The Game’s Afoot: The Watson and Holmes Interview

Originally posted at Diamond Bookshelf

Writer Karl Bollers and comics veteran Rick Leonardi introduce a new twist to the classic Sherlock Holmes mythology with Watson and Holmes Volume 1: A Study in Black — the first volume in the series that casts Holmes and Watson as African Americans in Harlem, published by New Paradigam Studios.

Watson, an Afghanistan war vet, works in an inner-city clinic; Holmes, a local P.I. who takes unusual cases. When one of them ends up in Watson’s emergency room, the unlikely duo strike up a partnership to find a missing girl. Watson & Holmes bump heads along the way as they enter a labyrinth of drugs, guns, gangs and a conspiracy that goes higher and deeper than they could have imagined.

PREVIEWS editor Marty Grosser got a chance to talk with New Paradigm Studios’ Founder and President Brandon Perlow, along with writer Karl Bollers, about Watson and Holmes, the inspiration for their new take on the classic characters, and the state of diversity in comics today.

(Full disclosure: the Diamond Bookshelf used to be my old stomping grounds as I managed/edited it from 2004-07. Many thanks to Marty for letting us republish the interview here!)

Diamond BookShelf: Introduce us to the characters — who are Watson and Holmes?

Karl Bollers: Jon Watson is the headline act in this show and even gets top billing in the title. In previous incarnations, Watson has been viewed as the “less than” member of the crime-solving duo, but our version upends that belief, presenting a Jon Watson that is a seasoned veteran of the Afghanistan war, a skilled medical practitioner and, at 6’3″, 225 lbs… somebody whose bad side you really don’t want to get on! Sherlock Holmes’ attention to detail and near photographic memory is beyond comparison. His quest for justice is both heroic and neurotic at the same time making for a quirky, less caustic version of the character. He’s a juggernaut when it comes to finding the truth. But it’s almost as if he can’t help himself… he’s a bit OCD about it all.

How important to you was it to re-create the roles as African-Americans?

Brandon Perlow: We thought it was strange that it was never done before. All the elements are there that can work with it. Paul and I wanted to veer from the supernatural bent some Sherlock Holmes stories had, and go straight modern, hard-boiled crime. We like the Guy Ritchie movies for the action-oriented take on the characters, but didn’t want to go over-the-top. There are things we could do with the characters and plotlines down the road that actually worked better with the characters as African-Americans. There were many societal issues we could bring to the forefront by having that. Karl pretty much took what we were thinking and knocked it out of the park, adding his ideas to the lore.

Karl: When Brandon, Paul and Senior Editor Justin Gabrie offered me the chance to write a basically modern day Black incarnation of Sherlock Holmes I couldn’t help but say “yes” to such an amazing opportunity! Updating the characters, shifting their nationalities and cultural background, there were bound to be changes, but we were amazed by how much of the Arthur Conan Doyle template for the characters remained intact. Personally, I felt it was very important to reimagine the characters in this manner because we’ve seen so many other differing takes from Victorian-era action hero to alternate-reality gender-swapping of the characters. In the end, our version was no less valid.

What about the classic Sherlock Holmes tales inspired you to create your own incarnation of the characters? Was there a particular story upon which you drew your original inspiration for the concept?

Brandon: I think that all the elements and tropes of the classic Sherlock Holmes were easily reconfigured for Modern Harlem. For example, The Afghan War, The Irregulars, and the grit of the city. Move this a century and across the pond, changing the race — it works. Paul Mendoza came up with an outline loosely based on “A Study in Scarlet” for the first storyline.

What’s your current take on the comics industry and its diversity? Are there enough African-American characters in comics today? Do we need more?

Brandon: I think the Big Two are “trying.” In general the industry is too “whitewashed.” You go to any major city, it’s not 95% white. An all-around mix of folks, genders, and orientations should be reflected more in comics. It was strange for Marvel to release a Mighty Avengers team with mostly characters of color, and hire a white British writer. Not to say he’s bad or wrong for the book, but there’s some good writers like Karl, Brandon Easton, Brandon Thomas, or Geoffrey Thorne that could have been given the book. Marvel and DC know they can “get away” with doing minimal for now as most fans will buy the books as-is for now. If the fans absolutely wanted things their way, they would show it by buying or not buying what’s out there. So whatever the Big Two are doing, must be at the line of acceptability for some fans.

Karl: Like most entertainment media (except sports and music), the comics industry definitely needs to diversify for the current generation. No, there aren’t enough African-American characters in comics today. No, there aren’t enough Latino characters. The list goes on. I was talking with a non-white friend who does character designs for animation and he told me that, until very recently, whenever he designed a character he would just make the character white without even considering whether or not the character had to be white in the first place. Many of us grew up in a period where “white” was just the default setting for fictional characters and became indoctrinated into that subconscious way of thinking. I think if the industry is ever going to change, a conscious decision has to be made toward pushing for ethnic diversity. I’m not espousing the creation of a bunch of Black or Asian or Latin characters just for the sake of diversity. A good, compelling story must always take the lead — but just take a couple of examples, say Invincible from Image comics. Great, cool concept that quickly gained a following. What if Robert Kirkman had made Mark Grayson African-American? Or the Vertigo title Preacher, a book that hasn’t been on the stands for over a decade, yet it’s still relevant? Would white fans have been turned off to these extremely popular comics if the main characters had been cast as anything other than white? Just something to consider.

The first Watson and Holmes collection is available now, and apparently their future exploits will be released in original graphic novels, foregoing the single-issue format. What was the thinking behind this move, creative, economic, or a little of both?

Brandon: We will continue to release stories in web and digital comics (ComiXology, Amazon, and others) as we finish them. Having a trade format allows us to take our time and not be in the monthly grind, as well as working our PR to build for the collection. Trying to get PR and coverage on a monthly basis to get people in the shops every month is no easy task. I think one needs the right talent and book to succeed in the “Wednesday market.” I would say many of our Sherlock Holmes fans for example do not go to comic book stores frequently, and prefer a trade, especially the older ones. The “floppy” format works better for the Big Two titles, licensed properties, and big Image creators. It’s a model that’s more economically viable after expenses for those companies as it’s easier to recoup production and printing costs immediately. Trades end up being extra money for them. Occasionally they’ll be a Saga or something that hits monthlies and trades astronomically. I think we will also continue to use Kickstarter to help fund and promote our titles. It’s very viable now. I know Diamond was talking about fulfillment solutions for Kickstarter, and the company’s abilities would make that a great match.

When can we expect the second Watson and Holmes graphic novel? Can you expand upon the storyline at all?

Brandon: I would say summer of this year at earliest. The next book would have individual stories versus a long storyline. We will have “chapters” released throughout the year digitally and online. Issue #6 done by Brandon Easton and N. Steven Harris (released in stores back in December), Issue #7 by Steven Grant-Hannibal Tabu and Dennis Calero will be in it. We have a one-shot story based on a classic Sherlock Holmes story written by Lyndsay Faye (writer of Dust and Shadow, Gods of Gotham, and Seven for A Secret) and she will write a multi-chapter Irene Adler story. We will also consider adding the Chuck Dixon and John Ostrander stories as well. All these stories will build on the relationship between Watson and Holmes and add to the next storyline written by Karl Bollers. Karl is overseeing the other stories to make sure they are “on model” and to add little things that lead to his story.

Larry Stroman came on for Watson and Holmes’ “epilogue” in the first story arc, bringing with him his unique style and previous experiences in comics. How has it been working with Larry and his take on these exciting new characters?

Brandon: It was great. I really did not have to do much. Credit to my editorial team! I loved his work on X-Factor when I was younger, so to have him follow up on Rick (Leonardi) was amazing. It’s like having Ruth with Gehrig on clean-up!

You’ve been given carte blanche to produce a theatrical film adaptation of Watson & Holmes. Who do you cast in the major roles of the consulting detective, his companion, and their supporting cast?

Brandon: I’d love Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def) as Sherlock. After I saw him on Dexter, I thought he would be amazing as Holmes. I also like Anthony Mackie as well. Chiwetel Ejiofor and Chadwick Boseman would be great too. For Watson I’d say David Ramsay of Arrow. Yeah it’s a bit typecast, but he’s got the right look and would play it right.

Karl: Pretty much named the choices I would! 🙂

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