Meet The Pr ose: Sher­lock Holmes

A look at the Great De­tec­tive’s comics ca­reer

Comic Heroes - - Contents -

Who’s the most fa­mous and pop­u­lar char­ac­ter in lit­er­a­ture? El­e­men­tary, my dear reader. It’s Sher­lock Holmes, con­sult­ing de­tec­tive, res­i­dent of 221B Baker Street, archVic­to­rian and all-round ul­tra-egghead sleuth.

Holmes and his stal­wart side­kick Dr Wat­son orig­i­nally ap­peared in four nov­els and 56 short sto­ries penned by Sir Arthur Co­nan Doyle be­tween 1887 and 1927. Since then there have been an es­ti­mated 2,000 pas­tiche tales by di­verse hands. Au­thors who have tack­led Holmes in­clude such lu­mi­nar­ies as Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Anthony Horowitz, Michael Chabon, Colin Dex­ter and Michael Moor­cock. There have also been nu­mer­ous Holmes movies, TV shows and stage plays.

Nat­u­rally, comics have got in on the act. So let us take out our mag­ni­fy­ing glasses and ex­am­ine the ev­i­dence to see which are blame­less and which are crim­i­nal.

News­pa­per strips The ear­li­est proper Sher­lock Holmes comic is the 1950s news­pa­per strip writ­ten by Edith Meiser and drawn pri­mar­ily by Frank Gi­a­coia (later to be­come a Marvel main­stay as one of its pre­mier inkers). These are very straight, slightly plod­ding ver­sions of orig­i­nal tales such as “A Scan­dal In Bo­hemia” and “The Red-Headed League”, in which Gi­a­coia opts for the stan­dard im­age of Holmes with pipe, cape and deer­stalker hat. The deer­stalker, in­ci­den­tally, is never ex­plic­itly men­tioned in the canon – Doyle refers to an “ear-flapped trav­el­ling cap” on just one oc­ca­sion – but was a vis­ual fea­ture added by Sid­ney Paget, who il­lus­trated the tales when they first ap­peared in The Strand Mag­a­zine. It has since come to typ­ify Holmes and, as we shall see, most of the comic-book rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the char­ac­ter.

In the mid-’50s Charl­ton Comics pro­duced a cou­ple of is­sues of All-New Baf­fling Ad­ven­tures Of Sher­lock Holmes. Be­ing Charl­ton prod­uct, these are as pedes­trian as you would ex­pect and the only “baf­fling” thing about them is that the set­ting is con­tem­po­rary Amer­ica rather than Vic­to­rian Eng­land. The sto­ries, three per

The deer­stalker is never ex­plic­itly men­tioned in the canon

is­sue, do not draw on Doyle’s plots in any way. The comic, how­ever, was unau­tho­rised and it is said that le­gal pres­sure from the Doyle es­tate forced it to be can­celled.

The deer­stalker is present and cor­rect in that ti­tle, as it is also in the sin­gle is­sue of

New Ad­ven­tures Of Sher­lock Holmes pub­lished by Dell in 1960. This con­tains two sto­ries, nei­ther spec­tac­u­lar. “The Deadly In­her­i­tance” sees Holmes at­tend­ing a séance to set­tle a dis­pute be­tween two broth­ers, while in “The Tun­nel Scheme” Pro­fes­sor Moriarty has con­cocted a bank rob­bery that ex­ploits an un­der-con­struc­tion Chan­nel tun­nel. There’s quite a bit of ac­tion and gun­play, but pre­cious lit­tle logic or fidelity to the source ma­te­rial. In the late ’60s the Bri­tish chil­dren’s weekly Look And Learn in­cluded se­ri­alised strip

ver­sions of The Sign Of Four and The Hound Of The Baskervilles. These ap­peared two pages at a time and are un­usual in that they em­ploy speech bub­bles when the cus­tom­ary for­mat for this kind of fea­ture was il­lus­tra­tions with chunks of text nar­ra­tive. The adap­ta­tions omit cer­tain as­pects of Doyle’s plots: there’s no ro­mance be­tween Dr Wat­son and Mary Morstan (the fu­ture Mrs Wat­son) in Four, and

in Baskervilles sev­eral of the sup­port­ing char­ac­ters are ab­sent, mak­ing the iden­tity of the killer that much less opaque. But Robert For­rest’s lus­cious mono­chrome wa­ter­colour il­lus­tra­tion, the pres­ence of the dread deer­stalker notwith­stand­ing, put these among the very top tier of Holmes comics.

In DC’s one-off Sher­lock Holmes (1975), noted Bat­man scribe Den­nis O’Neil adapts “The Fi­nal Prob­lem” and “The Ad­ven­ture Of The Empty House”, the two sto­ries which book­end Holmes’s sup­posed death and his sub­se­quent three-year ab­sence from Lon­don which Sher­lock­ians have dubbed the “Great Hia­tus”. O’Neil crams as much fisticuffs and sword­play into 18 pages as he can. The re­sult is a Holmes who’s more of a pulp-fic­tion su­per­man than a cere­bral de­tec­tive. ER Cruz il­lus­trates in a clas­sic, fluid style. Deer­stalker and pipe? Oh yes.

A year later Marvel pro­duced its own adap­ta­tion of The Hound Of The Baskervilles across two is­sues of black-and-white mag­a­zi­ne­sized an­thol­ogy ti­tle Marvel Pre­view. Doug Moench does ster­ling work with the script, hew­ing close to Doyle’s text, com­ple­mented by Val May­erik’s nicely gnarly line-and-wash art. The deer­stalker crops up only near the end, when Holmes is on Dart­moor, and one could ar­gue that that is at least ap­pro­pri­ate, since it is tra­di­tion­ally a coun­try­man’s out­door hat.

Go­ing Pub­lic Copy­right on Sher­lock Holmes ex­pired in 1980 and the char­ac­ter fell into the pub­lic do­main (al­though a re­cent US court case has de­ter­mined that cer­tain nar­ra­tive el­e­ments in the fi­nal 10 sto­ries, such as Wat­son’s sec­ond wife and his love of rugby, re­main the property of the Doyle es­tate for the time be­ing). This opened the flood­gates for a plethora of new Holmes ad­ven­tures.

Fif­teen is­sues of Cases Of Sher­lock Holmes from Rene­gade Comics – and a fur­ther nine from Norths­tar Comics, who car­ried on the se­ries un­der var­i­ous ti­tles – came out be­tween 1986 and 1992 and con­tain the texts of the orig­i­nal sto­ries slot­ted around beau­ti­ful, hy­per­de­tailed il­lus­tra­tions by Dan Day. Holmes here looks very much like Basil Rath­bone, the ac­tor who played him so mem­o­rably in the Uni­ver­sal Stu­dios movie se­ries from the ’30s and ’40s, and some­what like Peter Cush­ing as well, who also por­trayed the char­ac­ter many times on­screen. For the pic­tures alone, these mid-’80s comics are worth check­ing out.

The same, alas, can­not be said for a brace of minis­eries pub­lished by Mal­ibu Graph­ics in the early ’90s. Scar­let In Gaslight finds Holmes fac­ing Count Drac­ula, a lit­er­ary mash-up that had by then al­ready fea­tured in prose nov­els by Fred Saber­ha­gen, Loren D Estle­man and David Stu­art Davies, to name but three. A

Case Of Blind Fear sees the de­tec­tive clash with HG Wells’s mad, mur­der­ous In­vis­i­ble Man, and is distin­guished by some truly ter­ri­ble cod-Vic­to­rian di­a­logue from writer Martin Pow­ell. Some­one refers to a “chemist shoppe”,

some­one else calls a tele­gram a “telly”, and a Han­som driver is seen mut­ter­ing “Blag­gart stoled me cab...”. Seppo Maki­nen’s art is sim­i­larly gauche and am­a­teur­ish.

These two cre­ators take a fur­ther crack at the char­ac­ter in Sher­lock Holmes: Re­turn Of

The Devil, a two-is­sue mi­croseries pub­lished by Ad­ven­ture Comics in 1992 which pits Holmes against Aleis­ter Crow­ley and Pro­fes­sor Moriarty’s venge­ful brother (the lat­ter of whom Doyle care­lessly failed ever to men­tion). A plot in­volv­ing doc­tored co­caine pro­vides an ex­cuse for count­less hal­lu­ci­na­tory dream se­quences, in one of which Holmes is seen mak­ing mad pas­sion­ate love to his “wife” Irene Adler. As with

Blind Fear, there’s an un­com­fort­able level of fe­male nu­dity and im­plied rape.

The Cu­ri­ous Case Of The Van­ish­ing Vil­lain by Gor­don Rennie and Woodrow Phoenix (Tun­dra, 1993) is not an­other In­vis­i­ble Man tale as you might think, but in­stead brings Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde into the mix. This el­e­gant, metafic­tional tale sees Holmes on the trail of the mon­strous Hyde, who has left the pages of his own book

to ram­page through other lit­er­ary works, in­clud­ing those of Edgar Al­lan Poe.

Yet more mash-up malarkey ap­pears in Cal­iber’s The Ad­ven­ture Of The Opera

Ghost (1994), an am­bi­tious af­fair writ­ten by Steven P Jones and fea­tur­ing char­ac­ters from Gas­ton Ler­oux’s The Phan­tom Of The

Opera. Aldin Baroza draws in a freeform, scratchy style that seems to be de­lib­er­ately ap­ing Ed­die Camp­bell’s work on From Hell. With­out Camp­bell’s skill, how­ever, not to men­tion an Alan Moore script, the re­sults are un­der­whelm­ing.

The Sus­sex Vam­pire, a 1996 one-shot also from Cal­iber, ought to be more en­ter­tain­ing than it is. Adapt­ing one of Doyle’s more Gothic Holmes yarns, writer War­ren El­lis is let down by Craig Gil­more, whose art is sloppy and in­con­sis­tent, some­times re­ly­ing on photo ref­er­ence, other times go­ing for a spiky DaveMcKean-es­que loose­ness. El­lis him­self doesn’t do too badly un­til the fi­nal page where, when the vil­lain’s fa­ther pre­scribes a year in the navy as the rem­edy for his young son’s mis­deeds, he in­serts an in­con­gru­ous cap­tion about “rum, sodomy and the lash” that speaks of his own au­tho­rial view­point rather than Doyle’s.

Au­then­tic Since the turn of the century, the deer­stalker has been bless­edly ab­sent from Sher­lock Holmes comics and there’s a much greater so­phis­ti­ca­tion in cre­ators’ ap­proaches to the char­ac­ter. Re­cently Ian Edg­in­ton has penned an ex­cel­lent se­ries of Holmes graphic nov­els for SelfMadeHero, in tan­dem with INJ Cul­bard. These ver­sions of the four core nov­els –

Study In Scar­let, The Sign Of Four, The Val­ley Of

Fear and The Hound Of The Baskervilles – are ev­ery­thing a Sher­lock­ian could ask for: dark, stately and au­then­tic.

Edg­in­ton has also given us two minis­eries of Vic­to­rian Un­dead for Wilds­torm, star­ring Holmes. In the first, the de­tec­tive – deer­stalk­er­free – grap­ples with a zom­bie plague which is tied neatly to the in­fa­mous Broad Street cholera out­break of 1854. In the sec­ond, Jekyll and Hyde show up, as does Drac­ula. We may have seen Holmes meet these char­ac­ters else­where be­fore, but Edg­in­ton and artists Da­vide Fab­bri and Ho­ra­cio Domingues han­dle the crossovers with vigour and orig­i­nal­ity.

Hus­band-and-wife writ­ing team Leah Moore and John Rep­pion have taken a cred­itable back-to-ba­sics ap­proach to Holmes with their The Trial Of Sher­lock Holmes and The

Liver­pool De­mon for Dy­na­mite En­ter­tain­ment. The for­mer sees Holmes ac­cused of a mur­der which nat­u­rally he did not com­mit, while the lat­ter delves into a seedy, su­per­nat­u­ral world of mon­sters and an­cient arte­facts. Both are worth a look, un­like Sher­lock Holmes: Year

One, also from Dy­na­mite. This is partly a retelling of Doyle’s “The Ad­ven­ture Of The Glo­ria Scott” in­ter­laced with the kind of se­rial-killer-com­mit­ting-mur­ders-accordingto-an-elab­o­rate-pat­tern plot that has be­come bog-stan­dard thanks to movies such as Theatre

Of Blood, The Abom­inable Doc­tor Phibes and Se7en. Writer Scott Beatty brings noth­ing new to the ta­ble. Holmes here does lit­tle de­tect­ing, and the so­lu­tion to the killings more or less falls into his lap. Worse is Beatty’s cack­handed grasp of Bri­tish ver­nac­u­lar. “Bug­ger all!” is not an oath, it’s a noun, and a line like, “Cease this vi­o­lence or I shall parse my own!” may sound posh but makes no sense what­so­ever.

Sher­lock Holmes And The Vam­pires Of Lon­don is a French bande dess­inée just pub­lished in English by Dark Horse. Yet again Holmes is con­fronted by blood­suck­ing un­dead, but Syl­vain Cor­durié’s script shows re­spect to the canon – it takes place just af­ter Holmes’s pre­sumed demise at the Re­ichen­bach Falls, so the de­tec­tive him­self is tech­ni­cally “liv­ing dead” – and Laci’s art­work is very stylish in­deed.

Cur­rent trends TV dra­mas such as Sher­lock Sher­lock and

El­e­men­tary El­e­men­tary have shown how Holmes can be suc­cess­fully up­dated into a mod­ern con­text, and the cur­rent comics se­ries

Wat­son Wat­son And And Holmes Holmes (New Par­a­digm Stu­dios) puts an­other in­ter­est­ing con­tem­po­rary spin on the char­ac­ter. The first minis­eries, A Study In Black, has just been col­lected as a trade pa­per­back. Here both the prin­ci­pal char­ac­ters are African-Amer­i­cans: Wat­son an ER doc­tor and a vet­eran of the war in Afghanistan, Holmes a dread­locked pri­vate in­ves­ti­ga­tor and tech whiz who makes his home in an apart­ment in 221 Baker Street in Har­lem, New York. It sounds ter­ri­ble but, brought to life by writer Karl Bollers and artist Rick Leonardi, it’s ac­tu­ally su­perb – a street­wise Sher­lock Holmes for the dig­i­tal age.

The re­cent flurry of Holmes comics proves there’s life in the great de­tec­tive yet, even af­ter nearly 130 years. The deer­stalker has been con­signed to the dust­bin but the game is still very much afoot.

Next time: Pulp fic­tion su­per­man Doc Sav­age.

It was Sid­ney Paget who gave the sleuth his deer­stalker.

Holmes heads State­side in Charl­ton’s ef­fort.

Budding su­per-sleuths take note…

O’Neil and Cruz

did the best they could with the tiny page

count.

Dell’s sole of­fer­ing was was sadly un­der­whelm­ing

.

Dodgy drugs and even dodgier sto­ry­lines.

He’s got Cush­ing’s nose and Rath­bone’s eyes.

“A Case Of Dodgy Di­a­logue”, more like.

Ian Edg­in­ton’s Holmes is just as he should be.

Sher­lock Holmes meets

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