Moriarty: Clockwork Empire is the new series from Titan Comics, that takes the legendary detective Sherlock Holmes and places him into an ever-so-slightly steampunk-inspired London at the turn of the century, in order to investigate gambling automatons, and Doctor Henry Jekyll.
The book begins by setting up both of the stories well enough. In one we see the monstrous Mr Hyde being gunned down by police after he erupts into violence in a London opium den, whilst the other has Holmes breaking a gambling automaton that’s being used to fleece London high society of their money. As the book has been labelled a steampunk story, it comes as something of a surprise when in the very same scene that Holmes unmasks a spectacular poker player as being a secret clockwork robot everyone acts incredibly shocked by this thing’s existence. With so many stories that go in on the steampunk aesthetic, leaning hard into the genre, complete with mechanised servants and clockwork cyborgs everywhere, it’s something of a surprise that this title is kind of light on that front.
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The machine that Holmes and Watson come across seems to be almost completely unheard of. This is a steampunk London that doesn’t have robots and automatons everywhere, where people aren’t covering their outfits in cog motifs, or using devices that seem a few steps away from magic. In fact, most of the book reads as no different from your average Sherlock Holmes tale set in a regular London, until the last few pages, where we see a few zeppelins in the air, and Watson rides in an automated steam-powered carriage.
Because of this, the setting feels kind of undefined. It’s not clear what kind of world the book is set in, if the spectacular is to be expected, and if so, just how common or normalised it is. So far nothing in this first issue would have been changed if this was set within the real world, so I’m left wondering why it’s gone for the steampunk genre other than to have readers not be surprised when the single, lone clockwork man arrives on page.
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The book also incorporates Doctor Jekyll and his famous alter-ego, Mr Hyde, and this seems to be the main focus of the book. A friend of Jekyll is concerned that the doctor is being manipulated and coerced by his new acquaintance, and seeks out Holmes’ help to get to the bottom of things. This results in the beginnings of a mystery that seems to connect to the opium trade.
One of the things that this comic does, which almost every other version of Hyde does, is to get the character completely wrong. In the original novella, Robert Louis Stevenson described the man as “pale and dwarfish, he gave an impression of deformity without any nameable malformation, he had a displeasing smile…'”. The Hyde described in the original book is close to a normal man; a man who has something slightly off about him that makes people feel strange, but still very human. The Hyde here is a hulking monster of a man. He’s at least seven feet tall, is made of muscle, and has large tusk-like teeth. Not the pale and dwarfish man as originally written. The back page of the book seems to be depicting Hyde in an upcoming issue, as a huge, Hulk-like monster battling a giant mecha. Moriarty: Clockwork Empire isn’t the first adaptation to get the character completely wrong, but that doesn’t lessen how bad it is.
The two mysteries that we’re presented with in this first issue begin interestingly enough, but quickly begin to peter out. There’s not a huge amount here to grab the reader, and much of the book is given over to long conversations that seem to go on for far too long to be really that entertaining. The story has very little energy to it, and this is somewhat reflected in the art, which is fine, but that’s about it really. There’s nothing in the book that particularly stands out, nothing that makes you pause whilst reading to spend time looking at the page, and nothing that feels very noteworthy. The drab and dull colours don’t help with this either, and by halfway through you’ll be looking away from the page to just try and experience something vivid for a moment.
Moriarty: Clockwork Empire might be a good story, it might do some interesting things and go to some unusual places, but we don’t really get to see any of that this issue. There’s nothing here that really excites, the characters feel kind of dull, and the story just kind of fizzles out at the end with nothing that makes you excited to pick up the next issue. Even hardcore fans of Sherlock Holmes might find it hard to get through this one.
Moriarty: Clockwork Empire #1 is out now from Titan Comics.