From Hell

From Hell

Where to start talking about From Hell? Perhaps a hint is given in one of the quotes that open this almost 600-page tome. As Charles Fort said, “One measures a circle, beginning anywhere.” And that’s what writer Alan Moore seeks to create, a work that circles on itself, using a proposed solution for the mystery of the Jack the Ripper murders to portray, as Warren Ellis put it, “the birth of the 20th century”.

Like so many Alan Moore books, the plot description — Jack the Ripper butchers prostitutes in Victorian London to cover up a royal indiscretion — is the least part of the book. Moore’s really exploring the mind of a serial killer (the world’s best-known, at that) and what brings about a violent change in society. The key line of the prologue, as two gentlemen talk about fake visions, is, “I made it all up, and it all came true anyway.” That seems to be something of a credo for Moore, and it’s emphasized by the way the speaker stares out of the panel at us.

Speaking of which, Eddie Campbell‘s art is scratchy and mysterious, just like the subject matter. Everything looks grimy, as lower-class London would have. Sometimes what you’re seeing is a bit unclear, until with more attention it resolves itself, mimicking the thought process needed for the book as a whole, but the storytelling is always top-notch. The inky black areas suggest the mystery of the unknown and what might be lurking out there in the dark.

From Hell

Pages of annotations demonstrate the depth of the research that went into this work. It tells of forbidden sex, royal bastards, family secrets, religion, history, occult sacrifice, Freemasonry, class distinction, London architecture, the few choices available to women, and madness. As might be expected from that list, it’s dense and multi-layered, rewarding those who are willing to enter into it looking for connections. It’s a disturbing, haunting book, and an astounding achievement.

Greg Burgas has written about the book’s themes in more depth. I haven’t seen the movie version so I can’t say how it compares, but it couldn’t be as dense as this book.


  • “An astounding achievement.”

    I’ll second that; I continue to believe From Hell is the most ambitious and best use of the graphic novel form to date. No matter how many times I read it, I always find something new. It’s a wonder to behold, both a fantastically gripping story and a turn-your-brain inside-out rethinking of how to create comics.

  • John

    I think From Hell is one of the best novels I’ve ever read PERIOD. An important work.

    By the way, skip the movie. It’s horrible. I could forgive it if it merely condensed the book, but they change many key points, rework characters to make them sexy, and entirely change the ending to happy one! It’s offensive.

  • The movie is all right if you approach it the same way I approached Constantine. Entertaining enough, but it has almost nothing to do with the original source material. So try not to compare the two, because the movie looks like a pale ghost in comparison.

    I keep hoping, in this new era of comic book respectability, that someone at the BBC might take From Hell and do a proper mini-series. But given Moore’s attitude these days, I kind of doubt it.

    I haven’t read From Hell in years. Time to pick it up again this weekend, I think.

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