#74: From Hell
Initial release: 1989–1998 (serialized); 1999 (trade paperback)
Story: Alan Moore
Art: Eddie Campbell
Alan Moore is one of the giants of modern comic books, that much is undeniable. His work has spanned forty decades and shaped much of how comics are written. But he also has a tendency for self-indulgence. Thus, From Hell.
On its surface, From Hell is a retelling of the Jack the Ripper legend: one autumn in 1888, someone murders five prostitutes in the hell on earth that is Whitechapel, London. The press goes ape, the police are at a loss, and lurid popular fiction has tried to solve the mystery ever since. What you may not know, going in blind, is that the book builds on the widely-discredited theory presented in 1975 that the whole thing was a plot by the Freemasons. Moore acknowledges that the whole thing is hooey — that’s the whole point. It’s equal parts a parody of the cottage industry of “Ripperologists” — a long line of crackpots who study the case and have their own theories, some of them reasonable and others completely out there — and a chance for Moore to explore some of the more out-there ideas he’s had bounding about in his head, of which there are many.
The first problem is that the book takes nearly a quarter of its length to get going; up until then, it reads like a graphic novel adaptation of the utterly bonkers conspiracy theory books (usually written by and for the religious right) that my mother used to read. We’re talking titles like The Genesis 6 Conspiracy: How Secret Societies and the Descendants of Giants Plan to Enslave Humankind or Abbadon Ascending: the Ancient Conspiracy at the Center of CERN’s Most Secretive Mission. Or this:
The story begins with a secret royal baby and a peasant wife locked away, and the life and times of the royal surgeon assigned by Queen Victoria to burn out the woman’s brain and silence the poor prostitutes attempting blackmail. Unfortunately the plot grinds to a halt with chapter 4.
In this chapter, our Dr. Gull, a Freemason as well as an accomplished vivisectionist, takes his grubby assistant on a guided tour of London’s mystical history and landmarks, and it soon becomes clear that he’s off his rocker and he hasn’t even killed anyone yet. It’s mostly a long string of rambling horseshit that more or less lays out much of his motivation: the only thing he hates more than the Illuminati is women, and this whole thing is intended to tip the balance in favor of men once more, because women have it so great in 1888. It’s only well after 120 pages into this 575-page book that things finally start to pick up, with the first murder done and Detective Fred Abberline on the case.
Besides the uneven pacing and interminable conspiracy shit, Moore is unsparing with the sexual themes, lingering on the murders more and more. While Moore does attempt to focus the story on the victims as much as Abberline and Dr. Gull, this framing of the actual victims as more than just disposable prostitutes only serves to prep the reader for the gratuitous sexual violence to follow. The final murder in particular, with its extreme (and sexually-charged) mutilation of Mary Kelley’s body, is detailed in all its grisly gory glory, like watching a butcher work over a large shank of beef. It’s gratuitous and unnecessary… and peak Alan Moore.
Let’s be honest here: as much as he made feints at making this book about the victims, it’s still a sterling example of his preoccupation with sexual violence that permeates nearly everything he does, up to and including his Batman work. (As much as he denies that rape occurred in Batman: The Killing Joke, it reeks of covering his ass so 1980s-era DC wouldn’t sue him into the ground, and it’s also just plain intellectual dishonesty. How could that whole bit been written that way, drawn that way, and NOT be intended to imply sexual assault? But I digress.) This is the fundamental dichotomy with Moore: as much as he makes fumbling attempts to be a good ally and bring representation into his work, he will undermine it with some fuckshit, and he’ll invent the lamest justifications for it. His fixation with rape, for example, is “because nobody else will do it.” I paraphrase, of course. His actual answer tends to be much longer and worded in such a way that he makes clear that in his world, he is the genius and we’re all dumb for asking him inane questions. Sorry, alan, your approach to sexual violence is shit. And the fuck is up with Lost Girls?
(God, I’m glad he’s not really an internet person. Don’t really need him thundering down from Mount Olympus at me over this. His daughter did block me on Twitter, though!)
Campbell’s art really must be commended here. Much of his moody, hatchwork-heavy style had the overall vibe of Victorian-era illustration. He fills in detail where it’s needed but otherwise doesn’t kill himself on making a realistic scene. He’s since gone back and colorized the book, which was originally black and white; his use of a muted palette again evokes Victorian-era art.
Anyway, all things considered, it’s an interesting take on ol’ Saucy Jack. It looks good, and reads well once it picks up (I especially like how dynamic the lettering is, makes the dialogue feel more real.) But it’s also extremely, frustratingly self-indulgent. I’ve soured on Moore over the years, largely because of the sexual violence issue as well as his tone-deaf responses to criticism. From Hell isn’t a wholly bad comic, but it’s best you go in knowing what you’re getting into.