Subtitled "Being a Melodrama in 16 Parts," "From Hell" takes on the most notorious unsolved mystery in the annals of crime, the 1888 "Jack the Ripper" killings of five prostitutes in London's East End. But Alan Moore is more excited by history than he is by any horror show. In his introduction to the series, Moore wrote "It's my belief that if you cut into a thing deeply enough, if your incisions are precise and persistent and conducted methodically, then you may reveal not only that thing's inner workings, but also the meaning behind those workings ... 'From Hell' is a post-mortem of a historical occurrence, using fiction as a scalpel."
Open "From Hell" and you may involuntarily draw back -- it feels like the dark, sooty atmosphere of Moore and Campbell's Victorian London could seep into your own living room. Campbell renders "From Hell" in a scratchy, drippy black and white, with each panel seemingly drawn using a blend of London's chimney ash and tabloid ink. With no campy sound effect balloons, "From Hell" unfolds in an eerie silence, its pauses worthy of Harold Pinter. Although it's still a suspense-driven thriller, "From Hell" condemns the urban destitution and the maltreatment of women of the time in the starkest possible terms, with Moore and Campbell peering into the darkest corners of the victims' squalid lives.
Inspired by the Ripper's centennial, Moore found himself sucked into the lore of "Ripperology," where wild suppositions and fierce factions rival the theorists of the Kennedy assassination. "Watchmen" is replete with Pynchonesque paranoia, and "From Hell" posits a similarly complex conspiracy at the heart of the slayings. Inspired by "Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution" by the late Stephen Knight, "From Hell" suggests that Prince Albert "Eddy" Victor had fathered an illegitimate child, and when four Whitechapel prostitutes attempted to exploit this information, they were executed (the fifth victim was allegedly a case of mistaken identity). Complicit parties include Scotland Yard, the Freemasons and Victoria herself, while such London notables as Oscar Wilde and James "Elephant Man" Merrick make cameo appearances.
(...) Moore's larger point is that the Ripper murders were the fullest expression of 19th century injustices and hypocrisies (...) Moore and Campbell refuse to avert their eyes to even the most brutal or despairing content. Not only do we see the victims plying their trade in the least glamorous ways possible -- hurried couplings against filthy alley walls for a handful of pence -- but the murders are captured with ghastly precision. The book reaches its zenith (or nadir) in Chapter 10 with the last and grisliest of the killings, shown in such detail that it's all you can do to keep your eyes on the page. Still, the graphic novelists aren't in it for splatterpunk shock value. "From Hell" asserts that the Ripper killings provided a catalyst for the 20th century, both figuratively -- the murders and their coverage anticipated tabloid journalism and the modern fascination with serial killers -- and literally. As Gull goes about his dreadful business, he experiences increasingly vivid visions of London in the 1990s.
"From Hell" is as heavily researched as any scholarly work. Although the appendix is superfluous in the human body, here it's as crucial as the heart. Almost every page features end-notes in which Moore not only cites his historical sources but muses on everything from London's "dionysiac" architecture to streetwalking lingo like "thrupenny upright." (...)
To read "From Hell" is to temporarily become a Ripperologist yourself, jazzed by the case's facts, myths and weird coincidences. As you go, you realize that the hero isn't Abberline pursuing his investigation but Moore conducting his own. In "Appendix II: Dance of the Gull Catchers," Moore and Campbell use the comic form to recount, with tongue often in cheek, the strange history of Ripper theorizing. Ripperologists are shown as a mob of manic men with butterfly nets, and Moore himself eventually joins their ranks.