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Graphic Novel Review

Book Cover

The Complete Season One Manga


Writers: Steven Moffat, Steve Thompson and Mark Gatiss
Artist: Jay.
Publisher: Titan Comics
RRP: UK £29.99, US $38.99
Age: 12+
ISBN: 978 1 78586 878 8
688 pages
Publication Date: 06 November 2018

Adapting the first series of the smash-hit Hartswood Films television show starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock and Martin Freeman as John, this fantastic slipcase edition brings together A Study in Pink, The Blind Banker and The Great Game in manga format. Consulting detective Sherlock Holmes and Dr John Watson tackle brain-teasing crimes in modern-day London in this stunning collection, which is presented in its original right-to-left reading order, and in the full chapters as originally serialised…

As a boxed set of graphic novel compilations of monthly comic book versions of an English translation of a Japanese manga adaptation of a 2010 television reimagining of the adventures of a Victorian prose character created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, there was a danger that this new edition of the first series of Sherlock might end up being far removed from its source material. Is it an adaptation too far? Not a bit of it.

Meet Holmes and Watson for the first time – all over again! Sherlock and John embark on their first mission together as they investigate a curious spate of suicides…

In fact, this feels more like a homecoming for Holmes, as the stories return to their native language – in so doing driving home just how closely the artist / adapter Jay. has adhered to the scripts of Steven Moffat, Steve Thompson and Mark Gatiss. Occasionally the sequence of events differs from the way in which they unfolded on screen (for example, the graphic novel of A Study in Pink opens with the first three apparent suicides and the press conferences regarding them, rather than our introduction to John Watson, which takes place later in the opening chapter), but essentially this collection tells the whole story of Series 1 in full detail.

In contrast to the comic-book adaptations of screen works that we tend to get in the West, which seldom exceed 64 pages, each volume boasts around 200 pages of strip (with sketches and cover variants from the individual monthly issues interspersed between the chapters and at the back of each book). This allows time to include every line of dialogue from the television scripts, as well as moments of quiet reflection, especially from the baffled and traumatised John. Regular visitors to this site may have read my comments about Titan’s Doctor Who: The Fourth Doctor mini-series, which I criticised for being too slow-moving and lacking in action. There is no contradiction here. When a comic is 22 pages, as Western comic books often are, the story needs to develop quickly, otherwise nothing much will have happened by the time the issue is over. However, when a serialisation averages around 32 pages per chapter, as this one does, you can afford to pause for a moment as John gazes sadly at his walking stick or at the empty page of his blog (the point of this scene, after all, being that nothing ever happens to him) or as Sherlock slowly cracks a smile.

The likenesses of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman have been ‘manga-ised’, but remain immediately recognisable, as does Mark Gatiss as the mysterious ‘M’. There’s a hint of John Steed about the latter character, as we first behold this decidedly dapper figure leaning casually on an umbrella. On the other hand, Detective Inspector Lestrade is sometimes hard to distinguish from John, while Mrs Hudson doesn’t look much like Una Stubbs – but is nevertheless unmistakable due to her personality and location.

Of course, anyone who has seen Sherlock will already know the identity of ‘M’, but to the uninitiated he is cunningly introduced, seeming more like a master criminal than anything else. “I am the closest thing to a friend that Sherlock Holmes is capable of having,” he tells John, “An enemy.” He asks the doctor to spy on Sherlock for him, because, “I worry about him, constantly.” What is clear is that this character is on the same mental level as Sherlock, a sort of kindred spirit. He can be as hurtfully rude to John as Sherlock can: “Bravery is by far the kindest word for stupidity, don’t you think?” He also betrays a love for the dramatic, even while accusing Sherlock of the same, and correctly deduces that John’s condition is not post-traumatic stress disorder at all.

Meanwhile, Sherlock shows as much indolence as the prose version of Holmes would attribute to his brother, summoning John from the other side of London rather than get up from his comfortable position on the couch. He could have asked Mrs Hudson, he explains, but “she’s downstairs. I tried shouting, but she didn’t hear.” Lines such as these, and Sherlock’s salacious comments about Sergeant Donovan’s unusual deodorant and the state of her knees, come across just as well in print as they did on screen. Elsewhere, John is aghast that his colleague is having so much fun. “There’s a woman lying dead,” he reminds him. “Perfectly sound analysis,” remarks Sherlock, “but I was hoping you’d go deeper.”

On the other hand, the hilarity over Sherlock’s improvised salutation, “Welcome to London”, after he and John challenge the wrong suspect in the back of a taxi, doesn’t really work on the page. And perhaps the most famous line from A Study in Pink – “I’m not a psychopath, Anderson. I’m a high functioning sociopath. Do your research” – is rather spoiled by the fact that, in psychiatric terms, Sherlock isn’t either of those things. On this occasion, it’s Steven Moffat who should have done his research.

There is some confusion towards the end of the graphic novel, as a photograph that turns out to show the villain’s children looks rather like an image of Moriarty (from later in the series) and the pathologist Molly (well, it did to me, anyway). Occasionally the visual sense of certain events is hard to follow, such as a shot of an interior telephone while a call box on the street is ringing.

The artwork is presented in its original black and white, and reads from right to left, Japanese style, with the order of the pages arranged from the back of the book to the front (in printed editions, anyway – double-page spreads can get confusing in digital versions, as images get split into two). It can be disconcerting at first if you’ve never read a manga before, but you soon get the hang of it. The speech balloons are quite an unusual shape for containing English dialogue, which is an inevitable result of translating from Japanese.

Sound effects (“Blam”, “Whack!”, “Scribble scribble”, etc) are part of the art, so the English words for these tend to appear in the spaces beneath the frames. Sometimes these sounds seem superfluous to our understanding of what is going on visually, and it can become irritating to read the likes of “Turn”, “Twitch”, “Grip”, “Startle”, “Stare” and “Smile” (yes, I can see that he’s smiling, thank you), but this is more a criticism of the original manga than the English translation. Such things stopped bothering me during my reading of The Blind Banker, and by the time I got to The Great Game I was actually rather enjoying some of them, such as the “Glance” that Sherlock gives a suspect who corrects his own grammar, having already had several previous errors picked up by the detective!

Despite some awkwardness in translating the visual tics of a television show into the visual tics of a comic, and in translating the textual tics of Japanese manga into English, this is a compelling version of A Study in Pink. It’s all the more engaging now that the whole of Series 1 can be read in compilation form (paperback editions inside a rigid slipcase), without having to wait a month between instalments. Smile.



Mystery and danger lurk for Holmes and Watson… A series of murders and a set of mysterious symbols spell trouble for Sherlock and John during their latest case…

Back in 2010, I found The Blind Banker, writer Stephen Thompson’s contribution to Sherlock, to be the least memorable instalment of the first series – sandwiched as it was between Steven Moffat’s scene-setting introductory episode and Mark Gatiss’s attention-grabbing season finale. An unexpected benefit of this is that I had forgotten most of the story, so coming to this manga version was almost like encountering a brand-new adventure for Sherlock and John!

The Blind Banker may have been a relatively weak entry in the series, but only in comparison to the tremendous strengths of the other two episodes. Held up against contemporary British drama as a whole, it’s still a strong story.

It offers many entertaining moments, such as John losing his rag with a chip and pin machine while out shopping, and Sherlock battling a sword-wielding enemy at 221B Baker Street, yet appearing not to have moved while John was out. The detective’s particular type of lethargy further annoys his friend when he uses John’s computer instead of his own because it happens to be nearer (it took him less than a minute to guess the password). There’s more frustration for John when his attempts to enjoy a night out with a woman he fancies are spoiled by the presence of Sherlock. “I’m right in the middle of a date,” Watson tries to explain to Holmes, with increasing irritation, “You want me to chase some killer while I’m trying to… while I’m trying to get off with Sarah!” The last statement is blurted out more loudly than he intended, leading to some embarrassment.

Such humour is accentuated by the fact that Jay. depicts certain instances of exasperation or other extreme emotions from a distance, in the background and in miniature. The resulting exaggerated, cartoonish facial expressions bring to mind light-hearted strips such as Peanuts or Calvin and Hobbes. It’s usually John who receives such treatment, though a German tourist is also presented in this way, when he is similarly annoyed by Sherlock’s outrageous behaviour.

Conversely, the artist’s depiction of the defaced portrait of a bank’s former chairman is almost photo-realistic in its accuracy. The same can be said of the Southbank Skatepark, which Sherlock and John visit during the course of their investigations. This part of the story meant more to me when I returned to it in comic-book form than it did when I first saw it on screen – I was unfamiliar with the place in 2010, but have since passed by it on a number of occasions.

Here we see a good example of the series confronting the conveniences of the modern world – which can be inconveniences when a storyteller is trying to build dramatic tension by placing obstacles in the path of the hero. When vital evidence is painted over just minutes after John discovered it, Sherlock is concerned that his companion won’t be able to recall every detail. “I need you to concentrate,” the detective tells his friend, grasping his head and spinning him around, “I need you to maximise your visual memory… Because the average human memory on visual matters is only 62% accurate.” Jay. captures the urgency of the scene with 100% accuracy, with big close-ups and shouty speech balloons. Sherlock needn’t have worried, though, because John simply took a photo with his phone – which leaves Holmes speechless for a change! Sometimes the most straightforward solution to a problem is the correct one.

The Blind Banker is loosely based upon The Adventure of the Dancing Men, featuring as it does coded messages that appear to be ordinary graffiti. Unlike the childish pictograms of The Dancing Men, the symbols here look more like the tags used by grown-up graffiti artists. Accordingly, Sherlock seeks the advice of a character who is clearly inspired by Banksy – for whom the unwitting John ends up taking the rap! Other influences include the Sherlock Holmes novels The Sign of the Four (a locked room accessible only by climbing) and The Valley of Fear (a secret society hunting down its victims). At first, I thought Sherlock and John’s search for a particular book, the key to deciphering the mysterious symbols, a book that everybody would own, was utterly predictable. “The Bible!” I cried triumphantly, making the same mistake that Watson made in The Valley of Fear. However, the book in this instance turns out to be an entirely different volume.

Almost inevitably, some aspects of the episode come across better in its original television medium than they do in the static imagery of a graphic novel. An example of this occurs about halfway through the second chapter, when it is less than clear who a certain frantically huffing and puffing bald gentleman is and what is happening to him. Hang on in there, though, as this makes more sense towards the end of the chapter.

You need to pay close attention throughout the narrative, as some pertinent developments and incidents might not seem important at the time. These include John’s mockery of Sherlock – “I am Sherlock Holmes and I always work alone, because no one else can compete with my massive intellect!” – his looking after a cheque for said detective, and the nature of the act performed by the Yellow Dragon Circus.

There are some downsides to Thompson’s plot that Jay.’s faithful adaptation can do nothing to remedy, such as John’s date Sarah being reduced to a mere damsel in distress. Elsewhere, Sherlock repeats himself by twice making a quip about not wanting to damage a precious ancient artefact (a centuries-old teapot and an early human skull). Certain scenes veer into the mundane (for example, Holmes and Watson searching the internet for recent auctions of valuable Chinese antiques) or strain credibility (like the fact that John doesn’t get the sack, or even appear to face discipline, for falling asleep at work).

On the upside, though, the case builds to an exciting conclusion and sets things up nicely for the introduction of a certain arch nemesis in the next story…



Several hostages are caught in a deadly game… Sherlock and John race against time to solve a series of bizarre cases, free the victims, and uncover a formidable foe…

Yes, it’s the episode that we (and, I suspect, Jay.) have all been waiting to get to: The Great Game, the first of at least three occasions in which the Sherlock production team have approached The Final Problem. However, before we get to the Final Problem parts of the story, writer Mark Gatiss works in a rich variety of other ingredients from the canon of Conan Doyle.

For example, the bored Sherlock of the opening pages, in a queer humour similar to that described in The Musgrave Ritual, shoots holes in the wall of his flat. In the modern episode, his landlady Mrs Hudson is understandably miffed about this: “I’m putting this on your rent, young man.” Sherlock’s criticism of the lack of interest currently being provided by “the criminal classes” echoes stories such as The Copper Beeches, in which Holmes declared that, “Man, or at least criminal man, has lost all enterprise and originality.” That adventure is also one of several in which Holmes criticises Watson’s write-ups of his cases, as Sherlock does here.

Just like in The Sign of the Four, deliberately erroneous statements by the detective prompt an interviewee to provide the desired information. “People don’t like telling you things,” he explains to John, “They love to contradict you.”

As in A Study in Scarlet, Sherlock deliberately keeps his mind free from ‘clutter’, such as the knowledge that the earth orbits the sun, much to his flatmate’s amazement. Whereas the original Holmes likened his brain to an attic, the 21st-century Sherlock speaks in terms of disk space: “Listen. This is my hard drive, and it only makes sense to put things in there that are useful, really useful. Ordinary people fill their heads with all kinds of rubbish, and that makes it hard to get at the stuff that matters… So we go around the sun! If we went around the moon or round and round the garden like a teddy bear, it wouldn’t make any difference. All that matters to me is the work. Without that, my brain rots. Put that in your blog.”

Despite Sherlock’s disdain for John’s writing, he reveals his fondness for his friend when he says that “I’d be lost without my blogger.” This echoes Holmes’s “I am lost without my Boswell”, from A Scandal in Bohemia. His comment about some stationery being “Bohemian” is also from that story.

Ironically, following his claims about his uncluttered mind, the detective’s latest case involves the death of an amateur stargazer and leads him to a planetarium. A little later, he pauses to look up at the stars… and no, this isn’t a lead-in to the old joke about Holmes and Watson going camping! John is surprised. “I thought you didn’t care about things like that,” he says. “Doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate it,” Sherlock replies.

It is somewhat peculiar that a man who knows nothing about the movements of the solar system is aware of the legend of the Golem (a gigantic man fashioned from clay). He could have Googled it, I suppose. In this story, it’s also the designation of a deadly assassin (real name Oskar Dzundza), with whom Sherlock and John cross paths…

He is also familiar with a certain children’s television programme. Dating the story rather uncomfortably, Sherlock sardonically quotes a catch phrase from Jim’ll Fix It. (The Great Game was originally transmitted a year before Jimmy Saville’s death, after which time the truth about his abuses began to emerge.) However, he hasn’t heard of Connie Prince, the host of a popular makeover show. Fortunately, John has watched a lot of television during periods of unemployment!

On several occasions, John berates Sherlock for his lack of empathy for the innocent victims of a master criminal. In response, Holmes points out that “This hospital is full of people dying, Doctor. Why don’t you go and cry by their bedsides and see what good it does them?” His cold logic is reminiscent of the Cybermen in Doctor Who (another show that Mark Gatiss has written for and knows well, of course), in particular Cyberleader Krail. In their debut story, The Tenth Planet, Krail argued that, “There are people dying all over your world, yet you do not care about them.”

Unlike the Cybermen, Sherlock is not completely devoid of emotions, but he knows that getting overwrought won’t help those under threat. He allows John to carry out some of the Connie Prince investigation by himself. As in sources such as The Hound of the Baskervilles, this proves to be largely a waste of time – but it is time that the detective is prepared to waste. John is furious when he realises this, because the bomber’s latest hostage has been held captive and terrified in the meantime. Sherlock argues that he has used the time efficiently: “I knew I could save her. I also knew that the bomber had given us twelve hours.” That gave him time to pursue other lines of enquiry. What is not spelled out is that, far from being heartless, Sherlock has also been buying time for Moriarty’s next victim. When the villain reveals yet another clue in his cruel series of puzzles, John is still fuming and refuses to help, which makes his compassion counterproductive. The clinching line from Sherlock, “Not much cop, this caring lark,” gets his friend back on board.

In another scene, Sherlock manages to simulate emotion, turning on the waterworks in order to engineer an interview with the wife of a missing man. He also tries to be kind to Molly, in his own way, but it’s a rather cruel way that infuriates John.

Moving beyond the characterisation to the actual plot: the death of a civil servant called West, whose body is found near the tracks of the London Underground, and the loss of top-secret defence information he had been carrying, is based upon The Bruce-Partington Plans. A cryptic message involving five pips of the Greenwich Time Signal is a neat reworking of The Five Orange Pips.

Jay. captures all the tiny details of the original drama, such as John’s discomfort as both Connie’s cat and her brother show him unwanted attention. However, that was a rather dialogue-heavy section of the television episode, so this part of the graphic novel is somewhat dominated by shots of talking heads. Later, it is not always entirely clear to whom the speech balloons are pointing when Sherlock, John and Lestrade examine a body on the South Bank of the Thames, and there are some awkward silences here. By contrast, several panels that lack dialogue during the final confrontation between the detective and his nemesis effectively convey the tense pauses of the screen version.

Something that does not immediately come across on the page is the fact that the explosion on Baker Street during the opening chapter has taken out the building opposite 221B, rather than Sherlock’s flat. Nor is it obvious, because the art is presented in black and white, that a sniper’s laser sight has been trained on the villain’s intended victim towards the nail-biting climax of the tale.

Ah, yes… what of the villain? The boyish features of Andrew Scott, who played Jim Moriarty on screen, lend themselves particularly well to the manga style. His dark eyes make for an unnerving appearance, with the artist giving him totally black pupils. Moriarty actually makes his entrance at a fairly early stage, but if you’re unfamiliar with the television episode, he might just slip under your radar…

The placement of an image gallery directly after the strip’s final two dialogue-free close-ups is somewhat confusing (the monthly issue benefited from a “To be continued…” caption at the end). Aside from that final problem, the showdown is extremely well handled, remaining every bit as “Aargh!” as it was on screen, being deliberately and masterfully frustrating.

Let’s hope that we won’t have to wait too long for the English version of the continuation, A Scandal in Belgravia, which is teasingly advertised at the back of the book as: “to be announced soon!” “Want to see some more?” as Sherlock asks John at the end of the first chapter of A Study in Pink. “Oh, god, yes.”


Richard McGinlay

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