Sherlock Holmes has come to comics before, but never quite like this.
Last month the upstart publishing company New Paradigm released the first issue of a new ongoing comic series titled Watson & Holmes that recast Holmes and his assistant Dr. John H. Watson into modern day Harlem as two African American men. They still solve crimes, but this story by writer Karl Bollers and artist Rick Leonardi puts this famed duo in a new light and gives it a new purpose.
“Setting the series in the modern day allowed me to explore avenues that weren't even in consideration during the Victorian era when the original incarnations of the characters were created, such as the use of computer technology to mask criminal activities as well as being put to use in stopping them,” explained Bollers, who based the story on a concept by Brandon Perlow and Paul J. Mendoza. “It's also interesting to take note of coincidences like the original Watson being a British veteran of a 19th century Afghanistan war while our version served in the current American war in Afghanistan. There's a great deal of story potential we're mining from Watson's military past.”
The first thing people will recognize as different in this modern-day rendition of Sherlock Holmes is that Holmes and Watson are African-Americans and not English. It’s a bold leap and something that’s guaranteed to grab attention, but Bollers and Leonardi have followed through to make it more than just a surface change.
“Re-envisioning the duo as African Americans allowed me to explore certain American cultural subtexts not present in the original Doyle novels such as racial profiling, gang initiations, snitching, etc., serving as a window into contemporary urban Americana.,” Bollers explained. “Most interesting, however, is exploring the different guises in which evil masks itself over time.”
Leonardi points out that this change doesn’t change the characters but only heightens their uniqueness.
“The most obvious innovation in our version is of course that they're two black guys from Harlem, and that creates all kinds of new and interesting story possibilities. But there's something else worth noting,” Leonardi tells Newsarama. “In nearly every Holmes iteration you can think of - from the Rathbone films, to Jeremy Brett, to the Great Mouse Detective, to Robert Downey Jr, to Elementary - Holmes is a Brit. Even House M.D. is Bertie Wooster trying to sound American! So for my money one of the biggest departures in our take on the character is we're dispensing with the Englishness that's so stereotypically part of Holmes and Watson that we've come to assume that it's essential. Do you really have to be from England to sound smart, and think logically?”
The titular stars of Watson & Holmes have switched things up, and not just in terms of their race.
“Jon Watson is the headline act in this show and even gets top billing in the title,” the writer points out. “In previous incarnations, Watson has been viewed as the "less than" member of the crime solving duo, but our version upends that belief, presenting a Jon Watson that is a seasoned veteran of the Afghanistan war, a skilled medical practitioner and at 6'3", 225 lbs... Somebody whose bad side you rely don't want to get on.”
Although he’s getting second billing, Bollers’ Holmes isn’t being slighted in the least bit as far as his skills.
“Holmes' attention to detail and near photographic memory is beyond comparison. His quest for justice is both heroic and neurotic at the same time making for a quirkier, less caustic version of the character,” explains Bollers. “He's a juggernaut when it comes to finding the truth. But it's almost as if he can't help himself. He's a bit OCD about it.”
For many this new series slipped under the radar, but those that did know about it seemed to enjoy it as that first issue’s already sold out at the distributor level with new readers forced to seek it out digitally through various outlets while they wait for a second printing. Watson & Holmes #2 is set for release on August 14, but for now the series is a hot commodity on the second-hand market. When we asked the creative team about the sellout of the debut issue, they were thrilled at the unexpected response.
“I'd be real curious to drill down into reader reaction and find out what folks are responding to. Early reviews have highlighted the clue-following and the deduction, and that's really encouraging because that's the stuff that makes the originals so perennially attractive. So, more helpings of that, definitely,” Leonardi tells Newsarama. “People seem to like the scene-setting and the location work, too, which only makes sense: you can't really get "into" a story if you can't, in fact, get into it. That is, if the story doesn't provide a real-seeming location, an environment, a "map" if you like, through which the characters can move and in which the action takes place, then there's no space for the reader to inhabit.”
Part of that response can be explained by seeing Leonardi’s name on the cover. A longtime Marvel and DC veteran known for his work on Spider-Man 2099, the X-Men books and various DC titles, Leonardi has rarely done work outside the Big Two save for licensed titles and seeing him on this concept is eye-opening. As Leonardi explains it, his working on Watson & Holmes is all thanks to Walt Simsonson.
“At New York Comic-Con 2011, I was quietly sketching away at my table when Walt swung by to tell me to expect a visit from one of his former students with an interesting proposition,” Leonardi says. “Minutes later Watson & Holmes co-creator Brandon Perlow loomed out of the crowd and pitched the idea for this series. The rest, as they say” …is history. From the original Arthur Conan Doyle incartion to this street-savvy NYC version by Bollers and Leonardi.