It’s another week, and time for yet another instalment in the Best New Series category for our countdown to the Eisner Awards. I’ve been pretty enthusiastic about the nominees so far, and this one is no exception. The stories of private detective Sherlock Holmes and his faithful companion Dr. John Watson have been a major influence on my life since I was a wee lass. I was fourteen when I first bought my huge leather bound book of the complete works of Sherlock Holmes, obsessively reading The Final Problem over and over again and marvelling at how one of the greatest fictional villains of all time could have left such an impact when his story was largely told from the outside perspective of another. I spent years being a fan of these stories and the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films before the newer movie and television adaptions ever appeared on screen. For the record, I love the Guy Ritchie movies for what they are; a very supernatural, action-packed take on classic Holmes stories, and I’ve been watching BBC’s Sherlock religiously since it aired. It’s what got me interested in the more modern Sherlock, which leads me to this. A comic book, my chosen medium, that’s re-envisioning one of my favorite dynamic duos of all time? It was love at first crime.
Watson and Holmes: A Study In Black, by Karl Bollers (former writer/editor for Marvel Comics and writer for Sonic) and Rick Leonardi (artist of things like Cloak and Dagger, Uncanny X-Men, and New Mutants), is the first volume in the series and a New Paradigm Studios published comic nominated in the category for Best New Series. It re-envisions Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson as a pair of African American men living in New York City’s infamous Harlem district. In a refreshingly modern take on the setting, Watson is an Afghanistan war veteran, now working in an inner-city clinic as a medical intern; while Holmes is (still) a local private investigator who, as you might have already guessed, takes some pretty unusual cases. When one of Holmes’s cases actually ends up in Watson’s emergency room, the doctor and the detective inevitably strike up an unlikely partnership in order to find a missing girl in connection with the man in the hospital bed. The now legendary Watson and Holmes find themselves immediately immersed in a world of drugs, gun violence, and gang wars, all pointing to a deeper conspiracy that goes much further than they originally anticipated. This engaging tale follows all the key formulas of a good Holmes story, and so much more.
In a storyline loosely based on an outline of A Study in Scarlet, the first scene opens up with Watson speaking as the narrator and an abandoned newborn fighting for its life in the ER. We see Watson, moving from one emergency to another like a celebrated hero in scrubs. You feel instantly connected to him, he’s the Watson you recognize as the brave solider home from the war, displaced and still fighting his own battle as he tries to navigate his way through a world newly unfamiliar. In the first few pages the reader has already been shown that no matter the difference in story telling, these two iconic men are still familiar to us at their cores. Watson is a person still plagued by every loss of life, a military man and a doctor who gets inevitably wrapped up in the ongoing mysteries of and surrounding the elusive Sherlock Holmes, who happens on the scene. Holmes is still a man obsessed with solving crimes, shrouded in an almost mythical like presence with the way he appears during a crisis and immediately consumes your life. From their very first meeting at the hospital Watson is, predictably, almost immediately so intrigued and drawn to this man that he breaks hospital protocol in order to aid Holmes’ investigation that happens to involve one of Watson’s patients. From there the game is, naturally, afoot.
After a man is brought half-beaten to death into Watson’s ER, Holmes appears on the scene flanked by a couple of police officers and immediately catches Watson’s attention with a flurry of bizarre inquiries that eventually has the good doctor following the eccentric detective straight on down the rabbit hole. A woman’s life is at stake, so after some top quality detective work they rush to her rescue only to stumble onto an even more elaborate and dangerous conspiracy once the day seems to have been saved. What happens next is a series of events that leads the two men through the streets of Harlem on a wild goose chase full of kidnappings, murder conspiracies, babies in dumpsters, and a delightful cast full of familiar names for the avid Sherlock Holmes fan with entirely fresh faces. The art illustrated throughout the series is wonderfully rich and distinct in every detail (the artist changes for the 5th issue, but the transition is not at all jarring like an art change in the middle of an arc usually is), and the writing is top notch. Bollers understands the world of classic Sherlock Holmes and its elements while re-imagining it into modern Harlem. Modern day Sherlock stories are all the rage these days and this one is no exception.
I like this series because I’m a Sherlock Holmes nut. For any fan, this comic has a little something for everyone (except for maybe you rabid Adler fans, sorry, she’s not in the first arc.). It’s also a more modern telling: as much as I love Victorian-era Sherlock, I have to admit I’m a sucker for the modern depiction. Other little gems? There’s still a 221b Baker St. of course, it’s just located in Harlem now, along with its ever loyal Irregulars. Mycroft is also around, though he goes by ‘Mike’ these days, and John is divorced to a woman conveniently named Marie. ‘Sup, Holmes’ is a humorous, pointed greeting thrown around throughout most of the book, along with the much expected usage of ‘elementary’ at least once that we’ve become so accustomed to. We also get a necessary glimpse into Watson’s past as a solider, and the never ending question with these two iconic characters is yet again raised in a new, not at all tired way. What drives them both to do this? Watson often wonders, and it becomes evident throughout the story that both men may be using this strange, dangerous hobby to escape reality, but how long before that reality comes crashing down on both their heads? The underlying theme of the corruption of war and profiteering is relevant, and John Watson’s personal stake in it. Not to mention the obligatory Watson narrative throughout the whole story that, as always, makes it all worthwhile.
This comic feels like the underdog of the Best New category to me, but I wouldn’t be foolish enough to overlook it entirely, and neither should you. While it is arguably geared towards a certain type of reader, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that someone who isn’t a huge Sherlock Holmes fanatic wouldn’t enjoy it. Yes, there are a lot of key places within the first arc where they are obviously planting things for the unsuspecting, seasoned Holmes fan to find and rejoice in (the singular name drop of a certain Napoleon of Crime was enough to send me into a brief tizzy). But I think that this comic could also serve as a way to finally bring others into the world of Sherlock from an entirely new and refreshing point of view. It’s smart, funny, and in so many ways touching and completely true to its origin while not resting on every retired trope. This is a brilliant re-imagining of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s tales of Sherlock Holmes, and it deserves notice. The first five issues have been collected in a paperback trade, written by Karl Bollers and drawn by Rick Leonardi (with #5 drawn by Larry Stroman), while a sixth issue epilogue by a new creative team followed the first arc. For people interested in continuing on with this dynamic duo, Karl Bollers and New Paradigm Studios’ Founder and President Brandon Perlow talk about the future of the series, including moving back to digital and OGN’s. Keep an eye out for it, and read Watson and Holmes!