Drawing The Detective: Campbell on Sherlock Holmes

Gathering the story of how artist Aaron Campbell came to draw Dynamite's May-launching "Sherlock Holmes" series presents almost as many small clue-rific details as one of the legendary detective's cases. Luckily, Campbell spilled the beans on his back story for CBR News, so we didn't have to sleuth up all the info ourselves.

"I knew at the age of seven that I wanted to be an artist, and as a kid all I cared about was drawing comics," explained Campbell, whose way to comic books took a slightly byzantine path in the long run, one worth following to: After shifting focus from comics to illustration at the Maryland Institute, College of Art and then at New York's School of Visual Arts, Campbell worked as a cover artist and illustrator for publications like "The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction," various role playing game companies, and Eos Books. But when he got back around to his first love, the gig came at the hands of some of his earliest comic book cronies.

"Do you remember that show that used to be on Discovery called 'Connections' where this old British man would come on and tell you why peanut butter is somehow the reason we have space flight or something crazy like that? Well my story is a bit like that except in my case it was Dungeons and Dragons that lead to my working for Dynamite," Cambell said. "Back in college I overheard a couple people that I was socially acquainted with talking about a D&D campaign they were involved in. I grew up playing and was eager to get back into it, so I asked them if there was room for one more. They directed me to Fil, who I knew from the illustration department, he directed to the DM, his roommate Rob. I asked if he had room for one more, he said sure, I rolled up a character, and Rob and Fil and I have been good friends ever since.

"Well, Rob and Fil have both gone on to have successful careers in comics. Rob is Robert Randle, brand manager at Diamond Comics and Fil is Filip Sablik, publisher at Top Cow. Rob and I, a few years back, started working on a creator-owned project for Archaia, and last summer at San Diego I showed the work to Fil, who introduced me to Nick [Barrucci] at Dynamite. So there you have it. And they say D&D leads to no good!"

Where "Sherlock Holmes" leads, as written by the duo of Leah Moore and John Reppion, is into an all-new adventure titled "The Trial of Sherlock Holmes," which Aaron Campbell prepared for by revising the look of the classic detective. "First of all, I wanted to start from scratch, get rid of all the cliches and go back to the source," he said. "The Holmes we all think of today actually took a long time to evolve. If you look at the original illustrations of Sherlock by Sidney Paget that appeared in 'The Strand Magazine' when Doyle was writing the stories, he looked like any other Victorian gentleman. So I started from there.

"I see Holmes as the type of man that is fastidious in his appearance yet doesn't want to draw attention to himself through ostentation, so I'm keeping his dress modest. There will be no deerstalkers or Inverness overcoats and magnifying glasses. I didn't want to completely defy tradition though. I try to stay true to the basic look of Sherlock, the thin build, widow's peak, long face, and piercing eyes. And if you really know your stuff you should be able to pick up on little references I make to mementos from the stories."

Campbell won't be comparing and contrasting his take on Holmes to that of cover artist John Cassaday. "It's a great honor for me to be working with such a revered artist on my very first published book," Campbell said. "I can't imagine anyone more appropriate to be drawing the covers. I haven't had a chance to talk with John about the project or characters but I think it's important that the Sherlock he draws remains his own. We're different artists with different approaches and fans are going to want to see Cassaday's Holmes on those covers. It just adds another level of diversity to the book. "

When it comes to the story content itself, Campbell lighted upon his writers' take on the material immediately. "After reading the script for issue #1, I couldn't wait for #2. I think that those looking for a faithful interpretation will find all the hallmarks that make the original tales so intriguing and yet they bring a distinct voice to the story that gives it modern relevance and adds depth to all the characters."

Campbell noted that for the finished artwork, the devil is in the details -- as with all mystery thrillers, which fit his style to a T. "My work has always been about the details, the little nuances that give a sense of life and history to the characters. In a story like this it is especially important because it is very much character driven and characters are more than just the sum of their physical appearances. Holmes wouldn't be Holmes unless he lived in a cramped little Victorian apartment packed with all manner of mementos, brick-a-brack, and haberdash. These peculiar notions like his chemistry station, the violin he uses to clear his mind, and the sideboard where he keeps his whiskey and cocaine all lend depth and clarity to the character. I also really enjoy a good visual puzzle and in keeping with that classic use of foreshadowing I try to put things in the background here and there that give an indication of what is to come."

Readers can peak at Campbell's interpretation now before "Sherlock Holmes" debuts in May, from the man himself to the locations that will shape his world, including the artist's hands-down favorite New Scotland Yard. "We spend a bit of time there, as would be expected, and John and Leah are very concerned with maintaining a certain level of historical accuracy," Campbell explained. "In the history of Scotland Yard, there have been three of them. In this story, we visit the second of these incarnations, a red and white candy-cane striped edifice that is now, in the present day, known as the Norman Shaw Building, after it's original architect. I was able to find some good references of the building from a distance but not much in the way of close street level stuff. In addition, there are two buildings separated by a narrow street with arches running across that make up the whole complex. Well, in 1895, the smaller of these two buildings did not exist. So I get to add the fun task of editing that building out. In general, though, that's the biggest challenge on this book. It takes place in a very specific place and time and it's up to me to stay true to that."

Unlike his collaborators Moore & Reppion, Aaron Campbell didn't come to the series with a background in Holmes. "I've gotta come clean on this one. Before taking on this project, I had never actually read any of the Sherlock stories. I admit, it's pretty sad, especially since I'm a big fan of Victorian literature," Campbell confessed. "I had a couple months, though, to get schooled before starting the drawing and began consuming everything I could about the great detective.

"Having said that, there's not really one source I've found that sums up Sherlock for me. There is the character that Doyle created but he was kept at a bit of a distance from the audience through the voice of Watson who, in the opinion of Holmes, always dumbed down his investigations. What really started to give me a better sense of the character were the old radio broadcasts with Basil Rathbone. My connection to Sherlock became even stronger when I discovered the illustrations of Robert Fawcett in 'Harper's Weekly' from the '50s. With Rathbone I could feel the motivations of the character and with the Fawcett illustrations I could see the world he exists in. From this I started to shape my own interpretation."

"Sherlock Holmes" #1 debuts in May from Dynamite Entertainment.

EXCLUSIVE: Detective Comics #1006 Welcomes the Spectre Back to Gotham City

More in Comics