Gotham by Gaslight (1989) Written by Brian Augustyn, illustrated by Mike Mignola
By John A. Butz
Published in 1989, Gotham by Gaslight is considered to be the first of DC’s Elseworlds titles. Written by Brian Augustyn, with an introduction by Robert Bloch and pencils by Mike Mignola, Gotham by Gaslight lifts the Batman myth from the modern age and transports it to 1889, at the height of Gotham City’s Industrial Revolution. Bruce Wayne returns home after years of travel, during which he has trained his mind and body in preparation for his personal war against crime. He is followed from England by the most famous killer and unsolved mystery of the age, Jack the Ripper.
I am a big fan of Elseworlds stories. They are self-contained and complete, unburdened by any need to be true to established canon or the company’s current interpretation of a character. Because of this, an author can explore the nature of the character without being shackled to the endemic serialization that permeates the main titles. However, a well done Elseworlds tale should also pay respectful tribute to the history and supporting cast of a hero, allowing those legacies to inform and illuminate the story.
Augustyn’s story is effective and simple, occasionally even sparse. It is also very well put together, tight and direct. I attribute this to the fact that Augustyn got his start in the comic book industry as an editor for Tru Studios in 1986. He would go on to a long career writing and editing The Flash.
His talent in assembling the story is evident from page one. Robert Bloch’s introduction serves as a condensed history of Jack the Ripper, giving the reader a snapshot of the character’s past. Immediately afterward, we are treated to the familiar, yet subtly different, murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne. By the end of the book, we will know who had the Waynes killed, and how their deaths are connected to the Ripper murders. Augustyn ties everything together neatly while keeping the story short and precise.
The real star of Gotham by Gaslight, however, is Mike Mignola. His Gotham City is stained by coal smoke and shrouded in steam. The shadows it casts are grimy and sweat stained. Mignola spares no effort in getting the fine details of the city exactly right. The attention he pays to things as simple as the brickwork on buildings gives the images of Gotham a physical texture.
But his Gotham pales before his Batman.
The modern Batman is a sleek, technological thing, with a skintight costume revealing a marvelous physique and an expressive cowl. In contrast, Mignola’s Batman is a steampunk gargoyle, clad in heavy leather armor. The cowl is immobile, more helmet than mask. Mignola keeps his Batman shadowed and dark, a faceless and inhuman creature of the night.
Augustyn would revisit his Victorian Gotham in 1991 with Master of the Future, a story inspired by the works of Jules Verne. Eduardo Barreto would replace Mignola as the artist. Without Mignola’s wonderful pencils, however, Augustyn struggles to hold my attention. Though I admire his ability as an editor, he is lacking as an author, and without the shadowy evocative art that Mike Mignola brought to the table his stories fall flat.
Together, the Augustyn/Mignola team brings us a serious, dark version of Batman that stands out for its art and it’s tightly scripted story.
Bruce Wayne, having returned to Wayne Manor for the first time in years, is met by Alfred.
“Welcome home sir,” the butler begins, but Wayne walks past him, towards the depths of the house, passing statuary and furniture shrouded against the dust.
“Master Wayne! P-perhaps a relaxing dinner…a hot bath…” Alfred sputters as Bruce continues on, undeterred, into the shrouded heart of the house.
“Is it still here, Alfred?”
“Surely sir, after all this time you’ve…”
“Is it still ready?”
Alfred sighs. “Yes, sir. It’s been waiting for you.”
Before us is the cloak and cowl of the Batman, hanging in the center of the room. The light falls on it in such a way that you cannot see the tailor’s form that surely must be supporting it. It seems alive, hungry and ancient and patient, ready to leap out into the night.
There are nine and sixty ways of constructing a Batman story, and every single one of them is right.