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A Tale of the Batman: Gotham By Gaslight (& Master of the Future)

After spending the tail end of last year looking at the tangled inter-continuity crossovers at Marvel, I thought I’d spend January looking at some of the looser “out of continuity” tales at the major companies.

Gotham By Gaslight is an out-of-continuity tale which imagines Batman as the protector of a Victorian-era Gotham City, pitting the detective against none other than Jack the Ripper. It’s an entertaining little story which has a bit of fun with its premise, while managing to concisely boil the Dark Knight’s characteristics down to their core components. It’s an efficient tale which works quite well on its own merits, but has subsequently been overtaken by the hype surrounding it.

Making headlines...

DC Comics calls them Elseworlds. To quote from the rather pompous language of the publisher, “In Elseworlds, super-heroes are taken from their usual settings and put into strange times and places – some that have existed, and others that can’t, couldn’t or shouldn’t exist. The result is stories that make characters who are as familiar as yesterday seem as fresh as tomorrow.” So you can move and alter a comic book character in any way, playing with the familiar narrative tropes in a manner which may shine new light on existing characters, while also saying something of their core attributes. Well, in theory, at least.

The bulk of Elseworlds stories have focused around simply placing characters against familiar and gimmicky backdrops – we’re talking stories like “Batman-as-Green-Lantern!” or “pirate Batman!” and so forth. Apparently, this was the reason that the line was officially retired a few years back (though it has subsequently been relaunched with The Last Family of Krypton). However, there are a handful of truly classic Elseworlds stories, ones which manage to do more than simply change the costume or the setting, and can find a way to say things about the character in question. Mark Millar’s Red Son, the story of a Soviet Superman, is one of these.

Gotham By Gaslight is generally regarded as “the first Elseworlds”. Debutting before the line officially existed (and in the wake of the popular out-of-continuity The Dark Knight Returns), Gotham By Gaslight has been subsequently incorporated into the publishing line – with later reprintings even branded with the logo. As the first of these sorts of tales, the story has earned a solid reputation and a great deal of respect – the concept was original and groundbreaking at the time, even if it seems relatively tame by today’s standard.

Gothic Gotham...

The real appeal of the story is the way that it so perfect fits Batman into the time period. As the sketches and newspaper headlines demonstrate, this is the era of the penny dreadful, the time of gothic horrors. “Bat haunts city,” one headline declares. Batman is right at home in this world, a world home to monsters like The Curious Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde or Frankenstein or Dracula. Although he isn’t physically a monster, he may as well be to those who see him. In many ways, Bruce has birthed a monster in his nocturnal crusader – he confesses uncertainty at what this life choice will bring him and, in true gothic style, “Gotham’s innocents know not what to make of me either.”

And yet Batman, the urban vigilante, is a creature of these times. It is the turn of the century – life is changing. It is a brave new world. And Batman, more than Superman or the Flash or Green Lantern, is the perfect figure to emerge from the growing shadows cast by the advances of the industrial revolution. Although the industrial revolution has made towns of this size viable (plague and other diseases, as well as infrastructure typically limited the size of cities in the past), they are still filthy and rotten places. “Can you believe how big this city’s grown in a single decade?” Gordon asks a young Bruce Wayne, “And how dirty it’s become?”

Looking back and knowing what horrors the new century will bring, it’s hard not to agree with Gordon’s commentary on the Caped Crusader. “For good or ill, it appears that Gotham has found its own guardian angel,” he remarks, “and, god help us — I suspect we’re going to need him.” And, yet, for all that darkness, writer Brian Augustyn and artist Mike Mignola enjoy toying with the reader’s expectations of Batman. The novel was produced in the late 1980s, a period when a darker portrayal of the character had begun to take root (in no small part thanks to the work of writer Frank Miller).

Batman is quite industrious and revolutionary...

At various points, Augustyn teases us with grim and gritty narrative that wouldn’t have seemed out of place in Miller’s Year One, but then reveal a few lines in that it isn’t Batman speaking. “Gotham City is an overripe fruit,” a narration box suggests at one point, in a hard-boiled tone we discover – a panel later – belongs to Jack the Ripper, “fat, fetid and fit to burst.”

I have to admit that I am somewhat on the fence about the novel’s use of the notorious serial killer Jack the Ripper. I realise that the character has become such a pop culture staple, but I’m still just a little bit uncomfortably at the fact that he – and his victims – really existed. Of course, this applies generally to all manner of fiction, and I do acknowledge that the character as presented is usually fictionalised beyond the point of recognition (save the alias), but it’s still a tiny bit unsettling.

Incidentally, it’s fun to spot numerous little shoutouts to various real life Ripper suspects, like Walter Sickert (who runs a “signs painted” business in Gotham) or Prince Albert (who is visiting the city) or even a “royal doctor”. It’s nice to know that Augustyn has done his work and knows the material.

Quite a Joker, that one...

I have to admit that I’ve never been convinced about the manner in which Batman and the Ripper are tied together by Augustyn – it seems almost convenient and relying on an intensely hackneyed coincidence. Although comparing and contrasting Batman and the Ripper as monsters of Victorian society works, everything ends up far too neatly resolved at the climax. I suppose that the wonderful thing about working outside established continuity is that you get to tell stories with closure, but it just seems to rely on rather awkward contrivances to get there.

However, Gotham By Gaslight probably works best as an interesting origin story for a steam punk Batman. All the elements are there – it’s clear that Augustyn isn’t simply changing the background images on the panels, but has actually thought about how the character would fit in with this society. Bruce’s motivation isn’t glossed over, nor are his thought-patterns or reasoning. The story doesn’t assume that these things can go unexplained or that it can rely on the reader to carry them over. It’s a nice move which ensures that the story is both accessible to new readers (it was one of the first Batman stories that I read) and also has a psychological depth.

Has Bruce gone Bats?

I’m not sure I’d as readily describe it as a “classic” as most – I believe that its place as the first Elseworlds story is perhaps given too much weight. But it is a solid little adventure. Mignola’s pencils and designs give the work a wonderfully “sketched” feeling, with excellent work on the faces. Gotham By Gaslight doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it does tell a fascinating Batman story in an unconventional setting.

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