Alan Moore’s writing has always been something apart from what was around him. Certainly his 1980s work for American comics giant DC has, and can be, included with that decades re-evaluation of the form, but even next to his contemporaries from that era his work has always seemed to stand apart.
So, from the voice finding 1984-like super-anti-hero series V For Vendetta, through his epic retelling of 20th century history with ‘real world’ superheroes in Watchmen (and more in between) we get to From Hell, his take on the Jack The Ripper story.
Much like his previous work, Moore doesn’t take the usual route with his tale of murder on the foggy streets of Whitechapel. Rather than the police procedural a story like this would often be (and to an extent is in the lackluster film adaptation), From Hell focuses as much on ‘Jack’ and the lives of his victims as it does Inspector Abberline of the Yard.
But, what really sets this entirely apart from what it could have been, is its speculative fiction approach. This mixes elements of historical fact with reasonably well supported conspiracy and the odd moment of outright invention to create something genuinely compelling in its basic plot, with a couple of extra layers of social commentary laid over the top.
The basic plot deals with one of the stronger theories of who the Ripper might have been, looking particularly at Sir William Withey Gull and the idea of a Royal and Masonic conspiracy to cover up the birth of an illegitimate royal baby.
This explains, fairly satisfactorily, why the five specific women were killed and, by Moore’s own admission in the book’s footnotes, explores a fairly biased conspiracy against Freemasonry – though coming from where I do I have to admit to finding this hugely compelling as well.
On top of this we get flashes of Gull’s supposed madness. While this isn’t entirely based on fact there is evidence he suffered a stroke, which may have led to seizures and arguably ‘visions’. Moore runs with this idea to turn Jack The Ripper into the progenitor of the serial killer as we see it portrayed in both the real world and fiction today and give a twisted motive to his crimes.
This portrayal of the serial killer idea is a fairly obvious, but very well executed, comment on how the media has dealt with the subject since and references the likes of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley and Ian Sutcliffe.
In the eyes of some this may be a controversial set of direct references to make but, for me, it brings home the reality of the crimes portrayed in From Hell and acts as a reminder that, while this is a compelling mystery narrative set in the now-alien streets of Victorian London, these murders did rally take place and involved real people having a major effect not only on the life of those involved, but also the psyche of certainly the city and possibly the entire country.
While Moore’s writing is, rightly, the most focused on aspect of From Hell, that is to do artist Eddie Campbell something of a disservice. Without his scratchy black and white imagery the feel needed for this story would be lost.
The detailed line drawing style feels right for the setting of the story as it evokes a sense of mystery and gloom that working class areas of Victorian London had. Along side this, it gives a transcendental feel when the visions occur and, with more detailed backgrounds when we see into the lives of the upper class, helps show the social divide at work in the story. Chiefly striking in this is Queen Victoria who appears surrounded and shrouded in her mourning black throughout.
If all you know of Alan Moore is his famous American work, or all you know of From Hell is the Hughes Brothers mildly diverting but flawed not-quite-whodunit movie, then I couldn’t recommend From Hell more as the vision of a singular artist, both in its writer and, as described here, in its main character.