“Read a Damn Book – 118: From Hell”

And here we have another LOOOONG book, this time a graphic novel, which is more than 550 pages in length—and in addition to the nearly 500 comic book style pages, there are also around 50 pages of notes from the author, which give the historical and textual sources for this story. The reason the author thought this level of accountability was necessary isn’t entirely clear, but when writing a piece of historical fiction, it makes the tale more compelling when it is based on as much historical fact as possible. Alan Moore, who is not only one of the best storytellers alive today but also a ridiculously dedicated researcher, has built this “Jack the Ripper” tale on a VERY solid foundation—but more importantly, he’s also crafted one of the darkest and most disturbing stories that I’ve ever read.

from hell (2006) - (peg)

Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell – From Hell (1989 / 2006)

I’ve discussed Alan Moore a few different times, both for his own work (Watchmen, Promethea) and in conjunction with other people’s books (KLF: Chaos Magic Music Money,) and I hope that I’ve made it clear that I am a sincere fan of Moore’s storytelling ability and of his interesting take on magic / psychology. With those words of praise in mind, I’m going to be blunt: this book, From Hell, (which was originally serialized in the Taboo comics anthology starting in 1989) is disturbing, disgusting, and at times very difficult to read. I understand that we’re dealing with “true crime” here, and Moore doesn’t really take many liberties with the actual murder scenes, but—DAMN—whoever the Whitechapel murderer was, he (or she) was a sick human being. And it doesn’t help that Eddie Campbell’s artwork is so evocative, so fantastically good, that it made viewing several of the scenes not just cringe-worthy, but almost sickening. (Before we return to the story, let’s talk a bit about Campbell’s art.)

Eddie Campbell isn’t the most recognizable name in comics, but by the gods, he should be! I mainly know him from his Bacchus / Eyeball Kid stories (published by Dark Horse Comics back in the 1990s,) which were very weird and creepy and funny and grotesque—but in a good way! I loved the few books by Campbell that I managed to read—but it wasn’t that easy to FIND books by him, back when I was regularly buying comics. Anyway, THIS book, From Hell, is a black and white comic, and Campbell uses a scratchy, stylized line, which somehow manages to be both semi-abstract AND realistic at the same time. It’s almost like the drawings made from a courtroom, where no cameras are allowed, with Campbell recording essential details, but drawing quickly, so there’s a sketchy, almost messy feel to the work. However, Campbell can also be remarkably detailed, particularly when drawing street scenes and backgrounds. It’s a strange, compelling, emotional technique that works beautifully to convey the dark, gritty feel of the poorer parts of Victorian London… And there’s this perfectly executed sequence, which contrasts the life of the prostitutes of the Whitechapel district (drawn in dark, harsh, scratchy lines—extremely detailed, so that we catch all of the ugliness) with the posh life of the “killer,” who lives in a much nicer part of town (and these scenes are painted in soft, gray-toned, watercolor strokes, giving the atmosphere a nicer, more dream-like feel. Practically idyllic, compared to the prostitutes’ ugly existence.) Campbell understands tone and texture and detail in a way that FEW artists (comic or fine) ever will, and he exploits our perceptions to help craft and manipulate the mood and atmosphere of this work. It’s truly brilliant—even when what he’s illustrating is a mad man carving a hunk of flesh off a woman’s thigh, and we can see the weight of the meat, the elasticity of the skin and muscle… It’s haunting and disgusting and unbelievably effective.

So what do we actually get with this story, beyond brilliant artwork and historically accurate murder scenes? Perhaps a good way to discuss the book would be to contrast it with, say, a film about Jack the Ripper… In 2001, the Hughes Brothers released a feature film version of From Hell, starring Johnny Depp, Heather Graham, Robbie Coltrane (Hagrid!), and Ian Holm—and I watched the movie several years before I’d read the graphic novel, and I thought this was a fun, entertaining who-done-it. In the film, Depp plays Inspector Abberline, a cop who has prophetic dreams when he smokes too much opium, (this element was not in the book,) and we see Depp running around, trying to find out who the murderer is, while, as luck would have it, he is thrust into a troubled romance with Mary Kelly (played by Heather Graham,) all the while getting advice about the investigation from kindly Dr. Gull (played by Ian Holm,) who we eventually find out, in the last twenty minutes of the film, is the Ripper. (Coltrane plays Officer Godley, the Watson to Depp’s pseudo-Sherlock Holms.) It’s a dark but fun Hollywoodized treatment of the Whitechapel murders—but now that I’ve read the graphic novel, I don’t see where the movie really has much in common with the book.

In contrast to the film version, (which I have to admit, I did find enjoyable,) we know right from the very beginning of Moore’s story that William Gull is going to be the killer. Moore isn’t writing a who-done-it / romance / Hollywood blockbuster, and Moore isn’t even bothering to write another story asking the pointless question: WHO IS JACK THE RIPPER? (We’ll probably never know for certain.) What Moore HAS written is something more interesting, which tackles a more chilling question: WHY DID THE KILLER DO THIS? Dr. Gull, in Moore’s story, is clearly mad—he’s a sociopathic serial killer—but he’s also intelligent, inquisitive, and even sympathetic as a person. (It’s common for serial killers to be charming.) What he’s DOING isn’t as simple as a thrill-kill rush. It’s much more complicated than that.

Gull, as Moore envisions him, is a complex, compelling, frightening, and fascinating character, and his exposition, (he is constantly regaling his unwilling assistant, Netley, with historical facts, theories, and magical conceptions,) and his explanations for WHY he’s doing everything that he does are incredibly interesting. It doesn’t make WHAT he’s doing less horrible, but the story is breathtakingly intriguing. (If I wasn’t such a slow reader, I would have liked to read the book another time before writing this review. As it is, I’m CERTAIN that I’ll read the story again—as soon as I forget some of the more stomach lurching elements…)

Which brings us to the WARNING section of the review… This book is NOT for the kiddies. For one thing, it has some desperately pornographic scenes, which go beyond suggestive into full X-rated territory. The story is ABOUT prostitutes, so if you didn’t think there were going to be any scenes of the women at work, then you greatly misjudged the creators of this story. Part of what these scenes do (aside from making a prude like me uncomfortable) is show how wretched, how demeaning, and how desperate the lives of these women were. You can’t help but feel sorry for them—and be a bit disgusted at the same time. This isn’t Hollywood love-making, either, with soft music playing and slow camera pans, and petroleum jelly on the lens to make things appear soft and dream-like—this is gross, ugly, hardcore prostitution.

Next: This is the most disturbing depiction of violence that I have ever seen in a comic. Period. One hundred percent. This isn’t just “Pow! Pow!” and a few characters go down or a bloody knife—this is frame by frame carving bodies up, in full, gory, anatomical detail. Campbell, as I said, is especially gifted at making these scenes appear plausible, and some of the violence is literally nauseating. The fact that Moore is drawing from crime scene reports—meaning that this is what REALLY happened to these women—makes it much, MUCH worse. Not for the faint of heart; not for anyone with a sickly stomach; not for anyone with empathy… Brutal, disturbing, sick.

Last warning, the tale is also peppered, throughout, with culturally insensitive language (and is undoubtedly an accurate account of the social conceptions of the time.) The language and attitudes are often racially intolerant and exceedingly demeaning to women, and LGBTQ concepts are treated almost entirely with contempt, as they would have been in Victorian England. Oddly enough, the one character who shows remarkable tolerance is Dr. Gull, who in a couple of scenes goes to visit Joseph Merrick, the so-called “Elephant Man,” to whom Dr. Gull is always kind and who Gull treats as very human, despite Merrick’s physical appearance.

To wrap this all up, whether you are a history buff, a fan of true crime, a fan of serial killers, a conspiracy collector, or are interested in the psychology of magic (or the magic of psychology), this book is going to have a lot for you to chew on. Even if you don’t give a fig about any of that stuff and just love HORROR stories, (maybe you’re a fan of Clive Barker movies,) this book will definitely appeal to you. AND for those who are interested in historical research, Moore gives a master class in the notes section on evaluating sources for reliability and usefulness, and I’d actually like to see this book on more grad level research course syllabi. (When I took Research 596, we didn’t TOUCH this book! But we should have, as I would have found the class much more enjoyable…) As I hope I made clear above, do NOT read this book if you are sensitive to violence, gore, sexual content, or demeaning and hurtful language and attitudes towards social or cultural minorities. But if you think you’re tough enough, From Hell is a brilliant tale—but it ain’t an easy book to read. Completely worth the effort, but definitely a challenge!

—Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Supreme Bunny Lord of The P.E.W.)

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About richardfyates

Compulsive creator of the bizarre and absurd. (Artist, writer, poet, provocateur...)
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