Sometimes I don’t have a whole column’s worth of stuff to say about something, but it still rates a mention here. Those miscellaneous items generally get put off to one side until enough of them stack up together to make a column’s worth, and this is one of those occasions.
So. Bits and pieces, today.
Earlier in the week the mail brought us Murder By Decree, one of my very favorite Sherlock Holmes pastiches.
I saw this in the theater the week it premiered, back when I was in high school, and I hadn’t seen it since; for some reason it’s never rerun on television. Julie hadn’t ever seen it at all, so this was a real treat. It was as much fun as I remembered, and we enjoyed ourselves enormously… but what struck me, watching it, was: why the hell hasn’t anyone ever been able to make Sherlock Holmes work in comics?
Because the story, Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper, really seemed like a superhero crossover-event story of sorts. Back when I did the column about superhero prototypes someone took me to task for not including Holmes, and certainly pulp writers and comics writers have stolen dozens of riffs from Conan Doyle’s stories over the years. The weird thing is that the various Holmes pastiches and tributes and homages and so on that turn up in comics from time to time have generally been more successful than the real thing.
To recap: we all know that the three most successful and widely known fictional heroes of all time are Tarzan, Superman, and Sherlock Holmes. There are lots of Tarzan and Superman comics… but very few featuring Holmes.
DC took a swing at it in the 1970’s. Denny O’Neil and E.R. Cruz did some nice work, but the book was canceled after one issue. That’s right– one issue. For crying out loud, Brother Power The Geek got a better chance at a tryout from DC than that.
Cruz did a little more work on Holmes, pages that eventually saw print as a flashback in the anniversary issue of Detective where Batman met Sherlock Holmes. (This was a very cool book, by the way.)
And Marvel did one in the 1970’s as well– a very well-done two-part adaptation of “The Hound of the Baskervilles” for Marvel Preview #5 and #6, from Doug Moench and Val Mayerik.
Marvel and DC both did Holmes pastiches, as well. DC had Holmes go up against the Joker (sort of) in a charming little done-in-one adventure during the Joker’s short-lived tenure headlining his own book.
And Marvel did a couple of stories with Hodiah Twist, a Holmes knockoff whose cases always involved the supernatural. He had outings in Vampire Tales and Marvel Preview.
Nothing that really set the comics world on fire, but on the other hand, I think Hodiah got more tryouts at Marvel overall than Holmes did. Another comics snub for the Great Detective.
In the 80’s a couple of different indie comics publishers took a shot at the world’s most famous detective. Deni Loubert’s Renegade Comics put out some nice illustrated-prose efforts– though, strictly speaking, you can’t really call them comics.
And Malibu/Eternity put out some reprints of the Holmes syndicated comic strip– which, to be fair, had a respectable run in newspapers for some years, though that success didn’t really translate into comic book sales.
None of these efforts really caught on. The most successful Holmes newsstand comic was probably Scarlet in Gaslight, a cleverly-plotted crossover mini-series pitting Sherlock Holmes against Count Dracula. This one did well enough to get a trade paperback collection that made it into bookstores.
Now, this was hardly the first time anyone had thought of doing that particular crossover.
But it was new for comics. That’s the part that baffles me. It seems like there should be more overlap there somehow. Because Sherlock Holmes fans are every bit as much into their continuity and crossovers and pastiches as comics fans are. Seriously.
You think us old-school DC Earth-2 scholars are geeky? I assure you we are mere dillettantes compared to a hardcore Baker Street Irregular getting his nerd on. They are all about shared-universe storylines and reconciling continuity gaffes and so on. Hell, Irregulars have argued about what is and isn’t Canon for decades. And they don’t do reboots, either. They’ll take on everything that’s been written about Holmes since 1887 and come back panting to index more.
At any rate, to me Sherlock Holmes seems like a natural for comics but somehow he never really has been. Why? I don’t know. I don’t have an answer.
Maybe it’s just a right-place, right-time thing. As I recall Ruse actually was doing pretty well before CrossGen imploded, though for me the fun of the book left with Mark Waid. And of course League of Extraordinary Gentlemen has a Holmesian flavor of sorts. But those efforts demonstrate that a Victorian-type mystery/adventure book could work.
Maybe it’s time to give the Great Detective another shot at a comic book. Something fun, all-original, with a sort of freewheeling pulp-adventure air to it. The thing that has plagued Holmes in comics since the beginning is that so many people who try it are scared to do pastiche, they always want to adapt Doyle’s originals. Those make for bad comics; the originals, particularly the later ones, really aren’t very good stories, it’s only the reader’s affection for Holmes and Watson that carries them. Doyle himself regarded most of his Sherlock Holmes efforts as annoying day-labor jobs he had to churn out to pay the rent, stuff that took time away from his ‘serious work.’
On the other hand, Sherlock Holmes pastiches done with love by talented writers are a continuing joy, and there are bookshelves full of them. And some of those guys write comics, too; Michael Reaves, Neil Gaiman, Michael Chabon. I suspect there are enough Holmes aficionados among working comics pros that it’s an assignment they’d fight over. And if an enterprising comics publisher gave the Baker Street Irregulars something new to chew on, I bet they’d show up for it. Just a thought.
Speaking of crossovers, I have been very vocal and rude about how painfully bad the current DC ones have been. So it gives me great pleasure to tell you about one I just read that I thought was terrific.
The DC Universe paperbacks have been very hit and miss with me. Alan Grant’s Last Sons I thought was just okay, but then I really don’t care that much for Lobo. Devin Grayson’s Inheritance I thought had some nice character bits, some weak plotting, and a couple of spots where it was getting uncomfortably close to slash fan-fiction. And I’ve talked about Denny O’Neil’s Helltown here at length– I adored it, but the book read more like a straight Question novel, part of the personal oeuvre of Denny O’Neil instead of a DC Universe book.
But Jeff Mariotte’s Trail of Time is easily the best of the lot. As a story, it’s just plain fun. It’s a time-travel, alternate-universe story featuring Superman, Lois Lane, the Demon, the Phantom Stranger, Jonah Hex, Zatanna, El Diablo, Bat Lash, and others going up against the triumvirate of Vandal Savage, Mordru, and Felix Faust.
It’s a grand adventure, but really, as a crossover is where the book shines. The plot of the novel is a virtual template for how to do a crossover story right, which is why I thought it was worth mentioning here. To sum up quickly, without giving too much away, it involves the three villains altering pivotal points in time to eliminate the arrival of the heroic age and leave them in control of Earth. So we get glimpses of an alternate DC universe without heroes, a dystopian fascist state where a powerless, timid Clark Kent is finally motivated to take action by the government-sanctioned murder of his wife Lois… and the story takes off from there and ranges across space and time and even detours once through Hell itself.
See, that’s what you want from a Big Crossover Event. The stakes are high enough to plausibly involve a widely disparate group, you get to see the heroes interact in ways they never could in the regular books… and in the end, no irreversible damage is done to the characters and it’s a satisfying ride. That’s how event books SHOULD work, but somehow almost never do.
So I thought I’d point this one out for those that enjoy this sort of thing when it’s done well. And if you like this, you might even check out Jeff Mariotte’s other books, like Desperadoes.
And finally, just for fun: this is one of those little questionnaire meme things people send me from time to time, and I thought it would be amusing to use here in the column one of these days. Feel free to play along at home.
Five Questions — Nerding Out!
Nerdiest book you own?
THE nerdiest? How can I single one out? I think for sheer unabashed gee-whiz fanboy writing, coupled with subject matter that would make people on the bus point and laugh, I’d go with Mark Cotta Vaz’ Tales of the Dark Knight.
Nerdiest DVD you own?
Tough call. I own some pretty nerdy DVDs. I enjoy them all too, God help me. Probably Dan Poole’s Making Of “The Green Goblin’s Last Stand”. Runner up would be David Hasselhoff as Nick Fury.
The thing others find nerdiest about you?
Apart from the books and the DVDs? That’s not damning enough? This varies. But Julie is vastly amused by my index of back-issue comics I am hunting for. Because it’s big, it’s an actual bound notebook; and when I acquire new books they are crossed off the list. “And now, zee ritual of zee crossing off,” she always says when she sees me do it.
The nerdiest thing about you that you are proud of?
That I am able to occasionally turn my nerdy expertise into cash money. Teaching classes on comics, writing articles about comics or pulps, and so on. That’s right — it’s my JOB. Sometimes, anyway. Suck on that while you’re ringing up those rude people at Wal-Mart, you high school jock bullies.
The nerdiest thing about you that you wish you could get rid of?
I have to pick one? Probably my involuntary need to rate the “canonical” accuracy of film and television adaptations of books or comics I like. I no longer do this out loud, and I don’t let it ruin a movie for me, but there is still the voice in the back of my head that pipes up, “oooh, they got THAT wrong.” I don’t think you ever shed that once you start doing it. It’s a curse really.
And that’s all I’ve got, this time out. See you next week, fellow nerds.
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