BRIAN AUGUSTYN – Gotham by Gaslight: An Alternative History of the Batman.

DC Comics; graphic novel; 1st printing, 1989. Script: Brian Augustyn; pencils: Michael Mignola; inks: P. Craig Russell. Introduction by Robert Bloch.

   What it is that makes (and establishes) a cultural icon is difficult if completely impossible to predict, but with plenty of hindsight at our command, it is absolutely certain that both the Batman and Jack the Ripper each and individually most definitely are.

   Did they ever meet? Of course not, but on the other hand, why not? This particular graphic novel (or sophisticated comic book, if you prefer, with sturdy cardstock covers, glossy pages and no ads) was not designated with the “Elseworlds” label, but according the various comic sites on the Internet, it was the first, and it was so successful that an entire series of such novels followed.

Gotham by Gaslight

   So what is (or are) Elseworlds? Allow me to quote from the equivalent of the DC handbook: “In Elseworlds, 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.”

   After Robert Bloch’s introduction, supplied just in case an unwary comic book reader does happen to be unfamiliar with Jack the Ripper – and a nice touch, at that – comes a retelling of the origin of the Batman: the holdup man who guns down Bruce Wayne’s parents before his very eyes; the young lad then devoting his life to take up the cause of justice against criminals and the underworld behind a mask, a costume and a long, free-flowing cape. Except this time it is the late 1880s, and this is not the current Batman at all.

   At the same time as Bruce Wayne is taking up his new career, a horrible slayer of prostitutes in London seems to have made his way to Gotham, a city well-known to comic book readers as the home stomping grounds of the Batman, Inspector Gordon and all of the other characters of current legend (and so it appears) no matter what universe they may happen to be in.

   The coincidence in timing is far too obvious for some, and Bruce Wayne, unable to account for his whereabouts and not being home at night, is first confronted, then arrested and convicted of being the Ripper. In his jail cell, going over the piles of documents, photos and other evidence against him, provided by Gordon, not convinced of his guilt, it is Bruce Wayne the detective that spots the clue that will nail the killer, if only he were not scheduled to be executed for the crimes himself in the morning.

   Truthfully, however, while this certainly qualifies Gotham by Gaslight as an entry in Al Hubin’s Crime Fiction IV – it is not there now, but other Batman graphic novels are – the detection, if not minor, is hardly of the fair play variety. In terms of the reader playing detective him- or herself, this is also mere child’s play, as it were, there being only one other suspect and that being one who only appears in one previous panel.

   The attraction here is the small delights provided by viewing the Batman legend from another perspective in an unexpected context – as if with new eyes – and the delightful art from Mignola and Russell. Grays and blues and browns dominate, as well as exquisite details in Victorian-era architecture, wearing apparel and facial foliage.

   You have to be a Batman fan, perhaps – and if you’re not, it’s sure as shouting that I’m not going to make you one – but if you are, this is a sure-fire classic must-read.

— May 2006

[UPDATE] 09-22-07. I’ve reprinted this review, of course, because of the coverage of the original Batman in the previous post. Other than that, there’s been no attempt to rewrite it to make it more of a followup than this. It’s as I wrote it when it first appeared. But as I suggested, though, this particular book now does appear in the Addenda to the Revised CFIV.