Graphic Novels Criticism: Critical Readings Of Major Works - Essay

Lloyd Rose (essay date August 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Rose, Lloyd. “Comic Books for Grown-ups.” Atlantic 258, no. 2 (August 1986): 77-80.

[In the following essay, Rose discusses the development of the modern graphic novel, citing the works of Frank Miller, Dave Sim, and Howard Chaykin as satirical representations of society and culture.]

Howard Chaykin has seen the future, and it's full of garter belts. In his comic-book series American Flagg!, which is set in the mid-twenty-first century, Chaykin's women have the requisite amount of pop-cultural post-feminist toughness: they fly jets and perform emergency operations on lunch counters and tote the occasional automatic weapon. But what one can only refer...

(The entire section is 2703 words.)

Harvey Pekar (essay date December 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Pekar, Harvey. “Maus and Other Topics.” Comics Journal, no. 113 (December 1986): 54-7.

[In the following essay, Pekar provides a generally favorable assessment of Art Spiegelman's Maus, characterizing the work as significant, but contending that Spiegelman's depiction of humans as animals detracts from the urgency of his message by perpetuating ethnic stereotypes.]

When I told Gary Groth that I was writing a 500-word review of Art Spiegelman's Maus for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, he asked me if I'd be willing to write a more comprehensive criticism by expanding upon the Plain Dealer review. I agreed to add to it if the...

(The entire section is 3499 words.)

Gene Phillips (review date February 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Phillips, Gene. “The Dark Knight Reborn.” Comics Journal, no. 114 (February 1987): 70-4.

[In the following review, Phillips argues that, despite its flaws, Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns is an entertaining work that clearly incorporates modern mythic orientations into its storyline.]

Frank Miller has referred to his project as his “Great American Super-hero story.” This four-part opus, whether or not it proves to be entertaining and meaningful to everyone, must at the very least be judged a milestone in the development of techniques for giving any sort of comics project the aesthetic and structural qualities of a novel, forcing...

(The entire section is 3730 words.)

Darren Harris-Fain (review date winter 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Harris-Fain, Darren. Review of Watchmen, by Alan Moore. Extrapolation 30, no. 4 (winter 1989): 410-12.

[In the following review, Harris-Fain praises Moore's narrative technique in Watchmen, noting that the work is “a fascinating experiment in broadening a limited genre which deserves wider attention that it has received.”]

The year is 1985: Nixon is still president, America won the Vietnam War, cars run on electricity, and super heroes are real. It is the existence of these heroes that Alan Moore uses for the premise of this alternative history, which appeared between 1986 and 1987 as a twelve-issue series from DC Comics.


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Joseph Witek (essay date 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Witek, Joseph. “History and Talking Animals: Art Spiegelman's Maus.” In Comic Books as History: The Narrative Art of Jack Jackson, Art Spiegelman, and Harvey Pekar, pp. 96-120. Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 1989.

[In the following essay, Witek presents a detailed analysis of Art Spiegelman's Maus, describing it as a significant work of art and literature that powerfully illustrates the impact of sequential art.]

The clearest sign that something unusual was afoot in the 1980s in the sequential art medium came in 1987, when the National Book Critics Circle nominated a comic book by Art Spiegelman for its annual award in...

(The entire section is 7900 words.)

Joseph Witek (essay date 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Witek, Joseph. “‘You Can Do Anything with Words and Pictures’: Harvey Pekar's American Splendor.” In Comic Books as History: The Narrative Art of Jack Jackson, Art Spiegelman, and Harvey Pekar, pp. 121-56. Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 1989.

[In the following essay, Witek traces the history of Harvey Pekar's American Splendor series, asserting that Pekar's work represents a unique contribution to the comic book format—due to its focus on everyday life—and reverses the traditionally escapist tendencies of American graphic narratives.]

American Splendor refuses to fit into any of the main categories of American...

(The entire section is 12180 words.)

Jesse W. Nash (essay date 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Nash, Jesse W. “Gotham's Dark Knight: The Postmodern Transformation of the Arthurian Mythos.” In Popular Arthurian Traditions, edited by Sally K. Slocum, pp. 36-45. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, Nash explores the use of Arthurian legends in the Batman comic book series, particularly Frank Miller's Batman: Year One and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, theorizing that although the Arthurian mythos is often recognized by modern American culture, most Americans are unfamiliar with the original Arthurian legend.]

All too often, our insights into the nature of popular culture...

(The entire section is 5618 words.)

Tim Blackmore (essay date winter 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Blackmore, Tim. “Blind Daring: Vision and Re-vision of Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrranus in Frank Miller's Daredevil: Born Again.Journal of Popular Culture 27, no. 3 (winter 1993): 135-62.

[In the following essay, Blackmore offers a comparative analysis between Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrranus and Frank Miller's Daredevil: Born Again, remarking that both works share the theme of the common man as hero in society.]

                              … why was the sight
To such a tender ball as th' eye confin'd?

John Milton, Samson Agonistes

                    Now I adore my life
With the Bird, the...

(The entire section is 7011 words.)

Lucy Rollin (essay date February 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Rollin, Lucy. “Guilt and the Unconscious in Arkham Asylum.Inks: Cartoon and Comic Art Studies 1, no. 1 (February 1994): 2-13.

[In the following essay, Rollin argues that Grant Morrison's Arkham Asylum is a powerful work that has both puzzled and fascinated readers due to its intense, surrealistic exploration of the subconscious.]

One does not need to be an avid reader and collector of comic books to be aware of the remarkable transformations comic art has undergone in recent years. Once aimed at children and young adults, comic books were chiefly action tales told in serial pictures, printed on pulp paper and full of advertisements. Now, the...

(The entire section is 4301 words.)

Science Fiction Studies (review date November 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, by Scott McCloud. Science Fiction Studies 21, no. 3 (November 1994): 438-39.

[In the following review, the critic praises the examination of the graphic novel and comics genre in Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, commenting that the work “may itself become the first comic to make its way into classrooms as a text in communications theory.”]

The most remarkable critical/aesthetic work I've seen this year has nothing particular to do with sf, but ought to be required reading for anyone still unwilling to accept the considerable impact comics and graphic novels have had on...

(The entire section is 447 words.)

Frank McConnell (review date 20 October 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: McConnell, Frank. “Epic Comics: Neil Gaiman's Sandman.Commonweal 122, no. 18 (20 October 1995): 21-2.

[In the following review, McConnell lauds Neil Gaiman's Sandman series for its innovative use of metafiction and utilization of the graphic novel medium to construct a narrative about the art of storytelling, commenting that the series is “the best piece of fiction being done these days.”]

A few years ago I wrote a column for Commonweal (February 28, 1992) on comic books and how they had become a refuge for some very fine, and very serious, storytellers. And I signaled that Sandman, written by Neil Gaiman, was not...

(The entire section is 1306 words.)

Joe Sanders (essay date autumn 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Sanders, Joe. “Of Parents and Children and Dreams in Neil Gaiman's Mr. Punch and The Sandman.Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction 71 (autumn 1997): 18-32.

[In the following essay, Sanders explores the theme of knowledge and communication between parents and children in Neil Gaiman's Mr. Punch and his Sandman series, asserting that Gaiman uses these texts to illustrate the affect of misinformation on the minds of children.]

“I wouldn't want to gloss over the true facts”, says the narrator of Neil Gaiman's first graphic novel, Violent Cases (1987), lounging comfortably and looking for all the world...

(The entire section is 7809 words.)

Brent Fishbaugh (essay date fall 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Fishbaugh, Brent. “Moore and Gibbons's Watchmen: Exact Personifications of Science.” Extrapolation 39, no. 3 (fall 1998): 189-98.

[In the following essay, Fishbaugh analyzes how Alan Moore portrays the social and humanistic impact of scientific development in Watchmen through the evolution of his characters, commenting that Moore is “quick to illustrate the need for emotion and humanity in decisions concerning the morality of [the potential uses of science] and the weaknesses these same human traits bring to any such implementation.”]

Comic books seem to be eternally stigmatized as garbage for children's minds and sources of...

(The entire section is 5382 words.)

Tatiana Rapatzikou (essay date autumn 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Rapatzikou, Tatiana. “Visualizations of Cyber-Gothic Bodies in William Gibson's Trilogy and the Art of the Graphic Novel.” Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction 83 (autumn 2001): 73-86.

[In the following essay, Rapatzikou examines William Gibson's representation of human identity in his trilogy of science fiction novels—Neuromancer, Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive–and how Gibson's themes are both linked to and informed by the portrayal of the “inhuman” in comic books, particularly in the computer-generated graphic novels, Iron Man: Crash, by Mike Saenz and Batman: Digital Justice, by Pepe Moreno.]

The intrusion...

(The entire section is 7375 words.)

Lisa Coppin (essay date January 2003)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Coppin, Lisa. “Looking Inside Out: The Vision as Particular Gaze in From Hell.Image & Narrative: Online Magazine of the Visual Narrative, no. 5 (online magazine), (January 2003).

[In the following essay, Coppin explores how Alan Moore uses both visual and conscious memory to evoke a sense of the “uncanny” in From Hell, linking the creation of this experience in the narrative to the interaction between the characters and their surroundings.]

Some people see images from another reality. We mostly consider them crazy, although in the past some of them used to be called prophets. Perhaps, as it is suggested in following passage from From Hell, visions are all but a sign of madness and most people may miss half of reality. Maybe there is more than what the common mortal can see. Sometimes, images from a repressed unconscious return, through dreams, apparitions, visions. In From Hell this kind of optical apparitions bring the characters in contact with the supernatural.

In The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), Freud defines the unconscious as a picture story, a sort of catalogue of images that is acted in dreams. Images from dreams make a link between the unconscious and the conscious, but, so Freud contends, we cannot simply translate these images into meaningful words, since there will always remain a tension between image and interpretation because of the radically different nature of both: visual versus textual material. In his review of Freud's ideas about the visual representation in dreams, Jay says:

Although there were visual representations in dreams, they had to be rearticulated in linguistic form before they could become available for analysis. In addition, Freud admitted that even the most thorough exegesis of dreams confronted a blind spot, which he called its “navel”: a place “which has to be left obscure … the spot where it reaches down into the unknown.”

(Jay: 334)

Therefore, the original images need to be translated into language in order to be useful as analysis material. Still, because of their specific nature, these images will continue to resist to the interpretation. From Hell is a picture story in the literal sense of the word, it combines image and word. The uncanny effect that will undeniably affect the reader is to a large extent due to visual devices. Thematically as well as formally—as a comic—the work is a reflection on the statute of reality, to which the gaze provides one of the privileged accesses. Critics speak of a “graphic novel”1; technically speaking, it is a comic, but the topics and particularly the way they are treated and put into words used to be traditionally ascribed to the novel. This double, ambiguous nature makes From Hell a very interesting study object.

As Miller states in La fantasmagorie, there are three main reasons why a psychoanalytically inspired literary criticism or a psycho-criticism2 should be interested in optic phenomena. In the first place, the optic is one of the privileged accesses to reality? It is a commonly fact that “the eye deceives”—optic effects and disorders of the psyche—can deform images. Depending on whether the power and truthfulness of images are stressed, or on the contrary, their deceptive or transitory nature, the idea of imagination has been put into question in different ways. Moreover, theoretical changes in the conception of the visual, induced by the theory of Lacan, have resulted in a stronger stress on what optical models can tell us about the statute of the subject and the regime of desire. In this context, the visual relation is seen as the place of encounter between the individual and the cultural sphere, in as far as the imagination power of the writer is not only tributary to the available cultural material, but also, and in no less extent, to the way the culture of a given period represents or visualises that material. In the third place, literature is a modality of “showing” and disposes of a whole arsenal of optic tools that can be meaningful for the functioning of the text. The framing, the perspective, the relief and the exposure of a story not only have a relation to the subject and his desire, but constitute the elements that make a text into a “machine à faire voir” (Miller: 7).

In this essay we will explore two of the three tracks of investigation indicated by Milner. In a thematic analysis we will investigate the status of reality and imagination as they are created through the gaze of the characters and in the second place we pay attention to the way this is brought into image in From Hell. This will lead us to the question that is at the basis of our essay: How is the uncanny created? In the first place and in a preponderating way this happens via visual effects, and in this respect we deal with a particular way of looking that is focused in From Hell, the vision. A second procedure in the creation of the uncanny concerns the repetition of both images and text. The structure of this essay is inspired by the thematic analysis. In a first part we will concisely situate our study object, paying specific attention to the underlying opinions of the authors that are included in the realisation of their creative project. In part two, the relation of some of the main characters with the physical and supernatural reality through their gaze will be discussed. Part three offers a thorough analysis of the evolution of the particular visual relation the protagonist Dr. William Gull maintains with the material and supernatural reality.


In the autumn of 1888 London is stirred by the murder of five prostitutes in the neighbourhood of Whitechapel. The girls of easy virtue are found with their throat cut and disembowelled, and the conclusion of the public and the investigators of the murders is unanimous: this must be the work of a particularly cold-blooded serial murderer. The police are not able to unmask the author of the cruelties who enters history under the name of “Jack the Ripper”. Now, a 120 years later, the story continues to appeal to the imagination of writers, filmmakers and other artists who are fascinated by the killer's calculating way of acting, his precision and his astonishing knowledge of anatomy. Above all we keep on wondering what was the motive of Jack the Ripper, why did he proceed in such a cruel way and why did he suddenly stop after five perfect murders?

In From Hell Alan Moore gives his own interpretation of the facts, based mainly on the book of Stephen Knight Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution (1977). William Gull, doctor at the Court of Queen Victoria, is pointed as the guilty one. The motive: Queen Victoria discovers Crown Prince Eddy has a child with an ordinary woman and charges William Gull with the mission to avoid the leaking of this secret that could mean the ruin of the empire that is already in distress. Gull takes his task seriously and eliminates all the women knowing about the royal baby. This of course reveals nothing about why the Ripper behaves in such a bloodthirsty way. Moore himself tries to answer this question in chapter four, where William Gull explains his ideological motives. (see 3.2)

From Hell arose from the cooperation of script author Alan Moore and illustrator Eddie Campbell. The drawings as well as the text are based upon thorough historic investigation that was conducted in order to create a comic as truthful as possible. We get a detailed image of what London looked like by the end of the 19th century and Moore overwhelms us in the appendices with a profusion of evidence material and erudition making it, even in spite of his warnings, hard to believe that things did not happen the way he presents them. However nothing is less sure. In From Hell, the border between fiction and reality is continuously played with: almost every detail is supported with possible evidence, and yet, the conclusions drawn by Moore remain conjectures. The title of the book refers to the signature in one of the letters supposedly coming from Jack the Ripper that arrived at the police office, in which the author refers to his supernatural mission: he does not write the police from earthly reality but “from hell”.

If one expects to read a pleasant, colourful comic, From Hell is bound to disappoint. The abundance of violence, sex and especially a lot of blood make reading the work into a real hardship. Moreover, illustrator Eddie Campbell visualizes all this raw material in a very rough manner; his drawings are all but a caress for the eye with their hard and angry pen strokes. Critics sometimes suggest that Campbell's style would be “unworthy” of Moore's screenplay. However, a graphic style always has to be judged according to its integration and commitment to the artistic project as a whole and according to the extent in which structural links of congruency or rivalry between text and image are realised.3 Campbell's work in From Hell definitely meets up to this ideal, reflecting the contents and contributing to the creation of the atmosphere that makes the book into a masterpiece. The above-mentioned structural links will be central in our analysis of the uncanny in From Hell.

From Hell is not a traditional detective story. From the beginning it is obvious who is responsible for the murders and what his motives are. The uncanny effect produced by From Hell has little or nothing to do with suspense or with withholding information. On the contrary, Moore overwhelms us with detailed information of which we can mostly only understand the point afterwards. This procedure corresponds to a particular conception of the course of history. In an interview, Moore states:

I began to play with the idea that the 1880s were a sort of microcosm of what was going to happen in the 20th century—scientifically, artistically, politically. So could you say that the Ripper murders were a microcosm of the 1880s? Could you make it seem—just poetically, I mean—that this was the seed event of the 20th century?


In From Hell, Moore gives us successive views of the social unrest that led to two world wars, including the begetting of Hitler and the growing anti-Semitism. Furthermore, Jack the Ripper was also the first “media murderer”: the press spread his story as never before and the sensation illustrates the increasing power of the media. Moore's conception of the murders as a pre-figuration of the 20th century are echoed in the world vision of the protagonist Dr. Gull who believes in the existence of a fourth dimension. This fourth dimension is understood as an architecture of time wherein different time levels are related to each other. His good friend Hinton communicates this idea to Gull:

—Fourth dimensional patterns within eternity's monolith would, (…), seem merely random events to third dimensional percipients … events rising to an inevitable convergence like an archway's lines. Let us say something peculiar happens in 1788. A century later related events take place. Then again, 50 years later … then 25 years … then 12 1/2 … An invisible curve rising through the centuries.

—Can history then be said to have an architecture Hinton? The notion is most glorious and most horrible.

(Moore and Campbell, ch 2: 15)

Later on, the importance of this idea of a fourth dimension for the construction of the comic will become clear.



Let us begin in the same way Freud does in his article “Das Unheimliche” (1919) and concentrate on the definition the Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary gives for the entrance “vision”:

Vision 1 a: something seen in a dream, trance or ecstasy; specific: a supernatural appearance that conveys a revelation b: an object of imagination c: a manifestation to the senses of something immaterial unusual discernment or foresight mystical awareness of the supernatural usu. in visible form 3 a: the act or power of seeing: SIGHT b: the special sense by which the qualities of an object (as color, luminosity, shape and size) constituting its appearance are perceived and which is mediated by the eye 4 a: something seen b: a lovely or charming sight.

(Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary 1979: 1299)4

A vision is a particular way of seeing, an internal view that gives someone a glance on something one “experiences” as prophetic, mystic or supernatural. Notice that this says very little about the nature of the images one would come to see. Part of the description already suggests the uncanny: a vision can be frightening, it is an unusual discernment or foresight. Vidler also insinuates already in the introduction of The Architectural Uncanny. Essays in the Modern Unhomely (1992) that the uncanny is not an intrinsic characteristic of an object—in his thematic, this is space—, but rather the representation of a certain state of mind:

the “uncanny” is not a property of the space itself nor can it be provoked by any particular spatial conformation; it is, in its aesthetic dimension, a representation of a mental state of projection that precisely elides the boundaries of the real and the unreal to provoke a disturbing ambiguity, a slippage between waking and dreaming.

(Vidler: 11)

This is why the effect of the uncanny for a great part depends on one's look upon the world that surrounds him. In this context, it becomes important to point out which elements constitute a particular look upon the world, and how that look becomes substantial. Vidler talks about “a mental state of projection” and hereby again refers to an optical operation, and this is, of course, not a coincidence. Since the Enlightenment, the gaze is one of the most important ways to come into contact with the world. In From Hell this acknowledgement is successfully exploited.


In From Hell, the very divergent reactions of several characters facing the supernatural via their gaze are confronted. In this essay, the specific relation of the characters to the physical and supernatural world will be analysed. The denomination “physical world” refers to the surrounding environment that can be observed with the naked eye and that is usually called “reality”. The “supernatural” is used to talk about the images that reach us coming from elsewhere, as in dreams, rapture, déjà-vu and other similar phenomena. The opposition real versus unreal is intentionally avoided, for precisely this opposition will be put into question in From Hell.


Mister Lees is the professional visionary of the story. He helps Queen Victoria to come into contact with her deceased husband and leads the police to Jack the Ripper. Lees pretends to stand in contact with the supernatural world. He however fails to ever really see something; he in fact feigns all his raptures, as he confesses to his friend Abberline when he is an old man. The reader sees the confession scene in the prologue, therefore he/she knows that Lees' predictions do not correspond to real visions. The fact that what he pretends to see rally turns out to be true, astonishes Lees as much as it astonishes the reader. It gives him an uncanny feeling that reaches its paroxysm when Gull appears to be the real perpetrator of the murders, even though for Lees pointing him out as the guilty person was just a way of making him pay for a previous offence. At that occasion, Gull whispers him in the ear: “Tell me, Mr. Lees, have you ever TRULY had a VISION? A REAL vision? (…) No? I didn't THINK so … but I have.” (Moore and Campbell, ch. 12: 13). Very striking is also the graphic presentation of Lees pretended visions, as when he has a so-called talk with Prince Albert, who's body is represented by Campbell. Lees does not believe that the prince is present at all and he deceives the queen, but the picture suggests that a spirit is really hanging over them. This time the uncanny feeling is situated exclusively on the side of the reader.

In the epilogue we meet Mr. Lees again, when he is telling Abberline about a frightening dream he had. It appears to be the same dream that the mother of Adolf Hitler had during his begetting, announcing the Second World War and the persecution of the Jews. This dream, in which both Klara Hitler and Mister Lees see the church of Hawksmoor in Whitechapel, a Jewish neighbourhood, flooding with blood and Jews fleeing in all directions, had been visualised earlier in the book. The dream not only predicts the Second World War but also links the intensification of the persecution of the Jews at the end of the 19th century with the Ripper murders, which were committed in the Jewish neighbourhood of London. Moore shows how during the investigation the hatred for the Jews in London strongly flared up. Slanderers indeed pretended from the first victim that the Jewish community was responsible for the murders.


The queen wants to look further but fails to do so. She believes in another reality, but misses visual contact with it. It is striking that she seldom or never looks the reader straight into the eyes. She looks aside, absent-minded, feeling superior to others and does not look at them in an attempt to guard distance. In From Hell she is the one who orders the murders, but the reader cannot but feel pity for her because of her loneliness and the way she is manipulated by those surrounding her. Mister Lees makes use of her superstition by pretending that she can come in contact with the ghost of her deceased husband. William Gull transgresses the orders of the queen and exploits her confidence. Where she wanted to avoid a scandal in the first place, she now is confronted with incidents that may cast a dark shadow over the British throne. Because of her public image she cannot but keep silent. The inability of the queen to come in contact with the physical world via her look isolates her and alienates her from reality. The only consolation left are the pretended contacts with her deceased husband where she, as mentioned before, fails to see anything.


The first prostitute to be murdered, Polly, has ominous dreams that warn her if something dreadful is going to happen. Her friends do not take the prophecies serious; they are “but dreams”. When the fire Polly saw in one of her dreams really happens, this is graphically visualised as the melting together of the images of vision and reality: Polly runs in the middle of the flames (as she saw in her dream), while she in fact finds herself in another part of the city (Moore and Campbell, ch. 5: 23). The fact that Polly is murdered shortly afterwards gives her omen an even more morbid character.


Abberline, the police inspector in charge of the investigation of the murders, has a matter-of-fact and analytic view on the case. When a boy from the crowd points to the magic nature of the murders, he severely denounces this attitude (Moore and Campbell, ch. 9: 4). Abberline adopts the scientific approach we would expect from Doctor Gull and seems to completely shut himself off from impressions of a supernatural kind. In spite of this, under pressure of the circumstances, he accepts Mister Lees' visions (after all they lead him to the real murder) and sometimes he drifts back to the past in his dreams, e.g., when he is transported to his childhood, observing his father at work as a little boy. Later on, his visual and analytic capacities will ironically turn out to be rather useless: when he finally sees clear into the true circumstances of the murders, he is forced to keep silent and is forced to retire so that he will never be able to use his talent anymore.


William Gull, the protagonist, is the only character of the comic who has a real relationship to the supernatural. Three stages can be distinguished in his visual relation to respectively the physical and supernatural world that can be schematically represented as follows:

Physical World Looks Looks Looks
  Sees Sees Sees
Supernatural World Looks Looks Looks
  Sees Sees Sees

In the first phase Gull has an optical relation only to the physical reality, although his concern with the supernatural is not totally absent. In the second phase, he has one foot in the physical reality and the other in the supernatural, a situation that will finally bend him towards madness. Shortly before his death, in the third phase, Gull leaves the material world completely and is left with his mere visual contact with the supernatural.


The second chapter begins with the symbolic birth of William Gull, who, as a child in a boat with his father5, approaches the light at the end of a tunnel. In this scene the reader gets many indications about William Gull's later life. It is suggested that experiences of his early childhood will strongly determine his forthcoming life and the importance of the gaze is emphasised by its position in this “primal scene”. The graphic design of this scene goes from complete darkness to bright light in a gradually widening of the visual range of the spectator. The scene moreover displays graphic similarities with other scenes that put the eye on the foreground6. William's odd question to his father makes clear that the boy believes that his physical apparition is related to his mother's gaze:

—Mother says that when she were with child after Waterloo, the pictures of Napoleon everywhere impressed fearfully on her mind and that's why I look like him. Is that so father?

—Well, it is a medicinal fact that such things may occur. How it accords with Scripture I know not.

(Moore and Campbell, ch. 2: 2)

A second important influence in Gull's life is the Holy Bible. His father is a very religious man and gives his son continuously citations from the Holy Scriptures. The question “What does the Lord expect from you?” concerns the boy most of all. He dreams that the Lord has chosen him for a great task and waits for Him to reveal that task.

The first stage in Gull's relation to reality can be called ‘the formation phase’ and occupies the first seventy years of his life. During this period the protagonist solely has a relation to the physical reality. William Gull observes the environment with a scientifically interested look that excludes any kind of sympathy: it is cold, matter-of-fact and cruel. When his father dies, little William opens the eyes of the body and looks into them. This scene undoubtedly refers to William's professional choice and to his early passion for human anatomy, but there is more. It is possible that William opens the eyes of the body because he wants to know the last image perceived by his father before dying. Maybe he even wonders what lies behind the earthly reality and if the dead have a view on the supernatural. Also his meeting with Merrick, the elephant man, reveals many things about his character and his gaze. Unlike most people, Gull feels no disgust at his encounter with Merrick, not even tremendum et fascinosum applies to him. His interest is purely scientific and therefore he greets Merrick with the words: “Mr. Merrick, you are the most dreadfully deformed human being I have ever encountered. It's a great privilege to make your acquaintance” (Moore and Campbell, ch. 2: 22). For Merrick it is stirring news that his visitor does not start screaming nor look aside and he feels quite comfortable in the presence of Gull. Because of his similarity with the Hindu god Ganesa (a human being with an elephant head), in India Merrick would be a god among human race, so Gull tells him. Indeed in India someone like Merrick is worshipped and his sleep is studied: when the man-god has a restless sleep, this means social unrest or war, a quiet sleep means peace. The Hindus believe just like Gull in the existence of a supernatural world that has its influence on material reality. And as the druids used to observe signs7, they interpret tokens of the Indian incarnation of Ganesa. Gull's interest for the elephant man is perhaps also related to Merrick's possible connection with the supernatural. In other words, Gull sees Merrick as an in-between being, as someone having a privileged access to the supernatural.

In the second chapter, which mostly corresponds to the formation phase, the reader literally comes to see the world through Gull's eyes. The camera takes his perspective, making the voice of the first person coincide with his perception of the world. Often we see hands at work as the protagonist must see them; sometimes there is darkness when his eyes are blinded. In comics, characters talking in the first person are usually pictured as a third person whom we see acting. The original camera position in this part of From Hell forces us to enter the body of Gull, creating thus a particular link between the reader and the main character, for whom we would normally feel little sympathy. At the end of the chapter, our perspective suddenly changes from Gull to the character of Annie Crook8 to finally fade away together with her. This particular position of the camera will reappear: when Annie, the second prostitute, is murdered, during the dissection of Mary Kelly, at William's own trial and in the last vision he has before his death.


During the second stage that can be distinguished in Gull's visual relation to the environing world, he still looks at earthly reality, but in fact he only really sees the supernatural. This phase starts when Gull gets a first vision during a cardiac arrest.9 The architect Nicholas Hawksmoor10, his father, his deceased friend Hinton and God successively appear to him. Gull asks the ghost of his father what is now really his task in life since God still has not given him one. The apparition of God in the shape of Yabulon, the three-headed god of the freemasons, is the apotheosis of this first vision. Yabulon nevertheless does not speak to him and remains image without sound. Gull does not seem to be surprised about having this vision, on the contrary, he is happy that God finally decides to show him the way and that he at least gets to see what he has been waiting for since so long. At the same time God reminds him that He is watching him. This reflexivity is an important theme in the Jewish-Christian tradition: when God makes himself visible to a subject, this act refers to the look of the Other defining the subject over and over again:

Une fois visible, les jeux sont faits: il sera virtuellement regardé de toutes parts et son regard ne pourra à son tour “se poser” sur le monde qu'en déchaînant les pouvoirs du visible qui le cerne autant qu'il “l'incarne”

(Assoun: 9)

When Gull is called shortly afterwards to Queen Victoria for an extremely delicate task, he soon interprets this task as his divine mission. From that moment in the story Gull will correspond to the profile that Freud defines as “paranoia”: he lives in an illusionary world where God has chosen him for an important task. From the moment of the vision, the whole universe is oriented towards the accomplishment of that task.

In the fourth chapter Gull holds a long monologue explaining the deeper motives for the murders to Netley, his coachman, who becomes his accomplice or better, his “slave”, because he in fact gets trapped in a situation that surpasses his capacities. Gull intends to save the world from the decay caused by women and by doing so, he definitively wants to consolidate the age of Reason, or in other words, the patriarchy. In order to save patriarchy, one has to recognise again the ongoing war between the sun (the male element, light of knowledge, personified in the Greek god Apollo) and the moon (the female element, dark, creative, since the beginning of patriarchy personified in the Greek god Dionysus). This war has been going on for centuries and traces of the Dionysus worship can be found everywhere, for example in the architecture of Nicholas Hawksmoor and in the poetry and pictures of William Blake. Gull is afraid that the omnipotence of Reason will be defeated if Reason fails to give its unconscious antagonist a place. Trying to balance the dark powers, he falls back on an animistic vision of the world wherein magic and reality intersect. Netley is Gull's only confidant, precisely because the coachmen will not understand the deeper motives that drive him: “You realise that I only share these thoughts in recognition of your lack of cognisance?” (Moore and Campbell, ch. 4: 33) Netley is a simple man who has never come in contact with magic and Gull's conceptions strongly disturb his carefully protected everyday life. Up till then, Netley had never felt the need to see any further than the end of his nose. Not only does Netley not understand Gull's explanation, he also rejects it impulsively. Gull then points out the figures of the sun around the horses' necks that symbolise the male force of the god Apollo, making clear that whether he wants it or not, Netley is also involved in the conflict between reason and the unconscious. Gull's words make such a deep impression on Netley that fear makes him suffer physically and he throws up in the gutter. It is not a coincidence that the coachmen had kidneys for lunch, since they are the same organs the Romans used to read the future from.

The description of Gull contains at least two seeds for the uncanny. Freud states: “an uncanny experience occurs either when infantile complexes which have been repressed [here: what does the Lord expect from you?] are once more revived by some impression [here: the cardiac affection with aphasia], or when primitive beliefs which have been surmounted seem once more to be confirmed.” (Freud: 249). Freud more particularly links these primitive beliefs with our ancestor's animistic conception of the universe that is “characterised by the idea that the world was peopled with the spirits of human beings; by the subject's narcissistic overvaluation of his own mental processes; by the belief in the omnipotence of thoughts and the technique of magic based on that belief, by the attribution to various outside persons and things of carefully graded magical powers (…)” (Freud: 240). According to Freud, in our normal development we all have been through a stage corresponding to the animistic world conception of primitive men, so that everything that strikes us now as uncanny “fulfils the conditions of touching those residues of animistic mental activity within us and bringing them to expression.” (Freud: 241). All these elements mentioned by Freud can be observed in Gull's conceptions and acts. For Freud, this return of repressed material seems to bear a rather negative connotation, as something “we did not yet overcome”. In the opinion of William Gull, however, the return is highly necessary for it is the only possible way to save reason, not surprisingly symbolised by light (the sun) and the capacity to see. Since the age of reason also corresponds to patriarchy, we can argue that Gull's story also brings castration fear on stage. The protagonist is stimulated by a greed for optic effects—after each vision he longs for a new one-that is closely linked to the fear never to be able to see again. Freud defends in his analysis of “The Sandman” that the fear to lose one's capacity to see symbolises castration fear. This explanation can be useful when interpreting the mortal scene of Gull that pictures his eye as a solar eclipse that later on changes into a veiled moon (symbol of Dionysus and the dark powers) at the moment of dying.

Each successful murder and mutilation is accompanied by a particular vision. The dissection of the corpses is fundamental for the intensity of the visions. Jan Baetens proposes an auto-reflexive lecture of the return of dissection and autopsy, which would offer a metaphor for the activity of the reader:

Car si métaphore il y a, elle concerne en tout premier lieu le geste même du lecteur, lequel à force de vouloir arracher au livre les sécrets supposés, finit par mettre en pièces ce qu'il est censé de rassembler en un tout cohérent, étayé par un faisceau d'interprétations soigneusement vérifiées.

(Baetens: 111)

Because of the excess of information, the dissection becomes a performative act: it is a showing that is at the same time an acting. By contrast, for Gull, the dissection is rather an acting that also implicates a showing: only in the expectation of, or at the moment of the mutilation, images are shown to him. His visions become longer and more intense, in the end involving him personally. As Moore points out in the appendices, it is quite common for serial murderers and psychopaths to have visions before, during and/or after killing. Moreover, the desire to see (to have a vision) and to be seen (by God) cannot be disconnected. Gull is fascinated by his visions and every time again he wants to see; and therefore he has to continue the killing. Since he is also acting according to God's wishes, he wants God to look at him, and to admire him in the accomplishment of his difficult task. Later on, at his trial, Gull will repeat that God has chosen him for the job and that He is the only one to call him to account.

In the beginning, Gull does not experience his visions as being uncanny. The visions of the first three murders refer to the future and show images that above all fascinate him. However, he has no personal link with those images and they do not yet implicate him directly. For the reader, on the contrary, the visions are uncanny indeed: not only do they correspond to possible real situations in the 20th century—so he sees for example a TV-set and electric lamps in a living room—, but, as the appendices teach us, the people in his visions later testify to having seen him as well.11 This reflexive proceeding reaches its paroxysm in Gull's mortal vision.

For Gull himself the visions only become uncanny when he starts seeing images from the past and repetition begins to operate. In the cruellest scene of the book, showing the dissection of the last victim during 30 unbearable pages, Gull experiences various connected visions in which he talks for the first time, though the characters do not yet perceive him. He is suddenly fully affected by an uncanny feeling when his deceased friend Hinton appears to him, for it is the first time he gets a vision of something recognisable from his personal past. As a reaction, he looks around in anguish to see if his friend is really there. For Freud, the uncanny precisely hides itself in the “return of the same” (Freud: 227) and it is frightening because “something repressed (which) recurs” (Freud: 241). From that moment on the images from the past succeed each other and Gull gradually loses his mind. The transition to the third optical stage, where Gull will get snared in the supernatural world, starts from here.


When Gull is cited to appear before the court of freemasons, he finds himself for the first time in a situation he has seen in a vision before. Graphically this is presented by a chiasm: what during the dissection was part of the vision now becomes reality. When Gull realises what happens, he sees himself imprisoned in the crossing and unconsciously lifts his hand as if he still held the knife that he used for the dissection. This confrontation with the uncanny nature of his own visions is what drives Gull to insanity, a process that reaches its culmination just before his death, when he enters a scene he already saw in a vision and which symbolises the negation and the loss of his identity. The same procedure of a graphic chiasm is used here, making clear that Gull has become unable to distinguish vision and reality.


Just before his death, when Gull has been left in a madhouse by the freemasons, he has definitively lost his capacity to look (he does not even remarks the couple making love in his view range), and the only thing he still sees is what goes on before his spiritual eye. This is what according to Freud characterises the behaviour of neurotics: “the over-accentuation of physical reality in comparison with material reality—a feature closely allied to the belief in the omnipotence of thoughts” (Freud: 187). The mighty Gull we could admire for his genius is now reduced to an old child, his fancy suits have been replaced by asylum togs. Campbell visualises the situation in a very oppressive way: Gull's once so lucid gaze now only reaches the top of his nose.

The mortal vision heralds Gull's last optic stage and the uncanny feeling strikes the reader most intensely in this scene. For the second time we get a close-up of Gull's eye, an image that Campbell reserves for the most oppressive visions12, and through the eye we enter Gull's world of visions. In this scene, Moore ties all the ends together and shows the link between many elements he brought to the reader's notice in a subtle or less subtle way during the story. An example of one of those details is the return of the painting The Ghost of a Flea from William Blake that represents a frightening monster. In his monologue Gull already referred to this terrifying painting that is said to be the representation of a ghost that appeared to the poet. The reader also gets a glance of this painting in the middle of the book when Gull menaces the poet Yeats in a scene that does not seem to have a specific function at that time. In the final vision appears that Gull himself is the monster that Blake sees and draws, which means that Gull travels through time: William Blake indeed lived a century earlier.

The images that William Gull gets to see from the past and the future, link the Ripper murders with other serial murderers throughout time. Moreover, the future apparitions in which Gull is the object of the vision of others correspond to existing testimonies. In this last vision, together with the protagonist, the reader seems to access the fourth dimension of time. We alternatively see what Gull sees and how he is perceived, in the past as well as in the future. In this way, Moore seems to suggest the possibility that the hypothesis of a fourth dimension in the structure of time might be right. The visions in this book are not subjective, unique experiences but they are all linked to each other. A good example is the dream shared by Mister Lees and Klara Hitler. Everything that occurs in history is related. Nil novi sub sole.


How does the form of the message contribute to the creation of uncanny effects on the reader? Or, to put it in other words: why can From Hell not be conceived otherwise than as a comic?

  1. Moore and Campbell focus in the construction of their book precisely on the return of both textual and visual elements to create an uncanny feeling. Hereby they skillfully make use of their knowledge that our visual memory does not stock images in the same way our conscious memory stocks words. Images remain brand-marked on our retina in a subtle, often unconscious way. The Coca-Cola advertisements that show a Coca-Cola bottle during a few hundredths of a second in between film images are a well-known example of this phenomenon. It is therefore all but a coincidence that Freud used to define the unconscious as a picture story. Maybe in the beginning of the 21th century, he would have compared it to a comic, maybe even after reading From Hell.
  2. The obsessive return of elements is ideologically justified in the conception of history as a “fourth dimension” that we defined before as an architecture of time wherein different time levels are related to each other. Via visual procedures such as the positioning of the camera and the graphic melting together of vision and reality, the reader gets drawn into the story, what contributes to the efficiency of the uncanny. Moreover, the appendices, full of data to confirm the veracity of the story, implicate us in a direct way in the creative process of the writer. The reader gets the impression to be drawn along in a frenzied search for the truth and might forget that his perception of the case is manipulated. All the pieces of the puzzle fit together in an almost too perfect way and precisely that is what makes us shudder. Or as a critic puts it: “this book is a black hole” (Hausler).


  1. “The term graphic novel is used to distinguish so-called literary illustrated narratives from their more frivolous brethren known as the comic book.” (Hausler)

  2. Milner defines psycho criticism as follows: “une critique d'inspiration psychanalytique dont la visée essentielle est d'identifier, dans les oeuvres qu'elle prend en considération, les processus inconscients dont Freud a révélé l'existence en étudiant le psychisme individuel” (1982: 5)

  3. Jan Baetens, “Une dialectique à l'oeuvre”. (112)

  4. My italics.

  5. It is not a coincidence that his father is present in this symbolic scene for the ghost of his young deceased father will follow Gull for the rest of his life. Besides, the mother figure is strikingly absent in the education of the young Gull. After the death of his father, his mother trusts him to rector Harisson, who makes sure that William gets the best education and is able to study to become a doctor. Women are also absent in his early adulthood years, except as patients. The freemasonry, which will strongly influence his life, is a community of men. The absence of women in his life might have a direct relationship with his later misogyny and the ideological motives for the murders. This remains, of course, a mere conjecture.

  6. See also phase 3.

  7. Gull uses the example of the druids in his monologue (cf. second phase).

  8. Annie Crook is the lover of Prince Eddy and the mother of his child. In order to force her to silence, Gull makes he undergo a brain surgery that makes her insane.

  9. In the footnotes Moore points out that the cardiac arrest striking Gull in October 1887 resulted into recurrent aphasia. Aphasia causes all kinds of weird hallucinations to the patient.

  10. In From Hell, buildings from the 17th century architect Hawksmoor, with in the first place the cathedral of Whitechapel, occupy an important place. From Hell would be a perfect example for the study of the uncanny in architecture; this is certainly a precious research track. A particularly uncanny description of Christchurch can be found in footnote 32 of the second chapter.

  11. The way Moore in this section creates an uncanny effect by providing extra information in the notes illustrates very well the point we made earlier in the first section.

  12. The second close-up is found in the chapter describing the dissection of the fifth and last victim, Mary Kelly.


Assoun, Paul-Laurent. 1995. Leçons psychoanalytiques sur Le Regard et la Voix. Paris: Anthropos.

Baetens, Jan. 2001. “Une dialectique à l'oeuvre” in Neuvième Art. Les cahiers du musée de la bande dessinée 6. 108-113.

Freud, Sigmund. [1919] 1955. “The ‘Uncanny.’” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Volume XVII. London: The Hogarth Press: 217-256.

Hausler, Pete. 2000. “From Hell by Alan Moore; Illustrated by Eddie Campbell” Village Voice

Jackson, Kevin. 2000. “Old Moore's Ripping Yarns: Alan Moore's Ambitious and Soon-to-be-Filmed Comic Book Novel Traces the Roots of the 20th Century to Jack the Ripper.”

Jay, Martin. 1993. Downcast Eyes. The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought. Berkeley/Los Angeles/London: University of California Press.

Milner, Max. 1982. La fantasmagorie. Essai sur l'optique fantastique. Paris: Puf.

Moore, Alan, and Eddy Campbell. 1999. From Hell. Being a Melodrama in Sixteen Parts. Northhampton: Kitchen Sink Press.

Vidler, Anthony. 1992. “Introduction” in The Architectural Uncanny. Essays in the Modern Unhomely. Cambridge: MIT Press.