Eddie Campbell Comics, 1999, 572 pages, US$35.00 tpb, ISBN 0-9585783-4-6
In the world of sequential art, From Hell is a classic for a reason: As a thick 550+ pages paperback, it represents what many artists and critics envision when they speak of “graphic novels”. Exquisitely well researched, created over a number of years, tackling a difficult subject with skill, From Hell also achieved considerable success by just about any standard. It sold well, immediately earned a permanent place on most lists of essential graphic novels and was even adapted in a film released in late 2001. The film wasn’t particularly good, but that’s the way it goes with just about any adaptation. It’s far better to focus on the graphics novel itself.
Writer Alan Moore spent years learning all he could find on the subject of “Jack the Ripper”, the infamous serial killer who terrorized London’s seedy Whitechapel area in 1888. Consciously picking a royal conspiracy theory as a dramatic framework on which to hang a number of historical details, Moore produced a massive story that tackles a lot more than simply Jack the Ripper. Elements of mysticism, secret societies, psychological drama and police work all infuse From Hell with a vitality that has ensured its success. You can’t read it and avoid being stunned by the result, which is every bit as complex -in its own way- as a meaty prose novel.
From Hell starts leisurely and ends just as slowly, eschewing typical dramatic structure in order to delve more fully in the tapestry of 1888-era London. The main character, so to speak, is royal doctor William Gull, a man whose visions of a greater future dovetail nicely with an assassination edict delivered by Queen Victoria. From Hell is as much a psychological study of the life of a man than it’s a thriller about a serial killer.
The attention to detail is astonishing, a fact best appreciated when perusing Moore’s voluminous Appendix 1: “Annotations to the Chapters”. Nearly every page of From Hell is accompanied with notes on sources, reference and suppositions. (The best way to read those notes is to glance at them periodically as you make your way through the novel.) This thirst for precision is carried over to Eddie Campbell’s black-and-white line illustrations, whose deceptively draft-like nature hide a tremendous amount of period detail. I’m not a far of that particular style of artwork (it can be difficult, at times, to distinguish characters or even to appreciate the amount of effort put into the drawings), but the art’s rough quality can be a relief considering the novel’s frank depiction of violence and sexual activities: From Hell is a graphic novel in all senses of the expression.
Moore never pretends to offer “the” solution to he Ripper murders: He’s quite up-front, in the Appendices, in stating that he just picked the theory that offered the most dramatic interest. One of the book’s best passage is Appendix 2: “Dance of the Gull Catchers”, an illustrated essay in which Moore describes the various theories that have emerged over the years about Jack the Ripper, and the particular mania that afflicts all Ripperologists –including Moore himself. In twenty-four short pages, Moore reflects on the nature of murder, the appeal of Rippermania and how the “gull-catchers” are condemned in digging a pit from which nothing will ever emerge.
As for the novel itself, well, it’s a masterpiece. While the art isn’t particularly impressive or innovative (the entire layout remains rigidly faithful to a classic nine-by-nine comics grid), it creates an impression of doom that’s hard to shake away. What’s more remarkable is how it deals with complex and difficult subjects in a way that seldom feels exploitative –and this despite an entire twenty-four pages murder sequence that may be too gruesome for many readers.
In the end, it’s the quality of the writing that makes the whole thing stand together. Don’t pre-judge the novel based on the film, which is so hilariously mis-adapted that it could be a warning for all writers signing away their derivative rights. From Hell isn’t particularly pleasant, but it’s deeply impressive. Not simply worth a look as “a graphic novel”, few will dispute its place as an authentic piece of criminal literature. Bookstores should have it shelved alongside Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.