The character of Jack the Ripper has appeared throughout many comic books and graphic novels. Having much the same appeal in comics as in films and novels, Jack has been a favorite symbol for evil and violence. Rarely does his comic incarnation include anything like social or class struggles. Finally, however, we can take great joy in the appearance of what can only be called the DEFINITIVE Jack the Ripper graphic novel with the ongoing publication of Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's FROM HELL series.
Originally serialized in Tundra's anthology, TABOO, FROM HELL quickly garnered both critical and popular acclaim. Organized as a series of sixteen chapters, the first group was collected into prestige format graphic novels. With the demise of Tundra as a publisher and the end of TABOO, Kitchen Sink opted to continue the series as separate volumes. The result being that we are now seeing issues which contain new material not originally published in TABOO. A little over halfway through, FROM HELL has extinguished itself as a model of excellent writing and art that not only provides an incredible story but pushes back the boundaries of modern graphic storytelling.
For his primary foundation, Moore has chosen the conspiracy theory best popularized by Stephen Knight. Basically, it involves Prince Eddy's secret marriage to Annie Crook, a Catholic girl, and the daughter they produce. Upon hearing of this, Queen Victoria turns to her loyal physician, Sir William Gull, to put an end to the matter. Eddy is removed from the scene and Annie is kidnaped to a hospital where Gull performs brain operations to effectively silence her tongue. The child escapes with it's governess, Mary Kelly.
Next begins a series of movements, resembling a ballet, where Mary Kelly and her other prostitute friends need money to pay a protection racket and decide to blackmail the government over their knowledge of Eddy's indiscretion. Gull is again called to action and plans the murders according to Masonic ritual with the help of coachman John Knightly. As the murders progress, the characters move along towards their unavoidable doom and Gull fulfills his fiendish plan.
What makes FROM HELL so remarkable is it's richly layered and highly researched text. This is not some slapdash effort where victims are misidentified with facts either forgotten or completely contradicted. Moore has slavishly poured through an incredible amount of Ripper literature including biographies of major (and minor) characters and non-fiction accounts of Victorian living conditions as well as historical and mystical matters. Through all of this, Moore has managed to weave an incredible tale that amazes, delights, and horrifies. To back it all up, each volume includes a meticulous afterword that itemizes where each idea or episode comes from. Much of the personal interaction and relationships are devised by Moore based on documented evidence and his own inference. For instance, where the evidence states that there was an argument between Mary Kelly and her live-in boyfriend, Moore adds the dialogue and underlying themes to the fight as well as providing a glimpse at a woman who knows that powerful forces are aligning themselves against her.
It is the first few chapters that are the most startling and compelling. The prologue begins with a retired Frederick Abberline walking along the sea coast with the psychic, Robert Lees. Several astonishing (and thoroughly plausible) revelations are either brought out or hinted about as the two discuss the horrible year of 1888. While fascinating and compelling, it is a mere taste of what is to come with the second chapter which focuses entirely on Sir William Gull.
Gull is a shadowy figure in most Ripper literature. His motivations are generally vague and impossible to determine. Primarily, he has been described as the chief mover behind the murder/conspiracy with strong Masonic motivations. But little is given of his mentality, his thought processes, or history. He is a dark canvas upon which the vague outline of the Ripper is painted. In FROM HELL, Gull comes vibrantly, horribly alive.
The Gull chapter takes the character through his early life to the point where he is about to operate on Annie Crook. In a masterstroke of writing, the reader views Gull's life through his own eyes. The reader lives the experience and begins to think like Gull. It is not until the final panel when Annie opens her eyes on the operating table that we finally see Gull himself and, by then, we are well and truly convinced that he is utterly mad.
Much of the character's madness comes from his way of thinking. His desire to discover the one true task that God has devised for him. Gull will eventually conclude that the murder of the prostitutes as a Masonic warning is his one true task. Along the way, we get glimpses of his single mindedness and lack of human feeling or sympathy. Life, to Gull, is simply something to be endured as we go on with our tasks. The single, most powerful image in the early chapters is the vision that Gull receives during his stroke. Falling to one knee, in a supplicant position, Gull sees a vision of the Masonic god, Jubelah. His longing for this god and desire to serve overwhelms him mentally and physically. By the time the Eddy crisis arises, he is well prepared to become a useful tool for his god. This is a level of characterization in Gull that has never been seen before. True, Moore takes liberties with Gull but they are all based on documented instances of Gull's life taken from the two primary Gull biographies. He combines these facts with the gift of a master storyteller to breathe an unholy life into Gull and a purpose behind the atrocious slaughter.
Compared to Gull, most of the rest of the cast is removed to a supporting position. Sickert becomes a pitiable, ineffective man who cannot stop events from spiraling beyond his control. Eddy, appearing more intelligent than most theories gives him, is a sad, weak fool who is lost in his search for love and understanding. Fred Abberline is a tired policeman confused and frustrated by his inability to get at the truth. Robert Lees is a charlatan whom, the text intimates, implicates Gull over an insult that Gull would probably not even remember uttering. The women, however, are more powerful in their imagery if not in their character.
The first victims are given little chance for characterization. The entire plot of FROM HELL (as with most of the conspiracy theories) moves along to the more important victim, Mary Kelly, and barely delves into these lost souls at all. This, however, actually serves to strengthen their impression upon their reader. Given as denizens of the street, we are left with the feeling that there are thousands more like Catherine Eddowes, Annie Chapman, Liz Stride, and Polly Nichols. They are the perennial victims of an unnoticing society and their relative anonymity only adds to their symbolism.
Annie Crook appears only briefly and, other than giving the impression that she is an intelligent woman who actually loves Eddy, is not a powerful figure. Should she appear in upcoming issues where her current state of mental incapacitation is shown, she will gain more power as a tragic figure. Queen Victoria is the picture of the stern monarch, intent upon keeping any scandal at bay. She prefers not to know the method, only the successful outcome, of the elimination of the potential embarrassment. She is England; stern, inflexible, and paranoid. When she questions Gull about the severity of the murders, he answers that it was necessary in order to send a warning to the Order of the Golden Dawn which has split off from proper Masonry. Satisfied that this has warded off another threat to the monarchy, she approves Gulls actions.
By far, the most complex and tragic female figure is that of Mary Kelly. She is the hub in the wheel from which the spokes of the story emanate. It is through her connection to Sickert that Eddy meets Annie and it is she who saves the child from the Queen's raid. Again, it is Mary who is compelled to blackmail the government for money and it is her friends who also pay the price. Mary begins as an artist's model with pretensions towards high society but falls into poverty and prostitution which eventually leads to her death. Mary is the helpless victim caught in a tide beyond her control. She can neither defeat nor withstand the forces against her and it is her realization of this which gives the character true irony.
There is absolutely nothing of a factual nature that can be held against FROM HELL. Being a work of fiction, it is not completely held to the truth but Moore sustains the high level of factual evidence mixed with imagination. It is a stupendous achievement and one that shows finally and definitively how to write a Ripper novel. Anything that comes after this will appear merely shallow and derivative. Even though we, as readers, know much of what is to come, each page is a marvel and surprise.
Complimenting Moore's script is the art of Eddy Campbell. Well known within the comic field for his excellent work (particularly on the "Eyeball Kid" and "Deadface" series), Campbell brings a unique visual style to FROM HELL. At first, the art may appear sketchy and half-formed, but it quickly gels into a coherent whole which aptly depicts the sketchy and half-formed existence of the London of 1888. Campbell has also done his homework with the many characters closely resembling their real-life counterparts. In some cases, his depictions are so close, it is possible to even identify the photos he used as reference.
Campbell's art is as stark and unyielding as Moore's script. Both depict the sex and violence as integral parts of life and death in Victorian England and portray them with a stark blandness that neither titillates or teases. It is shown as part of normal existence and is neither hidden nor apologized for. The art enhances the tension and rhythm of the story by providing a calm counterpoint to the chaotic conspiracies running through the script. It soon becomes evident that no other artist could compliment the story as well as Campbell. His art (minimal at times, expansive at others) speaks volumes about the characters and events by itself. Coupled with Moore's script, it is an explosive combination.
FROM HELL is, by far, the best graphic (or fictional) treatment of the Ripper case ever produced. The characterizations are absolutely perfect and the story moves along at a breakneck pace. Still, it may not be for all readers. As mentioned, the sex and violence are bluntly displayed. No attempt at concealment or apologies are made. The reader is privy to everything of interest that happens to these characters and, during the autopsy and coroner's inquest scenes, the victims are as nakedly exposed to the reader as they were to the doctors. It is, at times, difficult to read due to it's emotional impact. But, if the reader is willing to enter with an open mind and understanding that life in the slums of Victorian London was actually even worse than depicted, a great deal of enjoyment and edification can be gained from it.
Editor's Note: From Hell is soon to be released as a major motion picture starring Johnny Depp and Heather Graham. Release date currently expected to be September 2001.