You’re in for a special treat this week. In my last column, I talked about the flurry of Sherlock Holmes projects that have appeared over the past five years. This week I wanted to turn our attention to comics—specifically two of the best comic book depictions of Holmes—The Trial of Sherlock Holmes and The Liverpool Demon, both written by the husband-and-wife team of Leah Moore and John Reppion. Luckily for us, both writers agreed to take a break from their harried lives as hard-working writers and hands-on parents to answer a few questions.
Even though Holmes is an obvious precursor to many comic book characters and superheroes, the character has never flourished in comics until the recent Moore-Reppion collaborations published by Dynamite. Working with artist Aaron Campbell, the team earned excellent reviews for The Trial of Sherlock Holmes in 2009, and last year they published their follow-up, The Liverpool Demon, which I thought was even better. The two stories couldn’t be more different in terms of structure, character, or location. The Trial of Sherlock Holmes begins with a variation on a locked room mystery, and the story’s hook—implied by the title—introduces some of the same ideas that Steven Moffat would later invoke in season two of Sherlock. The book is very traditional in its approach to Holmes with no “Martian Tripods, Transylvanian vampires, Steampunk machinery or literary crossovers to surprise the readers,” as Moore and Reppion write in the script for the first issue. The result feels definitive—the archetypal Sherlock Holmes comic book.
The Liverpool Demon, on the other hand, is far less familiar, moving Holmes and Watson to Liverpool and featuring fistfights, chases, conspiracies, and local legends of the supernatural. Yet, Holmes and Watson, as drawn by Matt Triano, remain as firmly in character as anything Doyle ever wrote. Most of the time, when long-in-the-tooth characters get revamped, the results tend to either be radical revisions or ironic, self-referential commentaries on the original. But the Sherlock Holmes that Moore and Reppion present is as authentic to the original as anyone might imagine.
What I admire most about both these books is the fact that Moore and Reppion consistently refuse to dumb the stories down. The cast of characters is large, the mysteries complex, and the attention to detail impressive. While some Holmes pastiches and films tend to locate the detective in upper-class surroundings—almost like an Agatha Christie mystery—Moore and Reppion cover the waterfront, literally and figuratively, injecting Holmes into almost every type of social situation. And even though the stories are quite fun, they’re also far more demanding than what you expect from a comic featuring a licensed or iconic character. The writers are not afraid to toss some Victorian-era slang at you, nor do they attempt to over-explain the action. The stories often involve multiple events transpiring simultaneously, and Moore and Reppion are not afraid to let Campbell and Triano’s art tell the story.
But enough babbling from me. I feel a bit like the unfortunate client who sits down and tells his entire story—beginning, middle, and end—to a bored Holmes and Watson while readers start skimming so they can get to the good stuff. So without further ado, we’ll get this game afoot.
CARPENTER: Let’s start with a little background. How did you come to write The Trial of Sherlock Holmes? Were either or both of you “hardcore” Sherlockians?
REPPION: Dynamite actually asked us if we’d be interested in doing a Holmes series. We were just finishing working on The Complete Dracula, which was a really research-heavy adaptation of Stoker’s novel with “lost” chapters and scenes re-introduced from the author’s own notes. Because of the work we were doing on Dracula we really didn’t want to get into adapting existing Holmes stories so we suggested doing something original that would still be in keeping with Arthur Conan Doyle’s writing. It was a huge challenge to set for ourselves really, but I’m very glad we did.
Neither of us were hardcore Sherlockians, no. We’d both read a few stories, seen a few TV and film adaptations, and heard some radio versions, but we were no more experts than most people are.
CARPENTER: For anyone who reads your books, it’s clear from the level of detail that you two really know your stuff. [In the Afterword to The Liverpool Demon, Moore and Reppion document many of the historical sources, even down to actual newspaper headlines.] Could you talk a bit about your research process? Do you begin with your knowledge of the Holmes stories and then branch out into the Victorian era, or do you start with the period setting and then graft Sherlock into that world? In other words, are you writing Sherlock stories with lots of period detail or Victorian-era stories that also feature Sherlock Holmes?
MOORE: I think with The Trial of Sherlock Holmes, it was very much a book written around the plot. We knew from day one, it was a tricky case to solve, for us as well as Sherlock, and so the surroundings and detail only really appeared where the plot dictated. What we often try to do is make sure the action happens somewhere interesting to look at, and interesting to draw. We could have every scene take place in a generic Victorian street, but if you put it in Kew Gardens, or Buckingham Palace it opens the story up into its world a bit more. You realize that those places exist in that world, and that your characters aren’t just walking up and down on a stage in front of a backdrop.
With The Liverpool Demon, we did it the other way round, we already had a huge knowledge of the setting, as we live in Liverpool, and John has written lots of articles and a book about Liverpool history [800 Years of Haunted Liverpool]. What we knew was that Liverpool was famously a dirty, violent city full of murderous criminals, and desperate people, and we really wanted to see how Holmes would cope with that. The answer of course is with finesse as always, but it really gave us a chance to have fun with Holmes and Watson and take them out of their comfort zone. Strand them in Liverpool with a load of rogues and villains, and apparently a demon or two, and watch the fun unfold.
CARPENTER: It’s always seemed clear that Sherlock Holmes was precursor to the adventure characters and superheroes that have populated comics for decades. He has a headquarters, a sidekick, an arch-nemesis, and, thanks to Sidney Paget, an iconic costume. Yet prior to The Trial of Sherlock Holmes, I’d be hard-pressed to name a fully satisfactory comics adaptation. [In his Afterword to the collected edition of The Trial of Sherlock Holmes, the noted Holmes scholar, Leslie S. Klinger, provides a rundown of the more notable attempts.]
This is a long set up for a question, but what are some of the problems of adapting Sherlock Holmes to comics? Why has it been so tough for comics creators to crack the Holmes formula?
REPPION: It’s very true what you say; all the traditional superhero elements are definitely there. Perhaps that’s where the temptation comes from to toughen Holmes up a bit and give him more conventional comics enemies and situations to deal with. I can see how easy it would be to start writing a pulpier, kick-ass Holmes just because that’s the way many people feel comics should be.
With The Trial we were consciously trying to do something that could fit in with the existing canon. Our one little “cheat” being that in our world the stories published in Strand [The Strand Magazine, where Doyle published most of the original stories] were written not by Doyle but by Dr. Watson. This means they were semi-fictionalized, with names, dates and events altered to protect people’s identities, and so on. Other than that, we just tried to play things completely straight and stay true to the characters and the world which Doyle created. He perfected the formula a long time ago and we did our best to stick to it.
CARPENTER: One of the things I noticed was the frequent use of cross-cutting—moving back and forth between two simultaneous bits of story. Is that a favorite narrative technique of yours or is it a particular means for making a Doyle-inspired story work as a comic?
MOORE: It’s something we love to do when we have a complex plot and a lot of characters. It would be hard to show all sides of the story if we followed along with Holmes for the whole series, and you’d lose some of the element of surprise and uncertainty you have when you leave some characters for half an issue and then return to them. It’s a TV way of writing really, but we find it works for us. We had to use it a lot in Damsels [a recent Moore-Reppion series for Dynamite focused on fairy tale characters] because we had a huge cast, a huge map of different locations. It was epic in scale, so we needed to be able to dot about and find out what everyone is doing.
It does require the reader to keep everything in their heads in the meantime, but unlike TV or a film, you can always flick back and remind yourself if you’ve forgotten what’s happened. I enjoy the gradual seep of information you can use with this kind of storytelling, where the reader very often knows a lot more than the characters and is racing to put it all together, but then the characters gradually figure it out. I want the reader to feel like Holmes, trying to take the clues and work it out ahead of the Great Detective.
CARPENTER: I loved the fact that in Liverpool Demon you abandon the typical Doyle formula and begin in medias res, leading Holmes and Watson to then almost stumble, organically, onto the next mystery. Is this simply a way to avoid being stuck with a four-page scene where someone sits down in a chair at 221b and tells Holmes and Watson a long story? Or is it an attempt to capitalize on the serial tradition of comics by joining a story already in progress?
REPPION: Although The Trial was very well received (possibly still the most well-received thing we’ve ever written) when we were given the opportunity to write a second Holmes series we decided it should be as different from its predecessor as possible. If Trial was our “Scandal in Bohemia” then we wanted Liverpool Demon to be our Hound of the Baskervilles. The first series took a whole issue to get to any real Holmes and Watson action so we wanted to come in all guns blazing with the second one, just to be different really. We also needed to explain the duo’s presence in Liverpool and the closing of that first case in Liverpool Demon is our excuse for getting them up north. If we do get the opportunity to write another Holmes series then we’re going to have to start with, or at least include, a client arriving at 221b purely because we haven’t done it yet, I suppose. It’s not something we deliberately avoided as such, it just wasn’t really applicable for either of the stories we’ve written so far.
CARPENTER: What sort of visual challenges do your artistic collaborators face in depicting Victorian England? Is it hard to find artists who feel comfortable with the period detail? Is that something you try to direct in the script by pointing them to particular sources and references?
MOORE: Luckily for us and our artists, a lot of Victorian England is still around, so there are plenty of sources for visual reference, and we do give artists links and stuff in the script for particular places if it’s a real place and we want it to look right. It can really add immeasurably to a scene if you really feel like you are somewhere real. An actual space populated by characters, instead of just being a camera hovering near your characters, and the background just being an afterthought. In Trial of Sherlock Holmes, Aaron’s draughtmanship really brought London to life. All the buildings and roads were solid, and believable, and when you are inside, it feels right.
I think the main challenge is that our script is obviously written with a very specific setting in mind. We all grow up over here in Victorian terraced streets, or in flats in big Georgian houses, or we walk down grand streets full of railings and steps and columns, purely because our towns and cities are filled with them. For American artists to get that script and produce such quality work is amazing. Not to patronize either Aaron or Matt, but it’s a really tough job and they both pulled it off so well. Matt got the job of bringing dirty old Liverpool to the page, and his style did that magnificently. Every puddle and smut of filth is there. His triumph was Lime Street Station, which he posted pencils of on Twitter, and was just staggering. He said it nearly killed him, but looking at it? It would have been worth it!
CARPENTER: As a character, Sherlock Holmes has almost always been popular, but we’re clearly living in a peak time with two popular television series, a successful film franchise, and your books. Any theories as to why Sherlock? Why now? What about the Doyle characters and stories is resonating in the 21st Century?
REPPION: Remakes and reinventions, particularly in film and TV, are big business these days but unlike, say Count Dracula, Sherlock Holmes has managed to remain pretty much as he always was. The character is as believable and brilliant as ever and really doesn’t need much tweaking to work in a modern setting. One of the best modern takes on Holmes in my opinion is actually the US detective TV series Monk. I know that you’re probably laughing reading that but honestly, in its finest moments it’s pure Holmes. We’re all still completely fascinated by crime and detective dramas and though Conan Doyle may not have invented the genre, he pretty much perfected it.
[Brief note: the idea for the following question first began in my mind several years ago after reading perhaps the most fascinating story I’ve ever read in The New Yorker about a noted Sherlockian whose body was discovered amidst rumors of professional jealousy and lost manuscripts. Unfortunately the magazine doesn’t make its archives available without a subscription, but an abstract is printed here.]
CARPENTER: Another peculiar phenomenon that seems to connect Sherlock with the comics community is the level of intensity of many of Sherlock Holmes readers. Doyle’s stories, in their own way, have seemed to feed a branch of geek culture in the same way as comics. Sherlock’s fans might represent different demographics, but they seem to be at least cousins to the stereotypical comic book geek. Do you think this is accurate and if so, do you have any theories as to why?
MOORE: It’s because there is a whole world of Holmes already written by Conan Doyle, and it is largely non-sequential. There are huge gaps in the timeframe, which for any writer or fan, makes for a lot of exciting supposition. What did he do during the Great Hiatus? [The period in between Holmes’s supposed death in “The Final Problem” and the explanation of his return in “The Empty House.”] What did Watson do? What happened after that particular case, what were all the other characters doing? It’s a world which rewards continued study. The scope of it is huge, in that Holmes travels internationally, and freely within all classes, and the timescale is quite long.
I think it’s like Doctor Who, where it becomes such an exciting world to visit, and as a reader or a fan, you kind of know what to expect, but there is always a delight at how the writers will do it this time. How will they make it fresh? Sherlock [the BBC television show] did this by bringing it to now, but all the elements are still there, and the whole show is a great example of how the audience will be fascinated by how they do it this time. When the viewer realizes, “That’s Moriarty” for the first time, it’s a buzz, and no matter how old you are, that buzz of recognition remains a really powerful force. I think fandom in general runs on that buzz, and that thrill, and I think Sherlock Holmes just pushes the right buttons, to create that buzz.
CARPENTER: Both of the current television series attempt to tackle the character of Sherlock in a revisionist sense, exploring his flaws, social dysfunction, and implied inner weaknesses. Yet, in both your books, you seem to keep Sherlock at a distance, giving more attention and complexity to characters like Inspector Thornton [an Irish detective in The Liverpool Demon]. Is this a conscious decision? If so, could you share your thinking here?
REPPION: First, I’d better come clean and admit that I’ve never seen Elementary. We’re both fans of Sherlock which is great fun but does seem to be bouncing off in its own, perhaps rather less Sherlockian, direction now.
With The Trial it was important for us to keep Holmes somewhat at a distance because we didn’t want the reader to know exactly what was going on in his head, or what he was up to. In Liverpool Demon we went the opposite way and had Holmes at his most irritating with his constant deductions and boredom with social niceties. Doyle writes Holmes as a wonderfully dysfunctional character without ever really hammering the point home and I suppose we just took our cue from him.
So far as Thornton goes, his role in Liverpool Demon was essentially to act as the anti-Holmes – doing all the things the Great Detective couldn’t or wouldn’t do so that we can contrast the two worlds these men inhabit and see where they cross over with this one strange case. In Victorian Liverpool we didn’t have erudite, drug dabbling, Consulting Detectives, we had hard bastard Irishmen with big bloody sticks.
CARPENTER: Who is your audience for these books? On the one hand, like a lot of Dynamite’s series, it features an iconic character from popular fiction. On the other hand, the devotion to period detail is far more demanding than in something like, say, The Lone Ranger. Do you have an ideal reader in your minds when you write?
MOORE: Not really, I think anyone could enjoy both series. Any Dynamite reader, and any comic reader really. The art on both is great, which always helps, and yes the period detail is there, but to be honest, unless you are into that kind of thing (which we obviously are) you might not even notice it that much. Hopefully the story is good enough that it would pull you along even if you weren’t a fan of Holmes, or a fan of ours particularly. I definitely don’t have an idea of a smoking jacket-wearing, armchair reader who ponders our comics very seriously. It’s a comic book after all. It’s supposed to be fun, and easily digested. If Holmes fans enjoy it, we’ve done our job, but we really want everybody to enjoy it.
CARPENTER: My last question is one of those writer-process questions. I’m fascinated by the idea of your work as a “writer team.” How do the two of you collaborate on projects? What is your process like?
MOORE: Our process has changed recently because we had kids. We had one son, and that gave us less time to work, or eat or do housework, and then we had twin boys so we had to give up meals, sleeping, and even basic hygiene. Before children, we’d walk about and talk about the story, and go for coffee and talk about the plot, and maybe rough a few pages a day, but if we weren’t really feeling it, we’d just chalk it up as one of those days writers always go on about as “Thinking days”. Since the kids, we have only one afternoon a week when they are all being looked after and the rest of the week we have the twins, and our older son is looked after by grandparents and nursery.
As a result there is only ever one person available to work, unless the babies nap. We have to do things really fast, and often on our own, ready to pass to the other one for the next stage. John plots something, then I’ll rough the pages, then he’ll type them. We’ve had to become a factory conveyor belt. It’s still torturously slow, but hopefully we can get some more nursery hours for the twins soon and then we can get back into the groove. People say it’s possible to juggle a family and a career, and that’s completely true, so long as you understand that children get sick, and wipe out a week, and you can’t tell a kid you have a deadline, and editors get sick of hearing about sick kids, and it all stacks up. We are managing, but the mortgage is always there at the back of our minds, and it’s a constant hustle to get stuff written, pitched, paid for, developed. To be honest I doubt it’d be much easier if we had day jobs. Kids are only little once, and we’re very lucky to spend this time together with them.
Special thanks to Leah Moore and John Reppion for helping out this week. For more information about the Holmes books, The Complete Dracula, Damsels, and any of their other work, check out their website.