A graphic novel as dense as FROM HELL might seem to challenge my assertion that any work with a significant underthought can be boiled down to a concise “myth-theme statement.” Here’s what I came up with:
Royal surgeon Doctor Gull, the epitome of Victorian erudition and respectability, comes to embody the principle of male-over-female ascendance when he takes on the mantle of Jack the Ripper, at once serving the British Crown and his own personal project, that of ascending to mystical supremacy through the killing of women.
As I’ve frequently done in analyzing other collaborative works, I’ll focus on the creative partner whom I consider the dominant influence. Thus, regardless of what artist Eddie Campbell brought to the table in creating this graphic novel, I’ll only discuss Alan Moore here—not least because FROM HELL reflects one of Moore’s most interesting facets. I’ve often recounted how Moore himself has frequently taken on “politically correct” positions in his work, as seen here—and yet, he’s also been attacked for any number of supposed literary sins, often from pundits whose idea of art comes down to being “more politically correct than thou.” It may be significant, as a bellwether of Moore’s artistic impulses, that FROM HELL includes copious references to the non-conformist English poet William Blake, who is not exactly a familiar figure in Ripper-fiction. It was Blake, in one of his most quotable quotes, who said that in writing PARADISE LOST John Milton did better with Satan than with God because Milton was “of the devil’s party” without knowing it. I will show that some of the overthoughts of Moore’s works may “talk the talk” of ultraliberal politics, while the underthoughts don’t always show the author “walking the ultraliberal walk.”
Consider the graphic novel’s title. The proximate relevance of “From Hell” is that the phrase appeared in one of the various letters purportedly written by the Ripper during the killer’s reign of terror. Since in real life “Saucy Jack” was never identified, no one can know with certainty that the real murderer wrote that particular letter. Yet whoever did write it, regardless of his or her reasons for so doing, was clearly conjuring with the idea that Jack the Ripper was akin to a demon from the “bad place.” In Moore’s Ripper-cosmology, the very first letter to coin the name “Jack the Ripper” is a journalistic fraud, born from a capitalistic desire to sell newspapers. However, the “From Hell” letter, which is sent to police some time later, does come from the killer, and mad William Gull has an even more complex reason for invoking the spectre of the devil’s domain, as he confesses to his uncomprehending partner-in-crime Netley:
…in [Dante’s] INFERNO he suggests that the only true path from hell lies at its very heart—and that, in order to escape, we must go further in.
Given the thoroughness with which Moore cites his many references in the back of the novel—including not just other fictional and non-fictional takes on the Ripper, but also copious other aspects of British culture or history that Moore finds relevant—it’s fair to say that he’s sought to synthesize all of the major treatments of Jack the Ripper. One view of the Ripper, that he was a sexual deviate titillated by the killing of women, finds some representation in FROM HELL, as does a more politicized reading, in which the Ripper is a murderer sanctioned by the ruling class to eliminate enemies of the British Empire. Further, Moore builds upon the historical suggestion that the real Gull was a Freemason to make the fictional Gull a practitioner in the English tradition of High Magick. Gull’s idea of escaping hell—which I understand to be the grubby “real world” of death, endless suffering, and frustrated sex—is to “derange his senses” through the act of brutal murder.
It’s true that the repressive British government—the incarnation of male rule, despite the sovereignty of Queen Victoria-- begins the career of Jack the Ripper. First, an illicit romance and marriage takes place between Crown Prince Edward and a shop-girl. After the relationship is quashed by those in power, four prostitutes, made desperate by the crushing poverty of their lives, attempt to blackmail the throne with their knowledge of the scandal. This causes Victoria herself to call upon her surgeon—who has somehow become something of a royal hitman—to solve the problem. Gull’s murders of his victims, however, are far more brutal than necessary for the British Crown’s purpose. Gull's purpose is to “derange” himself out of his own intellectual sphere, in order that he can achieve some sort of mystical attainment. Thus Gull is akin to a demon unleashed by an unwise conjurer, one who brings forth the worst in all of London’s inhabitants.
Even Moore’s viewpoint character, Inspector Abberline of Scotland Yard, finds his life compromised by the Ripper’s activities. Though Moore’s Abberline is a stolid, unimaginative man unaware of Gull’s magical aspirations, he’s unknowingly pulled into Gull’s greater project via an attempted extra-martial (on his part) affair with one of Gull’s intended victims. Abberline, like the victimized prostitutes, is also a lens through which Moore allows the reader to see the hellish sufferings visited by the upper classes on all the lower ones—though ironically Abberline, in one of his first lines, states that he’s unimpressed with socialists, who are all “middle class”types.
I won’t attempt to explicate Gull’s “Mystic History of Great Britain” and how that discourse fits into the greater history of worldwide patriarchal dominion. But even though Gull is unquestionably a devil, he is, like Milton’s Satan, a fascinating one. He sums up the copious mythological altercations of males and females thusly:
‘Tis in the war of Sun and Moon that man steals woman’s power, that Left Brain conquers Right—
While Gull’s employers may be concerned with keeping their reign over unruly women, as well as other outsiders like Jews and revolutionaries, Gull is not defined by their political motives. Though I find Moore’s use of the “left brain-right brain” paradigm anachronistic, the writer makes it explicit that Gull kills women so that he can gain access to their mysterious, irrational “right brain” power. This hyper-intellectual version of the Ripper is validated insofar as his murders do vouchsafe him visions of other times and places, so that FROM HELL, unlike many Ripper-stories, enters the domain of the marvelous. Yet, despite Moore’s condemnation of Gull’s brutality and masculinism, the author can’t help but make Gull a “sacred monster” whose evil outstrips that of his contemporaries. When his fellow Masons call Gull to account, he tells them frankly that he does not deem any of them his peers. Following his final whore-murder, Gull has a vision of the 20th century’s marvels, and he excoriates the dwellers of the future for their shallowness:
With all your shimmering numbers and your lights, think not to be inured to history. Its black root succors you. It is inside you… See me! Wake up and look upon me! I am come amongst you! I am with you always!
Naturally, the idea of Jack the Ripper equating himself with Jesus Christ can’t help but carry a satirical tone. Yet Moore seems altogether serious about seeing the Ripper as a “black root” at the heart of all mankind. This “root” seems more or less akin to Jung’s “Shadow,” which for Jung remains part of human psychology no matter how advanced humans may become. Because of such moments, in which Moore seems to have become fascinated with his incarnation of evil, he escapes the banality of merely political creators, who ceaselessly promote the idea that all darkness will give way to some intellectual light.
In keeping with its title, FROM HELL is a profoundly pessimistic novel, drenched in a Spengleresque mood of historical futility. Perhaps its most depressing—albeit bracing—aspect is even though no reader is likely to believe that Gull can escape hell through his techniques of derangement, Moore offers no light at the end of the tunnel for anyone else, either.