A year after the release of the high-profile adaptation of Batman: The Killing Joke, Warner Bros. Animation is setting its sights on another icon Batman story from the 1980s, Gotham by Gaslight. But what is it about this nearly 30-year-old comic that makes it such an ideal candidate for a DC Universe Animated Original Movie?
Like The Killing Joke, Gotham by Gaslight was published as a prestige-format one-shot. But while the former is a contemporary tale, the latter — written by Brian Augustyn and illustrated by Mike Mignola and P. Craig Russell — moves the action back in time to the year 1889.
Despite the historical setting, it’s surprising how little of Batman’s origins need to be altered to believably place the Dark Knight in the Victorian era. Obviously, young master Bruce’s parents can no longer be gunned down after a family trip to the cinema, but the alternative portrayed here – a highway robbery gone wrong – is a perfect fit with book’s 19th-century backdrop.
Aside from a cameo appearance from a Victorian version of the Joker, now a serial poisoner whose permanent grin is the result of a self-administered dose of strychnine, the book’s main villain is the real-life murderer Jack the Ripper.
The Ripper isn’t the only historical figure to appear in the book – Bruce Wayne is shown chatting with a cigar-chomping Sigmund Freud, under whom he apparently studied while living in Vienna – but making the Ripper that primary antagonist is an interesting move that works largely because, like Batman’s regular adversaries, Jack is also a larger-than-life figure with an outlandish name whose character, origins and identity have been rewritten numerous times over the years by numerous writers.
In many ways, the Ripper is as much a work of fiction as the Penguin, Catwoman or Two-Face. Much of what we think we know about him is based on theories that have arisen wake of the unsuccessful police investigation into the deaths of five women on the streets of London in 1888.
However, I suspect key to the story’s enduring appeal is its highly stylized artwork from the pen of a young Mignola, aided by Russell’s deeply sympathetic inks.
Working as an inker on various Marvel comics, including Daredevil and Alpha Flight, by 1985 Mignola had already progressed on to the role of penciler, working on Bill Mantlo’s highly idiosyncratic Rocket Raccoon, but Gaslight served as both his breakout hit and the perfect calling card for the artist going forward.
Mignola’s distinctive angular style commands every page, and is greatly enhanced by both the high quality of the book’s paper and its masterful coloring, which emphasizes flashbacks with shades of gray, well-lit dramatic and action scenes with striking yellows and the grime of the city with muddy browns, smoky purples and dark reds that contrast with the brilliant scarlet of Batman’s own blood.
Aside from the artist’s dynamic figure work, what really continues to draw my eye, just as much now as it did when I first read the story back in the early 1990s, is Mignola’s eye for historical detail; the statues and architecture, replete with all manner of Victorian advertising; the horses, with their nostrils flaring with exertion from of weight of carriages they are pulling. I pored over page after page for hours as I read and reread the book, developing a particular soft spot for “Inspector Gordon” and his pince-nez glasses in the process, as well as Gordon’s description of the proto-Joker as a “happy-looking Jasper.”
A close study of each page clearly rewards the attentive reader with visual Easter eggs. My favorite is probably the little nod to Walter Sickert, the Victorian painter who has occasionally been identified as a leading suspect in the Ripper murders. Within Gaslight‘s narrative, Sickert is apparently merely the proprietor of a sign-painting shop.
The book was a big success upon publication, and led Augustyn to pen a direct sequel, Master of the Future, drawn by Eduardo Barreto, but while that story moved the Victorian Batman into a steampunk milieu, complete with elaborate flying machines and anachronistic technology, Gaslight remains a historically faithful detective story, albeit one with plenty of action and fight scenes.
Moreover, the reception of Gaslight actually prompted DC in 1991 to found its Elseworlds imprint as a home for high-quality out-of-continuity tales. Over the years Elseworlds books, each emblazoned with a stylized star logo encircled by the “Elseworlds” name, have featured a wide range of heroes from across the DC Universe in such acclaimed works as Kingdom Come, a deconstructionist tale about changing tastes in superhero values, and Superman: Red Son, which imagines a world in which the Man of Steel landed on Earth in the Soviet Union rather than in rural Kansas.
The Elseworlds imprint has waxed and waned over the years, but it seems that the universe of the Victorian-age Batman first established Gaslight has achieved something few of its subsequent stablemates have managed: carving out a place for itself in the current DC Multiverse. Now formally known as Earth-19, the Gaslight universe has made recent in-continuity appearances in Countdown Presents: The Search for Ray Palmer: Gotham by Gaslight, Convergence and Booster Gold: Futures End.
Outside of comics, Gotham by Gaslight‘s influence even inspired an attempted video game adaption by developer and publisher THQ. Sadly their work on the project was curtailed when the company went first into bankruptcy and then into liquidation in 2012, but with the success of both the Batman: Arkham games and the stealthy Steampunk title, Dishonored, gamers can continue to hope for sone kind of Gaslight-inspired game in the future.
Ultimately, Gotham by Gaslight‘s lasting appeal largely lies in Mignola’s detailed, yet highly stylized art. If the team working on the animated adaptation can capture half of his lightning in their collective bottle, the resulting movie will surely be a huge success.
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