Here at DC Histories, we try to make sense of the continuity that perplexes, befuddles, and intimidates. We discuss what worked and what didn’t. This week, we’re talking about the world’s most famous detective, Sherlock Holmes.
Created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and debuted in an 1887 edition of Beeton’s Christmas Annual, Sherlock Holmes was a sensation almost from the start. Using his keen powers of observation and deduction, Sherlock solved problems for the clients who came to his apartment at 221B Baker Street seeking his assistance. Aided by his friend Doctor John Watson, the pair solved all manner of cases dealing with fraud, missing persons, and murder. So popular were the Sherlock Holmes stories that the dozens of short stories and four novels continued to be reprinted after Doyle’s death in 1930. Later novelists, filmmakers, and radio show writers wrote new adventures for the detective and his assistant. Among those later writers who took up the character of Sherlock Holmes were a variety of comic book creators. Sherlock has appeared in comics by seemingly every publisher on the market, including DC Comics.
Though they weren’t owned by DC Comics when they were first published, a few issues of the Golden Age Hit Comics and Kid Eternity titles featured Kid Eternity calling on the help of the fictional Sherlock Holmes on a few occasions. The Kid had the power to summon any figure from history or literature to help him. When an adventure called for an investigation, Sherlock seemed to be the person to call.
Years later, DC bought the rights to the Kid Eternity character and these back issues, officially making these stories the first time that Sherlock appeared in the modified DCU.
While under the effects of Red Kryptonite, anything can happen to Superman, but it can only happen to him once. Red Kryptonite never has the same effect twice. That’s how adventures like Superman becoming a baby and Superman having a weird ant head were written. During one such exposure to the red stuff, he was granted the power to have his wishes fulfilled. The first thing he did was to accidentally wish Sherlock Holmes into being.
The wishing power faded soon afterwards and Sherlock disappeared. That’s too bad, as a self-aware imaginary Sherlock Holmes could have been an interesting character.
Over a decade later, Sherlock was finally given the full DC Comics treatment when his solo series launched. Written by Denny O’Neil with art by E. R. Cruz and a cover by Walt Simonson, Sherlock Holmes #1 hit spinner racks in 1975.
In this first issue, O’Neil and Cruz adapted two classic Sherlock tales into the comic book form. Oddly enough, they started with what was supposed to be the last Sherlock Holmes story. In “The Final Problem,” Sherlock went up against Professor Moriarty, his legendary nemesis, for the first time. The story ended with both Sherlock and the evil professor taking a header off Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland. It was Doyle’s intention for this to be the death of his most famous character. The comic book adaptation followed the original story very closely.
The second story in the issue was the story that returned Sherlock to the land of the living. Bowing to public pressure to create new Holmes stories, Doyle returned Sherlock to life in “The Adventure of the Empty House” where it was shown that Moriarty’s criminal empire survived enough though their leader had perished. Sherlock faked his death in order to draw out Moriarty’s underlings. As was the case with the first story in the comic, this second tale was also a close adaptation of the original Doyle creation.
The last panel of the comic claims that the “next issue on sale during the last week in Aug.” This announcement was a bit premature. A second issue was never published and Sherlock Holmes was later classified as a special rather than an ongoing title. It’s a shame because if the series had continued, Denny O’Neil could have penned original Sherlock stories as the series went on. Something interesting should have resulted from that.
Sherlock didn’t stay gone from DC Comics pages for long. Well, at least he didn’t stay away in spirit. He appeared in the pages of the Joker‘s solo series the following year when an actor named Clive Sigerson was playing Sherlock Holmes as a part of a touring theater company. The Joker dressed up as Professor Moriarty and began a series of crimes based on Holmes.
After the Joker struck Clive, the actor became confused. Suddenly, he was convinced that he was Sherlock Holmes and that he needed to track down the Joker, who he thought was Moriarty. What followed was a fun little story of the Joker stealing random, worthless artifacts that referenced Sherlock stories while Clive tracked the villain down. The two clashed a few times, including at a golf course.
The Joker was caught at the end of the story, which is how all of the issues of the Joker’s solo series ended. According to the Comics Code, the villain had to lose at the end, so the Joker was undone by a brain damaged actor. It wasn’t his finest hour.
Sherlock reappeared two years later in a special one-off adventure. The Brave and the Bold was Batman’s team-up title where the Caped Crusader met other heroes in the DCU. In a Brave and the Bold special whose official title was DC Special Series #8, Batman teamed up with Deadman and Sgt. Rock to take down a bomber who was blowing up chunks of Gotham. It was a strange tale, full of magic and the devil himself. In a plot point that contained absolutely no pay-off, Sherlock Holmes made his first appearance as a character in the DCU. He helped Deadman track down a key component of the case.
While Sherlock wasn’t a real person in this issue, it seems as though he was the idea of Sherlock Holmes personified. Or something. His interactions with Deadman were never full explained and when Boston Brand tried to track down Sherlock again at the story’s end, he found 221B Baker Street nonexistent. He, and many a reader, was baffled.
Nearly a decade later, Mike W. Barr wrote Detective Comics #572. In the pages of that issue, Holmes became a fully intact member of the DCU. No longer was he a fictional character, as he was in each of his previous appearances. In the pages of this celebration of the Batman’s fifty years of publication, an ancestor of Professor Moriarty’s was attempting to fulfill a nearly century old plan to kill the Queen of England. After the story was set up, a flashback was presented which gave a previously untold tale of Holmes and Watson. Denny O’Neil, the issue’s editor, was able to get his old Sherlock Holmes collaborator, E. R. Cruz, to pencil the sequence detailed in Barr’s script.
At the issue’s end, Batman and his colleagues, including Jason Todd as Robin, the Elongated Man, and Slam Bradley, a private eye whose debut was in the very first issue of Detective Comics, stopped the plans to kill the Queen but the villain almost got away. Only the intervention of a familiar looking centenarian saved the day.
Drawn by the great Alan Davis, Sherlock Holmes was alive and well in 1987′s DCU. Sherlock was pleased with the work that the current crop of superheroes were doing. He was also glad to see that the great-granddaughter of his old friend Doctor Watson was romantically linked to the great-grandson of Professor Moriarty, who had attempted to stop his family from killing the Queen.
Sherlock remained a part of the DCU for the next several years.
During an issue of Eclipso‘s solo series, a lost tale of Holmes was told. In this tale, set during Sherlock’s heyday of the late 19th century, Eclipso possessed Irene Adler, the woman who Sherlock thought to be his equal. While under the dark spirit’s control, Irene killed the King of Bohemia and then her husband. In his attempts to stop her, Watson was possessed as well. Sherlock tracked his friend down to a nearby church and attempted to exorcise the spirit possessing his friend.
The story ended with Watson set free but Irene herself dead. It was a crazy and bloody story, which didn’t really fit the original Sherlock stories very well. Still, the art by Ted McKeever kept the tale visually interesting and worth reading.
Sadly, it became clear years later that Sherlock Holmes had been removed from continuity. During one of Booster Gold’s jaunts across time, he ran into images of several alternate universes. One of those universes appeared to be the world in which Detective Comics #572 had taken place. Now it seemed that Batman and Elongated Man never met Sherlock Holmes.
That didn’t mean that DC Comics’ various publishing divisions couldn’t tell more Sherlock stories. They did just that two years later in a Wildstorm miniseries titled Victorian Undead. In it, Professor Moriarty became a kind of thinking zombie who created his own zombie army to take over England. It is a story very much of its time but fun in its own way.
A sequel concerning Sherlock Holmes battling against Dracula came out the following year. It was initially published by Wildstorm as well, but the line folded during publication. The final three issues of the second miniseries were officially published by DC. In any case, neither series took place in the DCU proper.
While Sherlock Holmes has faded in and out of continuity since his first appearance in a DC book, he remains an indelible part of popular culture. From the films starting Robert Downey Jr. to the recent BBC and CBS series updates of the character, Sherlock remains an interesting and viable character in the modern age. Still, here’s hoping he runs into Batman again in the future.
Jeff Reid prefers Sherlock to Elementary, but he does enjoy both. He tends to discuss his television watching habits on Twitter.