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Gorillas Riding Dinosaurs | On the Case with Holmes and Watson

Sherlock Holmes and a Scandal in Bohemia

We’ve been talking about comics for kids a lot lately in this column. I want to continue that conversation this week, but from a different angle. Let’s face it, we’ll never all agree about whether Marvel and DC superhero comics should be focused primarily on children or grown ups or if both, in what ratio. A lot of things complicate that discussion, including the origin of superheroes as children’s literature and the varying levels of nostalgia that grown-up fans attach to that.

But what if we flip that coin over? What if we take something with origins in grown-up literature and make it for kids? Does that change the arguments? Do characters created for one demographic always have to be written with that demographic in mind? I don’t think so. I don’t think it’s true for superheroes and I don’t think it’s true for Sherlock Holmes who’s the focus of Graphic Universe’s new series On the Case with Holmes and Watson.

To be sure, Sherlock Holmes isn’t the most dramatic example of a “mature audiences” character being used for a kids’ series. He’s not exactly Ripley from Alien or Ash from Evil Dead. But he’s also not standard reading for 4th to 6th graders, the target audience for the On the Case series. And if Holmes can be rewritten for 9-year-olds, why can’t Superman be rewritten for 39-year-olds? The question shouldn’t be whether or not it can be done though. I predict that we’ll read few if any comments advocating that Holmes is a grown-up character and that he shouldn’t be adapted for children. What we need to be figuring out is how to tell the story so well that neither group feels unwanted.

The Woman

The ideal superhero comic is neither so dark as to put off parents nor so tame that it’s unattractive to discerning readers. (I still maintain that there’s room for especially dark and especially tame versions, but those should be published only in imprints; not the main line.) The ideal Sherlock Holmes adaptation for kids has to be faithful enough to the original story that parents will feel like they’re sharing the real thing with their children, but simplified enough that kids can follow the story. Which is exactly what the On the Case volumes do.

In each book, Murray Shaw and MJ Cosson adapt an Arthur Conan Doyle short story with European-looking art by Sophie Rohrbach. Her drawings are fun and interesting for kids, but also attractive to adults. Holmes often looks friendly and even comical, but he’s got an intensity that fans will recognize and he can become quite serious when he’s closing in on a criminal. Watson is always helpful and jolly, just as he should be.

The writing keeps a nice balance too. Shaw and Cosson let Rohrbach do most of the descriptive work through the art, so there’s not a lot of nineteenth-century narrative to work through. What’s left is the dialogue, which is Victorian enough to sound authentic, but substitutes modern terms for older expressions. (That applies to the story titles too, so that “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” becomes “The Adventure of the Blue Gem” in Volume Three.)

The game is afoot!

Also pleasing to varying ages is all the supplemental material that goes into each book. Volumes begin with a labeled map of the locations in the story and an illustrated list of characters. Immediately following the stories are sections on “How Did Holmes Solve It?” and a bibliography for further reading.

The “How Did Holmes Solve It?” page is what puts readers “On the Case” with the detectives. Before I read the books I’d hoped for a more interactive experience in which readers got to try to solve the case alongside Holmes and Watson, but sadly that’s not it. Putting aside those expectations though, the How’d He Do It page is a good idea. Readers may not get to figure clues out as they pop up in the story, but this feature lists all the key points in the investigation and allows the reader to experience it again from Holmes’ perspective.

The Further Reading section lists both books and websites on a variety of topics: from Holmes himself to story-specific subjects like weird monarchs for “A Scandal in Bohemia,” tall ships in “The Adventure at the Abbey Grange,” and holiday stories (and geese and gemstones) for “The Adventure of the Blue Gem.”

On the case

Besides the lack of in-story interactivity, the only other thing I scratched my head over was some of the stories chosen for early volumes. Volume One is “A Scandal in Bohemia,” which is a favorite of fans, but not the best introduction to Holmes. The crime’s not very juicy and worse than that, Holmes – though very clever – doesn’t even succeed in solving it. The second volume, “The Adventure of the Abbey Grange,” does involve a murder, but there’s a twist to it that – while making it exciting for fans who are familiar with the Holmes formula – makes it another non-typical story. It’s not until Volume Three and the “Blue Gem” that new readers finally get a feel for what a real Holmes adventure is like.

Not that any of this was off-putting to my 8-year-old when I read these to him. We shrugged our shoulders at Holmes’ inability to solve the “Scandal” and had a nice conversation about Holmes’ actions at the end of “Abbey Grange.” And he’s now interested enough in Holmes that we’ve started into Ian Edginton and INJ Culbard’s adaptation of the considerably darker and more complicated A Study in Scarlet. We’ll also be going back for future volumes in the Graphic Universe series as they come out.

Which really, as a parent, is what this whole “comics for kids” discussion is about for me. On the Case is an excellent introduction to Holmes for young people and – at least in my son’s case – a gateway to other comics like it. Wouldn’t it be cool if we had something like that for Marvel and DC’s superheroes too?

I’m also curious: What other classic characters or stories could use a good all-ages comic to introduce them to a new generation of readers? Or, which all-ages adaptations of classic stories have you already read that are especially good? I’ll throw Sterling’s All-Action Dracula out as the first example.

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Comments

6 Comments

My daughter Sarah (11) really enjoys many of the Graphic Classics compilations, though those can be hit-or-miss within the same volume. They are a good intro to different classic authors and she has gone on to read some of the originals (Poe especially).

She also liked the Manga Literary Classics adaptation of Little Women and it led her to read the novel.

Papercutz’s Classics Illustrated has some good ones. Our favorites are The Invisible Man adapted by Rick Geary and Tales from the Brothers Grimm.

I recently loaned her friend our copy of The Hobbit with art by David Wenzel and she absolutely loved it. She was very disappointed that there weren’t more.

And I second All Action Dracula!

Sherlock Holmes is a womanizing coke addict and a skilled martial artist. He’s as “mature” as they come.

Still, these books do sound pretty good.

Actually i think Superman (and other books) IS being written for 39 year olds.
Only a very “special” kind of 39 year olds.

I don’t know why Sherlock Holmes can’t be for kids. I’m pretty sure I started reading Holmes somewhere between 4th and 6th grade. In fact, it may be the ideal time to pick it up. When you’re older, and when you’ve read better mystery novels and watched cop shows 24/7, the mysteries in Sherlock Holmes start to look pretty darned silly. “A Scandal in Bohemia” involves Holmes using his Masters of Disguise skills twice. I watched the version with Jeremy Brett on Netflix recently, and while he’s a fine actor, the whole idea that he’s masquerading as a doddering old pastor is kinda goofy.

I started reading Sherlock Holmes stories when I was 10 years old. At that age, the whole cocaine thing went right over my head; I only cared about the characters and the stories. As I continued to re-read the stories over the years, as a teenager I finally caught on to the drug use. I enjoy the stories still, although as a middle-aged adult now I know that Holmes is a deeply flawed being. I’ve come to appreciate Dr. Watson more. I have read quite a few of the graphic novel adaptations of the Holmes mysteries, and these by Lerner are very good, except for perpetuating the erroneous idea of Holmes going around in caped coat, deerstalker cap, and huge pipe.

I know I started reading Sherlock Holmes when I was 10 because I got a book of his mysteries for my 10th birthday, and I still remember sitting on my bed reading them that morning. You can’t get a more definite time stamp than that!

The edition I had may have been abridged, as the Victorians certainly did like to use a lot of words, and there were some very lively pictures. I agree with Kat that Holmes can work on several levels—as a kid, just emerging from Nancy Drew, I liked the mysteries and particularly the odd little clues that Holmes picked up on. Reading them again as an adult (and a lapsed mystery reader), I still enjoy the mysteries and I like the atmosphere as well.

I thought Edginton and Culbard’s A Study in Scarlet was first-rate, both the art and the storytelling, and I would have no problem giving that to an older kid, or a smart 8-year-old for that matter. I thought the Lerner books were a bit watered down, the language a bit too simplified. And because the mystery is explained outside the story, A Scandal in Bohemia is missing one of Holmes’s most memorable lines: “When a woman thinks that her house is on fire, her instinct is at once to rush to the thing which she values most… A married woman grabs at her baby; an unmarried one reaches for her jewel-box.” Still, the stories are good and if they draw kids in, a bit of watering down may be worth it.

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