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CSBG Archive

Comics You Should Own – From Hell

Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s brilliant masterpiece is next on the hit list.  If you think I’m even going to scratch the surface of this thing, you’re probably sadly mistaken.  But I’ll try to give it a somewhat thorough examination.  And, as I’ve been told that I need to stop ruining books for people who haven’t read them, I’m going to reveal the killer’s identity rather early.  Why not?  Moore does!  There are plenty of other SPOILERS, as well.

From Hell by Alan Moore (writer) and Eddie Campbell (artist).

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Mad Love Publishing in association with Tundra (volumes #1 and 2) and then Kitchen Sink Press, eleven volumes, cover dated March 1991-September 1998.

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“I made it all up, and it all came true anyway.  That’s the funny part.”

On page 5 of the prologue to From Hell, Alan Moore’s stand-in, the psychic Robert Lees looks directly at the reader (with what looks like skulls in his eyeballs) and sums up the entire opus.  Moore is not telling a story that he expects us to believe.  He is making it all up.  But could his fictional account actually be the reality behind the Jack the Ripper killings?  The murders in 1888 have become the perfect canvas on which to create reality, because no one knows for sure what happened.  Despite the vast cottage industry of writers who purport to “solve” the mystery, it will remain unsolved, an evil stain on the late nineteenth century.  Moore’s solution is as valid as any.  The story of Jack the Ripper has transcended our petty notions of reality/fiction and become something on which we can project our own ideas, and the killer and his victims have become gods.  These two interlocking themes are what I want to examine in this post, because attempting to comprehensively cover the epic would be somewhat foolhardy.  I don’t want to examine From Hell as a social commentary, either of London in 1888 or the world in the 1990s.  I don’t want to consider the mystical aspects of Freemasonry or how they might relate to the killer.  I want to look at the fine line between fact and fiction with regard to the Ripper case and how Moore’s exploration of time in the book lends the principals a twisted kind of immortality.

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Fact and fiction in the Ripper case is one of the reasons why it’s so gripping, even after a century.  We just don’t know what happened, and therefore we create the Ripper’s reality.  Moore looks at the Ripper case and sees a vast conspiracy reaching to the highest levels of government.  It’s extremely plausible, his theory of the royal baby, the existence of which was known to five prostitutes who needed to be eliminated.  Royals have a habit of not caring where they spill their seed, and in the days when a scandal of this magnitude could actually affect the government, it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine Queen Victoria telling Sir William Gull to handle the problem.  Gull falls into madness, of course, and therefore his existence as the Ripper needs to be covered up.  In the rampant covering of all traces, fiction becomes fact and vice versa.  The most pathetic chapter in the saga is 11 (Volume Eight), “The Unfortunate Mr. Druitt,” in which Montague John Druitt is framed for the Ripper crimes.  It’s a horribly depressing chapter to read, because Druitt, according to most experts, was never a serious Ripper suspect, but he did commit suicide at the end of 1888, and Moore expertly weaves this into a narrative of sacrificial murder in order to cover Gull’s involvement in the case.  Druitt is the perfect patsy, and Moore’s fictional account of his final days dovetails nicely with the Metropolitan Police’s efforts to create a fiction around Druitt himself.  According to Moore, the Police manipulated everything about the case to create plausible stories about the Ripper.  As many high-ranking policemen were Freemasons, Gull’s guilt was whitewashed, in some cases literally, as with the famous graffiti (Chapter 8, Volume 5) found near one victim (Catherine Eddowes) that read, “The Juwes are the men who will not be blamed for this for nothing,” graffiti that the police washed away because of its connection to Masons.  Of course, many Ripperologists have claimed this was simply graffiti, and the fact that a bloody rag used in the killing was found under it is coincidental.  But Moore’s answer is as viable, and therefore as “real,” as claiming it has no connection.  Of course, according to Moore, Eddowes was killed because John Netley, Gull’s coach driver, mistook her for Mary Kelly, the mastermind behind the blackmail plot.  Another layer of fiction is added onto the reality of Eddowes’ death.

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The ultimate blending of fiction and reality comes in two different areas: Mary Kelly’s death and the unmasking of Gull.  When Mary Kelly dies, we never see her face.  Then, on page 23 of Chapter 14 (Volume 10), Gull’s spirit hovers over Ireland in the early 20th century, looking down on a woman with four children, who are named “Anne,” ”Liz,” “Katy,” and “Polly.”  Gull doesn’t know who the woman is, but she looks directly at him (and at the reader) and says, “And as for you, ye auld divil.  I know that ye’re there, and ye’re noy havin’ these.  Clear off now wit’ ye.  Clear off back to Hell and leave us BE!”  Is this Mary Kelly, and is Anne the daughter of Prince Eddy?  She doesn’t look old enough (at this point, she’d be an older teenager), but that’s certainly what Moore wants us to think.  The movie, of course, made this point explicit, but it’s still uncertain in the book.  What Moore is implying is that the woman in Mary Kelly’s flat on the night of 9 November 1888 was one of the women who often stayed there, women we have seen in earlier volumes of the book, and that Mary Kelly escaped her gruesome fate.  This is an interesting piece of sentiment from Moore in an otherwise bleakly unsentimental work, and it’s probably a good thing to point out that in 1888, police lacked the means to tell whether or not the disemboweled corpse in Mary Kelly’s room was actually Mary.  They simply assumed so.  Moore’s theory could be correct, conceivably.  If Mary Kelly realized that Gull had killed someone he believed was her, and if she realized that everyone else in the blackmail plot was also dead and therefore the murders would end, why would she come forward instead of simply fleeing back to Ireland?  It’s a nice thought, one that is probably not true, but again, in the case of Jack the Ripper, reality blends so easily with fiction.

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Finally, when Abberline and Lees discover the identity of the murderer, Moore shows how fiction can turn into reality more easily than we would like.  “I made it all up, and it came true anyway,” indeed.  In Chapter 12 (Volume 9), “The Apprehensions of Mr. Lees,” the psychic, who had earlier (in Chapter 9, Volume 6) been dismissed by Sir William as a charlatan (as he was, according to the prologue of the book), finds out that the doctor is “unwell.”  Deciding to get some revenge on the man who humiliated him, Lees goes to Abberline and fakes a seizure, eventually leading Abberline to Gull’s door.  Abberline doesn’t know who lives there until he broaches the subject of the murders, which causes Gull’s wife to become angry.  Gull, however, appears on the scene and, when Abberline hesitantly mentions that ”somebody” thought he was the Ripper, Gull casually answers, “I am.”  He then goes on to speak of blood on his cuffs and his “strange and wonderful dreams.”  Abberline doesn’t know what to do, but decides to pass it on to his superiors.  Before Lees can leave, Gull asks him, “Tell me, Mr. Lees: Have you ever TRULY had a vision?  A REAL vision?”  Lees doesn’t answer, and Gull whispers, “No?  I didn’t think so.  But I have.”  We see how terrifying Gull really is, and how ineffectual Lees is.  Gull has moved beyond petty human morality, as we’ll see.  What is interesting, of course, is that Lees was inspired by revenge, yet found the killer.  Abberline tells his superior, Robert Anderson, who tells him to forget it, as he will deal with it.  Then it becomes a matter for the Freemasons to clean up, and they create a fictional death of Gull, who is then locked up in an asylum, where his loose tongue will be seen as the ravings of a madman.  The reality has been covered by fiction, and the murders can pass into myth.  The idea of reality blending into fiction is crucial to our fascination with the murders.  We can be intrigued by other serial killers, but their hold on us doesn’t last, because even if we cannot understand their pathology, we can at least put a face to the killer or killers.  The unsolved murders are the ones that resonate, because we each create a reality about the murderer, even if it’s a completely fictional reality.  This is what Moore has done, and this is what people who aren’t writing “fiction” when they write of the Ripper do.  Moore’s “made up” story is as good as any.  Why not?

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The other theme of From Hell that I’d like to take a look at is the notion of time and immortality.  Moore brings up the idea of all time existing at once, which allows Gull to see himself as above frail morality, because he is slowly ascending toward godhood.  He is immortal, as are his victims, and so there’s no reason to conform to what society thinks.  The most terrifying scene in From Hell is not one of the murders, but something that occurs just before Gull kills his second prostitute, Annie Chapman.  This occurs in Chapter 7 (Volume 4), on page 24.  As Gull follows Annie into a back yard for their rendezvous, he looks into a window and sees a man about to close the curtains.  Behind the man, who looks at Gull, startled, is a television and a poster of Marilyn Monroe.  According to Moore, this is based on a story in a Ripper book about a man living at that address in the 20th century seeing a woman followed by a man in a top hat walking along the alleyway.  Moore simply inverts it so that it’s less of a ghost story and more of a reflection of Gull’s belief that he exists in all times at once.  It’s an unsettling scene, and it sets up the scene later, when Gull has killed Catherine Eddowes (in Chapter 8, Volume 5) and he seems to be in the future, with a large skyscraper directly in front of him.  Of course, when he is slaughtering Mary Kelly (or whoever it is) in Chapter 10 (Volume 7), these beliefs take on epic proportions, as Gull skips lightly back and forth in time.  What is breathtaking about these scenes is how Moore has deftly set them up, stretching back to the introduction of Sir William Gull in Chapter 2 (Volume 1).  Moore lays out his theory, putting the words in the mouth of the eccentric James Hinton: “You know, Gull, this puts me in mind of some theories that my son Howard proposed to me.  They suggest that time is a human illusion … that all times co-exist in the stupendous whole of eternity.”  Gull himself proves this theory, but it costs him his sanity.  This is perhaps Moore’s subtle condemnation of such notions – what does it cost Gull for him to achieve this kind of clarity?  In the hallucinatory final chapter of the epic (14, in Volume 10), Gull achieves his godhood, as he whips back and forth in time, influencing serial killers in the 20th century, changing into a monster that frightens William Blake, and seeing the woman we presume is Mary Kelly in Ireland.  It’s a magnificent piece of writing by Moore, tying the notion of divinity to madness more subtly than it’s usually done, and showing the humanity that Gull has left behind.  He takes the entire journey while a nurse and a guard fuck in his cell.  The coarseness of the real world is constrasted with the mystical voyage Gull is taking concurrently.  Then we get to Mary Kelly, who has fled into anonymity and wants nothing to do with Gull.  This ties back into the question of immortality.

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It has been said before, and Moore makes the point, that Jack the Ripper granted these anonymous prostitutes a measure of immortality by killing them.  In the chapter that most people cite as “boring,” Chapter 4 (Volume 2), Gull takes his coachman, John Netley, on a tour of London.  To say this is boring is to completely miss the point, as Gull gives us a fascinating alternative history of the great city, while at the same time admitting his insanity openly.  “And Gull the doctor says ‘Why, to converse with Gods is madness’,” he says.  “And Gull, the man, replies, ‘Then who’d be sane?’”  But we’re not concerned with his mental state, we’re concerned with his visions of immortality.  He later tells Netley, “Averting Royal embarrassment is but the fraction of my work that’s visible above the waterline.  The greater part’s an iceberg of significance that lurks below.  Great works have MANY purposes.  To aid her majesty’s but ONE … the rest are mine alone.”  When he’s finished his tour and shows Netley that all the stops they made create a pentagram on the map of London, he says, “Your destiny’s inscribed upon the streets wherein you grew; upon the horse you ride each day, you CANNOT change your mind!  Our story’s WRITTEN, Netley, inked in blood long dry … engraved in stone.”  Gull’s idea of destiny ties back into Hinton’s idea of all time co-existing.  Gull and his victims cannot escape their fate.  Before he kills his first victim, Polly Nicholls, he tells her, “The Fates have brought us both towards the place, at the appointed time … whence our names shall go forth together into history.”  Gull is aware that what he’s doing will resonate throughout history, but not quite in the way he expects.  His grand mission is a sacrifice to assure man’s ascendancy over women, as he tells Netley on their journey.  On page 30 of Chapter 4 (Volume 2), he tells his coachman, “Sometimes an act of social magic’s NECESSARY; man’s triumph over woman’s INSECURE, the dust of history not yet settled.  Changing time erase the pattern that constrains society’s irrational, female side. … Our suffragettes demand that woman vote, and have equality!  They’d drag us back to that primordial nursery, the rule of instinct and the tyranny of mother’s milk!  We can’t have that.”  Later, after he sketches the pentagram for Netley, on page 37, he says, “This pentacle of Sun Gods, obelisks and rational male fire, wherein unconsciousness, the Moon and Womanhood are chained.  Its lines of power and meaning must be reinforced, according to the ancient ways … What BETTER sacrifice that ‘Heiros Gamos’?  Than Diana’s priestesses?”  The irony of Gull as Jack the Ripper is, that in granting these women immortality, he drives forward the cause of women.  Moore doesn’t need to invent this irony; George Bernard Shaw pointed it out in a letter to the newspaper in September 1888.  Moore makes reference to this letter (I can’t find it, though – sorry!), and shows how Gull’s obsessive desire to “chain Womanhood” failed utterly, because it signaled the end of an era when society could ignore the downtrodden easily.  By focusing England’s gaze on the East End, the dead prostitutes become symbols of the Victorians’ neglect.  Moore subtly shows how Gull’s murders may have made the whores immortal, but because of that immortality, the Victorian Age could never been seen in the same light again.  This is Gull’s legacy: we see the Victorians as hypocrites and oppressors, not only of people around the world, but of their own people.  Whoever Jack the Ripper was, he exposed this “model” society as something very ugly.  Moore making the killer a representative of the Crown simply reinforces this ugliness.

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There is, of course, much more going on in From Hell than these two themes.  I have barely touched upon the social criticism that Moore gets into, both of Victorian society and our own.  Nor have I touched on the way Jack the Ripper continues to fascinate and what that says about us, which Moore gets into a bit in the epilogue to the book, “The Dance of the Gull Catchers” (Volume 11).  The societal aspects would require the kind of research that, frankly, I don’t have time for.  What we do see with these two themes, however, is an examination that has relevance to our own lives, especially with regard to the creation of fiction.  The idea of immortality, even if a bit lofty for us, makes us think about what’s important in our lives.  This is brought home by again visiting Gull’s vision of the woman in Ireland.  If it’s Mary Kelly, then we have to consider what she thinks is important.  The women who were murdered by Jack the Ripper became immortal, it’s true.  Had they not been slaughtered so gruesomely and lived their mean lives in later nineteenth-century England, they would have been anonymous victims of a system that crushed those like them.  However, as Mary Kelly makes clear, there are things in this world more important than immortality.  Gull flees from this vision because he doesn’t understand the love of a parent for a child.  He has lived his life constrained, bound by this morality that he believes leads to enlightenment.  But he fails.  His life’s work makes woman immortal and leaves him forgotten in an insane asylum.  His final victim escaped and found her own form of enlightenment, and Gull fears, not the “irrationality” of women, but the notion that he has failed in his mission and even in his desire to understand the world.  He doesn’t understand the world, and this makes his supposed triumph a complete failure.  It’s a fascinating turn of events.

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These two themes alone make From Hell a brilliant comic.  That Moore brings in several other themes and still tells a gripping story makes this a masterpiece.  I have not spoken about Campbell’s art because I wanted to focus on these two themes, but it adds a wonderful sense of gritty reality to Moore’s lofty themes.  From Hell is, of course, collected in a trade paperback, and it’s an essential book.  If you’ve only seen the movie, you owe it to yourself to buy this and read it.  It’s a breathtaking experience.

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As always, you can peruse the archives of other Comics You Should Own.  If that’s your thing. 

26 Comments

Fantastic post.

On the completely flip-side of Ripper theories, John Douglas (I’m federally mandated to include that he was the model for Jodie Foster’s boss in Silence of the Lambs) believes Jack was a lower-class slob. Gull or any of the main Ripper suspects would stand out in lower class neighborhoods but a no-name commoner could move about unnoticed.

Even if that’s true, From Hell is an infinitely better story.

Amen to Alan Moore.

Whereas the Watchmen was Moore’s Magmum Opus for the ’80′s, From Hell was definitely Moore’s Magmum Opus for the ’90′s.

I think Big Numbers might have superseded the Watchmen had it reached completion.

The movie From Hell was a decent adaptation of the graphic novel, at least not as flamoyant as V for Vendetta, or as badly handled as League for Extraordinary Gentlemen.

I used to owe the comic series, but it’s all available in one graphic novel.

Great stuff. Can I just add a quick mention of the wonderfully in-depth annotations in the back of the collected edition? It’s like a whole other Alan Moore book for free!

Agreed, a fantastic article.

“Great stuff. Can I just add a quick mention of the wonderfully in-depth annotations in the back of the collected edition? It’s like a whole other Alan Moore book for free!”

You’d think flipping back and forth between the story and Moore’s annotations would be unwieldy, but it made for a much more edifying and enjoyable experience, and even had some nice jokes to help lighten the mood a bit. I really loved the bit where Moore talked about how no matter how much you’ve done for them, sometimes your characters will turn on you. And yes, very well thought out article, Burgas. You may be a sheep buggering, video game hating luddite, but I’ll be damned if you din’t find some stuff in the themes that I missed the first time I read this. Of course, I am slightly less superficial than Paris Hilton giving people flesh wounds, so that’s not saying much. But I definitely don’t remember picking up on the idea that Mary Kelly might have lived, for one thing. I think I was just trying to get through the book without passing out. I was also reading Jimmy Corrigan at the time, so maybe From Hell was like the light reading I was doing, I dunno.

I’m also glad you defended the “boring” lecture chapter. I found that fascinating the first time I read it; probably my favorite part of the whole book. Sort of like the World’s Fair chapter in Jimmy Corrigan, except it didn’t make the rest of the book a total anticlimatic letdown.

Funny, I just read this book last week. Always meant to, but the collection is just so huge- and therefore expensive- that whenever I had the money I’d always end up buying a couple of other things instead. Finally I found it in my local library, so I had no more excuses.

I think I may have read it a little too fast though, because I didn’t take the same understanding away with me about how Gull’s actions had affected women’s status in society- The idea that he actually achieved the exact opposite of what he set out to do makes a lot more sense actually, and certainly jibes much better with Moore’s stated beliefs than how I had interpretted it. I’d taken all that stuff about Gull influencing later serial killers to mean that he’d achieved exactly what he set out to do. Which doesn’t make any sense, and didn’t sit right with me at all.

You know, it’s kind of embarrasing to be set straight by the same blog that is currently running through the top 100 Marvel and DC characters! ;-)

Great article.

Sorry, that last post was me!

Great post.

Actually, while I’m on the topic, this whole series is great. I’ve been reading it since the beginning. I hope you keep it up through Zot! (or is there a later one I’m not thinking of?), and then circle back to start again…

David – that’s why we have a bunch of different writers – so we can have a lot of different things going on, both frivolous and serious! Fret not, though – my next post is going to be completely frivolous!

Thanks, Stephen. I’m ambitious enough to keep this series going as long as the blog is alive, but right now I’m just happy to make it through a letter of the alphabet!

I love this feature, but I’ve noticed several of the archived entries are inaccessable. All of the entries hosted by Pop Culture Shock will not load. I just read Lapham’s Batman, and I’m dying to read your critique of it!

The movie From Hell was a decent adaptation of the graphic novel

Except for changing the story into a whodunnit, changing Abberline into an opium-addicted psychic detective and, well, pretty much using a single phrase from the footnotes for the only bit of dialogue used in the film.

My friend Lance Parkin said it best when he said the From Hell adaptation was a brilliant adaptation of a Vertigo comic that didn’t exist.

(Fantastic review Greg)

John Douglas could tell me that Nicole Simpson was killed by chocolate cake and I’d believe him. Like they say, the man’s worked more cases than Roto Rooter.

Tyler – I’m going to e-mail Pop Culture Shock and see if they have the archives of the columns I wrote for them. I’d like to repost them here, just for posterity.

Finally! I actually own a book before I’m told that I should own it. Good article.

Agreed, that was an excellent piece of work, Greg. From Hell is my favourite work by Alan Moore and you’ve done it justice

“changing Abberline into an opium-addicted psychic detective”

I like Alan Moore’s summation of Hollywood; Johnny Depp thought it would be more interesting if Abberline was an opium addict, so they made him one even though it made no real sense for the character (a respectable police office in Victorian England). Sean Connery refused to play an opium addict, so they changed it, even though it was the only thing that made a lot of other things the character did make sense.

Anne isn’t Prince Albert Victor’s daughter – her name is Alice. She’s Kelly’s daughter, named after Gull’s first victim, the Prince’s wife…

Or indeed, named after Anne the actual victim. I’m an idiot.

Damn. Thanks for pointing that out, Andrew. I always make some stupid mistake that others pounce on. That’s why I love the comments!

[...] Comics Should Be Good has the top 50 DC characters (#50-#46, #45-#41, #40-#36, #35-#31, #30-#26) and the top Marvel characters (#50-#46, #45-#41, #40-#36, #35-#31, #30-#26). Plus comic book urban legends, why you should own a copy of From Hell, an appreciation of Kelly Jones, and a few thoughts on what there is to love (or hate) about Scott Pilgrim. [...]

Hey, this is my first time leaving a message on this blog. I’ve really been enjoying all of the Comics You Should Own articles – it’s great to be turned on to something good that I never knew about before and it’s great to know sometimes that I am not the only person who liked certain obscure runs. (For example, DeMatteis’ Dr. Fate.)

Keep on churning out these articles and I will continue reading them. My only criticism is that sometimes I wish the paragraphs would be a bit smaller. Sometimes when there’s a paragraph with a long sentence, I really gots to strain my eyes. But I still agree with your righteous fervor.

Thanks a lot for the support. I do get carried away a bit, I’ll admit. But I will keep going with these – I’m only up to “F,” after all!

[...] From Hell by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell. [...]

[...] Greg Burgas has written about the book’s themes in more depth. I haven’t seen the movie version so I can’t say how it compares, but it couldn’t be as dense as this book. The favorable reviews seem to have come from those who both haven’t read the graphic novel and don’t know much about the Ripper case. Similar Posts: Alan Moore’s Exit Interview § Why Did the GL Content Change? § Learning From Late Comics: My Interview with Clay Moore & Jeremy Haun § GLAAD Nominees Announced § End of an Era: Strangers in Paradise Final Issue Signing [...]

First time poster (and long-time reader). I felt that I had to add something to the comments section, on this, my favourite comic book. The ‘From Hell Companion’ came out this year and I thoroughly recommend it to fans. Its written by Eddie Campbell and Alan Moore, and is complied by Campbell from the correspondence between Moore and himself from the years of work which went into the book. It’s fascinating because it adds extra depth, texture and even humour to the work, and even contains entire scripts from Moore, which are breathtaking in their detail. Alan Moore is rightly credited as a genius for his work, but The Companion also shines a light on Mr Campbell’s contribution to this masterwork. BTW: As its my 1st post, I just wanted to say how much I enjoy this site, both official writers and those in the comments section. Keep up the wonderful and informative work!

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