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Borderland Speakeasy #16: Sherlock Holmes and the Public Domain

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Tuesday, Oct 12, 2010
Exploiting the inherent public-domain friendly nature of the character, the Toronto Cartoonists Workshop join in a new wave of generationally accessible Sherlock Holmes stories.

A prolific veteran pairs a clever concept with passionate comic book newcomers to create a fun and promising interpretation of a classic narrative.


Sherlock Homes invited re-imagining from his earliest appearances. Even his iconic deerstalker cap was an addition by The Strand‘s illustrator, Sidney Paget. Regarding the flexibility of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation, Raymond Chandler summarizes it simply in his essay, “The Simple Art of Murder”: “Sherlock Holmes after all is mostly an attitude and a few dozen lines of unforgettable dialogue.” It’s a template that has proven tremendously fruitful.


In the past year alone, Guy Ritchie’s 2009 Sherlock Holmes reinterprets the characters as urban action heroes but keeps their story set in Victorian times. Conversely, the Holmes and Watson of BBC’s 2010 miniseries, Sherlock, feel closer to the traditional versions, while their story takes place in present-day. (Two personal favorites from the 1970s would be Sesame Street‘s “Sherlock Hemlock” and Larry Hagman as “Sherman Holmes” in 1976’s The Return of the World’s Greatest Detective.)


On the recent comics front, Dynamite’s The Trial of Sherlock Holmes retains the traditional style and setting while telling a new story, and IDW’s two volumes of Sherlock Holmes tales present classic Conan Doyle stories illustrated by Kelly Jones.


Now from The Toronto Cartoonists Workshop comes Holmes Incorporated, whose nine stories reinvent the iconic characters as a team of bona fide superheroes: five Holmeses (Edgar the first, Edgar the second, Sherlock the second, Sherlock the third, and Arthur) plus one Watson (Elizabeth).
  


The stories strike a balance between superhero action and classic Homlesian puzzle-solving. “Peril in Paris” plays with one of the original Holmes’s “unsolved” cases, while “The Bobby Bomber” pays homage to classic deductive techniques of the master. 


The opening story, “Welcome to Holmes Incorporated,” introduces the team and its newest member through a series of confrontations. It sets the tone for the subsequent adventures, which follow Chandler’s “attitude plus memorable lines” template (with the additions of spandex, computers and kung-fu, among other things). 


Amid references to famous Holmes stories, characters and motifs, there’s also sword-fighting, futuristic gizmos, a private jet, X-Mannish uniforms and plenty of Whedonesque teenage banter.


There’s an irresistible appeal to this comic, attributable in no small part to its combination of winning elements, including fresh talent, a clever concept, the reinvention of classic characters and a tremendously fun sense of style. 


This universe has been created with a lot of leeway for development, and the characters often wear their influences proudly. For example, Sherlock the third (aka, Trey) says of herself, “If you crossed kick-ass Buffy with brainy Willow, you’d pretty much get me.” Plus, she tends to fights with a katana, and prefers to speak to her foes in iambic pentameter.


The comic also qualifies as a feel-good purchase. It supports new artists and a fantastic school, and at 52 ad-free pages, this comic feels massive. Created, edited and designed by Ty Templeton, the stories have been written and illustrated by graduates of the Toronto Cartoonists Workshop.


A prolific veteran in the world of comics and animation, Templeton’s previous work includes a classic 1980s re-imagining of Dante, Stig’s Inferno, the multiple-Eisner-winning Batman and Robin Adventures, The Simpsons and many, many more. Here, his workshop’s students present cleverly-written stories that convey palpable excitement and vitality.


All the stories are black-and-white and the wide range of visual styles include at one extreme the soft pencil or charcoal-like style of Eden Bachelder in “Night Clubbing,” and at the other, the bold black lines of Adam Gorham in “The Fingerless Prince.”


There are also echoes of previous reinterpretations of the Holmes universe. For example, the character of Elizabeth Watson recalls Rex Stout’s tongue-in-cheek expose of Holmes’s companion in the memorable essay, “Watson Was a Woman,” in which he manages to prove that the Holmes stories not only contained clues as to Watson’s “true” gender, but also reveals how Conan Doyle encoded into the stories her actual name (Irene Watson).


This promising and intriguing comic seems aimed primarily at younger readers, albeit with darker story elements that add some grittiness. It will be fun to read more adventures and bigger storylines set in this universe, and to watch the characters (as well as the artists) grow and develop.


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Borderland Speakeasy appears every other week and explores classic and contemporary horror and crime comics.


#1: Echoes of Vengeance


#2: “They Found The Car”—Gipi’s Inverted Noir


#3: Needle in the Eye


#4: In Praise of Modesty Blaise


#5: Mirror Image Murders


#6: Moral Bankruptcy and the Smell of Fear


#7: Creepy’s Cabinet of Wonders


#8: Arnold Drake’s Secret Identity


#9: Call Off the Thriller


#10: Time to Join the Demons


#11: The Strange Case of Igor Kenk


#12: Beelzebub and that Other Devil: Mezzo and Pirus’ “King of the Flies”


#13: “Look down, or look hard”


#14: The No Wave Noir of “La Pacifica”


#15: “Nothing is as lost as I”

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