Sherlock Holmes is a character whose fame far outstrips the source material that birthed him. People seem to absorb Holmes lore via a sort of pop-cultural osmosis. You don’t have to read a word of Conan Doyle or even watch the movie adaptations to have Holmes indelibly etched on at least a tiny space in your brain. Like Tarzan, or even Superman and Batman, Sherlock Holmes is probably in your head whether you’ve made a conscious effort to put him there or not.
Holmes’ already prodigious profile is definitely on the ascendant these days. He’s featured in a comic series by Dynamite, TV hit House is, if not a straight adaptation, a definite riff on Holmes, and Holmes will even go head to head with zombies in the upcoming VICTORIAN UNDEAD. Most prominently in the zeitgeist, is second string Tarantino Guy Ritchie’s upcoming Sherlock Holmes film adaptation, a buddy action movie that threatens to bend the character out of all recognizable shape. With all of this Buzz floating around one of literature’s most enduring creations, it’s a good time to go back and look at the original legacy of a man who has a legitimate claim on the title “world’s first superhero”.
Holmes’ influence on pop culture, especially comic book culture, is enormous and obvious. Holmes didn’t drive around in a horse-drawn Holmesmobile, or wack his enemies with Holmesarangs, but he was a definite early prototype of the obsessive crimefighter, the consummate figure of esoteric skill, dedicated to a life of fighting evil. Batman is basically Holmes with a mask, a utility belt, and a ludicrous fortune. And, Although Dr. Watson never capered about in tights and short-pants, he’s a pretty obvious antecedent of the comic book sidekicks of modern times. In fact, if you look at the original Holmes canon in the context of the superhero, all sorts of parallels pop up.
THE ORIGINAL OBSESSIVE: Like Bruce Wayne or Frank Castle, Holmes was pathologically focused on vanquishing crime. He had no personal life to speak of and When Holmes’ didn’t have a case to crack, he fell into deep melancholia. His crime fighting skill set, which included knowledge of everything from advanced chemistry to the properties of cigar-ash, was ludicrously exhaustive. His ability to deduce complex and specific truths from minutiae was nearly superhuman. For all his obscure knowledge, Holmes’ intellect was laser focused on crime fighting, often to the detriment of his basic social skills. As Watson puts it: “His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge”. In A Study In Scarlet Watson is flabbergasted that Holmes does not know that the earth revolves around the sun. Holmes’ answer, in a nutshell, is that knowing celestial mechanics won’t help him catch crooks, so why waste the brainspace? Holmes is also constantly ruffling the feathers of the high-society types he mingles with and, although he’s certainly charismatic, he’d never be described as long on charm. Like Batman or the Punisher, Holmes is the kind of guy you want at your side when criminals are about but not necessarily one you’d invite to your next dinner party.
Not Just Evil… EEEEEEEvil: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle can’t really claim to have invented the detective story (Edgar Allan Poe, J.S. LeFanu, and Willkie Collins have better claims) but he might have invented the first full blown super villain. In 1893′s “The Final Problem” Conan Doyle introduced the world to the diabolical Professor Moriarty, a man Holmes calls “The Napoleon of crime”, a mastermind whose brilliance made him almost untouchable.
In “The Final Problem” Moriarty bursts into the Holmes canon fully formed, emerging from a flurry of sudden expositionand into the collective unconscious. Its pretty obvious Moriarty was conceived on the fly by Conan Doyle for the sole purpose of introducing an arch-villain capable of offing Holmes. For all of Holmes’ talk of Moriarty’s spider-like dominance of London’s underworld, Moriarty is never mentioned in any stories before “The Final Problem”. Admittedly, the abrupt intro makes for pretty poor storytelling. Even Doomsday got a few lead-in issues to show how bad he was before he wacked superman. Nevertheless, Moriarty still leaves an inordinately large footprint on the Holmes legend, not just because he’s the man who “killed” Sherlock Holmes (more on that later) but because he fills a primal role. The concept of an anti-Holmes is so alluring, that, despite figuring in only 3 Holmes stories and appearing directly only in one, Moriarty is almost as ubiquitous and influential in pop culture as Holmes himself and Conan Doyle’s evocative descriptions of the evil professor still resonate today. Take this passage form “The Final Problem”:
He is the organizer of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city. He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain o fthe first order. He sits motionless, like a spider in the center of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows well every quiver of each of them. He does little himself. He only plans, but his agents are numerous and splendidly organized…
He’s the template for Lex Luthor, Wilson Fisk, Dr. Doom and countless others, but Moriarty isn’t the only foe who, in the words of Mr. Smithers: “threatened to cross the line between everyday villainy and cartoonish super-villainy”. Holmes’ cases brought him in conflict with a rogues gallery that would be equally at home in Gotham City or Victorian London.
In “The Adventure of The Empty House” Holmes squares off against Col. Sebastian Moran: “the 2nd most dangerous man in London”. Once Moriarty’s right hand, Moran is a prototypical mastermind’s henchman. A big game hunter, crooked gambler and all around cad, Moran does his dirty work with a silent-firing air rifle that shoots “soft revolver bullets.” Sure, it’s not an ice gun or a trick umbrella, but its pretty close to gimmick weapon territory, especially for the 1890’s.
The pulpier Holmes tales feature enough criminals with oblique M.O.s to fill a whole wing of Arkham Asylum. There’s Culverton Smith, the diabolical virologist in “The Adventure of The Dying Detective” who kills with germs, “The Adventure of The Devil’s Foot” features a series of murders that would do The Scarecrow proud, and “The Adventure of The Creeping Man”, one of the silliest Holmes tales, focuses on a gentleman whose biochemical experiences veer into some literal monkey business.
Unfortunately, Conan Doyle never got around to writing a story where all of these ne’er do wells team up to form The Legion of Dastardly Cads. Despite their often flamboyant methodologies, Holmes’s adversaries were never supernatural. If there was a hellhound menacing a rich lord, Holmes inevitably revealed that it was just a pooch in a costume, even when vampirism seems to rear its pale head in “The Adventure of The Sussex Vampire”, Holmes finds a rational explanation for the blood-drinking shenanigans in a mere 15 pages.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, King of The Shameless Retcon: If Conan Doyle was a pioneer of the beloved super-villain convention, he was also the trailblazer of two of comicdoms more irksome clichés: the phony death and the forced retcon.
When Holmes took his seemingly fatal header of Reichenbach Falls in “The Final Problem” the world mourned. Magazine subscriptions were cancelled, Londoners wore black armbands, and the world clamored for the return of literatures greatest crime fighter. Like the Hal Jordans and Steve Rogers’ of today, Sherlock Holmes eventually conquered death itself at the behest of fanboy angst. Luckily, Conan Doyle (who, to his credit, sincerely intended for Holmes to stay dead) knew a secret that hack comic writers have depended on ever since: if there’s no body, there’s no death.
When Holmes returns in “The Adventure of the Empty House”, Holmes reveals to an aghast Dr. Watson that he was never dead at all. Holmes, like Will Eisner’s Spirit, had just been using his newfound anonymity to more effectively fight crime. Yes, the old gimmick of the mysterious death followed by convoluted reveal, that venerable resurrection method favored by the likes of Baron Zemo and Victor Von doom, may just have been invented by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, leaving hundreds of future comics creators deeply in his debt.
Conan Doyle also performed some first-rate continuity repair on Professor Moriarty. As previously mentioned, it was always a bit troublesome that Moriarty never got mentioned by Holmes before “The Final Problem”. Professor Moriarty, however, plays a role in the case depicted in In The Valley of Fear, a short novel penned several years after Moriarty’s intro in “The Final Problem”, yet set before the events of “Problem”. Savvy comic book readers will recognize this move for what it is: a plot-spackling, continuity detangling Victorian flashback retcon that would make Geoff johns proud.
So, the parallels between Holmes and the garish crime fighters of today are there if you look for them. They certainly weren’t lost on Alan Moore when he created The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a series that integrates large chunks of Holmes lore into its milieu. You can’t take the concept too far though. There are no slugfests in Sherlock Holmes. Holmes’ whole shtick was that he was too smart to condescend to mere fisticuffs. When it was time to take the villains down, Holmes either tricked them into incriminating themselves, or marched into their hideouts with Scotland Yard as back-up. Gunfights are rare in the stories. There are no slow motion retreats from gigantic explosions, and, although there is a fair share of quipping, it’s not usually the kind that cane be boiled down into Hollywood catch phrases.
The Holmes stories are masterpieces of atmosphere and intrigue, where the action of a keen mind usually takes precedence over the action of a swung fist. Still, the original stories have a lot to offer the modern reader, especially super-hero and pulp lit fans. Sometimes the stories are dry logic puzzles, as in “The Mystery of The three students” other times, they’re full-on crime fighting adventures like the oustanding short Novel The Sign of Four. Horror fans will find tales with a twist of the Macabre like “The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax” or “The Adventure of the speckled band” appealing, and even when the tales are mediocre, (and some definitely are), the sheer iconic power of literature’s greatest sleuth shines through. That, ultimately, may be the strongest thread that connects Holmes to today’s comic book crusaders. He’s not just larger than life, he’s larger than his own legacy, even if 221b Baker street isn’t exactly The Batcave.