He’s one of the most popular characters in literary history, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a time when Sherlock Holmes was more visible than the past five years. Offhand, I can’t think of another fictional character that ever headlined a film franchise and two popular television series at the same time. Throw in original story collections and a comic book series from Dynamite and it seems pretty clear that business is booming in the consulting detective profession. But the real mystery is why now?
It’s not like Sherlock’s deerstalker and magnifying glass have been in mothballs for a hundred years. From his initial appearance in A Study in Scarlet, Holmes has maintained a semi-steady presence in print, theater, radio, film, and television. But nothing compares with the explosion of these high-profile, contemporary Holmes projects.
Perhaps it’s connected to the current embrace of comic book culture in mass media. Sherlock Holmes and the popular heroes of mainstream comics have always felt a bit like first cousins anyway. They both come from the tradition of periodicals (Arthur Conan Doyle publishing most of the original stories in The Strand Magazine), and Holmes is a hero of sorts, dedicated to truth, justice, and the foggy London way. Like the super-heroes that would appear a half century later, Holmes had a recognizable headquarters, a sidekick, an arch-villain, and thanks to Sidney Paget’s illustrations, a “costume” more iconic than anything you’ll ever see in The Uncanny X-Men. And, of course, he had a super-power—a power of observation and deduction so far beyond the abilities of others that it might as well have come from a radioactive spider bite or a flood of gamma rays.
But why Sherlock and why now? Besides a set of genre conventions and narrative tropes, what do mainstream comics and Sherlock Holmes share that would speak to the culture today? It’s easy to ask that question but dangerous to answer. Whenever we look at trends, there’s a temptation to slap some laughably reductive, ten-cent, bumper sticker label on it and call it analysis. That’s the sort of mistake Nigel Bruce’s Watson might stumble into. Unfortunately, it’s also the sort of mistake I’m about to stumble into as well.
[Here, out of concern for my more moderate readers, I feel obliged to warn you that I’m about to engage in a series of largely unsubstantiated, sweeping generalizations touching on politics and economics, subjects for which, sadly, I have virtually no expertise or credentials. In consideration of the damage that this foray into such amateurish, quasi-socialist ranting might impart to you, I must recommend that you skip the following seven paragraphs. Fortunately, these self-indulgent, literary warts are relatively short, and you should easily be able to rejoin our more reasonable and pleasant discussion with the paragraph beginning, “Regardless, the three dramatic versions of Holmes . . .” And again, I apologize for any inconvenience.]
One piece of this puzzle that seems plausible is that Holmes, like most super-heroes, is able to fix the unfixable. In Holmes’s case, he can see the things no one else can, including the secret, hidden crimes and machinations of those with the power and social position to cover them up.
Consider Holmes’s description of his arch-enemy, Professor Moriarty, in “The Final Problem”: “He is the Napoleon of crime, Watson. He is the organizer of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city. [ . . . ] He sits motionless, like a spider in the centre of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows well every quiver of each of them.” Part of what made Moriarty such a compelling, sexy villain in late-Victorian England was this notion of his invisible power. How could one person, a respectable university professor and mathematician no less, control so many different facets of life in London?
Today such speculation might be dismissed sneeringly as a “conspiracy theory.” Yet, we’re frequently reminded that somehow, mysteriously, wealth and power continue to be consolidated by a tiny few. Most of us still remain largely ignorant of the extent to which a small number of corporations have cornered the market on most of our daily activities. These corporate “spiders,” marking every “radiating quiver” of our movements, largely remain hidden from us, covered by a smokescreen of multiple names, brands, and imprints that overwhelm our senses with the illusion of choice. For example, cable television in America offers hundreds of seemingly different channels, but once you trace ownership you discover that most of the popular cable networks are controlled by a mere half-dozen media conglomerates. The story is much the same for newspapers, radio, publishing, energy, and even food production, where again the illusion of choice hides the monopolistic reality.
The legacy of all these corporate mergers and consolidations also affects the comics industry, where both DC Comics and Marvel Comics have been rebranded as DC Entertainment and Marvel Entertainment. The former comic book companies are now looking more and more like content and franchise development farms, producing exploitable products to feed the mass media divisions of their sprawling corporate parents.
And without a Sherlock to expose their corporate maneuverings, many of the same forces are now successfully covering their flanks by manipulating the political system. In the United States, billionaires and corporate giants are now free to invest unlimited and often untraceable money into the political system. It’s not that difficult to pour money into carefully targeted, seemingly innocuous state districts and flip the party affiliation of the state legislature, effectively buying whole state governments as if it were just another hostile corporate takeover. With these state-government franchises, it becomes quite easy to cram through unpopular and often unconstitutional laws while simultaneously keeping the federal legislature mired in muck.
Now that the gross level of income inequality has reached planetary proportions, with recent revelations that a mere 85 individuals possess more wealth than half of the human race combined, Holmes’s description of Moriarty’s invisible criminal empire seems far more plausible. If anything, Moriarty was thinking too small. “The Napoleon of crime?” How quaint.
Facing such de-criminalized debauchery, is it any wonder that people are attracted to the iconoclastic detective of Baker Street? What could be more fulfilling than the fantasy of a hero who can see the shadows through the fog and who is willing to go over a cliff to sniff out the Moriartys of the world? Perhaps this idea of a detective who is self employed—a man who avoids extravagance, shares living expenses with a roommate, and rejects the power-brokering lifestyle of his brother—perhaps this idea of a “Sherlock Holmes” offers twenty-first century readers and viewers an intellectual power fantasy as compelling today as was Siegel and Shuster’s flying socialist crusader in the Great Depression.
Regardless, the three dramatic versions of Holmes that have emerged all clearly borrow from the language and concepts of modern, mainstream comics. The first, Guy Ritchie’s film series, debuted in 2009, with Ritchie plucking the most celebrated actor from super-hero films, Robert Downey, Jr., to play their fast-talking, two-fisted incarnation of the famed detective. Ritchie’s two films are less mysteries and more action-oriented buddy comedies—Lethal Weapon in waistcoats—with Downey’s melodramatic, hard-hitting Sherlock acting often less like Doyle’s detective and more like one of Jack Kirby’s characters.
The debt to comics is even more striking in Steven Moffat and Mark Gattis’s Sherlock, which debuted on the BBC in 2010 with “A Study in Pink”—the freshest and most fully realized Holmes adaptation I’ve seen. It’s a modern version, complete with cars, laptops, and cell phones. The concept of a modern Sherlock wasn’t as new as it seemed (the low-budget Rathbone film series was also set in contemporary times), but Moffat and Gattis exploit the modernity in ways no one ever has before.
Part of what makes Sherlock fascinating is the way in which the series adopts the visual language of comics—particularly the use of on-screen text. In that first episode, before viewers ever see Holmes, they read him in the form of a barrage of text messages. In a scene that has the same sort of mixed media look one might expect from a Dave McKean illustration, we’re shown a room full of reporters with superimposed images of identical text messages from Sherlock. In fact, throughout the series we see this same willingness to mix on screen text and labels with moving images. When Sherlock examines a crime scene, we follow his thought processes by seeing visual labels on screen, acting much like narrative caption boxes in a comic. Rather than relying on dialogue or camerawork, the show runners communicate Sherlock’s high-speed mental calculations with this on-screen text. It’s far closer to seeing an actual comics panel brought to life than anything you’re likely to see in The Avengers.
And then, two years later, CBS introduced another modernized television adaptation, this one called Elementary and set in New York instead of London. At first glance, the premise for the series seems particularly derivative and uninspired, exploiting the Holmes connection as a conceit for propping up yet another police procedural of the C.S.I.-Bones-Castle tradition.
But as a Holmes adaptation, the admittedly formulaic show is actually quite daring. Like a great revisionist comic from the 1980s, Elementary asks the fundamental “what if?” question, applying real-world logic to the Holmes concept in order to explore what Holmes would be like in the real world. The show takes some of the key elements of the Holmes mythos—the cocaine references and the narcissism, and pursues them logically in a modern setting. Thus, we get Sherlock as a recovering addict, Dr. Watson as his sober companion, and the clear message that Sherlock’s narcissism and inability to relate to others is more of a weakness than a sign of his superiority.
Moreover, by rethinking the gender of principal characters like Watson and Moriarty, the show challenges the traditionally male-centered vision of the Holmes universe. And although the show doesn’t play with the Doyle canon as deliberately as Moffat’s Sherlock, when it does, it radically departs from the script, transforming Mycroft into a cancer-surviving restauranteur and re-visualizing the Diogenes Club as his New York restaurant. In terms of boldness and the reinvention of familiar elements, the show is reminiscent of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns.
So the film and television productions clearly tap into a comics tradition. But what of the Sherlock Holmes comics themselves? Despite being an antecedent for many super-heroes, Holmes was never fully realized in comics until very recently. Next week, we’ll take a look at a pair of stories from the writing team of Leah Moore and John Reppion and see if we can figure out how they managed to make Sherlock Holmes work in comics.