From Hell

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From Hell By Alan Moore, Illustrated by Eddie CampbellFrom Hell is a graphic novel by Alan Moore and artist Eddie Campbell and was first published over a number of dates stretching back to 1989. This collected edition is 572 pages long and although Moore has been responsible for the likes of Watchmen, V For Vendetta and The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, this is probably his masterpiece. From Hell is Moore’s own speculation on the case of Jack the Ripper, a blending of fiction, fact and fantasy that begins with a Royal Conspiracy and weaves a complex and gripping story that involves Freemasons, time travel, prostitution, the history of London, detective work, a psychic, corruption, poverty, mystical visions, famous figures of the era and the birth of the 20th century. The book begins with the premise that Prince Albert Victor fathered an illegitimate child with a mere shop girl and married her – all while gaining a ‘social education’ under the care of artist Walter Sickert. Although Albert is forcibly separated from his new wife when Queen Victoria hears about it, a group of prostitutes know of this Royal secret too and attempt to use it for blackmail purposes in order to pay off their debts to a criminal gang. From this point, events gradually spiral out of control in chilling fashion…

For some reason, From Hell was the last of the famous Alan Moore volumes that I’d yet to read but now that I have I think it might be the best of all of them. This is an astounding piece of work that is full of vivid characters and fascinating ruminations on history, buildings, the East End of London in the Victorian era, the police, Freemasons, the future, class, escape, society, architecture, and, of course, Jack the Ripper. The motivation of the ‘Ripper’ in this tale is to enforce the male hegemony for a new century – his gruesome acts a twisted ritual scarifice to restore what he thinks represents order. The identity of Jack the Ripper is revealed fairly on in the story and one of the strengths of the book is we that get to know (and often care) much about the various prostitutes as they try to eke out enough money for their lodgings on the dark, dangerous streets of Whitechapel. Therefore we feel genuine sadness when they are murdered. The Ripper himself is an extraordinary character who is never quite what you imagine him to be.

There are some amazing chapters and moments in the book that stay with you after you’ve put it down. One whole chapter is taken up with a tour of London a doctor gives to his coachman as they visit various landmarks and places of interest and the doctor talks – in great detail – about the strange and often macabre history of the city and its houses, churches and monuments. This is a great section and the striking black and white art of buildings is excellent as they tour London. ‘Though Wren forbade internment on Church premises, Hawksmoor declined; sank his foundations in the plague-pits here, seeking that nourishment of which the Druids spake so that his will, his personality encoded into stone might thus endure throughout the centuries. It’s cheerless soul informs this spot. The Huguenots who settled Spitafields, their independence bordering on Anarchy, were massacred by soldiers barracked here, in Hawkmoor’s church.’ I don’t think this book would have been quite so effective or atmospheric in colour and some of the murders are so gruesome that the lack of colour is a help, sort of allowing them to go further.

From Hell is as good as comics and graphic novels can possibly get and is very, very highly recommended.”

The police investigation that occurs is as absorbing as the mystical visions of the killer and the high level skullduggery that attempts to keep a lid on the real truth. Moore makes Inspector Frederick Abberline a great character and you can only imagine his pained expression when he heard that Abberline was to be turned into an absinthe swigging Johnny Depp in the (very different and vastly inferior) film. Abberline, much to his own relief, has escaped from the nightmarish East End beat but is annoyed to be sent back there to investigate the Ripper murders. Abberline is a fairly average portly married man in the book and has a wonderfully blunt and somewhat foul-mouthed turn of phrase as he tries to make sense of these troubling murders that is often amusing. There’s a lot of slang in the book that I quite enjoyed and a great bit where Abberline is considering all the various theories about the Ripper at his desk and dismisses them all as cobblers. Abberline is a bit like a slightly more sensitive Victorian version of Inspector Regan from The Sweeney with a bit of Sergeant Cuff from The Moonstone thrown in. There is quite a touching subplot where he strikes up a platonic friendship with a prostitute and tries to help her out.

Alan Moore’s combination of having an incredibly inventive mind and being quite possibly as mad as a hatter takes From Hell to some surprising places. I loved the notion of a ‘fourth dimension’, a theory that all of time co-exists together and only the limitations of our brain stop us from realising this. The Ripper believes key points in time are linked together and actually experiences future and past events. There is a great moment where he stops in an alley with a victim and through a window sees what appears to be a sixties living room with Eric Morecambe on the television. His travels through time include appearing in a modern office where everyone is tapping away into little hand held gadgets and he is rather dismayed by this vision of the future. ‘It would seem we are to suffer an apocalypse of cockatoos. Morose barbaric children playing joylessly with their unfathomable toys.’ He even catches glimpses of notorious murderers of the future like Ian Brady and Peter Sutcliffe.

There are several famous figures from the Victorian era who appear briefly in the book too. Joseph Merrick (The Elephant Man), Dr Treves (drawn to look like Anthony Hopkins), Oscar Wilde, and Aleister Crowley. It’s such a huge, fascinating and gripping story that I found myself always looking forward to when I could eventually sit down and spend some more time with the book. Be warned though that this is a very adult graphic novel. There are two additional sections at the back of the book that are fascinating too. The first is an Appendix (Annotations to the Chapters) that runs for over forty pages where Moore takes you through the book in great detail and tells you the inspiration for each development, incident, scene, what was made up by him, what he read in a Ripper book or elsewhere etc. Even better is a comic strip called The Dance of the Gull Catchers which looks at Ripper theories and those who have attempted to solve the case right up to the present. This is a funny and really interesting addition to From Hell and great fun. Moore even includes himself as one of these slightly unhinged characters (drawn with butterfly nets) who have been drawn into the Ripper mystery.

From Hell is as good as comics and graphic novels can possibly get and is very, very highly recommended.

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From Hell
by Alan Moore, Eddie Campbell

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