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FROM HELL


Writer Alan Moore - Artist Eddie Campbell


Ediz. Magic Press

 

It’s hard to understand why Jack the Ripper has become the most famous serial murderer of all time, since more horrible crimes were committed after his. Perhaps, the main reason for his fame is due to the fact that he was the first murderer who obtained the attention of the media.
The facts: five prostitutes were ferociously murdered and mutilated in the London area of Whitechapel in the autumn of 1888. The police received a number of letters, possibly written by fame seekers with the exception of one. That letter was attached to a package, which contained a kidney of one of the victims and was signed "From hell – Jack the Ripper". The hunt lasted for months without any luck, because the murderer was never found. However, Jack the Ripper continued to be mentioned in the pages of newspapers, books and his story was re-adapted by the new media. In 1988, one century after the Whitechapel killings, Jack the Ripper became the protagonist of a comics series called FROM HELL, which was published in 1989. The stories were written by Alan Moore with drawings by Eddie Campbell.
Moore, born in Northampton (UK) in 1953, became famous early in the 1980s with a series called "Swamp Thing", published by DC Comics. He also wrote "Watchmen", a sort of milestone (and perhaps a tomb stone!) of the super-hero genre, resulting in a comics story of 400 pages. Since then, Moore has equally devoted his time between his brilliant and original "mainstream" comics and other more unusual (with regard to genre, format and content) stories. FROM HELL belongs to the latter category. The series consists of 11 books in black and white, co-published by Kitchen Sink and Mad Love, the publishing company created by Moore at the end of the 1980s, and suggests a different version of the Jack the Ripper story.
FROM HELL is like a novel: it is introduced by a preface and is divided up into chapters each of them of a different length. Its end links to the beginning of the story and closes the circle. The novel has a main plot, which is the story of the murderer and his pursuer Inspector Abberline, as well as a number of different sub-plots, which are the micro-stories of all the characters, who are involved in the main plot in one way or another. The scenes are re-created in a very detailed way and it’s hard to think of any other comics story whose Victorian style is equally vivid.
Readers should not simply "check out" the story but rather read at least one chapter to enjoy it. Campbell’s art (black and white "scratching style" drawings, and almost every page divided into nine illustrations of the same size) is very peculiar and is not exactly attractive at a first sight. After the first chapter, it’s hard to imagine this story drawn in a style similar to traditional comics.
FROM HELL is not at all a "traditional" comic. It’s a work that can’t properly be classified into a single genre. Perhaps it may be regarded as a mix of different genres, where the sum of the parts has more of an impact than the individual parts. The investigation is described meticulously with the help of photos taken at the time; however, the story is not a real mystery story as the identity of the presumed murderer is already clear in the first few chapters. It could then be regarded as a sort of "noir", in which a serial killer murders women to free himself from his ghosts. Certainly, the killer’s cold-blooded rituals, which had already been reported by the press at that time, are described in detail. However, there’s a fantasy element, which I will not reveal here because I don’t want to give away the end of the story. The only thing I will say, though, is that Moore and Campbell have made the concept of time and space relativity memorable in a spectacular and disturbing way. There’s also the idea of conspiracy introduced by Moore’s detailed description of all the political intrigue and cover-ups. Besides, FROM HELL can be easily compared to Dicken’s (or perhaps Zola’s) novels for its detailed description of the troubled beings who populated Whitechapel at that time. Without being pathetic or oversimplified, Moore describes the life of the Ripper victims who, despite their squalor and misery, are able to be sympathetic and generous to each other. For the first time ever, Moore has created a whole range of female characters whose compassion makes their killer an even more horrible murderer and it’s for this reason that Moore dedicates his work to them: "You and your demise: of these things alone we are certain. Good night, ladies". All the other characters – such as Inspector Abberline - are also equally human; Abberline, for instance is a quiet and typical middle-class man who is suddenly involved (because of his profession) in a case which the upper class people at that time regarded as horrendous. Besides the inspector, we are introduced to a range of other characters: Robert Lees, a psychic who is called to help by Scotland Yard, the pathetic Prince Eddy, who – according to Alan Moore – was indirectly responsible for the killings of Whitechapel.
Many other minor characters such as John Merrick – known as the Elephant Man – or the sinister magician Alister Crowley and even Adolf Hitler’s parents (read it if you don’t believe it!) are also somehow included in the story. Jack the Ripper dominates them all and his role becomes more of a metaphorical one, a sort of Charon who drags mankind to a new century, almost as an anticipation of all the blood shed during the world wars of the 20th century.
Alan Moore agrees with most of the reconstruction made by Stephen Knight in his book "Jack the Ripper: the Final Solution". According to Knight, Jack the Ripper in reality was a doctor, Sir William Whitey Gull. Obviously, there’s no evidence supporting such a theory, which is as good as any other, or perhaps even better from a more "fiction" point of view. Moore himself explains in the introduction that he wrote in 1989: "Theoretically, the events detailed in From Hell could have unfolded in just the way we described them... But it isn't history. It's fiction."
Not history (as in real events of the past), but fiction, that is, one of the many possible stories. According to Moore, "It is a story that concerns itself with politics, architecture, love, art, history and God. And, regrettably, with violence of a most extreme nature." Moore says: "Perhaps it's worth remembering that all history is to some degree a fiction; that truth can no longer properly be spoken once the bodies have grown cold."

What’s left to be said? I’d rather leave something for the reader, who will enjoy the writer’s ability to tell this story, with its flashbacks and structure. For those who would like to know more about the facts, the author has provided with a massive appendix of notes. Moore also devotes the last issue to all the theories regarding Jack the Ripper’s identity and to the latest findings.
Comics lovers should also take a look at another book, called "From Hell" – the Complete Scripts", which was published by Borderland Press and Spiderbaby Grafix in 1994. The book includes the scripts of the first four chapters of the saga. It’s a good way to get to know the style of this British writer, whose accurate descriptions have become legendary. I’d finally like to devote a few words to the Italian version of FROM HELL, which has been published by Magic Press and is currently sold in specialised bookshops. While the original work consists of 11 episodes (plus the appendix) which are published in paperback, Magic Press has wisely decided to publish each episode in big hardcover books. At the moment, only the first volume – which includes the first four US issues - is available in Italian. Enjoy reading it and remember: FROM HELL is not designed for children or people with weak stomachs.

M.M.