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From Hell
Official Site
by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell
Paddington: Eddie Campbell Comics, 1989/1999.
476 pp., $35.00
Reviewed by Reed Oliver


From Hell. Such a lovely title for a lovely graphic novel, and far too appropriate. If you heard of From Hell previous to it being optioned by the Hughes Brothers (yes, the Hughes Brothers who directed Menace 2 Society and American Pimp) or attracting Johnny Depp’s attention, you probably already know. You should have read it as soon as you heard of this marvel and before all the hubbub started about it becoming “A Major Motion Picture in 2001!” as the cover of my copy informs me.

If you don’t know, then I should start off by telling you that From Hell is a “graphic novel,” a somewhat pretentious name for a comic book not intended for youngsters. Youngsters should be kept as far away from this graphic novel as possible. The basics of the story are familiar to most of us: Jack the Ripper gruesomely slaughters several whores in one of the grimmer districts of London in the late 1880s. That is where the familiarity ends for all but the most ardent Ripperologist.

Artist Eddie Campbell, critically acclaimed for his own mythologically based comic Bacchus, creates a grim world of black and white, with just a touch of shading. The world of late 19th century London (and a few other parts of the world) comes alive in ways both wonderful and disturbing, to the point where you can almost smell the stench of Whitechapel, the district of London where the Ripper murders took place. It is Campbell’s art that probably inspired the Hughes Brothers, among others, to take From Hell to the silver screen. The scenes of the actual killings strike home because the stark black and white keeps them and us from becoming numb, drowning in red blood, though I do not deny the risk of nausea when beholding the Ripper at work. The accuracy and complexity of the drawings can lead to confusion, however. At several points I found myself flipping pages back and forth, trying to determine who a character was or what exactly was happening in a scene. Lack of clear character identifiers and richly detailed panels, while realistic, at times confused the issues they intended to clarify.

Of course, some of that must be attributed to Alan Moore’s writing style. Don’t get me wrong, I love Moore, from Swamp Thing to Watchmen and beyond, but part of the Alan Moore mystique is that things sometimes get so complex and convoluted that they must be reviewed and contemplated before they make any sense. The Prologue and first couple of chapters may fall into that category for some readers, since they don’t at first appear to reveal anything about the Ripper murders (or Whitechapel murders, as Moore calls them). Moore lays a lot of groundwork, all of it interesting in its own right if one is not too eager to get to the bloody bits, and he has no hesitation to repeat himself, or have his characters repeat themselves, if it aids his characterization or the mood of the scene.

From Hell starts off with a scene of elderly men discussing the sins of their pasts, lightens up for a brief spell, then starts its slow, inexorable descent into where else? JFK assassination and Illuminatus Trilogy conspiracy fans are in for a treat with this story of how the British Royal Family, the police, blackmail, psychics, artists, gays, whores (of course) and most importantly Freemasons all played a role in the brutal killings. Moore weaves a magic web from the mythology and madness of the killer that allows us to see the inner workings of the Ripper’s mind. Frightening indeed, but tempered by the warm and sometimes humorous portrayals of the various characters, cops and whores alike, who populate Whitechapel and the murder investigation.

From Hell should not be read when you’re looking for fun or just an exciting distraction. This graphic novel demands your attention, memory, and emotions beyond the range of average or even most above-average literature. The appendices, textual and illustrated, are 42 and 24 pages long respectively, and I’d be surprised if at least one in ten of you isn’t tempted to delve deeper into the Ripper story by reading Moore’s thorough documentation of the sources of each page depicted in From Hell. Is this one for you? If you want a top-notch story with excellent art that expects you to work for it a little, From Hell should top your list. Read it before you see Johnny Depp play the good Inspector Abberline. Don’t you owe yourself that much?


Mike Doughty



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