Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Sherlock Holmes: Year One

Sherlock Holmes is having a bit of resurgence in popularity these days. A movie with a sequel being filmed, a tv series re-imagining the character in present day, and a couple of comic book minis by two different companies.

Dynamite Entertainment has one mini under their belt and decided to follow it up with Sherlock Holmes: Year One. This is an interesting conflux of concepts. "Year One" was popularized as a term by Frank Miller in Batman: Year One, where the concept was the first year of Bruce Wayne putting on the costume to fight crime as Batman.  From there, it has been used in various superhero comics, referencing the early days of the crime fighting careers of heroes, usually tying into their origins. Of course with Batman, there was over a decade between the event of his parents getting shot, his decision to fight crime and all his training to the time he actually began his career. Despite that, a "Year One" story isn't simply just stories from that fledgling year, but an origin story of sorts. It lays down a lot of the ground work of who the character is and how he grows into the hero he's generally known as. Thus, with the Batman story, we see why he decides on a costume at all, much less as a bat. We see how his relationship with Gordon starts and grows (the comic is as much his story as Batman's). In short, a "Year One" story is to fill in gaps of the character, the whys and hows he operates and how it all came to be. Somehow, along the way, the term came into such general use that now we have companies like Dynamite using it in titles for their books.

Sherlock Holmes is not a false identity someone takes upon though. Presumably, he's been Sherlock Holmes since birth, and my first thought was a mini-series about his birth and first year as a baby is not what they were going for. But, it is interesting in that it opens up a few different possibilities exactly what a "Year One" tale would cover. One route would be a Young Sherlock Holmes-esque type of adventure, a story outlining the events that would prove so important for Holmes that would drive him and his brother to such extremes of behavior, his desire to see justice done and pursuing all sorts of knowledge and reasoning above all else and disdain for the police and Scotland Yard and humanity in general beyond a small circle of friends.

The second route would be the first year of his career, possibly overlapping his school years and the events of "A Study In Scarlet". In "Study", he meets Watson and they take rooms together, but he seems to already have started his career as a consulting detective, little venturing to the locations of the crimes themselves. In fact, "Study" seems to have the effect of him taking on more direct involvement in cases. One wonders where and why he gained those skills of acting and disguise if before he never planned on leaving his rooms.

Sherlock Holmes: Year One fails to be a "Year One" story in any meaningful way though. First off, it decides to follow a third track and basically throw out "A Study In Scarlet" by detailing a whole new story of how Watson meets Holmes. In it, he's called by the police to help some people that seem to be mostly afflicted with partying too much. One of the young men is Holmes who then outlines that this is more than a party that went out of control but a big criminal enterprise that he managed to foil.

But other than being some new way for Holmes and Doyle to have met, there's nothing particular in it that screams "Year One". Make the Watson character just a nameless police surgeon and you have another adventure of his pre-Watson college years. Doyle himself wrote two: "The Musgrave Ritual" and "The Gloria Scott" but neither of these cover the historical background that's implied by a "Year One" title. Neither does this mystery. Keep the doctor and change the opening script a little bit, and you have a decent stand-alone mystery that could plug in almost anywhere in the Canon.

Thus, the end result is maddening. There's no inherent reason for the contradiction of the Canon, the contradictions are completely incidental to the actual plot. And the contradictions carry no real weight since the story fails to live up to the basic concept of "Year One". It seems tacked on to drive sale and give some kind of metafictional meaningful gravitas of what would otherwise be just a nice little mystery. There has to be more of a point to telling us something we don't know about Holmes than telling us something we didn't know because of the simple fact the writer is changing the actual facts on us.

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