It was Wednesday: New Comic Book Day. As I stepped through the doors of my local shop, I caught eyes with an acquaintance who was also a creator that lived in the neighborhood. Right away we exchanged smiles and greeted one another by name. Then he asked me, "Have you checked out "Watson and Holmes" yet?" There was a gleam in his eyes as he held up a copy of it. "It's an urban spin on Sherlock Holmes featuring a mostly black cast of characters." As an African-American writer and artist, it was his goal and obligation to promote not only his work and that of other writers and artists; but to call attention to good comics in general. He said that the series written by Karl Bollers and drawn by Larry Stroman reminded him of the days of emerging, indie creators and titles such as those featured at Milestone Comics back in the early 90's. I was reluctant for a moment, but I'd already intended to try something new that day. So then, "Watson and Holmes #5" was it; and it did not disappoint.
There were several things that I appreciated about this book other than the black cast. First, Bollers and Stroman dared to take a risk. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson are two of the most prominent characters in English literature, and their stories are known throughout the world. With "Sherlock" portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch on the BBC and Robert Downey Jr. playing the detective in the Guy Ritchie movies, how does one stand out, write a strong narrative without re-hashing old stories and still honor established tropes? Bollers did so by weaving into this one-shot urban issues that has historically impacted the black community. Teen pregnancy, abortion, divorce, single-parenting and black fathers were just a few that showed up. Bollers was not preachy about it either. For example, Dr. Watson is a recent divorcee who happens to take fathering his son seriously, though that son lives with his mother. The dialogue, though stilted at times, addressed other issues naturally as Watson and Holmes raced to solve a rash of infant kidnappings in poor neighborhoods.
Secondly, Bollers demonstrated a strong sense of geography. The series is set in Harlem, New York City. He mentioned names of real streets and locations to paint the back-drop of the city. He seamlessly incorporates the infamous 221B Baker Street address into the brownstone neighborhoods of Harlem.
Thirdly, both Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are African-American. Stroman did an effective job creating a world that was gritty, urban and diverse. The characters in the book were drawn uniquely without feeding into stereotypes about what it means to be "black." Stroman incorporated afrocentric traits from hair textures and hairstyles to nose sizes, skin tones, and facial structures. Each required a skilled eye for fashion and culture made rich across different segments of the African-American community.
I believe that art should be a portal into the story. Although the art was good, it was not inviting. I had a hard time slipping into the world of "Watson and Holmes." I had to rely heavily on the writing. I also wanted more intrigue surrounding the mysterious infant kidnappings. I wanted to be more surprised by the "whodunit" than blah about how Holmes figured it out. I thought solving the crime was too pedestrian and easy for Holmes.
There is a market out there for comic books featuring stories with strong, minority characters in them as leads. It's a small market, but it's a growing one. It's mainly writers and artists of color that continue to bring attention to them. If you're curious, check out "Watson and Holmes #5."
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