Did you read Alan Moore’s From Hell and think “Man, this is really great but it needs fewer annotations and more Batman. A LOT more Batman!”
Well I have good news for you! Gotham by Gaslight is considered a Batman classic and one of the finest Elseworlds tales ever released. Originally published in 1989, Gotham by Gaslight tells the “What if” story of a 19th century Caped Crusader who comes face to face with the Butcher of Whitechapel. It’s Batman vs. Jack the Ripper written by Brian Augustyn and illustrated by none other than the creator of Hellboy, Mike Mignola. But that’s not the only story you’re getting when you purchase A Tale of the Batman: Gotham by Gaslight. No, you’re also getting its lesser known sequel, Batman: Master of the Future written, again, by Brian Augustyn but illustrated by Eduardo Barreto, who recently passed I’m sorry to say.
I’ll be taking a look at both stories. Each one will have its own review and score and then in the end I’ll figure out a worthy number to assign the collection as a whole with the price and presentation of the book taken into account just like I how I do with any other graphic novel review.
Gotham by Gaslight
I have saved a few “classic” Batman stories for myself to enjoy and Gotham by Gaslight is one of those that I had never touched. Now that I’ve actually sat down with it I can say that it did a good job of living up to all the hype. This was really entertaining. It’s a Victorian era Batman unraveling the mystery of Jack the Ripper, so how could it not be a fun read? And it’s a real testament to how great the concept of Batman is that Augustyn could take such an iconic character, translate him to a vastly different setting, and still have it work so effectively! I was also impressed by how understated the story was. It didn’t try to push its concept too far by introducing a steam powered batcomputer or throw in a bunch of over-the-top swashbuckling heroics into what should be a dark and disturbing mystery, nor did it attempt to showcase every member of the Gotham City cast when they weren’t germane to the tale at hand. It’s a story that strives to do only what’s necessary and to reach its climax in an economical fashion. However, that’s not to say there aren’t a couple of Easter eggs here or there that readers can keep an eye out for. Just look at these pages:
I rather like the Teddy Roosevelt-esque Jim Gordon but truly I could throw complements at the designs all day. Batman: Gotham by Gaslight is a perfect example of writer and artist working in perfect harmony. Mignola’s Batman looks appropriate to the time, as does everything else. The architecture, clothing and hair styles, etc. are all fitting to the period. Be sure to pay close attention to all the little details in the background. But most of all it’s Mignola and inker P. Craig Russell’s use of shade and shadow that give the book the moody tone it deserves. Colorist David Hornung also did a terrific job complementing these drawings with equally dark hues and really distinguishing colors for the various flashback segments. It’s a Batman book that has a unique look all it’s own. You can show a fan any single panel from Gotham by Gaslight and they’ll know exactly where it came from.
So I liked the concept of Gotham by Gaslight and the art of Gotham by Gaslight, but what about the actual story? Well, it’s great as well but a bit too brief. Call me greedy but I really wanted more from this world. It’s a great concept that I don’t think was explored as thoroughly as it should have been. Look at the sequel that’s also collected in this graphic novel. It’s about 50% longer than Gotham by Gaslight but only has a quarter of the substance! An 1800’s Gotham functions surprisingly well and the author really took care to perfectly set up the death of the Waynes, the arrival of Bruce in Gotham from his travels, and his relationship with Inspector Gordon in a fantastic example of perfectly paced world-building but once the Jack the Ripper slayings began to occur in Gotham things started to hasten. While that made for a very intense and thrilling read I really, really wanted it to be stretched out longer than it was. Perhaps it should have had a few red herrings before Batman found his #1 suspect?
Jack the Ripper’s identity (the real Jack the Ripper’s identity) is one of the greatest mysteries of all time and when you take just a second to look at the cast of characters in this book there really was only one legitimate suspect all along and it makes for a rather predictable end. The idea of Batman hunting down Jack the Ripper is just too juicy to sum up in so few pages. It’s the “World’s Greatest Detective” hunting down arguably the most notorious murderer in history. There’s more than enough substance there for a book twice this size. While I loved this story and think it alone is worth the price of you picking up this graphic novel, I wish it had been an even larger story with more of the detective work and midnight patrols of Batman rather than jumping straight into the finale…but maybe that’s the point? In a world where Batman exists, Jack the Ripper wouldn’t have had a chance to operate for long.
Master of the Future
“The world needs a champion for a brutal new age” Is a great line from Master of the Future and it would make one hell of a tagline, but the content itself doesn’t live up to that idea. Master of the Future represents a lot of the negative elements I praised Gotham by Gaslight for not doing. It’s longer by over 20 pages and that’s good, but we actually get less Batman. Less of that classic Gotham atmosphere! Whicle Gotham by Gaslight took place in the late 1800’s, it still felt like Gotham. This absolutely does not. It’s really vibrant and colorful and clean. The artist, Eduardo Barreto, did an excellent job drawing a lighthearted adventure story but it’s not a good depicitoin of the world of Batman. Not at all. And when I said that Gaslight was understated, this is rather flamboyant. Master of the Future cranks up the steam punk with flying machines and robots and the main villain really is a swashbuckler, he’s a sky pirate!
Now, that’s probably where the biggest problem lies. How does one follow up a story about the Worlds Greatest Detective vs. History’s Most Notorious Serial Killer? Jack the Ripper is an almost impossible act to follow and he ceratinly shouldnt’ have been followed up with the fictional Alexandre LeRoi. LeRoi is one of the lamest villains I’ve seen in some time (and I just reviewed Batman/Deathblow yesterday!). Gotham is going to have a big, family-friendly fair celebrating the turn of the century and Gotham’s future. Well, LeRoi hates the idea of the future and wants the event stopped (his true motivations are revealed in the final pages in a pretty lame twist that arguably makes him more pathetic) or else he and his robot best friend will torch the city from their metal aircraft!
Of course while all of this is going on we get a subplot about Bruce’s own personal conflict over whether or not he should continue being the Bat-Man or settle down with the lovely Julie Madison (Batman’s first significant love interest who was introduced to the comics in 1939, a nice surprise here and not the only one), a young woman who thinks Gotham needs Bat-Man now more than ever. This was good and it led to our only flashback scene which showed Batman fighting baddies at night time– everything else that occurs here is shown during a spectacularly sunny day. And as far as historical figures go, there are a couple that I won’t spoil for you. None of them are portrayed as villains, just neat little cameos for those who know their history.
Master of the Future is really well illustrated…but not as a Batman story. It’s a fun and campy swashbuckling adventure…but it’s totally not what I was in the mood for after reading the dark and gripping Gotham by Gaslight. You just can’t follow up Jack the Ripper with a story about a sky pirate who hates the fair! You just can’t. I think the best route to have taken would’ve been to keep with the re-writing history/serial killers motif and flash forward a couple of years. Gotham by Gaslight took place in 1891. Well, in 1893 we had the notorious World’s Fair murders (You even get to keep the fair backdrop!) of H.H. Holmes who, while not as famous (or infamous) as Jack the Ripper, was arguably a way more nasty and prolific serial killer. Show me the 1800’s Batman taking down a serial killer who built his own death maze outside the World’s Fair! Now THAT sounds like a great way to follow up Gaslight.
None. No bonus content to speak of and I think that’s pretty pitiful. Both of these stories have been around for over 20 years now and they are worth reprinting so why not add some insight? Original sketches? Creator’s retrospective? Anything would’ve been nice. Of course, many will be buying this book for Gotham by Gaslight alone so in a way Master of the Future will be bonus material to many.
$12.99 full price for one of the best Elseworld tales and most original Batman stories of the 80’s? Yeah, I say it’s worth it. It’s a classic and should be on your shelf. It’s only a buck or so cheaper on Amazon though, sadly.
This is absolutely worth picking up for Gotham by Gaslight alone. Yes, it’s an incredibly rich idea that should’ve been explored further than 48 pages but it’s still a highly entertaining read with a great atmosphere and I’ll want to revisit it again and again. Its sequel, however, is a tale that I read once and will likely never re-read again. It’s Batman vs. Jack the Ripper, it’s a cool concept that could’ve been a masterwork had it been given more attention. If you finish this and want something more in-depth (way, way, way more in-depth), I highly recommend you read Alan Moore’s From Hell.