Batman: Gotham by Gaslight
Brian Augustyn, writer,
Michael Mignola, penciller
(DC Comics, 1989)

Someone back in the late 1980s had a very clever idea.

Why not take the old, familiar characters of the DC comic book universe and recast them in different settings and different eras? That notion, which has turned into an excellent series of Elseworlds books for DC, first saw fruition in Brian Augustyn's Gotham by Gaslight.

Given the gothic nature of the Batman, setting the character at the end of the 19th century was a good fit. His foe in this adventure is none other than the nefarious Jack the Ripper, who fled from London while laughing at the frightened populace and the law unable to stop him.

The story is set in 1889, a year after the Whitechapel murders in London, and Augustyn has certainly done his homework on the details of the case. Augustyn carefully reconstructs the murderer's modus operandi, both in the killings themselves and in Jack's penchant for taunting the baffled police.

The appearance of Batman and the Ripper are believed to be more than a coincidence, and Wayne -- recently returned from a lengthy stay in Europe and often unable to account for his late-night absences -- is soon accused of the murders.

From there ... well, I don't want to give away the conclusion. But it involves a tricky bit of detective work and a bit of luck as well.

The Elseworlds series has given DC writers a chance to set their protagonists up against well-known figures and characters from history. Sometimes they are vital pieces of the tale, while in others they are mere cameos. In Gaslight, we first meet Bruce Wayne locked in conversation with a cigar-smoking Sigmund Freud, and during their conversation a veiled reference is made to Sherlock Holmes. There is, of course, Jack the Ripper, and a few of the historical suspects make their way to Gotham for this story. Although he doesn't appear in the book, there is also a tip of the hat to the modern Batman's arch-foe, the Joker.

Other members of the Batman supporting cast appearing in this story are Commissioner ... no, excuse me, Inspector Gordon and, of course, the steadfast butler Alfred. And the Batman himself is prowling the nights as we are used to him doing, lacking the modern gadgets of his 20th-century counterpart and wearing a costume which is definitely period. Likewise, the clothing, grooming and speech patterns throughout the book are appropriately turn-of-the-century.

Augustyn's writing is complemented by the artwork of penciller Michael Mignola, inker P. Craig Russell and colorist David Hornung. The book is drawn darkly, making excellent use of shadows and light.

Gotham by Gaslight has been followed by an excellent line of Elseworlds stories stretching across history and into the future. Many surpass this first effort, it's true, but this is certainly an excellent start to a fine tradition.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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