RTF Comic Book Review: “Batman: Gotham by Gaslight“
By: Adam Basciano
“In an age of mystery and superstition, how would the people of Gotham react to a weird creature of the night, a bat-garbed vigilante feared by the guilty and the innocent alike? The very first Elseworlds tale re-imagines the Dark Knight detective in Victorian times and pits him against the infamous murderer Jack the Ripper.” (DC Comics)
I’ve been wanting to read Batman: Gotham by Gaslight for the past 13 years, and I finally have. It is a much hyped Elseworld’s tale, but does it live up to the hype? Read on to find out. First off, setting a Batman story in the Victorian era is perfect. He is the superhero equivalent of Sherlock Holmes after all. Even though the story is set in a different era, the core essential elements that make Batman who he is are all present, even with some twists added in.
As most Batman stories do, we start off with the Murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne. Instead of returning from a movie, they are out on a horse and carriage ride. Usually, the murdered only has one gun, but in this iteration, he’s brandishing two. He fully intended to kill young Bruce, but wasn’t stopped by fear of the cops, or compassion for the frightened child. Rather a swarm of bats attacking him caused him to flee. One other change from regular comics, is that this swarm of bats inspires Bruce to become Batman before he even leaves to train abroad. The story alludes to him and Allred beginning preparation before him leaving. Usually, the bat and Batman persona all come about after Bruce returns from his travels. It’s a slightly different spin, but still works as the end game is the same.
As for Bruce’s travel’s abroad, he makes stops in London to train with some of their foremost detectives, during the time of the Jack the Ripper murders. He then stops in Vienna, to study psychiatry, to better understand the criminal mind. This allows Batman: Gotham By Gaslight to have a fun cameo appearance by Dr. Sigmund Freud. In terms of established Batman characters that appear in this story, we’re looking at James Gordon, who in this story is referred to as inspector, and Alfred Pennyworth. Bruce and Gordon know each other and are friends right from the start in this incarnation. I like that. It somewhat reminds me of Batman 66 in that sense. Alfred isn’t as hands on in this incarnation. He’s the keeper of Bruce Wayne’s secret, and his butler. Very akin to both 1966 and 1989 Batman. The way he covered for Bruce Wayne’s whereabouts when Inspector Gordon arrives at Wayne Manor, called back so many memories of the Adam West Batman incarnation.
Batman: Gotham By Gaslight adds a new character to the mythos named Jacob Packer. When he’s first introduced, I surely thought he’d be a throw away character. However, when Bruce encounters him on the boat back from London to Gotham, and calls him Uncle, that changed. The story, through some flashback informs us that Jacob and Thomas Wayne were friends, who served in the Civil War’s medical unit. Further, Thomas Wayne paid for Jacob’s medical schooling, and then after that, his legal studies, before he hired him as the Wayne family’s lawyer. I like the inclusion of this character, because it gives someone else for Bruce Wayne to connect with on a quasi familial level. Also, it adds a tragic element to this books final act.
In terms of Bruce Wayne/Batman himself, I loved this iteration. As Bruce Wayne we get a persona that is part billionaire playboy and a recluse all in one. As Batman, he is more of a myth. There are reports of him in the papers, but there are no eyewitness accounts, other than the criminals he beats up. At a socialite party, the rich & political members of society refer to Batman as nosferatu and a vampire. Batman himself welcomes the fear from both the criminals, and average citizens. It makes sense that in Victorian times, people would consider Batman a vampire. After all, people back then were more of a mystical lot.
As for the villain, Jack the Ripper fits in perfectly as a Batman villain. Writer Brian Augustyn does a fantastic job in blending fact with fiction. His modus operandi of killing is the same, and his victims being prostitute’s remains intact. Fiction comes into play when the writer reveals Jack the Ripper’s identity. I wasn’t able to piece together the identity, and I don’t think other readers will either. One other cool element is the connection between Jack the Ripper, & the murders of Thomas & Martha Wayne. I won’t reveal his identity, or the twist. At one point, Bruce Wayne gets arrested as Jack the Ripper, and for the murders. Sure it was an obvious frame job, but the police have solid evidence. They find the murder weapon in Wayne Manor, and he can’t account for his whereabouts during the Gotham murders, and he was in London during the first wave of murders. This development gives us pages of Bruce Wayne piecing together clues from prison, with a little assist from Inspector Gordon.
I loved that this whole book focuses on the murder mystery and the detective side of Batman. Every book that does so, I give an extra bit of love too! More of the modern day books not written by Scott Snyder need to remember that Batman is more of a detective then he is a superhero.
Art duties on Batman: Gotham By Gaslight were handled by Michael Mignola, aka, the guy responsible for Hellboy. Though, it should be noted that this is prior to the creation of Hellboy. As a result, you see small elements of what would become his more signature style, but for the most part, it’s a more traditional style and aesthetic. I don’t say that as a bad thing, it actually fits this story more so then Mignola’s Hellboy style would. Bruce Wayne looks like a taller, 1989 Michael Keaton. Maybe it’s the fact that this book was written the same year as that first movie, so I don’t know if it’s my eyes seeing what I want to see, or if Mignola did this intentionally. Either way, I see it.
That Victorian era Batman suit is just great. The people of Gotham City call him a vampire, and that’s because in the shadows, the costume makes him look like a vampire. Here’s the thing though, even though it’s so perfect for the time period, I’d be perfectly happy if Batman wore this iteration of the costume in normal continuity. I loved every page of art in this book but my favourites were the ones with Batman chasing down criminals, with newspaper clippings overlaid on top. These are pretty kick ass looking! It’s essentially a comic book version of a montage. After The Dark Knight Returns, I didn’t think Batman riding a horse could look any cooler, but Mignola definitely gives it a great try! As great as the art is, it wouldn’t look nearly as good without colorist David Hornung. There are a lot of browns, greys, purples, and black at work here, and they all perfectly serve Mignola’s pencil work. The heavy use of these darker colors keep Batman in the shadows, and even when we get our clearest look at him, he’s still shrouded in mystery.
My fellow comic book fans kept touting this story as one of the best Elseworld’s books of all time. They’d put it right up there with, The Dark Knight Returns, The Killing Joke, and Kingdom Come. So, were they right? Does Batman: Gotham By Gaslight live up to the hype? Yes, it most definite does! I think it’s a shame that DC Comics doesn’t make better use of their multiverse, by telling some monthly stories set in the continuity of some of their more popular Elseworld’s. Also thankfully, this book is getting the animated film treatment. I will review the film adaptation, once it hits Blu-Ray! Until then, If you haven’t done so already, file this in your “MUST READ” pile. You won’t regret it!