Published in the 1990s, From Hell has become a classic in the world of graphic novels. It’s easy to see why --- this 572-page tome is as thick, thoughtful, and literary as any novel, and takes away any stigma that comics are “just light reading.”
From Hell tells a story about Jack the Ripper that mixes fact, theory, and outright fiction. Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell took an already existing --- if mostly dismissed --- conspiracy theory and wrote this graphic novel as if it were fact. One doesn’t have any need to believe the theory, and, in fact, there is a detailed appendix in the book that often casts doubt on the theory used. This graphic novel is to be read as fiction, a very inspired, very dark sort of fiction.
Queen Victoria’s grandson Prince Albert Victor has an affair with a poor Catholic girl that results in an illegitimate child. The Queen is not pleased. Prince Albert Victor’s lover is locked up in an insane asylum, but even this doesn’t blow everything over, because a prostitute who knew the girl gets an idea. She and some other prostitutes, desperate for money, try to blackmail the royal family. Queen Victoria calls in Dr. Gull and asks him to take care of this.
We, the readers, have seen Dr. Gull since he was a child torturing animals and playing with his dead father’s body. We know he is dangerous. Dr. Gull takes his job very seriously and silences all the prostitutes through murder. He becomes Jack the Ripper.
Again, this book is not to be read as all historical fact, though it’s clear that it’s been meticulously researched. It’s no cheap slasher story, but an intense look at a descent into madness.
But Dr. Gull only makes up part of it. We have other characters, like a fake psychic, the murdered prostitutes, and members of Scotland Yard, to name only a few. Even people like the Elephant Man and Oscar Wilde make cameos. It can be hard to read at the beginning, but it makes more sense as one continues. It’s one of those books that linger after the last page is read. Gritty and disturbing, it often concentrates on the true squalor and horror that was day-to-day life at Whitechapel, and its explicitness with both sex and murder cause it to be aimed for older readers. Graphic it is, though not in a gratuitous way. It’s very philosophical, and often delves into discussions and thoughts on the fourth dimension, matriarchy versus patriarchy, prehistory through modern day, religious symbolism, and so many other things. It’s hard to describe a book this massive in scope that has so many elements running through it all at once. Overwhelming but highly intelligent, From Hell is a read unto itself.
Reviewed by Danica Davidson on February 23, 2000