We’ve been talking about comics for kids a lot lately in this column. I want to continue that conversation this week, but from a different angle. Let’s face it, we’ll never all agree about whether Marvel and DC superhero comics should be focused primarily on children or grown ups or if both, in what ratio. A lot of things complicate that discussion, including the origin of superheroes as children’s literature and the varying levels of nostalgia that grown-up fans attach to that.
But what if we flip that coin over? What if we take something with origins in grown-up literature and make it for kids? Does that change the arguments? Do characters created for one demographic always have to be written with that demographic in mind? I don’t think so. I don’t think it’s true for superheroes and I don’t think it’s true for Sherlock Holmes who’s the focus of Graphic Universe’s new series On the Case with Holmes and Watson.
To be sure, Sherlock Holmes isn’t the most dramatic example of a “mature audiences” character being used for a kids’ series. He’s not exactly Ripley from Alien or Ash from Evil Dead. But he’s also not standard reading for 4th to 6th graders, the target audience for the On the Case series. And if Holmes can be rewritten for 9-year-olds, why can’t Superman be rewritten for 39-year-olds? The question shouldn’t be whether or not it can be done though. I predict that we’ll read few if any comments advocating that Holmes is a grown-up character and that he shouldn’t be adapted for children. What we need to be figuring out is how to tell the story so well that neither group feels unwanted.
The ideal superhero comic is neither so dark as to put off parents nor so tame that it’s unattractive to discerning readers. (I still maintain that there’s room for especially dark and especially tame versions, but those should be published only in imprints; not the main line.) The ideal Sherlock Holmes adaptation for kids has to be faithful enough to the original story that parents will feel like they’re sharing the real thing with their children, but simplified enough that kids can follow the story. Which is exactly what the On the Case volumes do.
In each book, Murray Shaw and MJ Cosson adapt an Arthur Conan Doyle short story with European-looking art by Sophie Rohrbach. Her drawings are fun and interesting for kids, but also attractive to adults. Holmes often looks friendly and even comical, but he’s got an intensity that fans will recognize and he can become quite serious when he’s closing in on a criminal. Watson is always helpful and jolly, just as he should be.
The writing keeps a nice balance too. Shaw and Cosson let Rohrbach do most of the descriptive work through the art, so there’s not a lot of nineteenth-century narrative to work through. What’s left is the dialogue, which is Victorian enough to sound authentic, but substitutes modern terms for older expressions. (That applies to the story titles too, so that “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” becomes "The Adventure of the Blue Gem" in Volume Three.)
Also pleasing to varying ages is all the supplemental material that goes into each book. Volumes begin with a labeled map of the locations in the story and an illustrated list of characters. Immediately following the stories are sections on “How Did Holmes Solve It?” and a bibliography for further reading.
The “How Did Holmes Solve It?” page is what puts readers “On the Case” with the detectives. Before I read the books I’d hoped for a more interactive experience in which readers got to try to solve the case alongside Holmes and Watson, but sadly that’s not it. Putting aside those expectations though, the How’d He Do It page is a good idea. Readers may not get to figure clues out as they pop up in the story, but this feature lists all the key points in the investigation and allows the reader to experience it again from Holmes’ perspective.
The Further Reading section lists both books and websites on a variety of topics: from Holmes himself to story-specific subjects like weird monarchs for “A Scandal in Bohemia,” tall ships in “The Adventure at the Abbey Grange,” and holiday stories (and geese and gemstones) for “The Adventure of the Blue Gem.”
Besides the lack of in-story interactivity, the only other thing I scratched my head over was some of the stories chosen for early volumes. Volume One is “A Scandal in Bohemia,” which is a favorite of fans, but not the best introduction to Holmes. The crime’s not very juicy and worse than that, Holmes – though very clever – doesn’t even succeed in solving it. The second volume, “The Adventure of the Abbey Grange,” does involve a murder, but there’s a twist to it that – while making it exciting for fans who are familiar with the Holmes formula – makes it another non-typical story. It’s not until Volume Three and the “Blue Gem” that new readers finally get a feel for what a real Holmes adventure is like.
Not that any of this was off-putting to my 8-year-old when I read these to him. We shrugged our shoulders at Holmes’ inability to solve the “Scandal” and had a nice conversation about Holmes’ actions at the end of “Abbey Grange.” And he’s now interested enough in Holmes that we’ve started into Ian Edginton and INJ Culbard’s adaptation of the considerably darker and more complicated A Study in Scarlet. We’ll also be going back for future volumes in the Graphic Universe series as they come out.
Which really, as a parent, is what this whole “comics for kids” discussion is about for me. On the Case is an excellent introduction to Holmes for young people and – at least in my son’s case – a gateway to other comics like it. Wouldn’t it be cool if we had something like that for Marvel and DC’s superheroes too?
I’m also curious: What other classic characters or stories could use a good all-ages comic to introduce them to a new generation of readers? Or, which all-ages adaptations of classic stories have you already read that are especially good? I’ll throw Sterling’s All-Action Dracula out as the first example.