The challenge of updating any classic is making it relevant to its new setting. The task is all the more difficult when launching a Sherlock adaptation in the shadow of a BBC megahit. While Watson and Holmes (New Paradigm Studios) establishes itself as a separate entity, it doesn’t always make the seamless transition from 19th century England to 21st century Harlem.
In the first arc, we meet Jon Watson, a Medical Intern and Afghanistan vet, and Sherlock Holmes, an elusive PI – both African-American. In the aptly named A Study in Black (Karl Bollers, Emma Frost, What If?), the two delve into a world of drug rings and gang violence, with touches of network-hacking and ransom for good measure. It’s all standard fare for a crime caper and it works. However, Sherlock’s Old World dialogue (anachronistic and long-winded? Indubitably!) doesn’t and the brief epilogue resolving an untouched story line from the introductory pages throws the book off balance. Sure, Sir Conan Doyle did the same, but a comic doesn’t have the pages to do a denouement justice and it’s hard to imagine a New Yorker ever leisurely getting to their point.
(Holmes always gets the hat, huh?)
Where Watson and Holmes does succeed is in issue 6 – its first one-shot. The suspicious death of a well-to-do woman leads our detective-heroes to one of Harlem’s finest residents, Councilman Dexter Wainright. Once Dexter confirms the woman as his wife, the story quickly hits the beats you would expect in a disgraced politician narrative (unhappy marriage, affair, secrecy). However, the story takes an unconventional turn by introducing the paramour as partner to both Dexter and the deceased, as well as a transgender victim of an international sex trafficking operation.
At best, stories about sex workers and scandal deal in saccharine, after-school-special terms (hooker with a heart of gold, anyone?). At their worst, they rehash ugly tropes (trans women in fiction haven’t fared well). Writer Brandon Easton (Shadowlaw, new Thundercats tv series), though, manages to give each character a real personality and illustrate what’s at risk for them all. His writing for Watson and Holmes grounds the story in reality and fleshes out the awkwardness of previous issues – Watson finally ascends to the leading role promised by the title and Sherlock’s antiquated manners don’t seem so put on. And when Watson is saddened by the retirement of “one of the few effective black male politicians to come through Harlem in generations” the sentiment resonates thinking about our city, not some Gotham fabrication.
The take away: Crime fighters of yore may not have turned up polyamorous relationships or fought on the side of transgender rights, but I think readers are ready for this kind of modern storytelling.