Friday, February 13, 2015

Recommended Reading for 2/13: Watson and Holmes

Sherlock Holmes is everywhere. Whether it's on TV in Sherlock or Elementary, the big screen with the upcoming Mr. Holmes starring Ian McKellen as an aging Sherlock, live on stage at Washington's Arena Stage or Princeton's McCarter Theatre in a new stage adaptation of Baskerville, or in countless books, including a short story in Neil Gaiman's new collection, Trigger Warning, you can always find new material featuring history's greatest detective (with all due deference to a certain pointy eared one). Every version of Holmes that is not directly adapting the original Conan Doyle stories brings something different to Holmes. In the past couple years, a new version in comics has added its own spin on the classic dynamic between Holmes and his partner: Watson and Holmes recasts the duo as African Americans in modern Harlem. And it works really well.

This is a major departure, and there's the usual hand-wringing from certain corners of the internet about political correctness and similar obnoxious buzzwords. But one of the great things about archetypal characters like Watson and Holmes is they work no matter where you drop them. Of course, using African American leads in modern New York leads to all sorts of additional text and subtext to do with race, and the way African Americans interact with the world. The creators make some social commentary, but never to the detriment of the story itself; the story always comes first. But as much a departure as their race is, it's also interesting to see the change in nationality. Both characters are American. Even TV's Elementary, whose Holmes is a much greater departure personality-wise than the one presented here, is British. It removes a sort of classic British stuffiness. Oh, he's still a superior, remote piece of work, but there's something to be said for not imagining him with that British accent that makes him seem all the more different.

But these differences aren't as important as the similarities. because while the changes allow for different kind of stories to be told, the primary things that make a Holmes story a Holmes story are still there. Holmes is still the smartest guy in the room. He still sees the world in a way no one else does. And Watson is still his loyal friend, ready with his trusty pistol to follow Holmes on whatever case he is involved in.

Watson gets top billing in the series, and rightly so. Watson is the narrator of the series, as he narrates the classic Holmes stories, but this isn't the detached narrative of the classic Watson. He is a man of deep passions, a love for his family, and who is haunted by what he can't do as a doctor and by what he has done. Jon Watson (the missing H from the name is not a typo; it is how the character's name is spelled) is an Afghanistan vet of the recent war, as the original Watson was of the Victorian one. Watson's narration does not have that sort of Victorian distance; we are in his head, and we see exactly what he thinks. He is also a big man, and serves as Holmes's muscle at times. There is no doddering Nigel Bruce, or even the more comedic if at times lethal version that Martin Freeman portrays. Jon Watson is an equal partner, and has earned the right to be billed where he is.

While only six issues have been published, we have also seen other classic characters of the Holmes canon appear. Holmes's perennial Scotland Yard contact, Inspector Lestrade, is now Lieutenant Leslie Strode, adding a woman to the usually male dominated world of Holmes, something more and more common in modern retellings. Strode is not the bumbling, dogged detective Lestrade was, but is more competent and confident, and presses Holmes far more than her antecedent did, which is a nice change. We've also seen Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock's older brother. Modern retellings of Holmes tend to change Mycroft quite a bit, making him a more physically active character, and I was happy to see that this one kept his girth and somewhat more distant nature.

Only six issues of the series have been released thus far, the first five collected in a trade. The first four make up "A Study in Black," the story that tells of the first meeting between the title characters. Written by Karl Bollers and with art from Rick Leonardi, the story is a well paced mystery involving drugs, conspiracy, and mercenaries. It showcases both the changes and the similarities between the original stories and this new take, with a more active Holmes, but one still wrapped in the world of the mind. There is deduction and detective work, so the story never slips into the territory where action supersedes the detective nature of the story.

While that first story was a fun mystery, with wild action, gun battles, and a high stakes case, issues five and six were what sold me on the series. Issue five, written by Bollers with art by Larry Stroman, which served as an epilogue to the initial story, swings back around and ties up a loose end from the first arc about an infant found in a dumpster. It's a tragedy that is very modern and very urban, something that works well in a modern city, the thing that the London of the original Holmes was just becoming. It's a twisty narrative that pays off with an answer I wouldn't have expected coming in to the issue but one that makes perfect sense with all the evidence laid out before you.

Issue six, written by Brandon Easton and drawn by N. Steven Harris, the final issue to be released as a single issue, was a watershed for the series. It won a ton of awards, including a sweep of many of the major Glyph awards for 2014. It's a story with a social conscience, dealing with sex trafficking and the plight of the transgendered and various social stigmas. When the wife of a city councilman and the likely winner of the New York district attorney race is found murdered, Watson and Holmes are once again dragged deep into a case involving the Russian mob and politics. The twists and turns are even more sharp here, and the issue does some of the best balancing of ever read between delicately addressing an important social issue with maintaining an entertaining story.

The end of last year saw a Kickstarter for a new trade of Watson and Holmes, which I contributed to, collecting issue six along with two other stories, one that will introduce this version's interpretation of Irene Adler. I'm very curious to see that, as Adler has proven possibly the most difficult character in the entire Holmes canon to modernize, and I can't think of one version that works completely for me; she's always either too villainous or too lovestruck by Holmes. I look forward to seeing if the proper balance can be struck here.

I've written about many different comics featuring Sherlock Holmes on this blog, and most run to the more traditional. But Holmes is as relevant in the 21st century as he was in the 19th. Watson and Holmes is a 21st century version of these characters that pays proper homage to what has come before, while still doing new and different things, and that's what makes it worth taking note of.

Watson and Holmes: A Study in Black is available at all good comic shops as well as on-line, both for order through your favorite book store and digitally. When volume two is released, expect to read about it here.

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