Watson and Holmes: A Study in Black

March 19, 2014

Watson and Holmes: A Study in Black. Karl Bollers. 2013.  144 pages. New Paradigm Studios.   [Source: Personal Copy]

Anyone who knows me remotely knows I adore Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous Sherlock Holmes. I grew up seeing two thick volumes of “The Complete Sherlock Holmes” on the bookshelf and always knew he was a brilliant detective. It wasn’t until a few years ago, when I endeavored to read Doyle’s works, that I understood the hype. Sherlock Holmes is my spirit animal, if spirit animals could be literary characters from the 19th century. When I discovered New Paradigm Studios had jumped into the arena with a modern, urban re-imagining of the famous detective duo, in graphic novel format no less, I had to check it out.

Image-based reading isn’t my primary area of expertise; I read the newspaper comics as a teen, but with the exception of one, I never latched on to any comic strip with passion. Frankly, I wasn’t at all sure what to expect with Watson and Holmes and worried that it wouldn’t hold my interest due to a lack of depth to the story. Admittedly, I prefer novels to any other form of literature, but I was willing to give a graphic novel a try. I was NOT disappointed. It’s a bit of a leap to go from the wordy Doyle stories to a format that relies as much on the imagery as the dialogue to bring the story to life. I also had to adjust to the serial nature of this tradebook. Each chapter’s cliffhanger made the reading experience much different than sitting with a straightforward short story or book. With Watson and Holmes, however, both parts work together amazingly to create a cohesive story across the chapters.

The graphics were deserving of their own attention (obviously?). They were dynamic and conveyed a great amount of detail and nuances between the characters. Regarding colors, I found them to be appropriate for each scene. Some scenes were more monochromatic and somber, while others were vibrant. I would have liked to see more of the black and white images, though. There are a few included in the back to let you know which artists were a part of which chapters, but I’m curious to see how the full chapters, either in whole or in part, would change without the colors.

I loved the portrayal of Watson and Holmes in modern-day Harlem. Early 20th century England is cool, but the modern take is fascinating as the story incorporates technology into how crimes are carried out. As a reader, you get to see the workings of Holmes mind play out in a world filled with cell phones, emails and hackers. I found the deductive reasoning he used entertaining as he and Watson (bobbed and) weaved their way through the plot. Moreover, the personalities of the Watson and Holmes we’ve come to know are translated into such a gritty environment seamlessly. You really get to see them in their own elements, which helps to make this interpretation easier to believe. The writers were able to stay true to the core of each character, but it’s definitely not just an update.

One piece that I did not expect was the depth to Watson’s back-story. It’s definitely a departure from most other versions I’ve seen. Giving him a troubled family life lends realism to his characterization and makes his motives much easier to understand. It also fits the story of how he and Holmes find themselves as unlikely roommates. Holmes, on the other hand, is harder to pin down — but what’s new? He’s still idiosyncratic and pensive, but always engaging. His dialogue is modernized appropriately, but his well-known quips are still there, blending in perfectly.

The story itself is substantial. It’s similar to previous stories but is a full departure from them as well. There are requisite plot twists that threw the entire path of logic to the wind, but the writing was solid, so seeing it woven together was classic. A plus of the graphic novel format is that details the reader missed are “footnoted” as Holmes works through his solutions. I spent quite a bit of time after I’d finished reading just going back and looking for points that I’d missed in the dialogue and artwork. Reading is rarely that fun for me, so the new format is definitely beneficial with this set of characters.

The only thing I didn’t care for was the shift in illustrators toward the end of the story arc. I was reading a tradebook, so I had all of them together in one sitting. The artists responsible for the art in the Epilogue were different from the other chapters and it’s evident in the details. I noticed the subtle differences in the coils of Holmes’ dreadlocks and Watson’s hairline. All things considered, these aren’t major detractors from the overall product, but it was enough to give me pause to flip back and forth a few times.

I was genuinely impressed with this take on a story near and dear to me. I’m definitely going to keep an eye out for future Watson and Holmes stories.

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