Thumbnail: How Villainous Moriarty Takes Heroic Turns in Comics
Professor James Moriarty, the “Napoleon of Crime” and the arch-nemesis of Sherlock Holmes, is one of the most iconic villains in fiction. And that’s always been a little odd.
As any die-hard Sherlockian could tell you, if you go strictly by "the Canon" — the four Sherlock Holmes novels and 56 short stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle — Moriarty is not all that important. Referenced in the novel The Valley of Fear and a few later short stories, Moriarty only really appears in 'The Adventure of the Final Problem', where he does what he was created to do: kill off Holmes so Doyle wouldn’t have to write him anymore. Obviously, this didn’t last.
Moriarty really only gained his mythic status and place as Holmes’ rival through later adaptations in radio, film, TV and of course comics. For their part, outside of direct Canon adaptions, comics have tended to portray Moriarty as an antihero.
The best example of this is the nine-issue 2011 Image Comics series Moriarty, by writer Daniel Corey and artist Anthony Diecidue. Set before World War I, the series starts with Moriarty living alone, adrift, in London twenty years after killing Sherlock Holmes. But when the recently formed MI5 blackmails him into finding the long-lost Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s brother, Moriarty is thrown into a world of intrigue featuring a psychic box, secret societies, and a bunch of lady ninjas. It’s a fun series that amps up the pulpiness of the Canon with a mile-a-minute story and awesome, scratchy artwork that’s a blend of Ben Templesmith and Rob Guillory.
A more traditional take is the 2013 Dynamite miniseries Sherlock Holmes: Moriarty Lives.
Written by David Liss, with art by Daniel Indro and Carlos Furuzono and some great Francesco Francavilla covers, the story sees Moriarty survive the fight at Reichenbach Falls and wash up in a small Swiss town. Reluctantly, he gets swept up in a mystery involving an unbreakable safe, bank papers, the son of a dead innkeeper, and a mad scientist who does stuff like put near full-term fetuses inside of cows.
Hewing much closer to traditional Holmes stories, Moriarty Lives poses the age-old question, “Can a villain do something heroic while still being true to his nature?” with a resounding yes. Moriarty does the right thing, but to serve his own ends. It’s a well-told story worth seeking out on Comixology.
Currently, IDW is reintroducing another intriguing version of Moriarty in their adaption of The Seven Per-Cent Solution, a 1974 novel that reveals that Moriarty was just Holmes’ old math tutor, made a full-blown villain by Holmes’ cocaine-ravaged mind. (How is Holmes cured? Why, by meeting Sigmund Freud, undergoing hypnosis, and stopping WWI from occurring. As you do.)
In becoming Sherlock Holmes' de facto nemesis, Moriarty has proved to be just as enduring a character as his opposite number, but making him the center of the story in comics or in other media seems to require the addition of new dimensions. If you're looking for stories that reveal these 'new' facets of the Napoleon of Crime, comics like these offer effective opportunities to build on the fascinating promise of the character Doyle created over a century ago.