Friday, February 21, 2014

Recommended Reading for 2/21: Sherlock Holmes and the Vampires of London

I'm about to speak a blasphemy as a Batman fan, but the world's greatest detective is Sherlock Holmes (Batman is a close second). He's been portrayed by more actors than pretty much any fictional character, has more pastiches written about him in more formats than anyone else, and is still feverishly discussed by legions of fans. I've read the complete canon of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's original Holmes stories more than once, and have read a lot of pastiches, so picking up this collection of a European Holmes comics, Sherlock Holmes and the Vampires of London published by Dark Horse Comics, was a no brainer.

Sherlock Holmes is one of literature's ultimate rationalist heroes; he lives in a world of the mind where everything is answered through deduction and forensics. Modern writers have often paired him with the supernatural. Some of the most famous Holmes comic stories have him fighting Dracula, Mr. Hyde, The Phantom of the Opera, and even zombies. But if you put Holmes in a world where his skills don't matter, where magic is the rule, he loses his relevance; he isn't Batman, who has all those cool gadgets and can work with magic or a magician, and accepts that there are things in the world that can't be dealt with rationally. However, a judicious use of the supernatural, in a setting where Holmes can use his knowledge, insight, and not inconsiderable physical skill to fight them, makes for a truly intense tale.

The story opens during the period where Holmes is thought to be dead after his fateful encounter with Professor Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls. While in Paris with his brother, Mycroft, Holmes is attacked by things that can only be vampires. After dispatching them, Holmes does his research and waits for them to make their next move. Holmes is surprised to see a woman who bears a striking resemblance to Irene Adler, one of his greatest nemeses and the one person to ever outsmart him, but knowing that it can't be her, he knows that a trap is waiting. After demonstrating a brilliant way to avoid being turned by the vampires, Holmes finds out their leader in London seeks his aid, and so he sets off with Joyce Middles, the vampire who is Adler's double, to meet this leader.

These early scenes with Holmes are juxtaposed with a vampire slaughtering his way through London's upper crust. His intentions aren't made clear until Holmes confronts Selymes, the leader of the vampire nation. It seems Owen Chanes, one of his vampire subjects, has gone rogue and is killing people distantly related to, or close acquaintances of, Queen Victoria, in an attempt to draw the Queen's ire on Selymes, and it's working. Holmes is tasked with finding and disposing of Chanes before the queen sends her forces after the vampires, and if he is unsuccessful, not only will Holmes die, but so will Watson and Watson's wife, Mary. So Holmes makes a deal with the devil to protect his friend, and the game is afoot.

What follows is a game of cat and mouse, with Holmes being at times cat, and at times mouse. He hunts Chanes, while trying to figure out his motives for these very public killings. The story nicely mixes all the aspects of Holmes. He must be in disguise to hide the fact that he still lives from both his friends and the remainder of Moriarty's men; he spends his time researching and doing chemical experiments, meeting with informants, and laying traps for Chanes. Joyce Middles follows him as his vampire contact, and works as Holmes's sounding board. All the while, Chanes continues to kill, and the Queen's patience grows ever thinner, as does that of Selymes, who is by no means a patient employer. By the end of the story, tragedy has struck, Holmes learns the truth, and a great conflagration occurs to claim the evil. And, true to Holmes in the original books, Holmes in the end chooses to do what is right, since justice and the fostering of the "humane side of the criminal," is more important than simply acting out of what would be legal or what would be expedient.

Writer Sylvain Cordurie has a wonderful feel for Holmes as a character. His voice is usually dry, rational, and analytical; observing everything around him. Cordurie gives him flashes of emotion, especially when Watson and Mary are in peril. The story is actually narrated as a journal Holmes is writing to leave for Watson in case of his death during the adventure, and while Conan Doyle did write a couple of stories from Holmes's point of view, Watson remains the narrator of most because his voice is more relatable, more human. Still, the fact that Holmes is slightly out of his depth in dealing with these supernatural creatures allows him to be read as such an insufferable know-it-all and pushes the mystery forward.

Since the book is a product of European creators, the art has a very different feel than most of the comics you'd find on the racks. Laci's art is thoroughly detailed, with gorgeous Victorian backgrounds and perfect period costumes. His faces are expressive, especially when it comes to fear and the darker emotions. He is clearly an artist with a horror background, as writer Cordurie said he decided to use a traditional vampire model, with all the spectacular powers and the ability to change into a bat monster to play to Laci's strength as an artist. His Holmes is drawn from the classic stories, resembling the original illustrations, and is a treat for the Holmes aficionado.

Sherlock Holmes is one of literature's greatest characters, and vampires are the monsters that have haunted the nightmares of people for generations. This mix of the two makes for an action packed story, good for both the long standing Holmes fan and the newcomer brought in by the current crop of film and TV Holmes. The choice to pick it up is, well, elementary.

Sherlock Holmes and the Vampires of London is a hardcover graphic novel published by Dark Horse comics, and is available at all good comic shops, bookstores, and on-line.

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