Tony gets his steampunk on.
My gods, but the Holmes boys must have been annoying to be around.
From the unsurpassable originals by Conan Doyle, to the Moffat-Gatiss version and the Elementary edition, they are the absolute embodiment of nightmare brothers engaged in intellectual one-upmanship. It’s ‘I’m rubber and you're glue’ played out with brains the size of planets, and it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that without the likes of Moriarty to throw them both into sharp relief in terms of the things they actually enjoy (peace and quiet, incredibly good food, knowing things other people don’t know, occasional hard drug-use and the violin), they’d have torn the world of Victorian literature apart between them till only one remained.
We are of course rather spoiled at the moment in terms of modern re-inventions of the Holmes brothers and their bickering. But Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (himself something of a 21st century polymath) delivers a version of the pair that goes right back to their roots, and then gives them a steampunk twist.
Abdul-Jabbar gives us the Victorian Holmes boys during their younger life, and posits a reality so obvious it’s actually absurd that no-one’s delivered it before – Sherlock always rather begrudgingly acknowledged that Mycroft was probably the more intelligent of the Holmes brothers, so how has it taken until now for someone to redress the adventurous balance and give Mycroft the limelight his intellect has always deserved? Clearly, part of the reason lies with Conan-Doyle himself, who always characterised Mycroft in later life as being almost reclusive in the Diogenes Club, a semi-benign spider at the heart of a web of intrigue and intellect, of schemes and secrets touching the very highest in the land, and occasionally the world, without at any point enjoying much by way of interaction with that nasty, brutish grim environment known as Victorian England.
Abdul-Jabbar though gives us an earlier iteration of the Holmes brothers, as students at Oxford and Cambridge (you get the sense they chose a university each simply to ensure they got away from each other), and they’re rather more raucous and foul-mouthed than they were in the later-life adventures of Conan Doyle. Mycroft particularly is a rake and a scoundrel, insulting his philosophy professor at Cambridge, and outraging all manner of Victorian decency, while surreptitiously sleeping with that same professor’s wife.
We find him being obnoxious and brilliant in a world where Something Very Steampunk is occurring. Something that will appeal to fans of horror classics like Phantasm, Hellraiser and Scanners. There’s an intricate ball of metallic doom abroad, of the kind that blows your head off and brings buildings collapsing around innocent Victorian ears. And there’s a man out there who likes this glowing ball of doom very much, and appears to be immune to its cranial devastation. Any such man of course is pretty damn dangerous.
Not that Mycroft has encountered him yet. No, Abdul-Jabbar knows how to structure his storytelling, and gives us a Mycroft seeming to reap the whirlwind of his unpleasant personality – he’s due to be thrown out of his life of permanent studenthood and have to fend for himself in the big bad world, but a Professor Hirsch speaks up for him, keeping him safe. Then his brother arrives in Cambridge and all hell breaks loose. Mycroft finds himself dangling upside-down, being beaten to a pulp, and has to deduce for his life. In this first issue though, what he discovers when he breaks down the clues at his disposal manages to do the seemingly impossible – it takes Mycroft Holmes completely by surprise.
There’s a clever conceit at work in this set-up – the Mycroft of Conan Doyle is in some degree of retreat from the world. This comic-book seems bound to show us some of the adventures that will eventually lead him to crave that quiet and solitude, giving in to bodily temptation almost as a shield from the harshness of the outside world.
That gives us a stripling Mycroft Holmes, determined to live life on his own, almost roaringly self-indulgent terms, recruited to save the world against his will, that sense from the original stories, of his being lured to help the forces of the status quo so as to be allowed to get on with the life he enjoys, stamped through his personality, giving Abdul-Jabbar’s rendering of him both the hallmark of the classic version and a breath of fresh, Elementary-style air in terms of his life in the real world.
So – a storyline of steampunk gorgeousness, and a re-invention of a character that rings with both authenticity and freshness. So far, so awesome. But this is the comic-book world we’re dealing with – do the visuals deliver?
Well let’s just say this – the artwork is at least in part by Josh Cassara, lately of Noel Clarke’s debut comic-book The Troop. And there’s the magic of Luis Guerrro on colourwork. Raymond Obstfeld and Simon Bowland – both new names to us here – are also in the creative mix, and what you get is exactly what you’d hope for. You get a Victorian England in shades of dark wood and marble, mist and mystery, illuminated largely by the dynamism of the characters and the polished bronze of its steampunk elements, showing bright among its more traditional trappings. It’s a sense that deepens your appreciation of what you’re reading, this unusual brightness of the steampunk elements, which pinpoints the mystery in your mind almost subliminally. What’s more, you get a great clash of the Victorian spirits in the two Holmes brothers – Mycroft the libertine, Sherlock the ascetic, both of them lit with spectacular intelligence, but each operating in different directions. There’s a beautifully simple artistic device to help sharpen their discourse too – while each, when talking to other people, have only ordinary speech boxes, when they interact, there’s an electric outline around their speech – Mycroft’s in red, the more passionate of the two, Sherlock’s in icy, cold-hearted blue. It helps intensify and personify the charged intellectual duel of these two most extraordinary minds, and while their exchanges in this issue are relatively brief given the amount of ground covered, the crackle of their interplay helps supercharge the mid-section, and also ‘gets the Sherlock question out of the way.’ We’re not in a world here where Sherlock is minimised or doesn’t exist as the thorn in his brother’s side. It’s put up front more or less so we’re not hanging on, waiting for ‘the other brother’ to arrive. He’s here, but he’s not by any means the point. This is Mycroft Holmes’ story, and it’s absolutely compelling enough on its own merits to leave us slavering for more.
Go buy this one, and strap yourself in – it’s one to get yourself a soft leather armchair and a smoking jacket for, and on the evidence of issue #1, it could well be the non-Who Titan series of the year.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk