The past year has seen an unusually large number of Sherlock Holmes adaptations, both in comics and on the screen, but not all Holmeses are created equal. Last night, British viewers got to see the last episode of Season 2 of the BBC’s wildly popular series Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman (we Americans will get it this spring), and Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadowsstarring Robert Downey Junior and Jude Law is still doing well in theaters a month after it opened. So if you’re in a Holmesian mood and wondering what to read next, here’s run down on the Holmes adaptations which have come out or had new installments in the past year. Varying from inspiredly odd to unreadably awful, don’t go to the comic store without reading this first!
First, for the sake of context, let’s start with the live action adaptations.
Sherlock(BBC television series), created by Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat
Variation on the theme: The characters are transplanted to modern Britain. Holmes is still in his early 30’s and a bit emotionally immature, as well as possibly Aspergers. Watson is highly capable and dangerous, but obfuscates cuddly harmlessness. Sherlock and Mycroft have Mommy issues.
Holmes/Watson relationship: Very, very close and more equal than usual. Not only do they work cases together, they sit around their apartment joking and watching ridiculous television during down time. And apparently in the second season, John is officially Sherlock’s partner in the detecting business, providing publicity through his blog.
Typical case: What do these mysterious symbols terrorizing a young woman mean? Could it be an international crime ring?
Bad CSI villain to Napoleon of Crime Moriarty villain scale: 1 for performance, 7 for setup. In person, Moriarty is a brilliant but murderous lunatic who can’t keep his accent straight and just really, really wants to destroy Sherlock Holmes.
Human robot to wacky bohemian scale of Holmes emoting: 6. Sherlock rarely expresses emotions beyond anger, boredom or excitement over a case – these, however, are done with an eccentric dramatic flair. He does let down his guard around John when they’re goofing around together.
Christmas goose to exploding parliament scale of outrageous: 5, About on par with Doyle’s work, except for a certain crime lord going to ridiculous lengths to destroy Sherlock.
Verdict: If you’re okay with a slightly gorier modern sensibility and you’re not looking for costume drama, watch this!
Sherlock Holmes (2009) and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, directed by Guy Ritchie.
Variation on the theme: Sherlock Holmes is an enormous ham, a complete brat, usually on drugs and an emotional mess, practically chewing on the scenery with his histrionic emoting. He’s also extremely charming and genuinely socially capable when he feels like it. This is the kind of Sherlock Holmes who gets into bareknuckle boxing matches and bad drag pretty much for the hell of it. Watson is rakish, capable and dangerous and he makes absolutely no secret of it.
Holmes/Watson relationship: Holmes and Watson are friends, but are having relationship problems. Holmes is wildly emotionally dependant on Watson and is coping very badly with Watson’s new marriage. Watson is getting a bit tired of Holmes’s brattiness and is happy to move out and marry Mary, though he still cares about Holmes and enjoys their cases together. The word partner does not come up – they are Holmes’s cases, Watson is just an extremely useful and beloved friend who helps out.
Typical case: Someone evil wants to Take Over Britain! Scooby doo plot ensues.
Bad CSI villain to Napoleon of Crime Moriarty villain scale: 9, Moriarty and Lord Blackwood are both genuinely terrifying and capable of outsmarting Sherlock on several occasions.
Human robot to wacky bohemian scale of Holmes emoting: 10, Wacky Bohemian. Prone to extravagant (if deeply weird) displays of emotion.
Christmas goose to exploding parliament scale of outrageous: 10, a villain wants to blow up Parliament and declare himself the Witch King of Britain. Wait what?
Verdict: A humorous take on Holmes, heavy on explosions and Holmes/Watson banter. The least heartbreaking Reichenbach Falls story ever. If you want Wacky Bohemian Holmes with bonus cross-dressing, this is the Holmes for you.
And now for the comics:
Ruse: The Victorian Guide to Murder by Mark Waid and Mirco Pierfederici, published by Marvel
Variation on the theme: “Holmes” is named Simon Archard, and is more rich and famous for his successes than in Conan Doyle, but otherwise he’s Holmes. “Watson” is a woman named Emma Bishop.
Holmes/Watson relationship: Emma Bishop considers herself Archard’s partner, although she does recieve a paycheck, and she’s not shy about giving him a piece of her mind when he gets a little too outrageous, or keeps her out of the loop. Archard frequently reminds her that he could hire someone else for her job. But he also trusts Emma implicitly to drive a runaway carriage, win in a fist fight he drops her into and keep up with his spur of the moment schemes and improvisations, and eventually he refers to her as his partner.
Typical case: Lightbourne (apparently a combo of Moriarty and Charles Augustus Milverton) has set out to blackmail pretty much the entire upper class, including the heir to the throne, in order to secretly control the WORLD! Or possibly just win India in a bet.
Human robot to wacky bohemian scale of Holmes emoting: 4. Cranky banter and shouting at villains.
Christmas goose to exploding parliament scale of outrageous: 9. Betting India
Verdict: Good solid fun and worth a read. The original incarnation of this comic, which came out from Crossgen, is even better, if slightly weirder. Emma has secret magical powers in it. The most truly Holmesian of all the Holmes comics listed, even if Holmes is called Simon Archard.
Variation on theme: Holmes is has magical powers that assist his detection. Also, he’s naive, adorable and about 14. Watson is an adult with an eyepatch and is slyly world weary.
Holmes/Watson relationship: Watson is Holmes’s amused but caring mentor figure, young Sherlock looks up to him.
Typical case: Someone murdered an operatic soprano using magic while she was onstage in the middle of an opera.
Human robot to wacky bohemian scale of Holmes emoting: 8. Cheerful but eerie child.
Christmas goose to exploding parliament scale of outrageous: 7. Small scale murder, but using magic.
Verdict: An amusing but deeply odd read.
Victorian Undead: Sherlock Holmes vs. Draculaby Ian Edginton and Davide Fabbri, published by DC Comics
Variation on the theme: Sherlock Holmes fights the undead, as well as solving crimes. Watson appears to be a fat old buffer, twenty to thirty years older than Holmes, and not terribly bright.
Holmes/Watson relationship: Holmes and Watson seem fond of each other, but Watson’s contribution to casework consists of occasionally saying things like “By Jove!” Aside from minor medical skill, he resembles Kate Beaton‘s Jam Watson.
Typical case: Dracula will give Britain bubonic plague if he is not allowed to take over the nation.
Bad CSI villain to Napoleon of Crime Moriarty villain scale: N/A
Human robot to wacky bohemian scale of Holmes emoting: 3, Very restrained, but recognizably human Holmes.
Christmas goose to exploding parliament scale of outrageous: 9, Dracula wants to take over Britain!
Verdict: Not awful, but not worth buying.
Sherlock Holmes: Year Oneby Scott Beatty and Daniel Indro, published by Dynamite Entertainment
Variation on theme: Sherlock Holmes and Watson are younger and meet in an entirely different way. Holmes has all the personality of a rock. Watson apparently was a cavalry soldier in Afghanistan, instead of a military doctor, and does anachronistic CSI work for the police. No actual detecting gets done, but there are fights. Many, many fights.
Holmes/Watson relationship: Watson meets Holmes by chance, is impressed by his detective skills and… decides to stalk him. Holmes is uninterested in Watson
Typical case: A serial killer is basing his crimes on the Emperors of Rome.
Bad CSI villain to Napoleon of Crime Moriarty villain scale: 2, Math professor with a stupid, nonsensical plan to take over England.
Human robot to wacky bohemian scale of Holmes emoting: 7, Shouty Holmes hits people he gets in arguments with.
Christmas goose to exploding parliament scale of outrageous: 8, a mansion is staffed entirely by criminals.
Verdict: Run, do not walk, in the opposite direction. Almost as awful as the Syfy original movie in which Sherlock’s real name is inexplicably Robert.