I think I need to lay off the "macabre comic book with sinister spiritual overtones" jag I've been on. It's messing with my head.
On the plus side, I can report that, yes, From Hell really IS that good. It's breathtakingly ambitious, incredibly broad in scope, laying out Victorian London in all its filth and glamor. Like many of my favorite works, it first focuses on getting the world right - making it real, ensuring we understand its rules and how it works, feeling the rhythm of the ordinary - before we plunge into the plot proper and experience Jack the Ripper's killings.
I'm definitely not an expert in JTR mythology, but it does feel like it's often presented as a mystery: the purpose of a JTR movie or book is to chase down the mysterious individual who perpetrated those crimes. From Hell inverts that. After a brief prologue, the very first thing we see is the man who will become Jack, as a small boy.
Only, we don't really see him. There are so many amazing techniques in this book that I can't start to list them all, but one of the earliest is its presentation of Gull. Through the entire chapter, we don't see him, and yet he is present in nearly every scene. Generally we are seeing from his perspective, literally looking through his eyes, Halloween-style. We see all the moments that the adults miss. We see the son playing with his dead father's face, giggling softly as the eyes open and shut. We see him finding an animal in the grasses, and cheerfully tearing it apart to expose its innards. With this as background, we see Gull steadily advance into the upper tiers of Victorian society, and bear the uneasy knowledge that the grown man likely holds the same morals as that young boy.
At the very end of the chapter, we finally see Gull himself. And, when we at last can connect a shape to those words, those thoughts, those actions, we find it to be perfectly ordinary. He's an Englishman, distinguished-looking, calm. Perfectly ordinary. Which, of course, makes it all the creepier.
The murders themselves take a long time to start. The wait is not a boring one. I made the mistake of reading From Hell right before bed, and blame it for some poor sleep over the last few weeks. There's one incredibly long chapter that features Gull and his coachman driving around London and looking at historical sites. Sounds dry, doesn't it? But there's an amazing diabolical energy behind that tour which pulses on every page. I felt my mouth growing dry as their sinister touring reached its conclusion. Gull is firmly in control, laying forth his erudite knowledge, the connections between points on the map and points in time, describing the gods of Britain, the gods of Atlantis, the God of Christianity. Netley, who doesn't seem to be a particularly pious of virtuous man, is driven, panting, to the limits of human endurance, by nothing more than Gull's words and some creepy architecture.
(Very rough analogy: think of the Winkie's Diner scene from Mulholland Drive. Nothing but talk, and yet, mind-blowingly frightening.)
Of course, this is all a huge testament to Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's talent. Preacher frightens with buckets of blood. From Hell has buckets of blood, but it doesn't need them - you're awash in horror before the knife is ever drawn.
There's lots of other stuff I could mention, but I wanted to hit on Gull's visions. I thought this was an absolutely amazing idea. Gull has a minor stroke, and has a vision while his brain is under stress. This vision seems to propel him; he would have carried out his mission regardless, but that vision leads him to be Jack the Ripper and not just Jack the Causer of Accidental Death. Later, he starts to have more visions as he continues his murders, and they grow longer and more elaborate, seemingly in response to the increasing violence of his crimes.
So, with visions, we are naturally led to consider a Macbeth-like query: are those visions "real," in the sense that they actually are communication from some force outside of nature? Or are they illusions, brought on by physiological processes in our brain, and ascribed significance when they actually represent nothing more but randomly firing neurons?
Here, they opt for the first answer, and - this is the cool part - they completely take away the possibility of the second answer. Suppose that Gull's visions had been of, I don't know, a secret conversation in the Royal Palace, or a war in Egypt. He and we might take those visions as being "real", but we could still argue for him having invented them. Similarly, if he had had further visions of Jubelah, we would recognize their content as spiritual, but still not be able to say whether they refer to actual spiritual objects or not.
However, they give Gull extremely lucid visions of life in the 20th century. Which is brilliant. Gull doesn't understand what he's seeing - he knows that they're otherworldly, that he's being granted insight into something that his contemporaries cannot see, but has no framework for processing television sets, fax machines, computers, spandex. It's a mystery to him. But not to us. Moore and Campbell place the reader in the position of confirming Gull's visions. Within the context of the work, we know that there's no way Gull could have this knowledge, and no way he could have accurately imagined it, and so we are forced to acknowledge that some supernatural force is at work.
Like I said: Creepy!
Messes with my head, but in a very memorable way. From Hell fully deserves its reputation at the top of the comics heap. Any work of its scope and detail would inspire awe on its own, but it builds on top of its densely created world and creates one of the most amazing horror stories that I've read. If that sort of thing appeals to you, read it. If not, keep your distance!