Great Graphic Novels: From Hell, by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell

GreatgraphicnovelsLast month I asked my friends to write about books they loved (you can read all the essays here). This month, I invited them to write about their favorite graphic novels, and they selected some excellent titles. I hope you enjoy them! (Read all the Great Graphic Novel essays here.) -- Mark

From Hell, by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell

From hellIt only took me about five seconds to settle upon the graphic novel that has most successfully blown me away: From Hell by Alan Moore (writer) and Eddie Campbell (artist).

Clocking in at close to 600 pages, this is not a one-evening read, as too many graphic novels are. It is also not the world's loveliest artistic feast. The art is stark black and white scratchy pen-work and I have to say that Eddie Campbell's style is an acquired taste. But it perfectly suits Alan Moore's complex script about the Jack the Ripper killings in London in the 1880s.

There is plenty of blood spilled as the killings proceed, and the fact that it is all in black ink -- not red - helps maintain a certain aesthetic distance from the dirty deeds being done. I think of the book as being drawn in soot, which certainly defined late-Victorian London, where the famous fog was actually smog.

Long story short: Moore immersed himself in the various conspiracy theories about who Jack the Ripper really was and settled on an amalgamated premise that Jack was really the Queen's physician, William Gull, and the murders were part of a monstrous occult Masonic ritual. The truth was ostensibly covered-up by Masons in positions of power and justice was never rendered.

This is, I think, a preposterous premise, but it is an engrossing one, nevertheless, and if one just suspends disbelief and allows Moore to sweep one along on his dark horse-drawn carriage ride, there are hours of finely-nuanced entertainment to be had.

The movie version of From Hell, starring Johnny Depp and Heather Graham, was a telegraphed and watered down version of the story that Moore spins. It had its moments, particularly in capturing the spooky atmosphere of late nights in the East End, but if you even half-way enjoyed the movie, you owe it to yourself to read the original graphic novel.

(Various disclaimers: I became a Mason around the time that From Hell was first published, my wife was Matron of Honour at Alan Moore's and Melinda Gebbie's wedding in Northampton, UK, and we all remain friends. That said, I'd still stand by From Hell as a graphic novel masterpiece, even if I were not a Mason and didn't know Alan Moore from Joe Blow.)

From Hell, by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell


  1. One of Alan Moore’s strengths as a writer is in making anything believable while you’re reading it. He’s used more than one discredited scientific hypothesis (such as the one about planaria worms ‘learning’ acquired knowledge of other worms they were fed) to make gripping stories (in the just-mentioned case, his turnaround of Swamp Thing). He just sucks you into his world.

  2. From Hell is one of the few literary works that I can re-read every year and delight in it´s own complexity, ambient and feel.
    I never truly understood why Deep was chosen to play the main role in the movie “adaptation” (aside from magnet name reasons), also happy ending (happy endings are overrated).  

    1. Why any of us does anything is probably a complex story and one that we possibly don’t understand ourselves. That said, I’d been intrigued for decades by all the conflicting representations and allegations about Masonry and decided to check it out for myself. I spent a year in dialog with members on the Internet, visited a couple of lodges in my neck of the woods and generally was positively impressed. For more info, at far greater length, see my book. 

  3. This is definitely on the must read list. The art is even scratchier than Campbell’s normal work (yes, even compared to Bacchus, I think), but it fits the tale perfectly. As Jay said, don’t let the movie prejudice you – it’s not at all representative other than the very broad plot strokes.

    And at this point any Jack the Ripper theory is as good as any other (It seems like 1% of the population of London at that time have been proven to be Jack the Ripper), so it’s unlikely to bother or seem unlikely to anyone who’s not a Mason or a fervid Ripper theorist.

  4. I love From Hell; I recently re-read it, and even if you don’t believe any part of the theory that Moore lays out, it’s still tremendously engrossing and basically indicts not just Dr. Gull (who is portrayed, at different times, as an engaging polymath, out-of-control monster, and, ultimately, a victim) but also Victorian society, which was willing to set a monster like Gull on its perceived enemies, terrorizing all of London in the process, then callously cast him aside once he’d served his purpose, all to avoid a bit of scandal that barely ranks in today’s celebrity-gossip-driven world. Plus, there’s a great epilogue in which Moore lays out the history of the various Ripper conspiracy theories (at least up to the time of publication; new ones continue to emerge, including one done by best-selling author Patricia Cornwall), and concludes that ultimately they serve to obscure rather than reveal the true identity of the killer. 

  5. I’ve always preferred the lowest end of the “Royal Conspiracy” where it was the prince himself, his mind rotting from “Social Diseases” either too jaded with pay as you go …. or knowing his brain was rotting and getting ‘revenge’ on the women he’d used for fun… Doubt it’s true, but I see the young rich elite of almost any culture as “Jack the Ripper for the fun of it” burning bums, bum hunting, etc. till Daddy smacks them and says “Ok, son time to sit with me and I’ll show you how much fun it is to slash a NATION and drink it’s blood!”

    Still, this work is brilliant.  I bought it recently.  My favorite part is Dr Gull’s meeting with the Queen.

  6. disclaimer: I belong to a secret society which commonly subverts the due process of the law for it’s own culpabily distributed ends, but dont worry I joined without the familial or educationally based, secret-society contacts which would allow me to penetrate the inner echelons of the power held by that society, so have access to only a slightly more effective, extra-judiciary force than the regularly maligned citizen.
    So don’t worry, I’m not really one of the old boys, screwing you whilst you sleep, those families of corruption keep us at almost the same befuddled and belittled, arms-length-distance that you, the common, degraded citizen is kept at. I feel almost as much of the boot upon my face as you!
    Anyway, the next time I’m subverting due process or habituating criminal activity I’ll be sure and opine with you, dear friend, for I am almost as worthless and downtrodden.
    HAHA! Funny old world ennit!?

Comments are closed.