The late 80, especially 1989, were particularly good for Batman fans. There had been upheaval and change throughout the decade, with The Dark Knight Returns, Year One, Death in the Family, Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle’s work on Detective Comics and of course Tim Burton’s tour de force was about to hit the cinema screens. In between these major events, was a little one shot, that arrived with little hoopla and went on to create a whole set of universes, or Elseworlds, if you will.
Based on the tried and tested “What if” question; Gaslight took the ball and went in a completely different direction. Rather than do the kind of “imaginary” stories we had seen in the past, such as “What If Dick Grayson was Batman” or “What If Bruce Wayne lost his fortune”, the set up was to introduce The Batman to a totally different era. This being the time of Jack the Ripper.
So it’s a Batman book. So that means we have to see the Waynes’ get murdered. This may seem old hat now, but the origin of Batman is such a part of his mythos that it is important to see, especially how in the different world, its impact or cause may be different. Once that’s out of the way its off to Gotham with Bruce returning to Europe and bumping into Jacob Parker a friend of his father’s. Once back home its on with the mask, bringing the cowardly and superstitious to justice. One criminal seems to be one step ahead of Batman and that’s the murderer of White Chapel, Jack the Ripper, who has now starting stalking Gotham’s streets. Suspicions arise with Inspector Gordon who investigates Wayne Manor and finds a bloody knife hidden and promptly arrests Bruce, who despite the admirable defence presented by Jacob Parker finds himself in Arkham Asylum, vowing to discover the identity of the Ripper.
The book is written by Brian Augustyn, who at the time was known more as an editor. His tale of The Batman hits all the key points, the death of the parents, Bruce travelling abroad to increase his knowledge, Alfred, Arkham, Gordon are all there, even a version of the Joker makes an, albeit Year One-esque appearance. The script is fantastic. Remember this is a one shot, so there is no space to waffle. The plot needs to be tight and the script terse to set the trap for the reader and Bruce to fall into. Reading this book, Bruce’s voice is consistent with how you expect both Bruce and Batman to sound. In all, there is not a single mis-keyed note throughout the book.
Regular readers of my reviews will know that I am a Mike Mignola fan. This book is the reason. Cast your minds back to the 80’s. The great Jim Aparo was on Batman, as mentioned Breyfogle was on Detective. On top of that, you had Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli. Then out of the blue, Mignola comes along and gives us another viable interpretation of Batman. And its not just on Batman that Mignola works his magic.
Look at the environments, the steam ship, Gotham itself, Arkham and even Wayne Manor. The work is exquisite, in some ways Mignola may have been laying the groundwork for Hellboy with the heavy shadows throughout. The panels convey the pace of the book, slowing down where necessary before the action heats up with the chase scene and the climax, situated at the Wayne graves, again showing the reasons for Batman’s existence.
Batman works well in Elseworld stories, shown in the sequel Master of the Future and other books such as Red Rain. But it doesn’t just stop there. Because of the success of the books, just mentioned, we also got Superman Red Son amongst others and the superlative The Nail by Alan Davis. Again, it doesn’t stop there. Ten years after Batman took on Jack the Ripper, a new book came out, featuring a league of extraordinary literary characters, taken out of their own environs and thrust together. Sounds familiar? Over the last couple of years, books have experimented with steam punk. Go back, take a look at Gaslight. This book could come out today and still be fantastic and find an audience, that is a sign of a great book.