There is one bar you must reach over when doing an adaptation of any type and in any genre. You must be able to make the audience forget they are looking at an adaptation. If they are continually thinking of the original piece or the version they liked better, you’ve failed as a writer to draw them in, hook them into the new world you’ve created, even if that world is populated by characters they have met before. That is challenging enough, but when you’re taking a swing at such iconic and recently re-glamorized characters like Sherlock Holmes and his trusty sidekick Watson, now you’ve got some real work ahead of you.
Watson and Holmes: A Study in Black is a four-issue collection reimagining the classic detective and his valiant partner as African-Americans in modern-day New York. Holmes is a young, hustling private investigator and Watson is a Afghanistan war vet working as a medical assistant in the nearby hospital. Two unrelated cases bring this duo together and the symbiosis sticks. One finds a navigator for a troubled period in his life, while the other finds a new set of eyes to see the world fresh again.
I fully admit when I started reading this I found it tough to get into. While comics are universal, it can be argued that a near 40-year-old white guy is not the demographic for this title. Yet I grew up reading comics and never lost the love (even though I stopped buying them out of sheer financial reasons). I am pleased to say that by the time I was in the second chapter, I not only was involved in the story, but the creative team had reached the all-important bar. I mostly forgot I was reading an adaptation. When I was reminded of that fact, it was only to appreciate how they wove particular tidbits of the original into the new universe, like Holmes’ affluent and equally intelligent brother Mycroft.
The book moves briskly, like a good detective story should, and there are hidden bits of information for the astute reader along the way, pointing them to the inevitable villain hiding behind the final page.
Also, it was nice to read a comic where it’s just humans again with a small-scale story. Karl Bollers, the writer, made a great comment in an interview while doing publicity for this: “If everything is big, then nothing is big.”
That was one of the other reasons I fell out of comics back in my youth. I got tired of every single character being able to destroy the universe in some way. Heroes and villains no longer just existed on a normal level. Every enemy required a massive crossover to beat and the lives of every person in the solar system was constantly at risk. Honestly, a planet can only take so much stress.
One of my few drawbacks here is the lettering. Comic book lettering is incredibly important because it helps give inflection and importance to certain words, helping to provide that little extra depth to the character and the scene. Yet, here at least one or two words in every single dialogue bubble is bolded, making it seem like every other word is emphasized, which would sound ridiculous if spoken aloud.
If there is another bar that all comic books and graphic novels need to reach, it’s this: does the audience want more when they are done? Watson and Holmes: A Study in Black definitely gave me enough to be ready and waiting for the next diabolical case.