Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Raymond Obstfeld (Writers), Joshua Cassara (Art), Luis Guerrero (Colors), Simon Bowland (Letters)
September 5, 2017
Mycroft Holmes and the Apocalypse Handbook begins with a man stopping a child from grabbing the round, perky breast of a statue. It’s this kind of irreverent humor that characterizes the story, and yet, I find myself charmed. The titular Mycroft is a roguish pulp hero who draws obscene pictures of his professor, as a dog, licking his own asshole. He’s the kind of figure you (or at least I) would find hopelessly repulsive in real life, but utterly charming to read about. He reads as Sherlock Holmes’ opposite–hedonistic, personable, cheeky. Their designs are markedly different as well, with Mycroft’s golden hair and wide smile standing in stark contrast to Sherlock’s dark, rain-soaked visage, his lips often seeming to retreat inward into his mouth as if he’s sucking on a lemon. He is, from first glance, exactly zero fun.
This story, from first blush, is more in the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes vein than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or even Moffat/Gattis. There is punching, flamboyant outfits, gratuitous shots of rippling abs (Mycroft’s), shapely butts (his lover’s), and a twist of horror. It follows Mycroft as he seeks out the creator of a variety of mysterious and deadly devices based on the work of visionary writers like Jules Verne and Jane C. Loudon. Naturally, hijinks ensue. Along the way, he encounters staples of Holmes stories, all of whom have been tweaked and reimagined to some degree.
There are rampant opportunities for this to turn ugly, and yet it never does. That’s in part thanks to the gorgeous artwork and coloring by Joshua Cassara and Luis Guerrero, who lean into the ridiculousness of the story with a unique but realistic art style in bold colors, and in part because the plot rarely gives you a moment to breathe. Everything is constantly working its hardest, yanking you from one spectacle (a Mary Shelley-esque Frankenstein’s monster) to another (Mycroft pulling Queen Victoria into a passionate kiss) before moving on to something else. Rather than languishing in misogyny or racism, as much pulp fiction trying to emulate a particular era does, Mycroft Holmes flips some of the scripts we’re familiar with to be more inclusive and interesting than their Victorian counterparts.
The result is something that feels a bit League of Extraordinary Gentlemen but fewer highfalutin’ references and more good old-fashioned fun. Certainly the flaws of the era are addressed within the narrative, but this is a cast of rebels and rogues–they exist within and in spite of oppressive systems (except Mycroft, who is as privileged as a man can be), and their stories illustrate that. There’s not a lot of time spent on character development, as we’re meant to read their twists in conjunction with their stories in canon; unfortunately, this means that some of the more interesting characters, such as the reimagined Irene Adler, feel cool but ultimately like references with personality rather than fully fledged characters.
What the comic has more than anything else is a sense of fun and excitement. Mycroft Holmes and the Apocalypse Handbook is an adventure story through and through. While he might occasionally do some deducing, Abdul-Jabbar and Raymond Obstfeld’s Mycroft is, as the writer himself says, a vision of the character that’s not impacted by Sherlock’s gaze. The two are diametrically opposed, giving Mycroft the opportunity to be a foil, an exploration of how the gifts we associated with Sherlock could work in a character who cares less about intellectual satisfaction and more about pure hedonism.
The primary difference between a Sherlock Holmes story and a Mycroft Holmes story is that a Sherlock story gives you all the clues and shows you how they fit together. Abdul-Jabbar and Obstfeld’s Mycroft story, on the other hand, gives you all the clues, gives you a single moment to realize what’s really going on, and then neatly flicks the dominoes so you, too, can delight in their tumbling. This story delights in misdirection, as you know from early on who the culprit is and what he’s up to–instead, the mystery is in characters’ hidden motives and Mycroft’s own personality.
A story as riddled with deception as this one needs strong art, which Cassara and Guerrero provide. Cassara perfectly captures the facial expressions necessary to convey multiple layers of meaning, and his beautifully structured outfits and prim and proper expressions are consistently and delightfully disrupted by blood, gore, and viscera. It’s often disgusting, but rarely gratuitous–like the nudity, it’s all part of the pulpy atmosphere.
Guerrero’s colors complete the package, making wonderful use of warm and cool tones to transition between scenes and moods. The use of warm oranges and yellows for lighting is particularly masterful; one of the volume’s final scenes involves glowing lanterns, and the contrast between the cool sky, warm light, and more muted clothes and skin tones make it incredibly memorable not just for the events, but for how striking it looks. The script might be fun in the hands of another artist and colorist, but the mixture of realism with bold colors lends the often ridiculous situations a sort of bizarre dignity appropriate to a character like Mycroft. It’s equal parts ridiculous and distinguished, infusing the buttoned-up source material with humor that’s laughing both at and with Doyle’s beloved detective.
The comic is a weird and unexpected delight from its penny dreadful-esque storyline to its bloodstained bodices. With later volumes, there’s hope that the somewhat flat characterization of powerhouses like Adler will be rectified, taking The Apocalypse Handbook from enjoyable but stereotypical pulp to something truly special.