I’m a Batman fan through and through, but I don’t pretend to have read or seen everything Dark Knight related. Even something like Gotham by Gaslight, which is a really well-known one-shot from 1989 is something I knew of, and was quite interested in because of the premise/setting, but had never actually read. So when the chance arose to watch the animated film version, I seized upon it.
The premise is quite simple. Let’s imagine Batman in the 19th century. Further, let’s imagine him tracking and fighting Jack the Ripper. Yes, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense (and as someone quite interested in the Ripper and that era, it does bug me – a lot – to have him in America), but you just have to go with it. Many people have before me and the whole Elseworlds concept at DC (basically stories that happen outside the official canon), was born with the Gotham by Gaslight graphic novel.
So… what did I think? In a nutshell, this is quite a neat tale. You can tell from the start that it’s not going to be a slave to convention when we’re introduced to a woman on a stage and it’s heavily implied she’s about to strip for the men in the audience, and also implied that it’s Poison Ivy… or at least this world’s version of Poison Ivy… yet she’s murdered a minute or two later by Jack the Ripper. I realise that could be considered a spoiler, but it happens at the very start of the story and has no bearing on what happens later. I use it simply as an example of how there are touchstones to the Batman universe we know, but none of them should really be considered the same. Except for Batman himself, perhaps, who is the same great fighter/great detective you expect him to be in any era.
Although there’s plenty of interest to be had at the way the world is imagined, and there’s some good storytelling which – I believe – even changes aspects of the graphic novel, the story plays out in much the way you imagine it will, so although the world is different, and liberties are taken, it’s still very much a Batman story at heart if you’re wondering whether it’s too different to the Batman norm.
One thing I was surprised by was the animation, and on two fronts. First, the movement of characters seemed a bit herky-jerky. I guess it’s a style that I just don’t like. I like animation to feel more fluid, not feel like there are frames missing as people walk along the street and so on. Second, and this is a bigger issue, for something called Gotham by Gaslight I expected this to be really dark and foggy. All the Jack the Ripper stories and films from my youth were in my head as I loaded the Blu-ray player. Heck, even a Doctor Who story like The Talons of Weng-Chiang was in my head, too. Yet the nighttime scenes appear really well-lit, even when they’re not meant to be. And during the day… good grief… it’s bright blue skies and a bright and shining Gotham. I think this would have been better suited with scary, foggy nights and perhaps overcast and raining during the day. The general feel of Gotham City in this story is that it’s… quite nice? It doesn’t really fit the Gotham mold and, in saying that, of course I realise this is a different take. But come on, when the thing’s Gotham by Gaslight, I think it would be be good to go down the dark(er) route, don’t you? It wants to be a scary story, so why not go for it?
(Actually, one other point on the animation, I don’t know whether it’s just me, but Gotham looked like some sort of European city. I kept getting Paris for some reason. Maybe it’s just the source material (not the graphic novel, but the actual real-life source material the artists looked at from the Victorian era), it’s really hard to say, but I just couldn’t shake the feeling that it didn’t ring quite true…)
All told, even though I was battling the art on multiple levels (and when I watched the special feature on the disc I was struck by how much the graphic novel looks like how I imagined this film should look), I really quite enjoyed the 80 minutes or thereabouts. The story zips along. There are some really nice nods to the Batman universe we know, and I felt like my time was well-spent. Do try it, dear reader.