From Hell

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This article is about the comic book. For the 2001 film adaptation, see From Hell (film). For the original letter, see From Hell letter. For other uses, see From Hell (disambiguation).
From Hell
From Hell collected edition
Date 1999 (collected edition)
Number of issues
10
Page count
572 pages
Publisher United States:
Eddie Campbell Comics
Top Shelf Productions
United Kingdom:
Knockabout Comics
Creative team
Writer Alan Moore
Artist Eddie Campbell
Original publication
Published in
  • Taboo
  • From Hell
Date(s) of publication
1989–1996

From Hell is a graphic novel by writer Alan Moore and artist Eddie Campbell, originally published in serial form from 1989 to 1996 and collected in 1999, speculating upon the identity and motives of Jack the Ripper. The title is taken from the first words of the "From Hell" letter, which some authorities believe was an authentic message sent from the killer in 1888. The collected edition is 572 pages long. The 2000 and later editions are the most common prints. The comic was loosely adapted into a film of the same title, released in 2001.

About the book[edit]

From Hell was originally serialized as one of several features in Taboo, an anthology comic book published by Steve Bissette's Spiderbaby Grafix. After running in Taboo #2–7 (1989–1992), Moore and Campbell moved the project to its own series, published first by Tundra Publishing, then by Kitchen Sink Press. The series was published in ten volumes between 1991 and 1996, and an appendix, From Hell: The Dance of the Gull-catchers, was published in 1998. The entire series was collected in a trade paperback and published by Eddie Campbell Comics in 1999; trade paperback and hardcover versions are now published by Top Shelf Productions in the USA and Knockabout Comics in the UK.

From Hell takes as its premise Stephen Knight's theory that the Jack the Ripper murders were part of a conspiracy to conceal the birth of an illegitimate royal baby fathered by Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence, slightly modified: the involvement of Walter Sickert is reduced, and Knight's allegation that the child's mother was a Catholic has been dropped. Knight's theories have been described as "a good fictional read" whose "conclusions have been disproved numerous times".[1] In an appendix added to the collected From Hell, Moore writes that he did not accept Knight's theory at face value (and he echoed the then-growing consensus that such claims were likely hoaxes), but considered it an interesting starting point for his own fictional examination of the Ripper murders, their era and impact. However, in the serialised publication of Dance of the Gull-Catchers Moore included an "author's statement" which consisted of a blown-up panel from the prologue, depicting the psychic Robert James Lees confessing that although his visions were fraudulent, they were accurate: "I made it all up, and it all came true anyway. That's the funny part."

Moore and Campbell conducted significant research to ensure plausibility and verisimilitude. The collected From Hell features over forty pages of page-by-page notes and references, indicating which scenes are based wholly on Moore's own imagination and which are based upon specific named sources. Moore's opinions on the reliability of those references are also listed, which often disagree quite dramatically with experts on the Ripper case and history[citation needed]. The annotations are followed by an epilogue in comics format, The Dance of the Gull-Catchers, in which Moore and Campbell expand on the various theories of the Ripper crimes and the likelihood—or rather, the near-impossibility—of the true identity of the culprit ever being identified.

Plot overview[edit]

Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence, a.k.a. Prince Eddy, marries and fathers a child with Annie Crook, a shop girl in London's East End. Prince Eddy had visited the area under an assumed name and Annie is unaware of her husband's royal position. Queen Victoria becomes aware of the marriage and has Albert separated forcibly from his wife, whom she places in an asylum. Victoria then instructs her royal physician Sir William Gull to impair Annie's sanity, which he does by damaging or impairing her thyroid gland. The prince's daughter is taken to Annie Crook's parents by the painter Walter Sickert, a friend of Eddy's who had accompanied him on his trips to the East End. Crook's father believes the child to be his through an incestuous relationship with his daughter.

The potentially scandalous matter is resolved, until a group of prostitutes — Annie's friends — who are aware of the illegitimate child and its royal connections, attempt to blackmail Walter Sickert, Prince Eddy's friend, to pay off a gang of thugs who are threatening them. After Queen Victoria learns of the blackmail attempt, Gull is once again enlisted, this time to silence the group of women who are threatening the crown. The police are complicit in the crimes — they are granted prior knowledge of Gull's intentions, and are adjured not to interfere until the plot is completed.

Gull, a high-ranking Freemason, begins a campaign of violence against the five women, brutally murdering them with the aid of a barely literate carriage driver, John Netley. While he justifies the murders by claiming they are a Masonic warning to an apparent Illuminati threat to the throne, the killings are, in Gull's mind, part of an elaborate mystical ritual to ensure male societal dominance over women (see "Interpretations" below). As the killings progress, Gull becomes more and more psychologically unhinged, culminating in a full psychic vision of the future during his murder of Mary Kelly.

The story also serves as an in-depth character study of Gull; exploring his personal philosophy and motivation, and making sense of his dual role as royal assassin and serial killer. Though rooted in factual biographical details of Gull's life, Moore admitted taking substantial fictional license: for example, the real-life Gull suffered a stroke; Moore fictionalises this event as a theophany, with Gull seeing "Jahbulon", a masonic figure, fundamentally altering Gull's world view and indirectly leading to the murders.

Gull takes John Netley, his coachman, sole confidant, and reluctant aide, on a tour of London landmarks (including Cleopatra's Needle and Nicholas Hawksmoor's churches), expounding about their hidden mystical significance, which is lost to the modern world [these themes had also been explored in detail by Moore's near contemporary Peter Ackroyd in his novel Hawksmoor, published five years before From Hell]. Later, Gull forces the semi-literate Netley to write the infamous "From Hell" letter which lends the work its title. Gull has a number of transcendent experiences in the course of the murders, culminating with a vivid vision of what London will be like a century after the last murder. It is implied that, through his grisly activities, male dominance over femininity is assured, and the twentieth century is thus given its dominant form, though Gull finds it disgusting nevertheless.

Inspector Frederick Abberline investigates the Ripper crimes, without success until a fraudulent psychic, Robert James Lees, acting on a personal grudge against Gull, identifies him as the murderer. Gull confesses, and Lees and Abberline, shocked, report the matter to superiors within the Police force, who work to cover up the discovery. They inform both Abberline and Lees that Gull was operating alone, and gripped by insanity. Abberline later discovers through chance Gull's actual intentions to cover up the matter of the royal "bastard" fathered by the Duke of Clarence, and resigns from the Metropolitan Police, protesting the official cover-up of the murders.

Gull is tried by a secret Freemasonic council, which determines he is insane; Gull, for his own part, refuses to submit to the council, informing them that no man amongst them may be counted as his peer, and may not therefore judge the "mighty work" he has wrought. A phony funeral is staged, and Gull is imprisoned under a pseudonym "Thomas Mason". Years later, and moments before his death, Gull has an extended mystical experience, where his spirit travels through time, observing the crimes of the London Monster, instigating or inspiring a number of other killers (Peter Sutcliffe, Ian Brady), causing Netley's death, as well as serving as the inspiration for both Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and William Blake's painting "The Ghost of a Flea". The last experience his spirit undergoes before it "becomes God" is a view of Mary Kelly – the one intended victim who escaped – who is apparently able to see his spirit and abjures him to begone "back to Hell".

Interpretations and themes[edit]

From Hell was partly inspired by the title of Douglas Adams' novel Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, in that it explores the notion that to solve a crime holistically, one would need to solve the entire society in which it occurred.[2] Moore's take on the Jack the Ripper murders is not a "whodunit": he spells out his (fictional) culprit and the ostensible reasons for his actions very early on. But as Gull remarks, "Averting Royal embarrassment is but the fraction of my work that's visible above the waterline."[3] The murders are an occult ritual, a complex sacrifice using Victorian London itself as an altar. The symbolism of London's landmarks is explored in the fourth chapter, in which Gull explains his motives to his uncomprehending coachman, and employs psychogeography to tie together these landmarks with the city's history.

Gull is depicted as a misogynist who opposes women's suffrage, along with other progressive movements of his time. Women had power over men once, Gull believes, and the irrational, Dionysian unconscious mind once dominated the rational, Apollonian conscious mind. Moore cites writers such as Marilyn French and Robert Graves, who argue (as the fictional Gull does) that women held both political and religious power prior to the rise of patriarchal religions such as Christianity. Gull is reason's lunatic: he believes he is carrying out an act of magic to enforce the rational, masculine hegemony.

From Hell also explores Moore's ideas on the nature of time. Early on, Gull's friend James Hinton discusses his son Howard's theory of the "fourth dimension", which proposes that time is a spatial dimension. All time co-exists, and it is only the limits of our perception that make it appear to progress. Sequences of related events can be seen as shapes in the fourth dimension: history can "be said to have an architecture", as Gull puts it.[4] Gull's experiences seem to confirm this: he has visions of the twentieth century during the murders, and as he is dying he experiences, and appears to influence, past and future events. Moore had earlier explored similar ideas in Watchmen, where Dr. Manhattan perceives past, present and future simultaneously, and describes himself as "a puppet who can see the strings".[5]

Perhaps the most elaborate theme in From Hell stems from Moore's statement[6] that "the Ripper murders — happening when they did and where they did — were almost like an apocalyptic summary of... that entire Victorian age. Also, they prefigure a lot of the horrors of the 20th century." In Moore's reading of the works of contemporary artists including Zola and the post-impressionist painters, the prostitute had become an icon of the working lives of the impoverished and disenfranchised. He notes that the 1880s saw the Mahdi uprisings, the first time the Western world had to face militant Islamic fundamentalism; physicists were beginning to make discoveries that would pave the way to the atomic bomb; and the growth of both Zionism and anti-Semitism. The period of the killings coincides with the conception of Adolf Hitler and the final scene alludes to the outbreak of the Second World War. After the final murder, during which Gull has an extended vision of 1990s England, Gull says, "It is beginning, Netley. Only just beginning. For better or worse, the twentieth century. I have delivered it."[7]

Much of the metaphysical speculation in From Hell can be attributed to Moore's embrace of gnosticism, which takes a more central role in his other work, most notably his comic series Promethea.

On a more prosaic level, Moore indicts the inequalities of Victorian society, contrasting Gull and the wealthy circles he moves in with the hand-to-mouth existence of the women he targets; the moral disgust shown at the peccadilloes of the poor with the depths to which the rich are prepared to sink to protect the image of propriety; the imaginary anti-Semitic conspiracy theories which divert the police's investigations with the real conspiracy that controls them. During one murder, scenes from the killing are interspersed with scenes from a nearby meeting of a socialist club, addressed by William Morris, where a portrait of Karl Marx comes to dominate the scene. In his appendix, Moore sardonically expresses regret that England never had a revolution as France did.

Just about every notable figure of the period is connected with the events in some way, from "Elephant Man" Joseph Merrick to Oscar Wilde, from the Native American writer Black Elk to William Morris, the artist Walter Sickert to Aleister Crowley, who makes a brief appearance as a young boy in short trousers, sucking on a candy cane, and lecturing the police about magic.

According to his notes in his appendix, Moore was somewhat inconsistent with how "historically accurate" the events within the graphic novels are. On one hand, he revealed that he had actually written an entire scene where Abberline gets into an argument with Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley; he rewrote it after research revealed that Buffalo Bill had left England by the time of the murders. On the other hand, again according to his own notes, he had William Morris appear in London on the night of one of the murders, although historical records show he was out of town that night. Morris, however, does not interact with any of the characters, but is simply seen reading his poem "Love Is Enough", while Gull murders Elizabeth Stride in the alley below.

In The Dance of the Gull Catchers Moore reports that he had been drawn into and even obsessed with the particulars of the Ripper crimes. The Ripperologists—or "Gull Catchers" as he refers to them—are depicted as slightly unhinged men running about with large butterfly nets, chasing details and connections, however tenuous. Initially, Moore observes them from a distance, but eventually—while researching and writing From Hell—he joins them. Moore compares the multitude of increasingly outlandish Ripper theories to a Koch snowflake, where a finite, fixed location, event and era (London, in late 1888) can have an infinite number of nooks and crannies. Ultimately, Moore observes that the longer the Gull Catchers chase after the Ripper, the more the ground underneath them becomes churned and unrecognisable mud; their attempts to uncover the truth only serve to obscure it and cause further confusion.

Awards[edit]

The comic series was a top vote getter for the Comics Buyer's Guide Fan Award for "Favorite Limited Series" for 1997, and the collected edition won their Award for Favorite Reprint Graphic Album in 2000.

It also won the "Prix de la critique" at the Angoulême International Comics Festival (France) in 2001.[8]

From Hell has won several Eisner Awards, including "Best Serialized Story" (1993),[9] "Best Writer" (1995,[10] 1996,[11] 1997[12]), and "Best Graphic Album – Reprint" (2000).[13]

Film adaptation[edit]

Main article: From Hell (film)

A film loosely based off the graphic novel by the Hughes brothers into a 2001 film starring Johnny Depp, Heather Graham and Ian Holm. The film received mixed reviews from critics, holding a rating of 57% on review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes.[14]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Casebook: Jack The Ripper: The Final Solution
  2. ^ Dave Windett, Jenni Scott & Guy Lawley, "Writer From Hell: the Alan Moore Experience" (interview), Comics Forum 4, p. 46, 1993
  3. ^ Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell, From Hell Chapter 4, page 33, panel 4
  4. ^ Moore & Campbell, From Hell chapter 2, page 15, panel 4
  5. ^ Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons, Watchmen issue 9, page 5, panel 4
  6. ^ Groth, Gary. Last Big Words — Alan Moore on "Marvelman," "From Hell," "A Small Killing," and being published. The Comics Journal 140, February 1991.
  7. ^ Moore & Campbell, From Hell chapter 10, page 33, panel 2
  8. ^ Grands Prix de la Critique > 2000–2009, ACBD
  9. ^ 1993 Will Eisner Comic Industry Award Nominees and Winners, Comic Book Awards Almanac
  10. ^ 1995 Will Eisner Comic Industry Award Nominees and Winners, Comic Book Awards Almanac
  11. ^ 1996 Will Eisner Comic Industry Award Nominees and Winners, Comic Book Awards Almanac
  12. ^ 1997 Will Eisner Comic Industry Award Nominees and Winners, Comic Book Awards Almanac
  13. ^ 2000 Will Eisner Comic Industry Award Nominees and Winners, Comic Book Awards Almanac
  14. ^ From Hell – Rotten Tomatoes

External links[edit]