stephen Knight in Jack The Ripper: The Final Solution (1976) that the gruesome Whitechapel murders committed against prostitutes between April 1888 and February 1891 were done so at the behest of the Royal family, From Hell was initially published as a serial work between 1989 and 1996 and collected into one single volume in 1999. The story presented here is not so much a whodunnit (the reader is aware of the culprit’s identity from the start) but whydunnit. In transcending itself as a commentary on Victorian society by also holding a mirror up to our own, From Hell has been frequently cited as the best graphic novel ever written. The sheer gargantuan effort it took to research and neatly tie together every thread, every street, every landmark, every building, every theory, every potential victim, every bloodstained item of clothing, every cut, every mutilation committed in the canon of the Jack the Ripper murders is startlingly apparent, even without the extensive commentary contained in this collection’s appendix highlighting the fact. Every single source is cited. No stone is left unturned. Despite its pictorial format, From Hell is undoubtedly a work of literary fiction. I imagine graphic novels as literature must have been a relatively new concept in the late 80s, though I cannot truly comment as I was only a child at the time of publication.
Thus, taking all this into account, when I say that I’m not really sure what to make of From Hell, I feel as though perhaps I didn’t ‘get it’. I’m not a Ripperologist. I know absolutely nothing about Freemasonry. I’m not even all that frequent a purveyor of graphic novels, though I have read other works by Alan Moore that I personally felt were superior to this one (V For Vendetta for example). What I can judge with some confidence however is the story, the characters, the writing style, the artwork as well as general themes and atmosphere. In regard to these, I felt that From Hell was extremely impressive and ambitious in its concept, but failed slightly in its execution.
I thought the book started out great. I absolutely loved the stark contrast between the lives of the rich and poor, well represented by Eddie Campbell’s controversial artwork. The images have a decidedly scratchy, cluttered feel to them, the inky darkness from the fog and lack of street lighting perfectly conveyed, whereas the wealthier areas are drawn as crisp, clean, pretty and bright. Whilst we’re on the subject of the artwork, I thought the way in which Alan Moore wrote the dialogue and Eddie Campbell drew it so that you could determine the character’s accent without needing to be told – like the fact that Liz Stride was a Swede, or that Mary Kelly was Irish – was very well done.
The plight of the poverty-stricken prostitutes fending off gangs alongside sexist Masonic rhetoric was also very poignant. I loved the women in this novel. I thought that Mary Kelly, Liz Stride et al were all given the prominence and agency they deserve by Alan Moore, instead of being treated like the faceless victims they seem to have become. I also really liked Abberline, whose characterisation was just the right amount of gruff good intentions mixed with time-appropriate prejudices to evoke empathy in the reader. The political machinations of the Freemasons and their control over the police fitted perfectly with the cloak and dagger nature of the grisly murders… It was all positively gripping.
Sadly, by its end, From Hell descended into a deluge of tenuous links, rambling tangents, famous faces and alternate dimensions. Expect to meet just about every Victorian celebrity you can possibly think of within these pages: William Blake, Joseph Merrick (the Elephant Man), Buffalo Bill, Oscar Wilde, Alesteir Crowley, William Morris… they’re all here, in some form or another, and they’re all linked to the Jack the Ripper murders. Their appearances often result in jarring digressions away from the main narrative in which the reader becomes reliant on outside resources in order to fully understand what is going on. For example, following a random scene dedicated to the conception of Adolf Hitler, I had to a) translate the German in order to appreciate why the scene was there, and b) refer to Alan Moore’s appendix in order to identify the copulating couple in the first place. I also found it pretty hard-going that I had to constantly rely on Alan Moore’s commentary, which should have served as a fascinating companion to the text rather than a key to it.
There were also several overly long passages that dragged the story down to a snail’s pace. In Chapter 4 for example, the character of William Gull takes his coachman John Netley on a tour around pagan London, spouting Masonic history as justification for his impending actions. Whilst this passage serves as valuable insight into Gull’s psyche, it really did seem to go on forever. I also felt the ending was very confusing and didn’t truly understand what Gull was trying to achieve. It’s possible that the ambiguity of the ending was meant to reflect the murkiness and uncertainty of the real Jack the Ripper case, but for me personally the mysticism and time travel elements were a bit of a left turn.
Finally, as a word of awkwardly acquired advice, From Hell is not public transport friendly, in every sense of the word. Not only is it truly massive – awkwardly so – and physically uncomfortable to read, it is also extremely sexually explicit and horrifically violent. The fate of Jack the Ripper’s final victim in particular is dragged out, quite literally, across no less than 31 pages, to the point that blood and guts are positively dripping from the panels. I have a pretty strong stomach when it comes to this sort of stuff (I’m a big fan of Jhonen Vasquez‘s JtHM), so I say this purely from a storytelling perspective that I found this kind of hyper-violence rather gratuitous.
A fascinating read. I can absolutely understand why From Hell is lauded as such an influential and iconic work, but unfortunately it is by no means perfect.
For more information on Alan Moore, Eddie Campbell and the Jack the Ripper case, visit the below links. Please note that there are some quite graphic photographs on the Casebook website:
I also highly recommend any of the Jack The Ripper walking tours around Whitechapel the next time you’re in London. I booked with Best Tours (read my review of the tour here), but I think they’re all much of a muchness really. I seriously cannot recommend it enough: