Novel November

From Hell

by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell

Reading Review by Michael Channing

From Hell by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell

I've seen From Hell described as “Alan Moore's other masterpiece,” and I wholeheartedly agree. His most well-known graphic novel, of course, is Watchmen, a deconstruction of the comic book super hero genre, often referred to as the first serious and/or adult super hero comic book as well as the single comic that set forth the chain of events that has led us to the gritty, dimly-lit, near-apocalyptic condition of modern super heroes. From Hell, telling a fictionalized version of the Jack the Ripper story, takes place in a slum of Victorian London, and Watchmen is set in an alternate history where costumed heroes (along with the almost all-powerful Dr. Manhattan) directly sway world politics and events. These two graphic novels, however distant in setting and time, are structurally and thematically similar.

Both are driven by murder. The events of Watchmen are set into motion by the murder of The Comedian, a retired hero with a long list of enemies with plenty of reasons to toss him off a balcony. From Hell actually begins with a birth. Prince Eddy sires a daughter with a commoner. The girl is hidden away, and the mother is sentenced to an insane asylum, after the royal surgeon permanently impairs her. Scandal averted. But a group of prostitutes, friends of the secret heir's mother, try to blackmail the royal family to raise money to pay off a group of thugs who are extorting them. So on the order of Queen Victoria herself, the royal surgeon William Gull systematically murders the prostitutes to cover up the existence of the royal heir. The press invents the bogey man Jack the Ripper, the police turn a blind eye, and five women are brutally killed.

While From Hell reveals Jack the Ripper's actual identity and motive within the first twenty or thirty pages, Watchmen keeps its secrets close to the chest. If you have not read Watchmen, then you might want to come back after doing so. I would hate to ruin any of the surprises Watchmen might hold for you, and I envy you just a little bit. You're about to read Watchmen for the first time. But if you haven't read it, and you still want to proceed, do step carefully, because from here on out, there be spoilers.

The murders in both Watchmen and From Hell are perpetrated by men who feel they are benefiting the greater good of humanity. William Gull is acting on behalf of the crown to avoid embarrassment and hide the knowledge of an heir born to a commoner, but he also has grander reasons for his crimes. To him, the murders are a mystic rite to ensure the domination of men over women. He has some issues. In one long chapter (which I found incredibly boring on first read but tolerable on the second) he takes his murder assistant on a tour of magic-imbued locations and memorials around London, explaining their significance to England and to his own cause. During his killing spree, Gull has increasingly intense visions of modern London. After one of his murders, he sees a man through a window in a modern apartment watching television. The fact that Gull couldn't possibly imagine a television set on his own seems to say that his vision is more than a hallucination, that it's an actual visitation, a doorway between two times. In fact, the man in the room reacts to Gull's presence. The idea seems to be that Gull's acts are having an effect on the future, perhaps even giving birth to modern times. The book makes the concerted effort to illustrate that the killings begin at the same instant of Hitler's conception. Do Gull's ritualistic killings have a hand in the formation of Hitler's sadistic, power-hungry mentality? Do the killings of five women lead directly to the slaughter of millions of Jews? What exactly does Gull set into motion, and is it due to his mystic leanings or to the fact that the murders were ordered by the crown and therefore, by proxy, England itself? If England is complicit in the mutilations and cover-ups, are the World Wars some sort of cosmic payback, or do the Whitechapel killings set precedent for the decades of blood that follow? You thought you were going to read about a serial killer, maybe get a thrilling whodunit and police procedural. Didn't know you were wading into a sea of magic rituals and philosophical questions, did you? Welcome to Alan Moore.

While the murders in From Hell can only be tentatively linked to the formation of the 20th century, the mass slaughter in Watchmen leads directly to world peace, or at least peace between the U. S. and Russia. (Those are the only two countries that count, right?) The protagonists of both books discover the perpetrators and their motives but are unable to reveal them due to the plots being just too big for the public to grasp. What does this say about history? That our future is being secretly molded by madmen slaughtering their way through innocent people in service of some dogma they've constructed out of the wash of voices in their heads? That's frightening. I'm fine believing our actions have immediate consequences, that we all add our fluttering to the butterfly effect that is constantly shaping the universe. But damn, do the merciless have a heavier hand in carving out our karma? I so very much hope not.

Putting aside the disturbing motivations (both magical and secular) for the Ripper killings and the killings themselves, From Hell is a fascinating examination of everyday life in the poverty-stricken neighborhoods of London's East End. We see the dirt, the disease, the desolation of street life. One detail that sticks in my mind is a boarding house that, if you're unable to afford an actual room, will rent you space on a bench. You sit hip to hip with fellow “boarders,” the proprietor strings a rope from wall to wall across everyone's chest, and you fall asleep leaning forward against the rope. In the morning, the house owner removes the rope, and you tumble along with everyone else to a jumbled awakening on the floor. Life as a prostitute means the women have to deal with violence and rape from their customers, corruption and disregard from the police, and disdain from the upper classes. Moore has done his research, and he and Campbell capture street life in all its ugliness. Even if you discount the theory of royal involvement, you come away from the book with a human picture of the Ripper's victims. They're no longer just names in a history book or Wikipedia page. They're real women who suffered, struggled, and rolled as best they could with the relentless punches society threw at them. There are hundreds of examples of Ripper fiction like this, and they usually serve the same purposes: to illuminate and hold accountable a killer who in real life was never caught and to examine and possibly celebrate the lives of five women who never got the justice they deserved.

Let me give you this warning about From Hell. It is a comic book full of very gory illustrations. It also contains several scenes of hardcore sex. I'm not suggesting that you are prudish about such things, but it may be that others around you are. When I first read this book, I was not prepared for the nudity and sex. I took it to work and read it in the break room. Having gotten up at 4:00 am that morning, I was exhausted at lunchtime, so I kept dozing off with a book in front of me open to what looked like straight-up pornography. I would drift up from sleep, see the pages through glassy eyes and think, “I'm going to get fired for this. But I have to finish this page.” Then I'd fall back asleep again. I don't know if anyone saw the book and took offense, but I wasn't fired. The plant, however, did close down and move to Mexico. Coincidence?

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