'GRAPHIC' NOVEL: A Critical Appraisal of FROM HELL - Mania.com


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'GRAPHIC' NOVEL: A Critical Appraisal of FROM HELL

Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's semi-fictionalized chronicle of the infamous Jack the Ripper set a new standard in terror for comic book storytelling

By Arnold T. Blumberg     October 19, 2001

Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's controversial graphic novel, FROM HELL.
© Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell
While audiences across the country will soon get a Halloween dose of horror courtesy of Jack the Ripper in the new motion picture, FROM HELL, starring Johnny Depp and Heather Graham, they might be unaware that the film is actually based largely on a comic book. Yes, the story does indeed borrow from history, weaving a variety of fictional subplots through the very real Whitechapel murders that made the name "Jack the Ripper" synonymous with evil. But the film takes exceptionally large liberties with even the very few established facts that can be ascertained concerning the enduring mystery of the Ripper, his identity, and his ultimate fate. In many ways, particularly for those who have devoted a great deal of their lives to investigating the minutiae surrounding the infamous murderer of the 19th century, the film version of FROM HELL is an abomination in and of itself a twisted funhouse mirror vision of the truth. But what of the comic book that inspired this newly "reimagined" retelling of the terrifying tale?

FROM HELL, now considered by many to be one of the most important and impressive graphic novels ever published, was first published from 1989 to 1996, joining a long list of celebrated comic book literary efforts from MAUS to STRANGERS IN PARADISE that began life in a Dickensian serialized style. The story originally began in the second issue of the anthology series, TABOO, and left that title with its sixth issue in July 1992. There subsequently followed a variety of editions and publishers who played a role in seeing the project through to completion by 1996, leading readers through a labyrinth of mystery and mayhem that dared to answer the greatest question of all: Who was Jack the Ripper?

The Inspector Abberline seen in Moore and Campbell's FROM HELL graphic novel differs in several key points from Johnny Depp's portrayal in the 2001 film adaptation.

The creators of FROM HELL, writer Alan Moore and artist Eddie Campbell, drew on extensive historical documentation, pieced together accounts and extrapolated based on the events of the day and their own unique insight into the socio-political circumstances that led to the birth of the Ripper. Moore and Campbell grounded their tale in reality, but went as far as naming the culprit, offering a complex theory that also drew on the work of other Ripper researchers and proposing the existence of a massive conspiracy that involved the Freemasons, a number of high-ranking officials in the British government, the Royal Family, and even the Queen herself. In this absorbing graphic novel version of the modern legend, the Ripper is Queen Victoria's Royal Physician, Sir William Withey Gull, thus addressing one of the principle considerations in the investigation, namely the Ripper's apparent facility with surgically precise evisceration.

Inspector Abberline and Emma share a quiet conversation in FROM HELL.

By drenching the pages of FROM HELL in the life's blood of history, Moore took advantage of a century of extensive research. He has been quoted as saying that the novel was in fact "historical fiction," a hybrid compilation of truth and fantasy intended to shed light not only on the mystery of the Ripper but the society into which he was born. In crafting this tale, Moore and Campbell themselves made history in the comic book medium with a breath-taking exploration of evil, fear, desperation, and the true horror that lurks in the shadows of our world.

A surreal moment in Moore and Campbell's FROM HELL, as the Ripper rails against the future.

Perhaps one of the most surprising aspects of the story is the sudden intrusion of the 20th century at certain key points. In several significant sequences, the Ripper experiences a surreal shift in reality, catching glimpses of a technologically advanced industrialized society that lies some nine or ten decades beyond his own time. Portraying Gull as a man with a fevered vision of the future, Moore and Campbell use the novel to comment on British culture of the past and present, and the result is more of an indictment of the environment that breeds a man like the Ripper than a damning portrait of the man himself. No matter what your interpretation, the graphic novel remains an arresting reading experience that challenges the reader with every panel, rendered in an astonishing blend of sketchy composition and architectural detail. In one particularly nauseating scene, we witness Gull mutilating a victim in mind-numbing exactitude. Campbell skillfully buries his illustrations in dark black ink, but readers might be forgiven for thinking they glimpse a sickly red hue on those monochrome pages.

Sir William Gull, AKA Jack the Ripper in FROM HELL, offers some insight into his madness. Gruesome stuff.

Rarely has the term 'graphic novel' been so appropriately applied to a work of comic book literature. In this case, the graphic content is calculated but hardly gratuitous. This didn't stop some people from attempting to censor the novel, however. Despite its obvious literary and socio-political themes, Australian customs officials and the country's Office of Film and Literature Classification impounded shipments of a key issue and the collected graphic novel in 2000 for "excessive violence," namely the graphic representation of last victim Mary Kelly's death (that's right, filmgoers, and history records that Mary did die, although some Ripper historians wonder if perhaps her demise was inaccurately reported). The situation was eventually resolved and even led to Campbell arranging the publishing of a new Australian edition through Random House.

Now available in one convenient omnibus trade paperback from Eddie Campbell's own imprint, FROM HELL is just one of many ruminations on the 1888 exploits of the human monster known as Jack the Ripper, a killer who has inspired countless writers to tell their own versions of his terrible tale. Still capable of giving even the hardiest reader a spine-tingling chill, Moore's script is second only to his brilliant WATCHMEN as a work of unparalleled excellence in comic book storytelling. Enhanced by Campbell's expressive artwork, FROM HELL stands as one of the most impressive distillations of real-world horror ever attempted in any medium. As much a statement on the modern world as on the murderous spree that so transfixed the world in morbid fascination, FROM HELL is a potent brew that leaves a lingering aftertaste readers will mull over for a very long time.


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