The world of comic books is filled with archenemies, from Superman and Lex Luthor to, Spider-Man and Green Goblin, from Batman and the Joker to Mr. Fantastic and Dr. Doom and beyond. Of course, the tradition began much earlier than our modern four-color tales, stretching at least as far back as the Victorian fiction of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the mastermind behind the original Sherlock Holmes stories.
Holmes’ equal on the opposite side of the law is the mysterious Professor Moriarty, a man who, despite his standing as Holmes’ greatest archnemesis, rarely matched wits with the detective. “When you go back and look at the stories themselves, there’s not much there,” said writer Daniel Corey of his and artist Anthony Diecidue’s May-debuting Image Comics miniseries “Moriarty: The Dark Chamber” regarding his villainous main character. “He’s mentioned here and there, but there’s only two stories that involve Professor Moriarty and he’s never actually on stage. Our narrator Doctor Watson briefly sees a man through the crowd at a train station in “The Final Problem” that might be Professor Moriarty. He’s not really part of the story, yet we have all come to think of him as this ever present supervillain to Sherlock Holmes.”
The character’s mystery, along with a healthy dose of love for actors who have portrayed him on film and TV, including Laurence Olivier in “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution,” Daniel Davis on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and Paul Freeman in “Without A Clue,” gave Corey the inspiration to explore Moriarty further.
“I was reflecting one day, and it gave me the idea that there’s this character that has been very minimally exploited in the original stories, yet some people have taken him and made some great stuff with the character. Why not do a story that focuses on him?” Corey told CBR.
From there, it was simply a matter of nailing down the specifics. Corey set the story 20 years after Holmes’ death in “The Final Problem,” placing the story in 1914, the beginning of World War I. Moriarty, however, has a series of problems on his mind that are far more pressing than those of The Great War.
“[Moriarty has] lost his great foil. It turns out that Sherlock Holmes was really his reason for living, in a way,” Corey said. “After he achieved what he thought would be his greatest victory where his rival lost his life, his life is meaningless afterwards. He’s kind of imploded, his criminal empire has crumbled and Professor Moriarty is just drifting. The world is passing him by. He has a small company that he runs and he works out of this office as an investigator, helping out with the local criminal element. He’s just scraping by. That’s where our story begins.”
The series kicks off at an absolute low point for Moriarty who is essentially at rock bottom before the bottom gives up. The British government shows up at the one-toe criminal mastermind’s door, tells him they know who he really is and blackmails him into helping them find Sherlock Holmes’ equally smart, but less thrill-seeking brother who has gone missing.
“He sees it as quite a challenge,” Corey said of Moriarty and his new task. “He’s assumed a new identity and doesn’t go by that name Moriarty any more, so when the British Security Services come to him, it’s quite a big deal. They send him on this mission to find Mycroft Holmes. He sees this as a trap that he walked into, but an interesting one. It does set him off. Things get more complicated from there as he tries to reclaim his place as the world’s greatest criminal.”
As with most plans, Moriarty’s does not go quite as planned with a pair of mysterious figures appearing to complicate matters in the forms of new criminal mastermind Gottfried and female assassin Jade. Both characters remind Moriarty not only of his age, but also of his desire to become the reigning head of the criminal world.
“Gottfried comes up very early on and we know he’s going to be a problem,” Corey said. “Gottfried is the new Moriarty for the new world. The world changed. This is the post-Industrial Revolution society and Moriarty still looks very Victorian. He still wears the old clothes from the 1890s and all that, while everyone else wears clothes made in the factories. The new guy is a new villain for the new world and Moriarty sees this and [it plays with] his need to control his universe. He remembers what it felt like back in the day when this new challenge shows up and he basically has to reclaim the mantle of ‘World’s Greatest Criminal’ from this new kid. He wants to hold on to the idea that his old ways are better.”
The presence of another character — who Corey chose to keep tight-lipped about for now — takes on a role not dissimilar to that of Watson to Holmes, with the added effect of reminding Moriarty just how old he has become.
“The reason Holmes had a partner and the reason why Doctor Watson tells the stories is because you kind of need a straight man to explain things,” Corey said. “It’s hard to tell a story from the point of view of a very eccentric man like Sherlock Holmes. I tell the story from [Moriarty’s] POV, I try to keep it first person. I got that inspiration from reading a lot of classic American crime fiction, the first person narration from tough guy detective stories. Moriarty doesn’t need a sounding board for us to know what’s going on, but there is one character in particular who comes in who would be viewed as his sidekick or partner in the story. It’s good to have that. Sherlock always said, ‘I like having company, I like having someone I can rely on.’ Similarly, it kind of helps Moriarty be a little more human, that he does have someone.”
Making sure the villain is someone readers can relate to is an aspect of the series that took priority for Corey. The writer noted that extraordinary and evil people tend not to think they’re evil, instead believing they are doing the right thing, illegal though it may be.
“The thing I really liked about [this series] is that [Moriarty] is at his worst and his most desperate, which is when we see his true nature and get to really know him,” Corey said. “I’m interested in what makes a supervillain like that tick. Why did he have the need to control, why did he have this need to dominate? Everything that he wants and needs comes from basic human wants and needs. When [the series] opens up, we’re seeing him at his worst. In the first moments, we get to see who he is. Maybe we’ll identify with him a little bit because, like I said, everything comes from basic human wants and desires. Why did he want to be this supervillain? Well, maybe he just wants security, maybe he wants to control his universe. He doesn’t think of himself as a bad guy — we just perceive him like that because the things he does to make his life whole and complete are against the law.”
Bringing everything to life, from the World War I-era society and the anachronistic Moriarty himself to assassins and the small moments that make up the comic is artist Anthony Diecidue, whom Corey praised as being able to capture elements in the script other artists might have missed.
“Anthony is an amazing artist. He’s a graduate of the Kubert school, and the thing with him is that, like working with a great film director or actor, he understands blocking, he understands moments,” Corey said. “When I write the script, I go panel to panel and I’m very thorough in describing everything in detail, how I want everything to be. He read that and reads into it the way a creative person does, understanding what’s happening beneath the lines. He understands where the moments are. He knows when somebody says something and mean something else, he knows what a person looks like when they feel betrayed but don’t want to show it. Plus, he already has good knowledge of this period. When I told him what year we were doing it in, he immediately ripped into [talking about ships and how they were different back then]. He already knew the period costumes very well. Knowledge base and a sense of drama and dramatic action and a great sense of motion, even when we have long periods of dialogue that go on for two, three, four pages; he makes it exciting and dynamic. It’s like seeing cameras move on a comic page.”
Corey hopes the public’s recent resurgence in Sherlock Holmes interest, thanks in large part to the Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law film as well as the well-regarded BBC series that brings Holmes into the modern day, will translate well for the series. “We’ve worked very hard on it. We’ve been working on it for about three years now,” Corey said. “Andy and I have been collaborating on it for the last few years. We’re very happy Image picked us up. We’ve been working for years to get to this point, and we’re very glad they had some faith in us to launch this.”
“Moriarty: The Dark Chamber” hits stores May 11 courtesy of Image Comics