Comics You Should Own – ‘From Hell’

Hi, and welcome to Comics You Should Own, a semi-regular series about comics I think you should own. I began writing these a little over fifteen years ago, and I’m still doing it, because I dig writing long-form essays about comics. I republished my early posts, which I originally wrote on my personal blog, at Comics Should Be Good about ten years ago, but since their redesign, most of the images have been lost, so I figured it was about time I published these a third time, here on our new blog. I plan on keeping them exactly the same, which is why my references might be a bit out of date and, early on, I don’t write about art as much as I do now. But I hope you enjoy these, and if you’ve never read them before, I hope they give you something to read that you might have missed. I’m planning on doing these once a week until I have all the old ones here at the blog. This time around we check out Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s Jack the Ripper epic. This post was originally published on 16 September 2007. As always, you can click on the images to see them better. Enjoy!

From Hell by Alan Moore (writer), Eddie Campbell (artist), Pete Mullins (art assistant, volumes 3-11), April Post (art assistant, volume 5).

Published by Mad Love Publishing in association with Tundra (volumes 1-2) and then Kitchen Sink Press (volumes 3-11), eleven volumes (#1-10 and “Dance of the Gull-Catchers,” an epilogue), cover dated March 1991 – September 1998.

“I made it all up, and it all came true anyway. That’s the funny part.”

On page 5 of the prologue to From Hell, Alan Moore’s stand-in, the psychic Robert Lees looks directly at the reader (with what looks like skulls in his eyeballs) and sums up the entire opus. Moore is not telling a story that he expects us to believe. He is making it all up. But could his fictional account actually be the reality behind the Jack the Ripper killings? The murders in 1888 have become the perfect canvas on which to create reality, because no one knows for sure what happened. Despite the vast cottage industry of writers who purport to “solve” the mystery, it will remain unsolved, an evil stain on the late nineteenth century. Moore’s solution is as valid as any. The story of Jack the Ripper has transcended our petty notions of reality/fiction and become something on which we can project our own ideas, and the killer and his victims have become gods. These two interlocking themes are what I want to examine in this post, because attempting to comprehensively cover the epic would be somewhat foolhardy. I don’t want to examine From Hell as a social commentary, either of London in 1888 or the world in the 1990s. I don’t want to consider the mystical aspects of Freemasonry or how they might relate to the killer. I want to look at the fine line between fact and fiction with regard to the Ripper case and how Moore’s exploration of time in the book lends the principals a twisted kind of immortality.

Fact and fiction in the Ripper case is one of the reasons why it’s so gripping, even after a century. We just don’t know what happened, and therefore we create the Ripper’s reality. Moore looks at the Ripper case and sees a vast conspiracy reaching to the highest levels of government. It’s extremely plausible, his theory of the royal baby, the existence of which was known to five prostitutes who needed to be eliminated. Royals have a habit of not caring where they spill their seed, and in the days when a scandal of this magnitude could actually affect the government, it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine Queen Victoria telling Sir William Gull to handle the problem. Gull falls into madness, of course, and therefore his existence as the Ripper needs to be covered up. In the rampant covering of all traces, fiction becomes fact and vice versa. The most pathetic chapter in the saga is #11 (Volume Eight), “The Unfortunate Mr. Druitt,” in which Montague John Druitt is framed for the Ripper crimes. It’s a horribly depressing chapter to read, because Druitt, according to most experts, was never a serious Ripper suspect, but he did commit suicide at the end of 1888, and Moore expertly weaves this into a narrative of sacrificial murder in order to cover Gull’s involvement in the case. Druitt is the perfect patsy, and Moore’s fictional account of his final days dovetails nicely with the Metropolitan Police’s efforts to create a fiction around Druitt himself. According to Moore, the Police manipulated everything about the case to create plausible stories about the Ripper. As many high-ranking policemen were Freemasons, Gull’s guilt was whitewashed, in some cases literally, as with the famous graffiti (Chapter 8, Volume 5) found near one victim (Catherine Eddowes) that read, “The Juwes are the men who will not be blamed for this for nothing,” graffiti that the police washed away because of its connection to Masons. Of course, many Ripperologists have claimed this was simply graffiti, and the fact that a bloody rag used in the killing was found under it is coincidental. But Moore’s answer is as viable, and therefore as “real,” as claiming it has no connection. Of course, according to Moore, Eddowes was killed because John Netley, Gull’s coach driver, mistook her for Mary Kelly, the mastermind behind the blackmail plot. Another layer of fiction is added onto the reality of Eddowes’s death.

The ultimate blending of fiction and reality comes in two different areas: Mary Kelly’s death and the unmasking of Gull. When Mary Kelly dies, we never see her face. Then, on page 23 of Chapter 14 (Volume 10), Gull’s spirit hovers over Ireland in the early 20th century, looking down on a woman with four children, who are named “Anne,” “Liz,” “Katy,” and “Polly.” Gull doesn’t know who the woman is, but she looks directly at him (and at the reader) and says, “And as for you, ye auld divil. I know that ye’re there, and ye’re noy havin’ these. Clear off now wit’ ye. Clear off back to Hell and leave us BE!” Is this Mary Kelly, and is Anne the daughter of Prince Eddy? She doesn’t look old enough (at this point, she’d be an older teenager), but that’s certainly what Moore wants us to think. The movie, of course, made this point explicit, but it’s still uncertain in the book. What Moore is implying is that the woman in Mary Kelly’s flat on the night of 9 November 1888 was one of the women who often stayed there, women we have seen in earlier volumes of the book, and that Mary Kelly escaped her gruesome fate. This is an interesting piece of sentiment from Moore in an otherwise bleakly unsentimental work, and it’s probably a good thing to point out that in 1888, police lacked the means to tell whether or not the disemboweled corpse in Mary Kelly’s room was actually Mary. They simply assumed so. Moore’s theory could be correct, conceivably. If Mary Kelly realized that Gull had killed someone he believed was her, and if she realized that everyone else in the blackmail plot was also dead and therefore the murders would end, why would she come forward instead of simply fleeing back to Ireland? It’s a nice thought, one that is probably not true, but again, in the case of Jack the Ripper, reality blends so easily with fiction.

Finally, when Abberline and Lees discover the identity of the murderer, Moore shows how fiction can turn into reality more easily than we would like. “I made it all up, and it came true anyway,” indeed. In Chapter 12 (Volume 9), “The Apprehensions of Mr. Lees,” the psychic, who had earlier (in Chapter 9, Volume 6) been dismissed by Sir William as a charlatan (as he was, according to the prologue of the book), finds out that the doctor is “unwell.” Deciding to get some revenge on the man who humiliated him, Lees goes to Abberline and fakes a seizure, eventually leading Abberline to Gull’s door. Abberline doesn’t know who lives there until he broaches the subject of the murders, which causes Gull’s wife to become angry. Gull, however, appears on the scene and, when Abberline hesitantly mentions that “somebody” thought he was the Ripper, Gull casually answers, “I am.” He then goes on to speak of blood on his cuffs and his “strange and wonderful dreams.” Abberline doesn’t know what to do, but decides to pass it on to his superiors. Before Lees can leave, Gull asks him, “Tell me, Mr. Lees: Have you ever TRULY had a vision? A REAL vision?” Lees doesn’t answer, and Gull whispers, “No? I didn’t think so. But I have.” We see how terrifying Gull really is, and how ineffectual Lees is. Gull has moved beyond petty human morality, as we’ll see. What is interesting, of course, is that Lees was inspired by revenge, yet found the killer. Abberline tells his superior, Robert Anderson, who tells him to forget it, as he will deal with it. Then it becomes a matter for the Freemasons to clean up, and they create a fictional death of Gull, who is then locked up in an asylum, where his loose tongue will be seen as the ravings of a madman. The reality has been covered by fiction, and the murders can pass into myth. The idea of reality blending into fiction is crucial to our fascination with the murders. We can be intrigued by other serial killers, but their hold on us doesn’t last, because even if we cannot understand their pathology, we can at least put a face to the killer or killers. The unsolved murders are the ones that resonate, because we each create a reality about the murderer, even if it’s a completely fictional reality. This is what Moore has done, and this is what people who aren’t writing “fiction” when they write of the Ripper do. Moore’s “made up” story is as good as any. Why not?

The other theme of From Hell that I’d like to take a look at is the notion of time and immortality. Moore brings up the idea of all time existing at once, which allows Gull to see himself as above frail morality, because he is slowly ascending toward godhood. He is immortal, as are his victims, and so there’s no reason to conform to what society thinks. The most terrifying scene in From Hell is not one of the murders, but something that occurs just before Gull kills his second prostitute, Annie Chapman. This occurs in Chapter 7 (Volume 4), on page 24. As Gull follows Annie into a back yard for their rendezvous, he looks into a window and sees a man about to close the curtains. Behind the man, who looks at Gull, startled, is a television and a poster of Marilyn Monroe. According to Moore, this is based on a story in a Ripper book about a man living at that address in the 20th century seeing a woman followed by a man in a top hat walking along the alleyway. Moore simply inverts it so that it’s less of a ghost story and more of a reflection of Gull’s belief that he exists in all times at once. It’s an unsettling scene, and it sets up the scene later, when Gull has killed Catherine Eddowes (in Chapter 8, Volume 5) and he seems to be in the future, with a large skyscraper directly in front of him. Of course, when he is slaughtering Mary Kelly (or whoever it is) in Chapter 10 (Volume 7), these beliefs take on epic proportions, as Gull skips lightly back and forth in time. What is breathtaking about these scenes is how Moore has deftly set them up, stretching back to the introduction of Sir William Gull in Chapter 2 (Volume 1). Moore lays out his theory, putting the words in the mouth of the eccentric James Hinton: “You know, Gull, this puts me in mind of some theories that my son Howard proposed to me. They suggest that time is a human illusion … that all times co-exist in the stupendous whole of eternity.” Gull himself proves this theory, but it costs him his sanity. This is perhaps Moore’s subtle condemnation of such notions – what does it cost Gull for him to achieve this kind of clarity? In the hallucinatory final chapter of the epic (#14, in Volume 10), Gull achieves his godhood, as he whips back and forth in time, influencing serial killers in the 20th century, changing into a monster that frightens William Blake, and seeing the woman we presume is Mary Kelly in Ireland. It’s a magnificent piece of writing by Moore, tying the notion of divinity to madness more subtly than it’s usually done, and showing the humanity that Gull has left behind. He takes the entire journey while a nurse and a guard fuck in his cell. The coarseness of the real world is contrasted with the mystical voyage Gull is taking concurrently. Then we get to Mary Kelly, who has fled into anonymity and wants nothing to do with Gull. This ties back into the question of immortality.

It has been said before, and Moore makes the point, that Jack the Ripper granted these anonymous prostitutes a measure of immortality by killing them. In the chapter that most people cite as “boring,” Chapter 4 (Volume 2), Gull takes his coachman, John Netley, on a tour of London. To say this is boring is to completely miss the point, as Gull gives us a fascinating alternative history of the great city, while at the same time admitting his insanity openly. “And Gull the doctor says ‘Why, to converse with Gods is madness’,” he says. “And Gull, the man, replies, ‘Then who’d be sane?'” But we’re not concerned with his mental state, we’re concerned with his visions of immortality. He later tells Netley, “Averting Royal embarrassment is but the fraction of my work that’s visible above the waterline. The greater part’s an iceberg of significance that lurks below. Great works have MANY purposes. To aid Her Majesty’s but ONE … the rest are mine alone.” When he’s finished his tour and shows Netley that all the stops they made create a pentagram on the map of London, he says, “Your destiny’s inscribed upon the streets wherein you grew; upon the horse you ride each day, you CANNOT change your mind! Our story’s WRITTEN, Netley, inked in blood long dry … engraved in stone.” Gull’s idea of destiny ties back into Hinton’s idea of all time co-existing. Gull and his victims cannot escape their fate. Before he kills his first victim, Polly Nicholls, he tells her, “The Fates have brought us both towards the place, at the appointed time … whence our names shall go forth together into history.” Gull is aware that what he’s doing will resonate throughout history, but not quite in the way he expects. His grand mission is a sacrifice to assure man’s ascendancy over women, as he tells Netley on their journey. On page 30 of Chapter 4 (Volume 2), he tells his coachman, “Sometimes an act of social magic’s NECESSARY; man’s triumph over woman’s INSECURE, the dust of history not yet settled. Changing times erase the pattern that constrains society’s irrational, female side. … Our suffragettes demand that woman vote, and have equality! They’d drag us back to that primordial nursery, the rule of instinct and the tyranny of mother’s milk! We can’t have that.” Later, after he sketches the pentagram for Netley, on page 37, he says, “This pentacle of Sun Gods, obelisks and rational male fire, wherein unconsciousness, the Moon and Womanhood are chained. Its lines of power and meaning must be reinforced, according to the ancient ways … What BETTER sacrifice that ‘Heiros Gamos’? Than Diana’s priestesses?” The irony of Gull as Jack the Ripper is, that in granting these women immortality, he drives forward the cause of women. Moore doesn’t need to invent this irony; George Bernard Shaw pointed it out in a letter to the newspaper in September 1888. Moore makes reference to this letter (I can’t find it, though – sorry!), and shows how Gull’s obsessive desire to “chain Womanhood” failed utterly, because it signaled the end of an era when society could ignore the downtrodden easily. By focusing England’s gaze on the East End, the dead prostitutes become symbols of the Victorians’ neglect. Moore subtly shows how Gull’s murders may have made the women immortal, but because of that immortality, the Victorian Age could never been seen in the same light again. This is Gull’s legacy: we see the Victorians as hypocrites and oppressors, not only of people around the world, but of their own people. Whoever Jack the Ripper was, he exposed this “model” society as something very ugly. Moore making the killer a representative of the Crown simply reinforces this ugliness.

There is, of course, much more going on in From Hell than these two themes. I have barely touched upon the social criticism that Moore gets into, both of Victorian society and our own. Nor have I touched on the way Jack the Ripper continues to fascinate and what that says about us, which Moore gets into a bit in the epilogue to the book, “The Dance of the Gull Catchers” (Volume 11). The societal aspects would require the kind of research that, frankly, I don’t have time for. What we do see with these two themes, however, is an examination that has relevance to our own lives, especially with regard to the creation of fiction. The idea of immortality, even if a bit lofty for us, makes us think about what’s important in our lives. This is brought home by again visiting Gull’s vision of the woman in Ireland. If it’s Mary Kelly, then we have to consider what she thinks is important. The women who were murdered by Jack the Ripper became immortal, it’s true. Had they not been slaughtered so gruesomely and lived their mean lives in later nineteenth-century England, they would have been anonymous victims of a system that crushed those like them. However, as Mary Kelly makes clear, there are things in this world more important than immortality. Gull flees from this vision because he doesn’t understand the love of a parent for a child. He has lived his life constrained, bound by this morality that he believes leads to enlightenment. But he fails. His life’s work makes woman immortal and leaves him forgotten in an insane asylum. His final victim escaped and found her own form of enlightenment, and Gull fears, not the “irrationality” of women, but the notion that he has failed in his mission and even in his desire to understand the world. He doesn’t understand the world, and this makes his supposed triumph a complete failure. It’s a fascinating turn of events.

These two themes alone make From Hell a brilliant comic. That Moore brings in several other themes and still tells a gripping story makes this a masterpiece. I have not spoken about Campbell’s art because I wanted to focus on these two themes, but it adds a wonderful sense of gritty reality to Moore’s lofty themes. From Hell is, of course, collected in a trade paperback, and it’s an essential book. If you’ve only seen the movie, you owe it to yourself to buy this and read it. It’s a breathtaking experience.

As always, you can peruse the archives of other Comics You Should Own. If that’s your thing.

[As I noted, I deliberately did not focus on the art in this post, because I was writing about very specific things. Campbell, I would imagine, is an acquired taste, as his art is certainly not classically “beautiful,” but he’s usually great on everything he does (even if he probably wouldn’t be great drawing, say, Superman comics), and he’s great here. As I also noted, there’s a lot more to the book, but I didn’t want to go on too long. Recently – as in the collected edition just came out – IDW reprinted these, and Campbell colored them, so that might be something to take a look at. I love the black and white, but I’m sure Campbell did a great job. I should also point out Hallie Rubenhold’s book The Five: The Untold Lives of the Five Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, which I really want to read, because it sounds fascinating. From what I’ve read of it, Rubenhold takes issue with the description of the women as “whores” (among other things), and it sounds as if she did some excellent research on women in late Victorian times. Obviously, it doesn’t have much of an impact on this book, as – Moore reminds us – it’s all “made up,” but it still sounds brilliant. Anyway, you can find collected editions around – I linked to the most recent collection, the one with colors, but I imagine you can find the black and white collection if you poke around. It really is a masterpiece, but it takes a long time to read, especially if you dive into the endnotes. Yay, endnotes!]

9 Comments

  1. tomfitz1

    Mr. Burgas,

    I won’t go so far to say that FROM HELL is one of my favorite Alan Moore books to read. Considering the topic and story – it’s rather visceral and gruesome and brutal.

    I will say that I respect the work that Moore/Campbell put into it. How can you not?
    It is right up there among the WATCHMEN and PROMETHEA.

    I did not read the IDW colorized version. Not too sure if that would’ve improved the enjoyment of it.

  2. William Wilson

    To me it isn’t the Marilyn poster that is startling, but the fact Eric Morecombe is on the TV.

    Eddie Campbell said in the From Hell Companion, that in 20 years nobody had mentioned it, that surprised me immensely.

    1. Greg Burgas

      conrad: The movie gets so many things wrong, but Ian Holm is terrific. It’s definitely an easier thing to get through.

      As I noted, Campbell is an acquired taste. He really doesn’t work on some things, but I love his art here.

  3. Der

    I own this and didn’t enjoyed it when I read it.

    But that was for an unrelated reason: The book had a super strong smell like newspaper smell(think ink or something) for a long time and that smell gives me a big headache, but this book had this smell like ten times as strong as a newspaper and it lasted for like six months or even more.

    But still, yes, the art might be an acquired taste, but to me it was very good, it kinda bummed me that I didn’t knew that the book I got had some annotations, me love some notes(but I prefer footnotes, don’t make me jump to the end every page people! I wan’t the footnotes and I want them now!)

    I’m thinking of getting the “From Hell Companion” and doing a reading side by side now that the book doesn’t give me headaches, anyone has read the companion? Is it good?

    1. Greg Burgas

      Der: That’s very strange. Mine don’t and never did smell like that. I totally get it, though – occasionally I really like the way a comic smells, so I can imagine the opposite effect.

      I love the annotations, which were in the original issues, and I’m not sure if the “Companion” is just the endnotes from the original, perhaps updated a bit. I thought when it was offered for some reason I believed that it was just the endnotes, which is why I didn’t get it. Maybe I’m wrong.

      I like footnotes a lot more for that same reason, but I’m not sure how it would work in comics!

    2. William Wilson

      The From Hell Companion does not print Alan Moores annotations, so if that’s why you want it do not buy it.

      It’s really Eddie Campbells book, he reprints some of the original Alan Moore scripts, and than Campbell writes about his approach, art techniques and thoughts.

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