One of the appeals of alternate history and steampunk is the ability to imagine wrongs of the past made right. Of course, one of the most notorious villains of the Victorian age was Jack the Ripper. For me, my first Jack the Ripper tale wasn’t alternate history, but science fiction. It was an episode of Star Trek written by Robert Bloch called “Wolf in the Fold” in which Chief Engineer Scott is accused of committing some very Jack the Ripper-like murders.
One of my earliest exposures to alternate history was the graphic novel Gotham by Gaslight written by Brian Augustyn and illustrated by Mike Mignola. It imagines that Jack the Ripper travels to Gotham City and starts his murder spree again, only to confront Batman. I bought and read the graphic novel soon after it was released in 1989. I was in graduate school at the time and comics were one of the few things I had time to read. It’s hard to call the original Gotham by Gaslight steampunk. The story pretty much limits itself to technology that was well established in the nineteenth century. That said, the artwork reminds me more than a little of Jacques Tardi’s artwork in The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec. Also, it’s worth noting that Robert Bloch, who wrote the Jack the Ripper Star Trek episode, also wrote the graphic novel’s introduction.
Earlier this year, Warner Brothers produced a direct-to-video animated adaptation of Gotham by Gaslight. I knew I wanted to reacquaint myself with this story. I watched it on Netflix and liked it enough, I went out and bought a copy. I discovered Best Buy has a special edition that includes a reprint of the original graphic novel—very cool because that meant I could refresh my memory of the original without damaging my first edition.
As it turns out, the plot of the movie is quite a bit different from that of the graphic novel. This becomes apparent right away when it opens with Pamela Isley (better known to many Batman fans as Poison Ivy) working in a burlesque house and becoming the Ripper’s first murder victim. I have to admit to mixed feelings on this point. One on hand, it feels a bit like a betrayal of character to make Pamela a victim. On the other, it establishes right away that you can’t take your expectations of certain characters for granted and that does pay off as the movie progresses.
It’s pointed out in the commentary that the graphic novel was only 40 pages long and that doesn’t really provide enough material to fill out a 70-minute movie. What I like is that they didn’t add stuff just to add stuff. They fleshed out the mystery and we got to see my favorite aspect of Batman—we got to see him working as a detective, hunting for clues and actually figuring out who the Ripper is.
They also made it more steampunk than the original, but it’s not a gratuitous addition of gadgets. Instead, they added a World’s Fair, which was very much a showpiece of technology at the time, and they gave the police an airship. This latter works because in Batman: The Animated Series the police are shown as having airships, so it was great to see that idea explored in this alternate history version. They also gave Batman a couple of steampowered gadgets. Of course, Batman always needs cutting-edge technology in his work.
There’s great voice acting in the movie with Bruce Greenwood as Batman, Anthony Head as Alfred the Butler, and Jennifer Carpenter as Selina Kyle. The DVD’s special features are pretty much teasers for other DC/Warner film projects, but the Blu Ray includes a couple of bonus Batman cartoons, a commentary and a making-of featurette. All in all, this ended up being one of my favorite adaptations of a DC comic book. It seems like the makers of the live-action DC movies could learn a thing or two from the animation department.
Of course, if you’re in a steampunk mood, you should check out my Clockwork Legion series. I have plenty of airships to go around, plus there’s even the New Orleans World Cotton Exposition in the fourth book—one of the original World’s Fairs. You can learn more about the series by visiting: http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html#clockwork_legion. If you’re in Las Cruces, I’m signing copies this morning at COAS Books downtown from 10 until noon. If you miss that, I’ll be at Branigan Library tomorrow from 2 until 4pm.