Delivering the 20th Century, Part 3:

Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell

In re-reading From Hell, it’s hard not to marvel at the liberation Alan Moore seems to be enjoying.  Despite the brilliance of his earlier superhero and horror stories, there was often still a sense of constraint.  In the case of some stories, such as Watchmen, that constraint was actually a strength, but with From Hell it’s clear that Moore is letting his already unkempt hair down.  This story has the kinds of ideas one might expect a writer to come up with as part of a rambling conversation at two o’clock in the morning—that magical time when the world often seems to belong to a parallel universe separate from the workaday world.  It’s the time of waking dreams where the conventional rules no longer apply and anything seems possible.

Take the opening three pages of Chapter Five.  Before launching into the details of the first murder, Moore and Campbell begin with a sex scene between a couple in Austria.  During the act, the woman, Klara, experiences a vision of blood pouring out into the streets—a revelation of war.  The man, Alois, listens and tries to comfort her.  Their dialogue is written in German, and Moore makes no effort to translate.  The couple never appears elsewhere in the book and the entire three-page sequence almost feels like some sort of bizarre printer’s mistake. That is, until Moore explains in the Appendix to the collected edition that the couple’s last name is “Hitler” and that we’ve just witnessed the moment of conception for what will become their child.

The inclusion of this scene is touched with a kind of literary madness.  From a rational perspective, it doesn’t belong in the story, but as Gull has already explained in Chapter Four, artists often draw from the well of “lunacy.”  At the same time the Whitechapel murders began, the most notorious person of the 20th Century was being conceived.  There may not be any tangible connection between those two facts, but there is certainly a poetic connection and Moore uses it in order to remind us that From Hell is far more than just another Jack the Ripper tale.  The grisly horrors we are about to witness are the markers of a new era.  We’re about to witness both the rise of the 20th Century and the corresponding sinking of human dignity.  And as Moore suggests, it all springs from the soiled sheets of an Austrian couple and the silk sheets of a royal doctor.

In the succeeding pages, Moore and Campbell present alternating panels detailing the morning routine of Gull and Polly Nichols—the first of the murder victims.  The juxtaposition of Gull’s posh life with Polly’s squalid existence in the East End where homeless women use a clothesline to prop themselves against a wall in order to sleep, underscores the strong sense of class division in Victorian England.  It’s a clear reminder that what’s about to happen is part of a larger war being waged both by the upper classes against the lower and by men against women.

But of all the extraordinary moments in the book, nothing fully compares with Chapter Ten.  This chapter, which focuses on the last of the five murders, features Gull’s systematic desecration of Marie Kelly’s body.  It also constitutes the most disturbing comic Moore had yet written.  Unlike most of the Whitechapel murders, Marie Kelly’s took place in the privacy of her home, giving the murderer far more time. Of all the victims in From Hell, we’ve come to know Marie best.  From the beginning, we’ve watched her keeping Prince Eddy and Annie Crook’s baby, posing for the “Blackmail” painting by Walter Sickert, fighting with her common-law husband, having sex with same, struggling with alcoholism, taking a female lover, and all the while trying to stave off what increasingly seems inevitable.

So it’s particularly painful when, after humanizing her, Moore allows Gull to kill her on the first page of Chapter Ten.  The next thirty pages are almost exclusively devoted to the ritual mutilation.  As Gull strips her skin and begins removing each of her organs, he periodically pauses to look around the room, sometimes in the general direction of the reader.  He’s like a twisted version of the narcissistic child, needing the reassurance that his every move is being observed and appreciated—a sick Little Jack Horner, reveling in what a good boy is he.  But Gull’s glances in our direction do more than reflect on his state of mind.  They also remind us of our own culpability.  After all, we are the voyeurs here.  We’re making this happen.  If we close the book, Marie Kelly’s memory lives with dignity.

But we don’t close the book.

And then, after 20 pages of the most brutal, realistic, and decompressed storytelling in the entire book, Moore changes all the rules.  As Gull stands in Marie’s blood-splattered room, he suddenly finds himself surrounded by a modern business office, complete with computers, photocopiers, and an array of young employees busily going about their jobs, completely ignoring both the mutilated corpse and its Victorian butcher.  It’s not the first time in the book that Gull has seen a glimpse of the future, but this is far more extensive than his earlier visions.  It’s as if the sickening excess of Gull’s mutilation ritual has conjured our modern age.  Gull describes the people as “morose, barbaric children playing joylessly with their unfathomable toys.”[1] The same description could easily apply to Gull himself, who has been joylessly acting the barbaric child himself.  But as he attempts to interact with these creatures from the future, he becomes troubled by their seeming obliviousness to his presence:

Where comes this dullness in your eyes?  How has your century numbed you so?  Shall man be given marvels only when he is beyond all wonder?  Your days were born in blood and fires, whereof in you I may not see the meanest spark!  Your past is pain and iron!  Know yourselves!  With all your shimmering numbers and your lights, think not to be inured to history.  Its black root succours you.  It is inside you.  Are you asleep to it, that cannot feel its breath upon your neck nor see what soaks its cuffs?  See me!  Wake up and look upon me!  I am come amongst you.  I am with you always!”[2]

And with those words, echoing Jesus’s final words at the end of the Gospel of Matthew—“Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world”—Gull experiences his transfiguration.  He is becoming a god, a perverse figurehead for the even more perverse century-to-come.

Unfortunately for Gull, the new century’s Whitechapel god will soon be dead, leaving behind a Nietzschean world that no longer recognizes its own creator.  Gull has given birth to the modern age, but as he tries to come to grips with this vision, his own language grows even more formal, more antiquated, as he realizes his own creation has made him irrelevant:

How would I seem to you?  Some antique fiend or penny dreadful horror, yet you frighten me!  You have not souls.  With you I am alone.  Alone in an Olympus.  Though accomplished in the sciences, your slightest mechanisms are beyond my grasp.  They humble me, yet touch you not at all.  This disaffection.  This is Armageddon.”[3]

Chilled by his own irrelevancy, Gull turns his focus back to the pitiful shell that was once Marie Kelly, and for a moment, lost in his own feelings of rejection, he empathizes with her:  “Ah, Mary, how time’s leveled us.  We are made equal, both mere curios of our vanished epoch in this lustless world.  This world, where in comparison I am made ignorant, while you … you are made virtuous.”[4] And with that, he grasps Marie’s half-flayed corpse and gives her a full embrace.  It’s a revelatory moment for the madman, who now speaks in his new role as self-proclaimed god and deliverer.  He tells Marie that he loves her, loves them all, and that he has saved them for history and legend.

After Gull leaves her room, he tells his driver, “It is beginning, Netley.  Only just beginning.  For better or worse, the twentieth century.  I have delivered it.”[5] There were still remaining story elements to work out, but From Hell clearly peaks in Chapter Ten.  Gull’s final words to Netley reflect equally well on the story as a whole:  “I have been climbing, Netley, all my life, toward a single peak.  Now I have reached it.  I have stood and felt the wind.  I have seen all the world beneath me.  Now there is only descent.”[6]

The entire scene is both revelatory and exhausting, and Gull’s moment of discovery becomes our discovery.  The Twentieth Century truly is the house that Jack built—violent, crass, and full of an entirely different sort of prostitutes.  A century of blood built on blood, all cleansed with the ink of a monetary note and an inflated capacity for denial.  From Hell dares us to keep denying.  Keep denying the blood under our houses, in our ditches, running down our streets.  Keep denying the blood in our entertainment, the blood in our homes, the blood in our minds.  Deny the blood in our corrupt corporations and the blood in our oil wars.  In Chapter Ten, Moore’s Jack the Ripper peers into the abyss, but it’s clear that the beast peering back looks a lot like us.

The groundwork for the future is laid in the immediate aftermath of the horror.  After Abberline inspects the murder site, he says, “I came out that room and I felt somethin’ BAD ‘ad ‘appened.  Not just to ’er.  To everythin’.  I felt as if everythin’ were lost.”[7] And in a sense, he’s right.  The morally compromising situation Abberline winds up in—being paid to stay silent—symbolizes the new prostitution in a culture defined by an ever-escalating level of materialism.[8] In a world where everyone can be bought, corruption is measured by the size of one’s bank account.

And as corruption and currency become intertwined, we see the implied thesis running through From Hell.  The British Empire, seemingly at its height, actually died during the late Victorian era in the seedy room of a mutilated prostitute in Whitechapel.  Much like Oliver Stone’s contemporaneous film, JFK, once one gets beyond the minutia of the individual conspiracy theories, both stories chart the beginnings of each nation’s decline.  Both Western empires, in trying to “manage” their scandals, sow the seeds of their own destruction.

With the cover-up now complete, Moore and Campbell return us, elliptically, to the beginning, with a final chapter of two old men walking on the beach, talking about the Russian Revolution.  And Abberline is thinking about himself and Lees, but also of England: “I was just thinking … we’ve outlived our times, ‘aven’t we, you and me? […] I mean the century we ‘ad our day in, when we were important; that’s all done with, sunk.  Gone down with all ‘ands.  Now there’s just us, knowin’ what we know, both washed up ‘ere.  Can’t send a message; can’t tell anybody.”[9]

And for the final pages of this mammoth work—a decade in the making—Moore gives his readers one last thought for our plastic, artificial contemporary age as Abberline says:  “I expect there’s been a lot ‘o chaps in our position down across the years with one thing and another.  Makes you wonder, sometimes, don’t it?  Makes you wonder ‘ow much of the world is true.”[10] “Truth,” that elusive quality of the modern era, is no longer knowable in the new century that would be dominated by facades, myths, and Orwellian doublespeak.

To say that From Hell is Alan Moore’s masterwork seems an understatement.  If Watchmen demonstrated that mainstream genre comics could be treated as literature, From Hell demonstrates that there are literally no limits for the medium.  It was then and remains now Moore’s crowning achievement … maybe even the medium’s crowning achievement.

[1] Moore, Alan, and Eddie Campbell.  From Hell.  Marietta, GA:  Top Shelf, 1999.  Chapter 10. p. 21. Print.

[2] Ibid. p. 21.

[3] Ibid. p. 22.  Underscoring is in the original.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid. p. 33.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Moore, Alan, and Eddie Campbell.  From Hell.  Marietta, GA:  Top Shelf, 1999.  Chapter 11. p. 8. Print.

[8] In the Prologue, Abberline expresses his genuine hatred for prostitutes.  While his experience with “Emma” helps to explain this, it seems far more likely that Abberline’s selling of his own virtue is what really fans those flames.

[9] Moore, Alan, and Eddie Campbell.  From Hell.  Marietta, GA:  Top Shelf, 1999.  Epilogue. p. 9. Print.

[10] Ibid.

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Greg Carpenter is a writer, teacher, and recovering coffee addict. He is the author of The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer. In addition to producing a weekly column for Sequart for almost two years, he has also written for and PopMatters. He has published essays on a variety of writers and artists including Moore, Gaiman, Morrison, Jerry Robinson, August Wilson, and Tennessee Williams, and he has taught a wide variety of classes, including Comics, Shakespeare, Modern American Literature, and Screenwriting/Playwriting. He currently teaches at a university in Nashville.

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Also by Greg Carpenter:

The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer



  1. Mario Lebel says:

    Hi Greg,

    I’ve enjoyed your three-part exploration of Moore and Campbell’s From Hell. It’s been far too long since I’ve reread it and you’ve certainly pushed me to take it down from the bookshelf. I particularly enjoyed your contextualization of the series’s origins. I had never considered a newly freed-from-corporate-intervention and creatively excited Moore when thinking about From Hell. I guess my mind was too busy being blown away by the incredible ideas packed into the comic book’s pages to think much about how Moore felt writing the series.

    It was also fascinating to discover that Campbell didn’t follow Moore’s panel descriptions to the letter. Knowing that they didn’t always see eye-to-eye kind of makes it surprising the book was ever finished. It’s definitively a high point in Moore’s career and that’s impressive considering his influential body of work.

    Any change they’ll be a forth part to this post? I just can’t seem to get enough.

  2. Thanks so much for the comment, Mario, and I’m glad you enjoyed it and found enough to drive you back to the book. Alas, I’m not planning a part 4, but I would recommend you check out Eddie Campbell’s book, The From Hell Companion. He includes lots of excerpts from Moore’s scripts and if you love the original book it’s well worth your time.

    Campbell and Moore did have some disagreements, particularly over implicating the Queen, but often the real problem was more laughable in retrospect–Moore writing a several-paragraph-long description for a tiny two-inch panel. Obviously Moore had to know his instructions weren’t possible, but it was a way to communicate the entirety of the idea, much like a novelist.

    I say that just to make sure I haven’t implied that they were squabbling throughout, because that’s not the impression I’ve gotten from my reading. Occasional disagreements, but mostly just two talented people figuring out how to get it done.

    Again, thanks for the comment. It means a lot.

  3. I also really enjoyed this series. It’s funny that it’s such a liberating work when in fact it’s probably the most restrictive of Moore’s major works (he was, after all, telling someone else’s story and was very faithful to it). Now how about something connecting LOEG: Century to From Hell? Is there any link? I have no idea, but I would love if you could find out and tell us about it!

    • Thanks Mario. (Two commenters–both named Mario–what are the odds?) I the book I’m writing, I actually do draw some connections between From Hell and LOEG, though not with Century. I’d have to think on that one. :)

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