Panels to Popcorn: Gotham by Gaslight Review
Howdy out there to our loyal followers! Andy Larson here, the host of the Ghost of the Stratosphere podcast and occasional movie fanatic.
In this article, we are going to the unveiling a new concept on our blog which we hope will better simulate the kind of discussions we have on our podcast weekly. This particular series, Panels to Popcorn, will be reviewing comic related properties from both the original comic book source material that they are based on and the eventual movie that was made from it. It should be no surprise that I’ll be the one covering the movie review portion given my love of the cinematic experience as seen in some of my “Movie Reviews for Comic Fans” articles I’ve done in the past here. Plus as anyone close to me will tell you, my house used to be famous for weekly movie nights, in which popcorn and beer were passed out while my friends and I would partake in plenty of forgotten obscure gems from Hollywood’s yesterdays.
I will also be joined by a fellow Ghostie, who will fill everyone in on the comic portion of this review and hopefully you, the reader, will walk away with a satisfying well rounded take on this particular comic tale which we hope will help you decide which if either you might enjoy for yourself!
If we fail at that, you are free to take it up with our lawyers for a full refund. They probably won’t call you back anyways given that they don’t exist. Full refund, indeed…!
In any case, now that we got that business out of the way it’s time to dive into this article’s particular selection: Gotham by Gaslight: A classic “what if” tale answering the age old question as to whether the Batman could catch that notorious criminal, Jack the Ripper, if given a chance in Victorian England.
So without further ado, here’s my fellow co host and former college roomie, Chad Smith, to enlighten you with what the original comic book had to say about this interesting concept.
So, the original Gotham By Gaslight story by Brian Augustyn (script), Michael Mignola (pencils), P. Craig Russel (inks), David Horning (colors), John Workman (letterer), and Mark Waid (editor) came out in 1989, and is considered to be one of the first Elseworlds stories. It’s set 100 years earlier, in Victorian Gotham City, when Bruce Wayne returns after his long sojourn overseas. It’s been fifteen years since his parents were killed after a night in the town when a man stopped them and their horse-drawn coach. Since then, he’s trained. He’s been hanging out with Sigmund Freud, who makes a brief appearance in this 48 page story. He’s been preparing to return to make his mark as the Batman. Unfortunately, someone else who came back on the boat with him gives rise to Batman’s first big-time opponent: Jack the Ripper. Jack rolls through Gotham, claiming many women as his victims along the way. The mystery continues throughout the Batman’s initial onslaught on crime in Gotham, but it leaves Batman questioning his methods. That doesn’t last long, as yet another assault and escape by the Ripper leaves Batman dumbfounded.
Then, Bruce Wayne gets framed for the murders, largely because he cannot explain just where he has been spending his evenings. Ultimately, Inspector Gordon confides in prisoner Bruce Wayne to help him find some leads in the case. Thanks in no small part to Alfred, Bruce busts out and discovers the true killer: Jacob Packer, a family friend who ALSO happened to be behind the deaths of his parents. He wasn’t the gunman, but he was the man jilted by Martha. Jacob couldn’t stop hearing her laughter and arranged the whole murder. The boy got away, and that boy became Batman!
The story is a very well-told done in one, although DC did return to the universe for a follow-up: Master of the Future which is sometimes included with Gotham by Gaslight in trades. For the time, mixing up Batman’s origin story with a unique setting was something fresh and new. Consider this story Batman: Year One meets Jack the Ripper. What’s not to love there? The bigger selling point is the Mike Mignola art. His moody, gothic style fits perfectly for a character that dwells in the shadows like Batman. His Victorian Gotham showcases the elaborate wealth and the grimy despair equally. So while you come for the gimmick of Victorian Batman, ultimately you stay for the masterful work of Mignola.
Overall Grade for Gotham by Gaslight (comic): A-
It’s a well-told story, and considering the context and how unique it was to have a serious Elseworlds Batman story at the time it was published, I could probably be persuaded to bump it up higher grade-wise. I actually think the influence of this story actually drags it down, as I’ve seen Batman Year One set in x scenario hundreds of times at this point. Certain plot points felt telegraphed–oh, this new character from out of nowhere with deep connections to the Wayne family was the bad guy! What a shocker–when they did it again with Hush. Also, it could have used more Mignola Victorian Batman scenes for my taste. Knowing what Mignola is capable of makes this seem like he’s just scratching the surface. Still, it’s a high quality experience I would recommend for the Batfans out there.
The movie, however, takes a different track. It uses the comic as a starting point, but it doesn’t stay there long. I’ll hand the reigns back over to Andy for the movie review!
Thanks, Chadrick! So the movie version of this tale was released earlier this year as a part of DC Universe Animated Original Movies series. It is directed and produced by Sam Liu and written by James Krieg. It was Rated “R” as to ensure that the little kiddies didn’t confuse this Batman outing with more family friendly options.
The main conflict of the graphic novel in that Batman is hunting down the notorious killer, Jack the Ripper, does make it into the film. Also I will say that the notion that Bruce Wayne eventually gets framed for the murders the Ripper is committing does play a important role despite the outcome being completely different. There is also a Gotham World’s Fair idea that’s incorporated from the graphic novel, but it actually comes not from Gaslight, but the sequel book Master of the Future. However other than those things, the overall setting, and characterization of Batman in his steampunky Victorian badassery, a lot of the source material is significantly altered for this movie. And the main changes revolve around the supporting characters.
Mainstays of the Bat-verse like Harvey Dent, Leslie Thompson, Hugo Strange, Harvey Bullock, and Poison Ivy are added to the plot all making appearances in their new turn of the century guises. I do think it’s interesting that Ivy is recast as an exotic burlesque dancer and Leslie plays the part of a nun, but at the same time, these roles are almost telegraphed as anyone that’s spent any time reading the read adventures of the Dark Knight. Also Hugo Strange’s turn as a lobotomizing chief psychiatrist for Arkham Asylum is an inspired and somewhat creepy turn, but nothing you couldn’t see a mile away.
But the main changes come in the form of giving Batman back some of his most important allies. First, the addition of three cockney style street orphans named Dickie, Jason, and Timmy delivers the fans some Robins to help the Caped Crusader, although they don’t play as large of a role as you might think given their importance in the Batman mythology. Sure, they pop in and out providing both comedic relief as well as that human touch that Robin has always been famous for, but they are definitely not Batman’s “go to” accomplices.
That role in fact is actually played by Selina Kyle as Batman’s main love interest and crime fighting partner in this movie. Now whether or not this was done in an attempt to build brand synergy with the current Batman comic in which the two of them are in a real romantic relationship (or at least they were), or if it was just that they wanted that classic heroine in danger melodrama to make the stakes personal for Batman to take down the Ripper, I’m not sure, but since I’ve always been a shipper of the Bat/Cat pairing and believe its these characters OTP, I really didn’t mind the inclusion. Besides they really do work well here especially since this version of Bruce Wayne/Batman is much more fallible than other media which portray him as some sort of ubermeich and therefore their chemistry is more genuine as he really does need her help as much as she wants to give it.
As a side note though as something that stuck in my craw a bit, I did think it was somewhat silly that Selena would be allowed to attend the sneak preview walk through of the Gotham World’s Fair at the beginning and also visit Bruce in his prison cell after he’s framed as the murderer, given she’s neither the wife of any of the prominent male citizens nor a wealthy contributor/lady of high society. She’s just a former circus daredevil that hit it big singing in a Ziegfeld Follies type show at one of Gotham main theaters, not exactly a VIP.
Again, that’s not me being a sexist pig or something. That’s me saying if you are going to write a period piece, you have to be correct about the social set up of that period. And although women were championing for the right to vote and being more vocal about their place in society, it was still a very very strict patriarchal system, and so her presence at some of these events stretched the line of believability for me.
But I think the biggest difference in this movie versus the comic book, is that the entire character of Jacob Packer is eliminated. Now I’m not going to spoil who exactly is the Ripper in this movie in case you haven’t seen or read anything else about it, as the mystery behind the whodunit is one of the main driving points of the plot, but let’s just say that once you do discover who the murderer is, well…it was definitely a bold choice for writer and one that might make you somewhat uncomfortable especially if you a long time fan of the Bat.
And again, not spoiling anything here, but another thing that really bothered me about this movie was how it ended. You see Bruce is framed as the murderer, convicted, sentenced to Blackgate prison, the whole 9 yards. It’s at this same time that we start putting 2 and 6 together as to who the real killer is and so does Batman. So he escapes from prison as Bruce Wayne, discovers the Ripper’s secret lair that proves his suspicions were right, and then goes to confront the Ripper at the World’s Fair who has decided his next victim is Selena. After a climatic battle including a towering inferno of a Ferris Wheel, Batman and Catwoman get the upper hand on the Ripper, and the character dies. The Robin boys then come and pick up Batman/Catwoman and they all seem to ride off into the sunset in a happy ending.
Ahem…Bruce Wayne is a convicted murderer and an escaped prisoner. Sure, he was framed, but facts are facts. Although Batman discovered the Ripper’s lair and sure maybe that evidence will come to light, there’s absolutely no guarantee that will happen, especially since the actual Ripper perished and so there’s not even any criminal that would confess to the authorities and clear the Wayne name.
So we are just left with this vague notion that Bruce won’t be immediately arrested again and thrown back in prison the moment an police officer within ten feet doesn’t spot him. And it’s not like he’s a nobody. He’s Bruce F*cking Wayne! The most well known guy in Gotham. Yeah, I know Victorian justice wasn’t exactly the system we have today with cameras everywhere that can find people in a heart beat, but the guy is riding around in a fancy open carriage!
Plus it was also a system without even modest forensics so again, once he is found there’s no real reason to believe he’s going to just be automatically let go. Unless I guess you subscribe to the fact that Wayne is pretty much like the aristocratic titans of industry of the time which means he could buy off everyone to get his freedom, but if that was the case why was he convicted in the first place?!? ARRRAGH! As you can tell this ending really stung me on the ass like swarm of hornets, and left a bad taste in my mouth.
But was it enough to give this movie a bad grade? I dunno…it definitely lowered it considerably but I’ve seen worse movies in my time. In particular, I’ve also seen worse DC animated adaptions than this, so compared some of those others ones, this at least kept me entertained. It was a decent enough high concept adventure pic if somewhat uneven in its delivery and could have used at least one more rewrite. I did really love the Bat/Cat pairing and the fight sequences were amazing, especially the one at the end at the World’s Fair.
Overall Grade for Gotham by Gaslight (movie): B-
If you were a fan of either the comic or movie, Let us know your thoughts!
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