Review by Gabriel
To comic book fans, Alan Moore is a superstar. People who don’t follow the medium may be familiar with his works that have been made into movies, such as The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, V for Vendetta, The Watchmen, as well as the graphic novel that is the subject of this review, From Hell. However, even those who saw these movies may be unfamiliar with Moore’s name, as he completely disassociated himself from all of the film adaptions due to their questionable quality or divergence from the source material.
His reputation is well deserved. He is master of blending sympathetic characters and humour with high concept science fiction and philosophy. From Hell is one of his greatest achievements, in which he navigates the cliché minefield of the Jack the Ripper mystery to create something original and mesmerising. He does this by exploring what the Ripper murders, and people’s continued fascination with them, reveal about the society and culture in which they occurred.
Moore’s work can be relied on to challenge readers, and From Hell raises questions about the depiction of violence and its perpetrators. His partner in crime (all puns intended, especially the bad ones) is
Dave Gibbons Eddie Campbell, whose sketchy, murky style perfectly capture the grime of London’s East End at the end of the 19th Century.
As Moore freely states in the generous appendix to this already hefty volume, the central plot point of From Hell is borrowed from Stephen Knight’s Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution, one of many books that claims to reveal the true identity of Jack the Ripper. Combining several existing theories in Ripper lore, Knight claimed that the murders were committed by Sir William Gull, Queen Victoria’s official physician, acting on orders from the royals and, of course, the Freemasons. The motive was to conceal the fact that Prince Albert Victor, second in line for the throne, had a child with a commoner, to whom he was also secretly married. It’s a wild and crazy theory that has since been disproved, although it is sprinkled with enough truth to make is seem plausible. Unlike Knight, Moore doesn’t believe it for a second. He does, however, embrace it for what it is – a fantastic story.
If a neat conspiracy theory was all there was to From Hell, it would be a decent enough tale, and indeed this is the route taken by the miss-able 2001 film starring Johnny Depp. What elevates From Hell above other thrillers is its exploration of its themes, particularly the oppression of women, and the nature of consciousness.
I read somewhere that Moore’s idea to examine the murders in the context of society as a whole was inspired by (get excited Mark) Douglas Adams’s Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. But unlike the latter book , which was crap (still excited, Mark?), the concepts in From Hell are clever and fascinating. An entire chapter is dedicated to a psychedelic tour and lecture on the oppression of pagan goddess-worshipping religions by patriarchal traditions, such as Christianity, throughout English history, as well as the architecture of Nicholas Hawksmoore and the implications of its positioning around London.
There’s a remarkable clarity in the way Moore expands upon his themes and plotlines, which develop and converge in a way that suggests meticulous planning and makes for a very satisfying conclusion. While he could be accused of signposting, and he occasionally hobbles dialogue onto unsuitable characters to get his point across, the overall affect is of fiction with the intellectual substance of a well-constructed thesis.
My only reservation regarding From Hell is its treatment of its protagonist, Sir William Gull. Using the royal cover-up as a guise, Gull proceeds to ritualistically murder prostitutes to further his perverse spirituality. While performing the final murder, and during his subsequent confinement to an asylum, Gull experiences visions of the 20th century, and jumps through time to inspire William Blake to paint “The Ghost of a Flea”, as well as appearing in different guises before various British serial killers (look, I know it’s weird, but it works in the context of the story). In the appendix, Moore dismisses these visions as hallucinations, common to insane murderers. But the accuracy of Gull’s visions, his centrality in history and his seeming personal enlightenment seem to vindicate the depravity of his acts.
Then again, as long as the reader recognises that From Hell is entirely fictitious, the conclusion could just as easily be read as a breaking of the fourth wall to comment on the influence of the Ripper murders on society and history. Regardless, I’d never argue that an artist is responsible for the effect their work might have on disturbed individuals – that path is paved (yes, paved) with hysterical soccer mums and sweaty-palmed religious folk calling for the burning of books and the removal of photos from galleries.
With a price of around $80 new, it’s not cheap, and with all the graphic sex and violence it’s not a comic for little Timmy’s 10th birthday. It is, however, one of the smartest, best written graphic novels on the shelves, and could also be used to press flowers and bludgeon burglars.