I'm not the world's biggest comic book geek but I read a lot of Batman in the late eighties, collected stories in graphic novel format, because I was the right age to pay attention when people like Alan Moore and Frank Miller were changing the face of comics with books like 'Watchmen' and 'The Dark Knight Returns'. I dug the darkness that I'd never seen in American comics before.
One of those graphic novels was a one-shot called 'Gotham by Gaslight' and it intrigued me for many of the same reasons I, much later, got into steampunk. I was able to leave my Apocalypse Later vendor booth at Phoenix Comicon a few years ago to take my British edition to author Brian Augustyn for him to sign and so I could thank him for playing his part in the birth of steampunk.
This was released in 1989 as a standalone flight of fancy. I understand that it's become more than that now, retroactively labelled the first in a series of such alternate histories called Elseworlds. They're not canon but they're arguably a lot more interesting than the books that are because they take a history and mythos that we know and translate it into something else, giving us a better understanding of how timeless the iconography is.
It's 1889, so a century earlier, and Bruce Wayne is about to set sail for Gotham City from Europe, after a decidedly pointed grand tour, in which he studies under Sigmund Freud in Vienna and presumably Insp. Duchene of the Sûreté in Paris. He's preparing for the career we expect and for the reason we know. The recurring dream he details to Freud is of the death of his parents, merely transplanted in time.
Unfortunately, another famous name leaves Europe for Gotham at the same time, because every hero needs a villain. Given that it's 1889, there's an obvious choice and Robert Bloch sets the scene well in a brief intro. "Batman? Yes, I know the name. Perhaps he'll soon have reason to remember yours truly, Jack the Ripper."
'Gotham by Gaslight' only ran 48 pages so we don't dig too deep here, but we do find quite a lot, courtesy of Augustyn's talent for dropping details that flesh out this alternate history through the extrapolation of its readers. A merry widow killer has been caught, Inspector Gordon tells Bruce Wayne. He'd killed ten women with strychnine. He tried to commit suicide on being caught but the poison merely paralysed his face into a rictus grin. He's not named and we're only given a single black and white frame of his face, but readers of all ages know exactly who he is and immediately there's substance.
Forty-eight pages was also enough time for Augustyn to have Wayne begin his mission as the Batman, his first outing to stop a robbery in the docks, but also to be caught and arrested for the crimes of Jack the Ripper. Commissioner Tolliver, a blustering fool, presumably receives an anonymous tip and the ensuing search of Leland Manor turns up a bloody razor. Wayne is arrested, tried and convicted, prosecuted by Harvey Dent no less.
Locked up in Arkham Asylum, he attempts to solve the mystery in absentia and, through a personal connection that the police didn't have, figures it out. There's still time for him to escape from Arkham and stop the real Jack and also for the Ripper to explain why he did what he did in the traditional villain's monologue.
I liked this in 1989 and I like it even more in 2019, thirty years on, as I can see a lot more than I did back then. Augustyn, with a mere 48 pages to play with, took an entire universe that had seen many decades of development, distilled it down to its essence and translated it in a way that we steampunks know well today. In doing so, however, he didn't just translate an origin story, which isn't too difficult, he translated an entire mythos and that's a major achievement indeed. Everything's here, not just the events but the motivations and the reasons behind them and everything ties gloriously together. It's a neat trick.
I was surprised to find that the art was by Michael Mignola, then an up-and-coming artist who was paying his dues at Marvel and DC, illustrating spots, inking other artists' work and occasionally given the opportunity to create a cover or two. This was before he became Mike Mignola, the creator in 1994 of 'Hellboy' and the winner of a whole slew of industry awards.
His work is rough here but effective and it looks like he had a lot of fun with this material. Many background scenes are impressionistic because the details don't extend to the entire frame, but the point needed is there. I think he enjoyed drawing the wild variety of facial hair, but probably the horses even more. The colours are agreeably muted for a growing city stuck in the smog of the industrial revolution. Only the lettering is underpar; it's annoying but an easy flaw to overlook.
'Gotham by Gaslight' is a milestone, albeit a short one, and it's great to see that its importance is acknowledged. For instance, it was adapted into an animated film just short of its thirtieth anniversary, though that took both this and its sequel, 'Batman: Master of the Future', for its source. It felt good to go back to it though I do wonder how many steampunk Batmans (Batmen?) in 2019 have read it. They all should. ~~ Hal C F Astell