It could probably be argued that the choice of title for this enormous graphic novel was asking for trouble – the project ended up taking Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell 10 years to see it through to fruition. However, it’s actually a reference to one of the letters the Victorian serial killer Jack the Ripper wrote to the police during his five-victim killing spree across London’s East End. The writer of the letter claims to be sending the note ‘From Hell’. And in this version of events, it’s hard to place the soul of the Ripper in a more apt location.
Moore has written a 600-page masterpiece. Despite promising nothing more than a fiction based on the Ripper case, a staggering amount of research has gone into the book, following the conspiracy theory that the mysterious killer was Sir William Gull, Queen Victoria’s family doctor. Sent on a quest to dispose of a group of Whitechapel prostitutes who try to earn a little extra money by blackmailing Prince Albert (Victoria’s grandson), who has been philandering in the area with the help of a local artist, Gull decides that a grand statement is required, sparking off the horrific mystery. It’s as good a theory as any, in a case that looks like it’ll almost certainly never be solved.
Campbell’s monochrome artwork on the story is typical of his style but perfectly suited to the dark, gas-lit streets of Victorian London. His characters look suitably upright or downtrodden – depending on their social standing – while his locales are grimy, urban and detailed where necessary. There’s an evocation of the period here and Campbell’s work is perfect to pull you into the pea-soup fog and grimy poverty.
The story presented here is no murder mystery. The evidence is laid out on a plate for the reader to chew over. The last murder in particular is handled in such severe graphic detail, from the strokes of the knife to the bizarre visions passing through the Ripper’s mind, that you’re positively thankful for the slight disassociation the black and white images provide from the gore.
This is horror at its most disturbing, partly because it’s based on a true series of crimes and partly because of the complete disregard the ruling classes have for their socially inferior neighbours. You certainly wouldn’t want to take this as a definitive version of events – Moore has commented in interviews that this is most definitely a fiction based on a theory – but little has been written about the Ripper that is quite as compelling, going quite as far to delve into the mind of the murderer, as From Hell.