Meet The Pr ose: Sherlock Holmes
A look at the Great Detective’s comics career
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
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