Years before he would unleash Hellboy onto the world, artist Mike Mignola would lend his dark moody pencils and aesthetic to the Brian Augustyn written Gotham by Gaslight. Together with P. Craig Russell on inks and David Hournung on colors this team will make history. Considered the original Elseworlds story, Gotham by Gaslight was released in February 1989 as an oversized, square bound volume. This stand-alone tale transports the Caped Crusader 100 years back to a Victorian Gotham. A Gotham now stalked by one of the most curious and mysterious figures of our real world nightmares: Jack the Ripper.
THE QUICK PLOT: Upon returning to Gotham from traveling the world after the murder of his parents, Bruce begins his mission as Batman. Quickly a series of murders are connected to Jack the Ripper, who is apparently in Gotham. Bruce is framed for the Ripper murders, can he prove his innocence?
CRAZY-EVERYTHING GETS TOLD-SPOILERS AHEAD! I MEAN IT,EVERYTHING!
A great man once said any comic can be someone’s first, Brian Augustyn picks up that thread treating the reader to a quick two page opening of THAT event. You know, the one that will create our titular character: the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne. Even in 1989 readers had seen this, a few times, but most recently in Frank Miller’s ‘Year One’. Told in the main Batman title in 1987, Year One re-wrote Batman’s origin for everyone after. So why should we care to see it again a few years later?
Here gone is the too familiar Crime Alley as we are now in the late 1800’s as the Wayne parents are hustled off their horse draw cart, robbed and gunned down in front of young Bruce. As narrator to this scene he attributes his survival to bats (what else?) Mignola’s art could serve alone here for the storytelling but there is joy in the melodrama of Bruce’s narration “…the BATS, yes…I remember the bats…and the moon”. View it as the pre-title ‘hook’ scene before a movie. A widescreen panel at the top of page one caps a 6 panel grid. This layout is flipped on the next page so it (and by default this mini in story, story) ends with another widescreen panel. He capitalizes and then punctuates these pages as such to emphasize the beginning and end, this is a separate story. While the art style does not change throughout the book the palette does, employing the familiar yet effective use of grey scale to denote this as a flashback. From here we jump fully to this story’s “present-day” to see who Bruce is telling this tale too.
Vienna 1889, Bruce is recounting this tale as a recurring dream to his teacher, yeah Sigmund Freud. It is never explicitly stated to be Freud (which is much enjoyed restraint) but the art here makes him unmistakable as such. Freud wants to talk about Bruce’s dream and it’s meanings and Bruce brushes him off saying his goodbyes as he has a steamer (ship) to catch back to London and then on to Gotham. On the ship home we are introduced to new characters; Uncle Jake an old friend of the Wayne’s and two shady Royal sorts. Bruce and Jake catch up on the voyage to Gotham but part ways as soon as the ship docks. Alfred meets Bruce at the dock and after greetings and some exposition on the length of Bruce’s absence “5 YEARS, ALFRED!” they head to the manor. Once inside Bruce wastes no time, much to Alfred’s stuttering chagrin, and the reader is treated to what appears to be the cape and Bat-cowl.
Back in town Bruce heads to see his friend Inspector Gordon, who tells Bruce how much worse the city has become as it surges in growth. Gordon tells Bruce of a case involving a widower that was poisoning his wives for their money (10 of them). When caught took his own poison which deformed his face “happy-looking Jasper, eh” Gordon says showing Bruce his mug shot. Excellent.
Next we get the first of pages from the Ripper’s point of view. An establishing city panel and panels of various women. Over this is a decent bit of text, macabre and melodramatic, fitting for a Victorian era psychopath. This page has problems though, and it’s a drafting issue. To this point in the story we have Bruce’s inner dialoge in the form of torn paper (a journal) caption boxes. This page has the same, journal/caption boxes but the narrator has completely changed! An effort to differentiate between the two narrators, Bruce and the Ripper, would have gone a long way. This is a cold water shock to the reading flow.
We see Batman in full action as the bat, stopping some safe crackers in a rail yard. The art here is exciting and clear. Again we see Mignola draw distinct faces and watch them emote, consistent even during the action. Beautiful collage pages of Batman stopping crimes overlaid with news articles questioning this Bat-Man. A fun bit of action in these pages to break up what can be some heavy text blocks.
At a dinner party the talk is all Batman and murdered whores. Inspector Gordon is uncomfortable around rich folk, while Commissioner Tolliver declares the Batman and Ripper murders are connected…Bruce disappears. Back to the Rippers point of view as he murders, again .“I have found her.” “Again.” We get a gorgeous, not graphic or gratuitous splash page here…that someone thought to slap a big fake newspaper over. I suppose the idea was to lighten all the shadows and to cancel out some of the blood, in effect soften the image. What happens is it cheapens it some. That being said it’s a striking page, Mignola’s detailed cityscape is on full display along with his ability to create a haunting and believable fresh crime scene.
To Batman’s point of view as he prowls the streets on patrol. Gordon stops by the manor and Alfred makes the appropriate excuses for Master Wayne’s absence yet as he leaves a thought bubble (A THOUGHT BUBBLE GUYS!) shows us Gordon has suspicions. Batman hears a woman cry out for help and arrives just too late to stop the murder or catch the Ripper. The Ripper writes Gordon a letter, classic cocky serial killer style. Gordon is visibly weary as Commissioner Tolliver comes to tell him the case is solved “Get your coat on, Jim”.
At Wayne Manor, Bruce is being accused of the Ripper murders! He gives consent to a police search, soothing Alfred’s fears: “my uniform and equipment have been moved to a safe place”. Gordon finds Bruce at breakfast with cops and Tolliver in tow. They present a pair of bloody gloves and knife, on to the trial! The trial pages are a massive info dump here, it is literally just blocks of text framed as journal text entries with some spot illustration. Through all this Bruce is calm that the case is weak against him, chastising Alfred’s worry “besides—they have no case”. This bravado followed immediately by the news headline- BRUCE WAYNE IS JACK THE RIPPER! MILLIONAIRE SENTENCED TO HANG. In jail awaiting execution, Bruce is given all the information on the killings by Gordon. Things are not well for Bruce’s leads or his appeals, his execution grows near. In a fit of rage he stumbles upon a clue that identifies the knife as his father’s during the civil war. He detects his way through what’s left of his father’s group, striking upon a lead. Alfred then helps him escape prison by taking his place.
The Ripper, who’s been going bananas NOT killing waiting for Bruce to hang, decides he can go on out for some murder as Bruce will be executed before they find his latest victim. As he’s about to kill a woman, Batman appears and the Ripper flees. Batman gives chase, and chase, a bit of a struggle and some more chase ending in the cemetery. As Batman pulls Ripper to his feet the killer’s identity is revealed….Uncle Jacob! Holy utility belts!
Batman throws him with a curse, demanding to know why? “Why Packer? Why did you kill all those women?” Jacob explains it was to stop her laughter, to shut her up. To stop the laughter of Martha Wayne! (WOW, what?) Flashback! Jacob narrates his backstory/confession to Batman, starting with his assisting doctor Wayne during the war. After the war Thomas brings Jacob under his wing, paying his way through medical school and helping him establish a thriving practice. This only embitters Jacob to Thomas “arrogant Bastard” all while coveting Martha. Jacob finally confesses his “devotion” to her only to be met with laughter and mockery, which eats at him. He is sure that Thomas and their “whelp” are both laughing as well even though admitting that Thomas “carried on as if nothin’ had happened”. Interestingly for the entirety of the Jacob Packer ‘origin’, the art is bright yellows and black. Very bright in a way the rest of the book lacks, separating it easily for the reader from the rest of the story.
This is where the shoe drops folks, where it gets really wow. Jacob continues his confession, driving on about Martha’s laughter haunting him around the world, even after he hired a man to “kill her good”. “The kid got away that night. But I fixed him. Heh. ‘fore he could start laughin’ too.” Bruce pulls the cowl off recounting all Jacob has done, ending with “I should kill you!” to which Jacob agrees. The art through these pages is again excellent. There are not the splash/reveal pages that you would find today in a wholly modern comic and yet the sense of reveal, of drama is far from lost.
Gordon and the GCPD arrive, Bruce steps into a shadow to both hide his cowl-less face and make Batman cool. He tells Gordon that this is Jacob Packer, he’s responsible for the Ripper killings. Jacob begins confessing and he’s working himself up, lashes out and cuts directly across the Bat emblem on Batman’s chest. Gordon one head shot kills Jacob, who falls against and bloodies….the Wayne gravestone. Batman thanks Gordon who says he can clear Bruce of the Ripper killings and Batman leaves.
Final page and a familiar image despite this being “100 years in Gotham’s past”. Batman perched on a gargoyle overlooking his city. This image is almost full page, overlaid with caption boxes, narration from Gordon after Batman left the scene previous. This is the acceptance of Batman, here the music is swelling and he is full formed now, “it appears Gotham has found its own guardian angel.” The final panel is a repetition of the final panel from the Wayne murder that opens the book, Bruce’s dream (remember bats and moon). I believe this is not a new panel but a re-purposing of the one from the beginning. I bring it up here because being a more modern reader I questioned its inclusion at the end, at all, over just a sweet full page splash. In realizing it was the final origin panel that is now ending the entire book, it hints in a way to the never ending nature of Batman, the cycle continues.
MY VERDICT: Excellent, not perfect.
Jacob ending up dead against the Wayne headstone was a little too cute for me, eye rolling. Nitpick. There really is no hinting to the identity of the Ripper, and until the end I was waiting for it to be one of the Royals introduced when Jacob was. The pacing is wonderful, everything makes sense and is rational inside the laws of the story itself. Augustyn’s use of (seemingly) period specific slang in appropriate places adds another level of immersion to the story .
The art is never not great, more often it’s closer to perfect. Mike Mignola has made an entire UNIVERSE on the tone he displays here. Despite the common look of many characters (white men with beards) some of whom are very close in look, the distinction in faces Mignola employs makes it easy to differentiate between characters. His storytelling is top notch, and his layouts are exciting. Deep shadows are a necessity for a Victorian story and Russell’s inks are deep and mysterious, matched with the warm sooty colors by Hornung you have a book that looks the era.
Everything comes together here to create a compelling and lasting story.