Though his brilliant superhero meditation Watchmen is what he’ll always and forever be most remembered for, From Hell may well be Alan Moore’s true magnum opus. This may be thanks in part to its mammoth size – hundreds and hundreds of pages of black and white comic canvassing every corner of Victorian London and encompassing everything from psychogeography to mysticism to ritual murder to Masonic tribunals. It’s among the most ambitious things ever done in comics, but what makes From Hell a masterpiece is something that goes deeper. With a mountain of research into the Jack the Ripper murders – some legitimate, some absolute hokum – at his back and a blank page of possibility in front of him, Moore composed something far beyond a speculative crime story. He wrote the future into existence, and even before his public declarations of wizardry, became the comic book world’s resident sorcerer.
Two men are walking the dingy landscape of Victorian London. One is a working class inspector on the hunt for the man who’s been cutting up prostitutes in the Whitechapel neighborhood. The other is a lordly royal doctor, doing the bidding of his masters by eviscerating a quintet of women who saw something they shouldn’t have seen.
From Hell takes it name from the heading of one of the infamous “Ripper letters” sent by the killer to investigators as the crimes were taking place, and Moore bases his story on the theory that Sir William Withey Gull, one of Queen Victoria’s personal physicians, carried out the murders on the royal family’s behalf to cover up a marriage between a royal and a commoner that all five victims – Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Kelly – witnessed.
Gull enlists his dim-witted carriage driver Netley in his plots, and sets to work with his sharpest surgical knives. Each of the canonical five Ripper murders is depicted in detail in From Hell (the final and most brutal one, Mary Kelly’s, takes up an entire chapter), and as Gull progresses through his dark deeds, it becomes clear that he’s doing much more than the Queen’s commands.
Using a host of magical, philosophical and even scientific theories, Moore transforms Gull’s killings into a ritual with the city of London itself as the altar. Gull is either slowly going mad or slumping toward some unheard of enlightenment with every slice of his blade. By the end he seems literally poised to change the world with blood, and beside a whore’s bed he takes himself to the future in a haze of gore.
All the while, Inspector Frederick Abberline walks the streets of London, viewing a crumbling, distressed society gripped with fear and wondering how he can not only solve the crime, but solve the world.
What makes the brutality and visceral impact of From Hell all the more remarkable is that it’s done entirely in black and white. It’s a testament to the primal artistic power of Eddie Campbell that it all works. His images or a contradictory mass of controlled, smoothly constructed figures surrounded by chaotic penstrokes. It’s light and dark, chaos and order, all in a single frame, and then again in every other frame. It’s the perfect complement for Moore’s work, perhaps the best complement he’s ever found in three decades of writing.
Though it’s by no means a true account of the Ripper story, From Hell manages to transcend its fantastic elements to become something of raw and very real importance in the comic book world. It’s not only a testament to how far down the rabbit hole a comic can go, but a testament to how far one writer can take a universally known story and warp it into something transcendent and sensuous and overwhelming. I’m always surprised by how many comics fans admit to never having read From Hell. It’s a vital, landmark work of the medium, and if you’ve read it you know why. If you’ve read it, you’re peering into every shadow looking for a spell.