Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Doomsday Book!

Yep, this really happened.
Can you imagine a story in which Batman, Sherlock Holmes, the Elongated Man, Slam Bradley and Robin team-up to stop the ultimate master plan of Moriarty? Well, it happened in 1987's Detective Comics #572.

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of Detective Comics, DC made a 54-page special issue featuring the three most iconic detectives in its history, along with Sherlock Holmes, the big papa of all detectives, who, oddly enough, was also celebrating his 100th anniversary!

Double birthday cover: Detective Comics' 50th and Sherlock Holmes' 100th.
When Mike W Barr's run on 'tec started, it was decided to make the title exclusively about Batman in a single feature format,  however he decided to take a break of sorts and feature more detectives and multiple features to celebrate the occasion. In his words:
The story is structured in 5 parts, the first four feature the individual efforts of each of the star detectives and the fifth part is the climax. Well, more or less.

The first two chapters star an aged Slam Bradley and feature a cameo by Batman and Robin. Slam was the earliest long lasting feature of the title, so this was a very fitting choice. 
The third chapter is basically a classic Elongated Man feature illustrated by Carmine Infantino, just like the ones that characterized Detective Comics during the brightest days of the silver age of DC Comics, by then, at the middle of its run. 
Then, we have the Holmes part, a postmodern trip to the classic and most iconic era of the detective fiction.

The final chapter has Batman leading Slam and Dibny against the thread that brought them together. The current, longest and most important star of the book, leading past stars under the guiding hand of their inspiration against the ultimate foe of detective fiction. As you can see, quite a solid premise!     

A great strength of the story is characterization. Batman has his 80s dark and tough personality, and there's somewhat of a free card with Robin II, who was relatively new. Not much of a challenge so far. However, Ralph is done in his full silver age glory, always the creative and optimistic sleuth; Sherlock is brilliant,
polite, elegant - he is spot on; and the most changed character is a Slam Bradley... 

A lot has changed for old Slam.
In this story, Slam has  been reasonably watered down by age. However, that change makes sense. Slam was never a sophisticated detective, although streetwise, he was a choleric bully who saved the day by beating the answers out of whatever minority or poor looking person that crossed his path. His original stories read like a hilarious Saturday Night Live skits these days. In "The Doomsday Book", Slam has lost his sidekick ("Shorty" Morgan, his codependent lap dog) and his strength has been worn down by age. But don't worry, he's still tough as nails (not even Guy Garner has the guts to tell Batman what he can do with his orders), only he has to save the guns for special occasions and now resources to street trickery more often. The great part about this change is that Barr uses elements from hardboiled detective fiction are used to compensate Slam's brute force.   
Tough, isn't he?
His butt kicking days are over, but that's nothing that some old school tricks can't compensate.
The flawless characterization is related to the fact that this special is a fine example of pastiche in comics. The part lead by Slam Bradley, as I said, is done in hardboiled and golden age of comics style, the Elongated Man part mimics silver age style and that of Sherlock Holmes feels like a classic Victorian crime mystery.
All wrapped in the modern setting of Batman and Detective Comics. There is some metafiction (the Holmes chapter) and even a snarky protagonist (Slam), so, it can be said that this is a great example of postmodernism is comics. 

Same old Ralph toying with his food.
Chapter three might as well have been written by Gardner Fox and Julie Schwartz themselves. As in any Elongated Man story, he happens to run into something odd to investigate, a lot of amusing thug beating and a lighthearted mystery that only Ralph can solve. The only thing missing was Ralph's nose twitching and Sue being send to shop or something at the beginning of the story (the later happens off-panel, though). Ralph's main function in the overall story is as an expert on Holmes history.

Isn't he awesome?
Barr scripted the Holmes story with even more chameleonic mastery than he did for the Elongated Man one. If features every trademark scene of a classic Holmes mystery:
Watson being introduced to a client that just arrived, Holmes shocking the client by deducing key elements of his identity, the client's exposing a really of the case, Holmes rushing to action once he confirms that his unlikely deductions are real and the confrontation with the culprits, whose plot is almost outlandish. Like in many stories, what seems like an unimportant oddity turns out to be a very complex scheme of grandiose ambitions. 

It's go time!
After all the pieces are delivered and the heroes figure out the evil scheme that needs to be foiled, the story turns into Barr's characteristic Outsiders and Brave and the Bold action. It's Batman leading a team of specialists to a Mission: Impossible type of task. The type of stuff that made people say "how the hell did he pull that?" -- "He's Batman". The Goddamn Batman in all his glory. Luckily, Ralph gets to play MacGyver #2 in this part.  
He's Batman!

MacGyver #2 isn't far behind. This is why they are the two Justice Leaguers.

The plot is excellently crafted down to the climax. Well, actually, down to just before it. In the climax of good mystery story, the heroes face the culprits the clues led them to discover who they are and what they are doing. In this case, the clues that lead to Moriarty's big plan are pretty explicit. It's also a bit unsatisfying that the title, the one big clue and the master plan are not that tied. One would expect Moriarty great grandnephew to be a little neater. 
The ultimate mastermind.
That being said, I'd still give it 9 out of 10 stars; the story is one hell of a ride, and it can't be said that the heroes didn't work their way to catch  Moriarty. Detective Comics #572, "The Doomsday Book" is an obligatory must for Slam Bradley fans, Elongated Man fans, Sherlock Holmes fans, Mike W. Barr fans, Detective Comics fans and, in general, fans of detective fiction. DC Comics should dust this issue and revaluate what makes Detective Comics great.