Thursday, January 20, 2011

Other Holmes

It is reported that the Doyle Estate has approved a new novel featuring Sherlock Holmes. The writer is Anthony Horowitz, writer young adult novels featuring teenage spy Alex Rider. Young adult novels are extremely popular now, but I view this with some trepidation as the tendency for creators working with a property like Holmes is to do a pastiche, which generally requires a dumbing down of their own natural style.

The problem with most of the Holmes books by other authors is they fall in one of two camps. 1) An out and out pastiche which means that the writer is generally sublimating his style to copy the original. This tends to mean leaving things out, limited to solely creative and stylistic ground covered originally. 2) Introduction of a Mary Sue character to replace Watson as narrator, thus excusing any errors in attempts at sounding authentic. Sometimes, it comes across as also being the writer just does not like Watson and will make some snide comments about him.

#1 is true of almost all pastiches. To be a pastiche, one is required to be a mimic for the job is first and foremost one of artifact creation, creating something that will appear to be something else.. This may mean exercising some mental muscles not normally used, but it's still an exercise in fakery. A pastiche is a parody or satire without the creative commentary and self-referential comedy. Done in the best intentions and utmost affection but at best reads false, children playing grown-up. The problem becomes not to tell a good mystery or adventure featuring Holmes and Watson, but trying to create one that feels as if it was written at the time of others. The story is almost a secondary concern in relation to how it gets across its mimicry. In the last Superman movie, the actor was not asked to play Clark Kent or Superman as much as he was asked to play Christopher Reeve playing Clark Kent/Superman. That's a pastiche.

Caleb Carr's Holmes book The Italian Secretary was pure pastiche. It was a fun little diversion, but it's barely a mediocre Holmes book and not a very good Carr book. Instead of doing a Holmes book, I'd just as soon read a good writer use their own characters set during that time period. Unless they have the freedom to use Holmes and Watson as characters, sticking true to their history, but writing in their own style and not trying to recreate Doyle's style. Write it in third person, cover ground and issues that Doyle couldn't have as a man of the time.  This is a tact that's not taken very often sadly.

Of course there is another camp that some Holmes books do fall into, the deconstruction of Holmes. This is where the writer sets out to do Holmes "right". We get some of that with those that choose to downplay or make fun of Watson. But, there are others that want to explore Holmes and Watson's sexual sides, their relationships. Or, to cast one of the duo as the villain, such as a major book that chose to make Holmes Jack the Ripper.

The comic Ruse falls somewhere in between.

The Return of Ruse

Ruse is a comic from the late publishing line Crossgen which has recently been acquired by Marvel Comics. Starting a Crossgen imprint but without the unifying sigil running through the books, a relaunch of the comic Ruse has been announced as a four issue mini-series starting in March. The book was originally written by Mark Waid and illustrated by Butch Guice. Waid will be writing this relaunch with Guice providing the covers. Mirco Pierfederici will be doing the artistic chores on the interior

The title concerns a Holmesian detective called Simon Archard in a fictional Victorian era type setting, though in this world, there is an element of supernatural and magic.  Archard's partner is the beautiful Emma Bishop. In the original series, Bishop had secretive ties and powers as part of the Crossgen's conceit that each title would have a sigil bearer who had powers. He can leave that behind, focusing on two talented but decidedly human characters with new secrets they keep from each other to serve as internal strife between them.

As a Holmesian detective, Archard and Ruse aren't all that bad. But, in interviews concerning the original series, Waid was upfront for his distaste of the Doyle detective and stories. This sets the bar pretty high, as it implies that he thinks he can do it "right". However, his characters and stories aren't all that different than what is found in most pastiches or other Holmesian characters such as Solar Pons. The chief difference is the highly capable Miss Bishop, creating a sexual tension and clashing of egos where Watson was a little more forgiving of Holmes' excesses. Bishop challenges Archard and is a proactive character in her own right. Readers of mysteries set in the Victorian era can find strong opposite gender pairs of protagonists in the fiction of Anne Perry (I'm fond of the William Monk mysteries myself).

Victorian Undead: Holmes vs. Dracula: DC Comics isn't to be out-done. A little late on the Undead bandwagon, they have produced a couple of mini-series featuring Sherlock Holmes fighting supernatural menaces. The first was against revenants. I didn't read it myself so I'm not sure how accurate the lore was. However, considering that what passes for zombies in today's fiction has little to do with voodoo zombies but the creations of George Romero's Dawn of the Dead, where the term zombie was never used, the term "revenants" is actually a bit more accurate with many parallels to today's zombies. Usually a revenant was either a wrong-doer in his lifetime or one who feels he has been so-wronged that his desire for retribution allows him to come back to life. Specifics and abilities vary as much as the tales do concerning vampires, and the two have sometimes been interchanged. A special one-shot featured Holmes vs Mr. Hyde. No clue as to how that tied to the "Undead" part of the title.

The current mini features Holmes against Dracula and is in its third issue. The first two issues follow rather faithfully the events of the Bram Stoker novel though from Holmes' point of view in London. There are several references of him against the revenants of the previous mini. The current issue has Holmes and Watson meeting with Van Helsing, Jonathan Harker and the suitors of Lucy and getting caught up on the backstory of Dracula. Here, the story departs from the vampire novel in several significant ways. Mina has committed suicide as opposed to living the life of a vampire and one of the suitors has turned traitor in hoping to use Dracula to cure the bloodlines of the Royal Family. This departure opens the story up to whole new directions to take, not having to strictly follow Stoker's plotline.

The artwork is detailed but is in modern style and coloring, a modern comic-book. It's actually a little better than many modern comics in that it doesn't lose the story in the desire to get across detail and setting.  Unlike many artists known for their detail and superfluous linework muddying up the page, the storytelling is clear and concise. While not in the job of creating something that looks like a Victorian artifact, Holmes and Watson are drawn in their cliche looks: Holmes being a little too good looking and average build and Watson the older overweight doctor with white hair and mustache. A small quibble for an otherwise enjoyable read.

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