How many of you are excited about the Robert Downey Jr. “Sherlock Holmes” movie? I am. I think it will have a lot of style and wit. I’ve read a few Holmes comics this year and I’ve brushed up on my Basil Rathbone too. Among all the Holmes stuff out there, I was intrigued by the mystery of there being a graphic novel that this movie is based on. It turned out that the artist John Watkiss created illustrations based on a producer’s script to sell the movie to studios. The obscure quality to all this is appealing to me and led to me finding an actual graphic novel illustrated by John Watkiss. “Ring of Roses” is quite a curious book and was created at one of the brightest and hardest times to attempt such a thing.
“Ring of Roses” came out into the world as a limited series by Dark Horse in the early ’90s, just after the first big wave of “graphic novels” had hit: “Maus,” “The Dark Knight Returns” and “Watchmen.” The call to greatness had been sounded but few were ready to answer the call. It must have been pretty exciting for John Watkiss to team up with writer Das Petrou, designer Trevor Goring and fellow illustrator Mike McLester to create their answer to the graphic novel. The scope of the story is ambitious. The art is heroic and daring. And, as stories about alternate realities go, this one reads well. For me, looking at it today, it satisfies a desire to read something cool that is under the radar.
Studying the artwork, it’s clear to me that Watkiss loves to draw and produces wonderful figurative work, all elongated and elegant. It reminds me, at times, of Giacometti’s sculpture, figures so tall and thin that they teeter under the stress of their fragile frames. The story is very British with a delicious restraint. It’s set in London in an alternate reality. It is the early 1990′s but world events have moved at quite a slower pace: Germany is just now bringing about the first world war. And the papacy has also managed to maintain a hold on something like a Holy Roman Empire with nefarious plans to consolidate power through biological warfare.
To see us through this heavy and intricate plot, we have two main characters afoot in the walled up city of London attempting to make sense of what it going on: a barrister and a working class joe who is perpetually in need of the barrister’s talents to keep him out of prison. So, you’ve got a rather fun plot, parts Alan Moore and Charles Dickens. All in all, a fine story. It is quite gratifying to learn that “Ring of Roses” will soon become a movie. Spice Factory and Persistent Entertainment recently announced that they will be developing an adaptation of the graphic novel.
As a graphic novel, “Ring of Roses” seems to be a product of its time. It does feel like something in answer to the call to greatness rather than a great work in itself. And that’s okay. It’s a fun read to be sure. I don’t think it’s quite up to the standards of what we’d call today a great read but it has most definitely earned its place as a trail blazer and is even historically significant. For one thing, I think there are too many scenes with people talking in close up and that tends to drag the dramatic impact. The writing itself seems rushed at times too as in too many transitions where a word from one sequence is used again differently in the next. While clever, that is distracting. Also, it seems like some chances to add some suspense involving this evil hunchbacked cardinal were missed. Essentially, this is too slick a work and you won’t end up caring all that much about the characters.
So, not all graphic novels need to be great. This one is good and it deserves an audience. Image Comics collected it as a 144 page trade in 2005 so you too can get yours hands on it. And the good news is that, after all these years, it’s going to become a movie. The thing about the Watkiss artwork in this book is that it is exceptionally good but, at least in this case, it works best as layouts for a movie instead of something making full use of the comics medium. That might be a different story if Watkiss ventures into comics again. For now, he has much to celebrate with his artwork for “Sherlock Holmes” and his art in general.
I hope you enjoyed this edition of Comics Grinder. You’re welcome to come back and visit again next time. And, until then, feel free to stop by the Comics Grinder site and see what might be grinding away over there. At the moment, there are some more Watkiss artworks from “Sherlock Holmes” and they require me to cry out the obligatory spoiler alert for those of you with faint hearts.