Using History in Graphic Novels: Believing Batman Could Exist in the 19th Century
Shawn Jackson Jr.
Dr. Matthew Smith
Batman, the Batman, the dark knight, the world’s greatest detective, and the caped crusader; he is known by many names and yet is still one of the most famous superheroes on the planet. Most people in the world can tell you the story of Batman. A young boy witnesses his mother and father killed by a mugger and vows to rid his city of evil. Batman has been a longstanding comic book ran since 1939 when Detective Comics #27 presented a man in a bat-suit ridding Gotham City of evil. Batman has always been a character of the times, using high tech gadgets to aid him in his war on crime. Yet, in 1989 DC Comics published A Tale of the Batman: Gotham by Gaslight. Instead of showing Batman in the (time of publication’s) present, writer Brian Augustyn along with pencil artist Mike Mignola and inker P. Craig Russel, created a Batman story that took place in the 19th century. In Gotham by Gaslight, Bruce Wayne returns from studying in Europe to become the Dark Knight and fight evil in his home of Gotham City. Many aspects of Batman remain the same; including Wayne Manor, Alfred Pennyworth’s assistance to Batman, and the strong relationship that Bruce Wayne and later Batman have with James Gordon. As Batman begins his crusade to rid Gotham of crime and evil, brutal murders that mimic those of the famous Jack the Ripper’s begin to happen in Gotham. Batman is faced with the task of finding the killer and stopping the brutal slayings from continuing. As Batman finds out, the killer is Jack the Ripper himself and is not a copycat. Bruce Wayne is later framed by the killer and incarcerated in Arkham Asylum. Alfred then helps Bruce escape after Bruce uses his jail time and detective skills to uncover who the killer is before he is to be hanged. Batman catches his man only to find out the awful truth, that the killer is indeed his uncle Jacob.
To anyone who hasn’t read Gotham by Gaslight, this sounds incredibly odd. DC started doing a series of stories called the “Elseworlds” series in which famous DC superheroes were put into different scenarios than usual. For example, JLA: The Nail which depicted a world in which Superman did not exist. Gotham by Gaslight was the first Elseworlds story and drove DC to continue to produce more stories like them. Gotham by Gaslight is the most beloved of Elseworlds stories. A lot of people had trouble wrapping their heads around the scenarios the classic characters faced. Gotham by Gaslight seemed to work for everyone, however. Brian Augustyn’s use of characters, historical details, and references in Gotham by Gaslight establishes a believable setting outside of conventional Batman stories. His use of characters and dialogue and how they affect Bruce Wayne/Batman makes the out of time story feel more real to the reader.
As in any story, characters are the most essential aspect of writing that allows readers to become involved and interested in fictional literature. Brian Augustyn uses characters to establish a sense of believability to his story. Instead of just throwing Batman into 19th century Gotham city and letting him do what he always does, he uses real history from that time period to justify Batman’s existence in the time. For example, the main antagonist is Jack the Ripper, who terrorized London’s Whitechapel district in 1888. The name “Jack the Ripper” was taken from a letter written in 1888 by someone who claimed to be the killer. Though the letter was deemed falsified, the name stuck to the killer. In Gotham by Gaslight, the story opens with a letter written by Jack the Ripper that contains references to the original letter his name came from, Whitechapel, and the actual dates in which the ripper killings took place. This is the sort of brilliance Augustyn brings to his storytelling. An...
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