Originally appearing in Steve Bissette’s glorious horror anthology Taboo in 1989 before being completed at a number of publishers before existing today in a telephone directory-sized book, From Hell is Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s magnum opus. For me, this is Moore’s finest work, which is praising the book highly without any hyperbole at all as this isn’t an ordinary tale of Jack the Ripper tale with foggy Victorian London streets and busted women tottering down cobbled streets singing “The Bells of St Clements” in a gin-soaked voice before Saucy Jack comes out of the shadows to slit their throats.
From Hell instead is a study of evil, violence, sexism, social and economic politics of the late 19th century, and magic – lots and lots about magic. It’s a dense, often enlightening, and informative book which marks as a starting point for Stephen Knight’s 1976 book, Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution. The idea of that book was that the five murdered women in 1888 were killed to hide a secret marriage between Prince Albert Victor, second in line to the British throne, and a working class girl, Annie Crook. Four of the five murdered women were trying to blackmail the British establishment, who then employed Sir William Gull, Queen Victoria’s private doctor, to murder the women to keep them quiet. A fifth woman, Catherine Eddowes, was murdered by mistake. Throw in the Freemasons, a homosexual brothel (homosexuality was still treated as a mental illness in 1888) and a whole load of other tasty titbits which form a chunky, tantalising conspiracy theory.
From the outset, Moore makes it clear what he thinks personally via the incredibly in-depth appendixes, that this is bollocks. There is, however, something to be told about William Gull, and of course the five murdered women who in so much Ripper lore were dehumanised to just being ‘murdered prostitutes’. Moore and Campbell don’t flinch in showing us the grim, hellish life of working class sex workers in the 19th century and the poverty the East End of London was trapped in at the time. No twee cereal cafés in this East End; just grinding, often fatal poverty.
Class also drives Moore on here. The contrasts between Gull and Prince Albert’s lives and those of the murdered women are often clearly played against each other, which is of course part of the plot as the women have to be poor and desperate enough to blackmail the biggest imperial power this planet has ever seen. There’s much to be said in regards the magical aspects of From Hell (the splendid John Higgs book, The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band Who Burned a Million Pounds is a great place to start in that regards) but for me, I’m drawn to the book as a commentary on the class and politics of the time which should have died a death in the 19th century; but the tendrils of privilege, class and creating inequality to benefit the wealthy via enforced governmental poverty is still relevant today, 120 or so years after the Jack the Ripper murders.
The spine of From Hell is the conspiracy story and of course the murders, often depicted in scratchy, horror by Eddie Campbell, and indeed, strip all the other stuff Moore’s thrown in then you just end up with the vapid film starring Johnny Depp. From Hell as a comic is much more than just a murder mystery. As an exploration of evil the book stands with the likes of Maus in exploring just what makes an act or person ‘evil’ enough to commit the violence in these pages.
Then there’s also how Moore used the book to set up the 20th century and beyond; so Hitler’s birth is in here, as are Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, though there’s one page of men writing letters to various newspapers detailing in misogynist gleeful fashion how they’d like to slice women up while their family sit in the next room, which can easily be the precursor of today’s abuse people have to take on the likes of Twitter. This is a book you can go back to after a decade (as I did for this piece here) and find new things, though every time I read it what drives me is how much of what is depicted here still finds a home in 2016. When I was writing this the BBC news was talking of a murder of a woman, Becky Godden, here in Bristol where I am at the minute. They didn’t lead with ‘woman killed,’ but the ‘murdered prostitute’. If you type ‘prostitute’ in the search function of the BBC you’ll get this piece. This attitude of seeing women working as prostitutes not as ‘normal’, but lesser people, is still around. That attitude which has seen the five victims of Jack the Ripper not as living breathing women in their own rights, but clues in a bigger picture, or as women who brought it upon themselves and all that misogynist bullshit is still there.
If I’m making From Hell sound like hard work then I need to make clear it isn’t. It’s a lengthy, often academic work, but Moore and Campbell infect the entire thing with humanity, even humour in places, that once finished shows the possibilities of the medium and why works like From Hell should remain comics and not film, as this only works as a comic. So if you’re a Jack the Ripper enthusiast who hasn’t read this, do so. If you’re any sort of fan of comics this is one of the essential titles every comic fan should read, and if you just want a stunningly realised work of art then this is for you.