Arthur Conan Doyle's first Sherlock Holmes novel, "A Study in Scarlet," also featured the debut of the Baker Street Irregulars. A loose-knit collective of street urchins who aided Holmes in his investigations, the group rarely rated more than a walk-on cameo in Doyle's stories. This March, a new generation of Irregulars comes to Holmes' aid in solving more perplexing, supernatural mysteries in writer Roger Langridge and artist Andy Hirsch's "The Baker Street Peculiars," a new ongoing series from BOOM! Studios' all-ages KaBOOM! imprint.
In the latest iteration of the Holmes mythology, Sherlock Holmes isn't an actual person. He's the creation of Mrs. Hudson, a housekeeper who writes about the fictional Holmes -- under the pen name of John Watson -- and solves real crimes in disguise. When a stone lion comes to life in 1930s London, "Holmes" will need all the help he can get from Rajani, Humphrey and Molly -- three very different kids from three very distinct backgrounds who will explore the city's supernatural underbelly. CBR News spoke with Langridge and Hirsch about the genesis of the new sleuth series, the mutability of the Holmes legend, and the importance of crafting strong and diverse heroes.
CBR News: Sherlock Holmes himself is a popular and timeless character, but where did "The Baker Street Peculiars" originate?
Roger Langridge: Last year, BOOM! asked me if I had any ideas I wanted to pitch, and mentioned that they had an eye open for a gang of kid detectives if I had anything in that line rattling around in a notebook. It was a case of Word Association Domino-Toppling after that: "detective" made me think of Sherlock Holmes, then the Baker Street Irregulars, and finally a supernatural twist to give us a fresh angle. The details took a bit longer to flesh out, but that was the genesis of the basic idea.
Shifting to the cast itself, I wanted to discuss how they were both developed and designed given how different they are from one another. Rajani Malakar is Bengali, which was a British colony in the time this series s set, and brings the cynic's eye to the group dynamic. What else does she bring?
Langridge: I wanted to give them all different backgrounds, not just in terms of ethnicity, but also class, because British society then and now is really riven with class divisions. So Rajani is the member of our cast who is at the bottom of the class pecking order, who has never not known poverty and hardship. At first, she's naturally antagonistic to the others, who (to her eyes) live lives of unearned privilege. It's only after they get to know one another that she sees the others, particularly posh-boy Humphrey, as human beings rather than representatives of their class. That journey is true for all of them to some extent, but particularly for Rajani, whose reduction of the rest of the population to potential "marks" has been her means of survival up until now.
Andy Hirsch: Living on the streets, Rajani makes do with cast-off (or stolen) clothing -- a little battered, with too-long sleeves and pant legs rolled up out of the way -- scruffy all around. Acting is a huge part of the characters' visuals as well, and I try to focus on that as much as the designs themselves. Rajani knows her way around London like none of the others, so when they're darting through alleys and scrambling over rooftops, she's agile and confident. When it comes to conversation, though, she's aloof and grumpy, generally keeping her distance from the others physically as well as emotionally.
Humphrey Fforbes-Davenport seems, on the surface, the comedy relief. His dialogue reads like a collection of generic upper crust Britishisms -- "Jolly nice meeting you two gels, what?" -- and he projects a general foppishness, but he's brave and he has a bit of a sense of humor about himself, doesn't he?
Langridge: I based Humphrey on P.G. Wodehouse's Bertie Wooster to a large degree, because I love those books so very much. And Humphrey, like Bertie Wooster, is a character who would be insufferable to most of us if he didn't have the saving grace of being deeply, fundamentally kind; kind to his very bones. It's quite difficult to make the upper classes sympathetic, but old P.G. managed it. When in doubt writing Humphrey, I ask myself what Bertie would do.
Hirsch: Humphrey's the smiling sort -- maybe it's his nature, maybe it's naivete, or maybe he's just happy to be away from bullying classmates. He's kind, open, and doesn't seem to be judging his cohorts harshly at all. Everything about his look is meant to be nonthreatening. Boarding school is all he's ever known, so it's only appropriate that he never be out of his uniform (or even his ridiculous short pants). Similarly, the ever professional Wellington -- valet, not pet -- is never far from his side.
Molly Rosenberg is the one who piques Holmes/Hudson's interest in taking them on as assistants. She's not overt and has no agenda, but intuitively addresses how women are held back in society and now allowed to pursue their interests. What's her role among the trio?
Langridge: She's kind of the middle-class one; her grandfather has his own business, they're neither very rich nor very poor. She's not so well-off that she can do whatever she wants with her life without effort, but not so poor that her earning an income as soon as she can is crucial to their survival; she values books and learning and education, and can see access to those things within her grasp, but just out of reach, accessible only with luck and effort and persuasion. She's the group's nominal leader-among-equals, I suppose; the one who can see the bigger picture, and the one who bridges the gap between the other two.
Hirsch: Molly is a lot of energy bundled up in a small body, and she has so much admiration for Sherlock Holmes that she can contain it no better than her bow can contain her hair. She's endlessly enthusiastic and always at the front of the pack -- a good thing, too, because with those short legs of hers we'd never be able to see her in back.
How active a part of the story and cast will Mrs. Hudson/Holmes be?
Langridge: The Conan Doyle-inspired part of the cast is sort of a catalyst more than anything -- essential for the kids to come together, and someone to push against, but not really front and center. I did want the book to be about the kids; Sherlock Holmes gets quite enough attention in popular culture! That said, he's a constant background presence, and I suppose a hook to get people to look at the book to begin with.
Another smaller part was reporter Hetty Jones -- will she be a recurring presence? Her inquisitiveness could put Holmes/Hudson in a compromising position. And because I'm curious, is there any significance to her being named after the poet?
Langridge: I was not aware there was a poet with that name! Her part kind of grew as I was writing the book; I originally threw a reporter character in there so I could get a bit of exposition across in an interesting and humorous way, but about halfway through I saw how she could be thematically useful, being a career woman and all, so I built up her part a bit more. She'll keep popping up like a bad penny. Maybe I should have called her Penny!
The question of how women are portrayed in comics has become a major topic of online debate in recent years. This series features two women in key roles, two women as major supporting characters and just one fella in the main cast. Were these issues on your minds as you developed the series?
Langridge: Very much so. I read someone, somewhere (I forget where) making the comment that the world really doesn't need another white, straight male hero; we're already drowning in those. I took that sentiment to heart. I was also thinking that, being an all-ages, non-superhero book, our audience is less likely to be the standard comic book store cliche of the middle-aged white guy and more likely to be a bit more diverse. All of those factors came into play.
Hirsch: It's downright irresponsible not to consider issues of representation. At the most basic level, having a deeper cast of female characters puts less pressure on each to somehow represent half the population. They're allowed to be individuals with flaws, merits, and simple quirks all their own. This lets us explore group dynamics that are less common, especially for a period piece, and is a positive way to stand out from so much other Holmes material.
Holmes did sometimes rely on a network of street urchins in Doyle's stories, but I can't recall any of them rating a name or even more than a passing description. Did any of these characters come from snippets in Doyle?
Langridge: Not really; possibly, in broad terms, Rajani the street thief fits the mold, but only in as much as she's a recognizable type; nothing specific about her came from the books. They're originals!
Hirsch: I think the only piece I lifted from Doyle for our core group's visuals was to make Wellington the same breed of dog as Toby, a spaniel/lurcher mix. I don't think Toby wore a little backpack, though.
Sherlock Holmes maybe doesn't come up as often as other iconic lunchbox characters, but he's been a mainstay of film, television, literature and comics for longer than just about any major pop culture character. He has immediately recognizable iconography with the pipe and deerstalker hat. What keeps creators coming back to him, and how exciting is it to view his world from such a fresh angle?
Langridge: One very obvious reason people keep returning to the Holmesian well is that the books are in the public domain. Here's this iconic character that everybody in the world has heard of, and you don't have to ask anybody else's permission to tell stories about him! I'm sure that's a big part of it. And then there's the character of Holmes itself: we always see him in the books from Watson's point-of-view, his inner life largely a closed book to us, so we can project a lot of ourselves on to him to fill in the gaps; consequently he's open to a wide variety of interpretations, none more or less valid than any of the others. If we want to believe he's a callous sociopath, we can; if we'd prefer to think of him as fundamentally compassionate, with a gruff exterior, that works too, because there's nothing in the text to contradict it. We can all have our own Sherlock Holmes.
Hirsch: Yeah, thank goodness for the public domain, and may it always expand. Tackling Holmes from a new angle is much more interesting (and infinitely less stressful) to me than trying to adhere strictly to canon. There's that familiar base, something people are already comfortable with, but then we get to explore new character types, new mysteries, and, you know, monsters.
You're both fairly prolific. Are there any other projects on your plates at the moment?
Langridge: I'm currently writing and drawing a 12-page "Doctor Who" strip for the UK's long-running "Doctor Who Magazine," as well as web-serializing a long-form story, "The Iron Duchess," featuring my Fred the Clown character, on ZCO.MX (updating every Monday, folks!), and doing a four-panel daily on my blog at www.hotelfred.com for as long as I can keep it up. Plus a couple of other bits and pieces that I can't talk about at the moment!
Hirsch: I wrapped it before starting "Peculiars" in earnest, but my graphic novel "Varmints" will be coming out this September from First Second. It's an all-ages western, and I can't wait to talk more about it closer to release.
"The Baker Street Peculiars" #1 debuts March 9 from BOOM! Studios.