One of the recent success stories in independent comics publishing has been the acclaim for "Watson and Holmes," a book which takes the original concept of Sherlock Holmes and drags it into the current day. Set in Harlem, with African-American leads and a focus on Watson as the protagonist, the series is published by New Paradigm Studios. Winning four Glyph awards and receiving an Eisner nomination this year, the book was co-created by Brandon Perlow and Paul Mendoza, written by Karl Bollers, and drawn by Rick Leonardi. With the first storyline now collected in trade, the team have taken to Kickstarter to help raise funds to publish the next set of stories.
The upcoming issues are designed differently from the ones which comprise the first collection, with a whole raft of new creators coming onboard to tell a series of one-shot tales with the characters. Brandon Easton, N. Steven Harris, Steven Grant, long-time CBR columnist Hannibal Tabu, Dennis Calero, Lyndsay Faye and Eli Powell are all lined up to take a turn in the world of Watson and Holmes should the Kickstarter succeed, and to find out more, CBR News spoke with Perlow, Mendoza, Leonardi and a number of the other creators involved in this new take on the classic characters about their plans for the series.
"Watson and Holmes" is set in the present day, in America, and with African-American leads. Where did the idea for the series first come from?
Brandon Perlow: My initial question was why hasn't this been done before. When I think of '70s-late -80s urban crime dramas, I thought it could be a cool direction.
Paul Mendoza: Same! My initial thought, when we were conceiving of this, was, how has this been missed? The idea from that point formed pretty quickly. So many of the elements of the original books were relevant to today, and easily transferred to a more urban setting.
How does the change in context for the two leads change the "classic" dynamic of the characters?
Perlow: The original Watson is a classic sidekick, I think the archetype. We are pushing it so that it's a partnership. Watson brings a little more to the table this time. Sherlock will always be impressive.
Mendoza: Right off the bat, we wanted a more even footing between the two. So often, Watson has a helpless element to him, and we thought that in the modern world, we needed a more active Watson. One that was still as intelligent, as he would have to be as a pre-med, but also a capable soldier; so we went with him being a Pararescueman and Afghan vet.
Why Watson and Holmes, rather than Holmes and Watson? What made you want to flip the traditional pairing, so Watson took the lead?
Rick Leonardi: In the original Conan Doyle [stories], Holmes is presented as a unique example of his discipline: not just the world's best consulting detective, but pretty much the world's only one as well. Watson fills the role of sidekick: Enough of a doctor to provide first aid, enough of a man of action to be useful in a pinch, enough of a writer to bring the adventures of his curious friend to the world's intrigued attention.
In our updated version, Watson is former USAF CSAR. He's both a skilled emergency surgeon and highly-trained combat veteran, and is able to play a much richer, more prominent role. Because police science and forensics have made such enormous strides since ACD's day, it's not enough for our modern Holmes to be a clever chap; our Holmes has to be shrewder than whole labs full of CSI types. The cases he accepts can't be matters the cops are perfectly able to resolve for themselves.
Instead, our guys take on the cases that sit in the blind spots of the regular police department, the ones that are too complicated, too deep with unforeseen consequences for anyone but Holmes to grasp. Or, on the other hand, the ones that are so personal, so human-scaled they need the compassion of Dr Watson.
Perlow: The story is generally told from Watson's POV, but our Watson is more get up and go, and will take some initiative. Sherlock is such a powerful and dynamic character, he often overwhelms Watson. Having a physically superior and confident Watson balances things out.
Mendoza: The title makes sense as the narrative is his. We wanted to focus a little more on Watson's story, tie it just as closely to the stakes of the book events as Sherlock's story.
The characters have been ever-present, for decades and decades, in TV, film and comics. What do you think has kept the pairing so relevant for so long? What remains the key appeal of their dynamic as characters?
Leonardi: Sherlock Holmes might just be the most successful franchise in English literature. The Tarzan folks might quibble, the King Arthur types may demur, but when you consider just how many iterations, interpretations, derivations, lifts and rip-offs Holmes has supported, across a myriad of media (I don't think there's a Sherlock Holmes ballet, but I could be wrong), it's hard to argue there's an archetype that's more exploited.
Just consider the present: we have the ongoing Robert Downey movie version, the Benedict Cumberbatch BBC version, the Tommy Lee Miller CBS version, "House MD" and "The Mentalist." iBooks alone offers at least three hundred separate Holmes-related titles. One entire comic book publishing company owes its name to a character WHO is a fairly obvious Holmes homage. And now, of course, there's "Watson and Holmes."
It's fascinating to speculate just why the characters have such perennial appeal. My pet theory is that Holmes implicitly makes a seductive promise to his readers -- that if we are mindful enough of the world around us, keep our eyes open to small details, notice everything and assume nothing, then the senseless randomness of the world will vanish and be replaced by a perfectly logical, "elementary" pattern that was there all along.
Holmes says to us that things happen for reasons we can understand, with outcomes we can anticipate, if only we pay close enough attention.
Who doesn't wish that was true?
Perlow: They are the original "dynamic duo." It seems every character with a sidekick -- Lone Ranger, Zorro and Batman -- is copied or inspired from Sherlock Holmes. I think Sherlock has always been timeless, as he and Watson can always be reimagined in other times-places. Sherlock as the genius detective who can do superhuman things with his mind is something inspirational for people who are smart, and something to aspire to.
Watson is someone who's worked hard to be a doctor, and did his duty in the military. He's a heroic character that's there to keep Sherlock on point. He does serve as a "compass" sometimes.
Karl Bollers: Sherlock Holmes and John Watson have remained culturally relevant for over a century because they were the first template for the idea of the crime solving duo that we've seen play out in fiction ever since. The key appeal to such a pairing is in noting the contrasts and similarities between the characters.
Mendoza: Aside from people always loving a good mystery, Sherlock's appeal is in his intellect, his eye for detail and the conclusions and judgments he makes gives readers a sense of satisfaction, especially when he has occasionally disregarded a legal stance over a moral call.
Have you found that the transition has deepened any of the core themes of the books? There was always the sense that London was a "character" in the original books, and Harlem seems like a natural successor to that role.
Brandon Easton: I used to teach at Thurgood Marshall Academy in central Harlem, so I was able to tap into the zeitgeist of the neighborhood and the people to add a level of authenticity to the story. I lived in NYC for six years -- in fact, I moved to Manhattan in February 2002, not too long after the 9/11 attacks, and I got to see a very different side of the city. I got to watch New York rebuild itself from the ashes of the attack. It was a very different place than the late 1990s New York I was accustomed to.
If you never got the chance to spend time in the "old" New York, then you've missed out on one of the greatest cultures in the history of mankind. There will never be another place quite like that again. I figured I would use Watson's commentary to contrast Harlem from a pre-gentrification mindset. Although Watson enjoys the "new" Harlem, he knows there's still a lot of work to be done.
Mendoza: The core theme of Sherlock's autonomy is going to have to be finessed a bit, as it is going to have to rely far more on the respect he holds as an outside consultant via a non-bumbling, and very capable Leslie Stroud -- our "Lestrade" -- and I so totally agree with NYC being a character, same as London.
Perlow: London is such a cinematic city, I can imagine what the late 19th Century was like (even though the Guy Ritchie films probably exaggerate it!). NYC right now is the most cinematic city in the USA. It has so many neighborhoods, and many have unique looks. Harlem is their "home base" and that's where they spend most of their time.
Harlem has a great history, but it is also changing with gentrification -- hopefully that won't get lost because of it.
Does the book retell familiar stories -- "The Sign of Four," "A Study in Scarlet" and so on -- or is your goal to tell new stories with familiar characters?
Perlow: "A Study in Scarlet was" used loosely by Paul for the treatment of "A Study In Black" he gave to Karl to build upon. Lyndsay Faye is doing a modern version of "The Solitary Cyclist" and "Scandal in Bohemia" (the story introducing Irene Adler). We are going to tell original stories, and redo the original ones that we think can work.
Mendoza: And don't forget that Karl will eventually be releasing the Hounds!
The new trade will feature a series of one-shot stories, following on the initial five-issue arc. What made you want to move forward in this direction, and bring in different writers and artists to offer their take on the pair?
Perlow: At the time, Karl was busy with other work, and his schedule would not allow for his next arc to be done quickly. Having one-shots would allow us to develop the characters and lead us to V3 to his next arc, which he has completed the outline for. Karl has been looking over the writers work in development of V2 to keep them on point. If the Kickstarter surpasses expectations, we could have Karl start his next arc.
What can readers expect from this second trade?
Perlow: We'll have the Eisner-nominated "Mr and Mrs Gemini" by Brandon Easton and N. Steven Harris; A story by Steven Grant, Hannibal Tabu and Dennis Calero taking the duo to Rockford, Illinois; and "The Solitary Cyclist" by Lyndsay Faye and Eli Powell.
We want to also have "Scandal in Bohemia," written by Lyndsay Faye with art by N. Steven Harris, if it makes a stretch goal. The better it does, the more we will add. We have a few inventory stories we want to use. The books will be signed and have extra material that the stores won't have.
How did you pick the various creative teams? Did you have them pitch to you, or did you approach them with the concept?
Perlow: I always wanted a project to work with Brandon Easton, as I have followed his work and writing columns over the years. When I approached him, I pretty much told him to write a cool story, as long as it was one issue. His pitch was incredible, and pretty much let him run with it.
I knew Lyndsay from "The Baker Street Babes." She's hugely knowledgeable of Sherlock Holmes and is part of the Baker Street Irregulars as well. We wanted her to take a shot at the Irene Adler Story with some ideas we gave her. We loved her treatment, but the story would be longer than a one-shot. So she wrote a new version of the "Solitary Cyclist," and our editor Zack Rosenberg found Eli Powell -- a recent graduate of SVA -- to do the work.
Hannibal, Steven, Dennis and N. Steven were found by our Senior Editor Justin Gabrie. He assembled those talents to the teams. Hannibal and N. Steven pitched their story to us, and we liked that it took the duo out of their comfort zone.
Mendoza: Yep! This was based pretty much on wanting to work with people whose projects you read and admired-- perfect excuse! I have been a fan of these guys, Bollers, Easton, Harris, Stroman, Leonardi -- good lord! I mean, these guys are terrific.
What are the premises of each story?
Hannibal Tabu: The premise of our story is that the titular duo takes a road trip after one of Watson's army buddies goes missing. This leads to tangling with the Department of Defense, driving through the night, struggling with emotional baggage and Holmes cracking jokes while longing for pie.
I jumped at the chance to work with Steven Grant, whose G.I. Joe and Punisher stories inspired me as a child. I wanted to study his method, and I learned some great things about pacing and storytelling in comics that my own academic studies and experience couldn't do.
Then, to add in Dennis Calero, who made the future so bright with Supergirl and the Legion, well, it was an amazing opportunity for me, after winning the Top Cow Talent Hunt, to improve my craft and tell an interesting story about places that sometimes don't get spotlighted.
Lyndsay Faye: We have multiple modern adaptations of Sherlock Holmes right now, which is frankly a throwback to the giddy heyday of the Basil Rathbone anti-Nazi films, which were totally contemporary. It's a sixties, seventies, eighties, and nineties conceit that Holmes needs to be Victorian -- he doesn't.
Prior to that, he was very often set in the present. He's like Shakespeare that way. So I what I adored about Watson and Holmes is this idea that you're not tied to era, so why are you tied to race? I loved it.
Additionally, of late Watson is becoming more and more of a "dude in distress" figure, and that's not the ethos of the original stories. Watson brings the service revolver, Watson is the army veteran, Watson is the medical doctor. I have nothing negative to say about Jude Law or Martin Freeman or Lucy Liu, but all of them are often subsumed by Holmes's brilliance, or used as emo bait to nail him.
These New Paradigm guys are writing Watson as he really lived and breathed in the Doyle canon--"What are you doing, you magnificent bastard," and "No, I will not be tolerating your shit," and "Step aside, I'm a better shot than you."
My issue of Watson and Holmes is based on "The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist," because while I loved the original stories New Paradigm was creating, I wanted to do one based on Doyle's originals. There's a very thinly-veiled assault scenario in that one, and I just found so many parallels between the newly empowered Victorian bicyclists and the rickshaw ladies -- my friend made a living that way for a while -- in NYC. And the Watson and Holmes dude are all feminists, so we get on like a forest fire.
I was so honored that they asked me to do the Irene Adler story. It's going to be longer than average, but they wanted to do it justice, and they wanted a feminist to finally write this story. Rachel McAdams was fridged (we think), Lara Pulver was saved -- screw that, those actresses were too brilliant to be subjected to those plot devices.
This Irene is all about writing her own story. She's an indie-rock Dominicana princess, and much more like Doyle's Adler than recent adaptations.
Brandon Easton: I was approached out of the blue to work on "Watson and Holmes" #6. It's always an honor for people to take a chance on you with the amazing opportunity of writing a one-shot from a newly established brand. The thing was, I'd never written a mystery or a procedural story in my life and I knew it was going to be a heck of challenge to figure out how to craft a compelling and entertaining story in the span of 22 pages that had to initiate, investigate and solve a crime. It was an unprecedented narrative situation for me, and I won't pretend I wasn't terrified before sitting down to write page one.
What I wanted to do was frame the story in the context of several major issues of our time: Human trafficking, transgender awareness and sexual experimentation among the political elite. Since the "Watson and Holmes" milieu is set in the modern gentrified Harlem, it made sense to have the story center around a Harlem politician who's fighting to keep the neighborhood affordable for the original Black residents while improving their quality of life.
Then -- BAM! -- his wife turns up dead at the base of a cliff on the Hudson River. This politician would drive a slight wedge between Watson and Holmes because Watson idolizes the politician for helping to clean up Harlem without demonizing the working class population, while Holmes just sees him as a murder suspect.
For the other side of the story, I approached it as a straight guy who has many friends in the LGBT community. I remember them always discussing their "secret" lovers from the social elite of Manhattan, who hide their proclivities from the rest of society. One of my gay friends told me of nightclubs in Greenwich Village specifically set up for secret rendezvous, and I felt that was a gold mine for future stories.
So I came up with the concept of a Harlem politician and his wife, who had a secret relationship with a transgendered woman who was trafficked into the U.S. from Central America as a teen. That transgendered woman would owe her traffickers a considerable debt in order to buy her freedom, and the only way she could get the money would be from blackmailing the politician and his wife. It's a messy, complicated but ultimately real situation that happens more often that you think. Not so much the extortion scheme -- but the prevalence of human trafficking, prostitution and indentured servitude.
After I turned in the script, I hoped that I wouldn't offend anyone and that I managed to scrape together a decent story that would please the New Paradigm Studios team and the "Watson and Holmes" fanbase. Luckily, everyone seemed to love what I did, and when N. Steven Harris' art began to arrive in my inbox, I knew we'd created something special. However, I had no idea it would lead to an Eisner Award nomination. I'm still in shock over the nomination itself!
How far into the future are you looking for this series? Do you have an ending in mind, or do you want to keep telling stories for as long as you can?
Perlow: I'd love to go 50 or more issues. I have ideas for an ending -- I'd prefer it ends on a good note versus "jumping the shark" and becoming a without-end serial.
Mendoza: Yep, what he said. As long as it stays fresh, and that we're capable of keeping the Sherlockian feel on stories not based on the traditional ones, we're fine.
How have you found the process of crowdfunding a project like this? What advice would you give for anybody planning Kickstarter of their own?
Perlow: It takes a lot of work, and the hardest part is getting the word out. The response has been pretty good for the first one. I think major ex-Marvel/DC creators have a leg up on financing their Kickstarters as they are known and have a fanbase. It's really hard to get in "cold." If you have no fanbase, and just want to crowdfund, you will be likely to fail.
If the work has an amazing concept and art, and the project spreads virally, there's a possibility. But otherwise, what I have seen, not as likely. We had some minor fanbases and were known by some of the Sherlockian community. A good Sherlockian project will usually get funding -- that's the advantage of doing a new take on Sherlock Holmes or other major Public Domain stories/characters.
I think now that we have had more reviews and press, I think we can even do better on our Kickstarter this time.
The other big mistake is that people have extraordinarily large goals. No one wants to invest in an unknown person asking for 100K dollars for a project. If you ask for $5-10K, you might have a better chance of reaching your goal, and you can start getting stretch goals.
I think keeping your rewards simple, and something of decent value, will make people more likely to back you. Remember, Amazon gets 8-10%, and shipping costs can take up to a third of your project or more if sending to overseas.
Fulfilling rewards is tedious, and having "complex" rewards can take more time. For example, having a 8x10 print with a comic in an envelope is more problematic. One has to put the print on an 8x11 board precisely and butt up the comic bag and board to it. It would be simpler to make a 7x10 or comic page size print to just put inside the comic bagging board. It's the stupid little things like this which can add up to time better spent elsewhere.
"Watson and Holmes" is the first of several books from New Paradigm Studios. What other books do you have planned later this year?
Perlow: We have "World War Mob" coming out in October. It's about a group of army soldiers in WW2 Italy that desert their units, and come together on orders of their mob bosses to assassinate Mussolini. Many of these guys know each and have histories, not all good. They have to work around those issues for the bigger mission. It's currently in digital chapters on Amazon and comiXology.
"Justice is Nocturnal" is our webcomic, and the trade will be out in November. We currently have 3 chapters online, and we will have 6 for the book. The book will be colored instead of black and white, and it will have the complete story.
We intend to start "Nimbus," our flagship science fiction title, by early next year. This series I have been developing for years. Paul is working on the story and art with me. We may bring in another writer we like to help with us to do the final scripting and punch up our story.
Several of your comics have now been published digitally before heading to print -- how has the response been to that method of publication? Have you found that digital publishing has allowed you to build a bigger audience than if the books were only available in print?
Perlow: I think the "Wednesday Crowd" print audience is still the primary audience to jumpstart a book. It's good to go digital, as many folks may have hard access to shops, prefer not to collect, or prefer the cheaper price point of our digital books. I think there is potential for digital to rival floppy sales, but that might take a few years, and a change in how digital distributors like comiXology, Amazon, and Apple decide to do business. It's right now 20-30 percent of our sales.
There's been much discussion recently of the difficulties of maintaining an independent comic series like Watson and Holmes -- what has your experience been of trying to publicize the comic, build a readership, and maintain the sales necessary to allow the book to keep going?
Perlow: This is something we are continually working on, and is the main problem with independent comics without the Image or BOOM! logos. You have the big comic/nerd culture sites that are hard to reach, and sometimes are a bullhorn for Marvel/DC. I'm not sure how much is editorial mandated or paid for. The sites are click-driven, and I think it's limiting comics journalism.
Facebook's advertising works with "clicks for pay," but it doesn't really translate into sales. Again, it does help to be the "Hot" writer and artist pushing a new property.
The other problem as an independent publisher within Diamond is that we don't have FOC (final on-sale cutoff). The Big 2 and major indies like Image, Dark Horse, Valiant, BOOM!, Oni and Dynamite are given 3 weeks to have their orders increased or decreased based on customer demand/hype to the comic stores. We have an Initial Order date, meaning we have 7-8 weeks before printing to get our final orders.
So with our situation, we couldn't get coverage for the initial order, and when issue 1 came out (and sold out) we were already pre-ordered for issue 2. So we had to wait till issue 2 came out so the reprints of 1 would hit the stands. It kind of hurt our momentum.
I don't understand Diamond's reasoning for this, as everything can be done on the computer. Diamond is effectively leaving money on the table. It also makes it tougher for us to get the timely coverage. Only having 7-8 weeks is easy amount of time for folks to forget.
For example "Letter 44" (great book!) had FOC, and had coverage for that. That last minute coverage probably helped account for some good last minute sales. Diamond also charges for internal marketing to comic book stores -- they have the database and data on hand, and charge a not-so-cheap price to have it, and do something with it. These are certain issues a smaller publisher has to deal with when it comes to marketing and selling to comic stores.
I think in the long run, as fans get dissatisfied with Marvel/DC offerings, they will go elsewhere. Having recognizable characters such as Sherlock Holmes at least can get some of their fans to give us a look. Expanding from that fandom has been tougher, but slow and steady.
The "Wednesday Crowd" is quite finicky with spending their hard earned money (and rightly so), and I think one needs the right title to get them engaged on a monthly basis. There's lots of "waiting for the trades" folk too.
For us, maybe "Watson and Holmes" will come out once or twice a year as a trade, with some digital chapters released as they are made. Kickstarter and other crowdfunding allow a smaller group of fans to support a series like this. Our hope as more word of mouth hits, and more good reviews happen, is that we will get more sales. In turn, this goes to bringing talent to the book.
People don't seem to realize how much a good artist and writer will cost, with lower than "Marvel/DC" rates. We would like to eventually have a title that goes monthly floppy, but we are still working on how to best do that.
One final point is that "Watson and Holmes" has recently been optioned for a possible movie. Are you allowed to tell us anything about what's been going on behind the scenes?
Perlow: The director/producer Jeff Byrd of Feather Films is working on the script with his writer to make "A Study in Black." Depending on the situation and his investors, he may go movie of the week-pilot or make a theatrical release. We have had initial conversations recently, but pretty much, he's taking lead. We expect to look over script passes when they are done, and give notes.
The big misconception of options is that everyone gets rich on them. Suffice it to say with options -- unless you are JK Rowling or near equivalent, you don't see tractor trailers filled with money.
Mendoza: It is pretty early on, but we're excited about it and will share what news we get as we get it.