The Sherlock Holmes Influences of Batman: Gotham by Gaslight
Turning Batman: Gotham by Gaslight into an animated movie required some deep dives into Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper culture.
Batman: Gotham by Gaslight is the latest DC animated movie, and it’s one that fans have been waiting for. Based on a 1989 comic by Brian Augustyn, Mike Mignola, and P. Craig Russell, which told the story of an alternate reality, where Batman operates in the Gotham City of 1889, and who has to contend with one of the most famous supervillains in history when Jack the Ripper comes to town.
Back in October at New York Comic Con, we spoke with the writer tasked with adapting Batman: Gotham by Gaslight for the screen, Jim Krieg, as well as executive producer Bruce Timm about the challenges of bringing such a beloved Batman story to life, how they fleshed out the story, and what role Sherlock Holmes has to play in the whole process.
“Gotham by Gaslight is one of the most popular graphic novels in our library,” Jim Krieg said. “This one has been on top of the list for a long time. And nobody had to twist our arms to do it. When it came up we were all happy to take it on.”
Bruce Timm admitted that Gotham by Gaslight was a tougher sell to the higher ups at Warner Bros. than some of the other animated adaptations. “This has come up several times in the past and there’s maybe even been a little bit of reluctance to do it because it is a period piece, and it takes place in an alternate timeline,” Timm said. “But for some reason we brought it up again and everybody said, ‘oh yeah, let’s do it.’ So, I didn’t have to pitch it very hard.”
But the animated version of Gotham by Gaslight isn’t a direct adaptation, and they had to add more in order to make it work. After all, the original comic was only 48 pages long. “If we gave you exactly what the original was it would be eleven minutes long,” Timm joked. “And the other thing is that it’s a mystery. If you see a mystery and you know the ending, it’s kind of a bummer. You’re kinda waiting it out.”
Of course, there’s another inescapable work of comic book fiction that deals with Jack the Ripper, Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s indispensable From Hell, which, while fictional is exhaustively footnoted with other elements of Ripper research. But Krieg spent more time on iconic fiction of the era than he did on Ripperology when coming up with Gotham by Gaslight.
“I would say of the research I did, it was more in the Sherlock Holmes area,” Krieg says. “I grew up as a Holmes fan and my dad read it to me, and I read it to my kids. But I didn’t want to get any of it wrong and I didn’t want to leave any Sherlockian stone unturned. I made the Baker Street Irregulars into Robins. I tried to do as much as I could.”
But not just any Sherlock Holmes stories would do. “There’s actually a considerable amount of British literature that are about Sherlock Holmes versus Jack the Ripper,” Krieg says. “There are about 15 books. I maybe read five of them.”
In particular, Krieg cites the 1965 Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper movie, A Study in Terror as a favorite, if not a specific influence. “It’s not a Hammer movie,” Krieg says of A Study in Terror, “but it looks like it’s trying to be a Hammer movie. I mean, the red is really red. What’s weird about that movie is that it came out [right around] when Batmania was going crazy. And the poster actually says, ‘Bam! Pow!’ And the text says, ‘Here Comes The Original Caped Crusader.’”
“We took it as an opportunity to kind of wallow in the Victorian world and not just the Jack the Ripper mythology,” Timm says, also pointing out the Sherlock Holmes similarities. “One of my favorite Jack the Ripper inspired movies was The Lodger from 1944 with Laird Cregar. That was kind of a big inspiration on one of the story elements, specifically we were relating to Selina Kyle. She works as an actress/singer very much like the Merle Oberon character in the original Lodger, so of course she’s going to do a Can-Can dance…that’s their little homage to The Lodger.”
Timm had a very specific pop culture analogy for what inspired that use of Batman’s supporting cast, too. “When I was a kid one of the shows I watched all the time was Gilligan’s Island, and Gilligan would occasionally have these fantasy episodes where he’d get hit on the head and have a dream,” Timm recalls. “There was a Victorian one where the Professor was Sherlock Holmes and Skipper was Doctor Watson and Mary Anne was Eliza Doolittle and Gilligan himself was Jekyll and Hyde. So, this is kind of the same kind of idea. You take those characters that you know and you put them in different spots in this different world and see what happens. That was a lot of fun.”
“It’s a little glimpse into that Victorian Gotham and then expand that and put as many of Batman’s stock players in it in roles you recognize,” Jim Krieg said. “You know, who’s gonna be Lestrade? And who’s gonna be Watson? And who is gonna be Irene Adler?”
When the first footage premiered, fans noted that they didn’t try and duplicate the distinctive art style of original Gotham by Gaslight artist, Mike Mignola. “I don’t think we could have adapted it properly with the time and money that we had available to us,” Bruce Timm says. “I actually think Mike’s style could be adapted animation really faithfully if we had a longer production schedule and a bigger budget. We would have had to have a longer R&D development period to figure out how to do it exactly one to one on the screen.”
“We stayed really faithful to the spirit of the comics,” Timm said. “Some of the details have changed. One of the things that gave us the opportunity to do, was to include more of Batman’s supporting characters, like Harvey Bullock and Harvey Dent and Leslie Thompkins to give them interesting story beats of their own in this world.”
And it’s true, the spirit of the original Gotham by Gaslight is right there on the screen. And those worried about the fact that it doesn’t look exactly like Mike Mignola’s artwork would do well to remember that it’s rare (if ever) that any of these animated adaptations translate the art style of the source material. “What we did instead is we took some elements from [Mignola’s] style and the comic in general both the color and the look of the characters in the background, and we stayed true to the spirit of the art, not necessarily the letter of it,” Timm says.
Batman: Gotham by Gaslight is available now on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital.