First, a recap: Issue #1 saw Harry Houdini, on tour in London, meet Sherlock Holmes after demonstrating one of his signature escapes for Scotland Yard. But Holmes wasn’t there in his usual capacity – he was actually in a cell, due to his “experiments” with various drugs. Nevertheless, he quickly deduced how Houdini managed his escape, resulting in Houdini inviting Holmes to his show, daring him to do the same with a more elaborate escape. Just then, several demonic phantasms appeared in the police station, while a mysterious voice condemned Houdini for denying the power of the spirits, and promised that if he did not recant, someone would die on his stage. Naturally, Houdini ignored the warning. Sure enough, that night, an audience member brought up as a volunteer purposefully buried an ax into his own face. A giant floating head then manifested and declared that if Houdini continued to deny the power of the spirits, more people would die.
The second issue starts off with the police attempting to arrest Houdini. Holmes quickly intercedes on Houdini’s behalf, however the two men soon find themselves at odds. Holmes would rather that the magician stay out of his way, but Houdini isn’t one to just stand back and let others handle things, especially with his reputation at stake. They each start their own investigations, and we get quite a bit of back-and-forth between the two as they simultaneously try to show one another up and unravel the mystery.
In many respects, this comic is actually quite fun. Some of the banter between the titular characters is pretty good, and there’s a great chase sequence between Holmes and Houdini, with them leaping from omnibus to omnibus. The art, by Carlos Furuzono, and the colors, by Aikau Oliva, are good, and the story is well-paced. But the comic also has a host of problems that I just can’t ignore.
I get the impression that writers Anthony Del Col and Conor McCreery have only a passing familiarity with Holmes, relying more on what “everyone knows” about his character than on the actual stories, thus turning him into a caricature. Common belief holds that Holmes is incredibly rude? Better have him treat people with the utmost contempt, even calling Inspector Lestrade (who is his friend in the original stories) “idiotic.”
Then there’s the drugs. In the original stories, Holmes only does cocaine when he’s bored due to a lack of cases. In the first issue of this comic, however, Holmes drinks a bowl of ayahuasca (because he “needs a new experience”) only hours after seeing the phantasms appear in the police station to threaten Houdini. I would think that he might be mildly interested in finding out where these creatures came from, but no! It’s not until a man dies that he decides to investigate. And, sadly, his investigation skills prove to be poor at best. In fact, I wonder if the writers decided to have Holmes be drug-addled throughout this story solely so that they wouldn’t have to go to the trouble of writing someone who is supposed to be a genius. For instance, in the course of the investigation, Holmes finds a film projector that may have been used to create the phantasms. But he fails to notice that the projector is rigged to set the building on fire, even after specifically checking it for traps. This bit happens, by the way, after Holmes breaks in to the home of a man that he ostensibly only wanted to talk to, and suspected of nothing. Half the fun of a Sherlock Holmes story is watching him be smarter than everyone else, but this story has him bumbling around like Inspector Clouseau.
It’s harder for me to speak to the depiction of Houdini, since I don’t know anything about what he was like in real life. For the most part, his character is fine, even if he is relegated to the tired old role of the brash American who likes to take potshots at the British. However, the end of the comic takes a turn that anyone with a knowledge of Houdini and the history of magic may not like. Namely, it’s revealed that Houdini’s mentor was a spiritualist, much like the ones he is famous for debunking. Furthermore, that mentor is named as having been Jean Robert-Houdin. In real life, Robert-Houdin is known as “the father of modern magic,” but according to this comic, he was a con artist who would gladly take the last pennies from a poor widow. It’s a good thing he died 140 years ago, otherwise Dynamite might have a lawsuit on its hands.
There are also a couple of bizarre problems of repetition that seem to be the result of bad editing. In the last panel on page four, Houdini says, “Those devils danced in colour! Trust me, there is no ‘colour’ film.” On the next page, in the very first panel, he then says, “Those devils danced and they were in colour! Trust me when I say that there is no “colour” film.” (And yes, it really does go from single quotation marks in the first panel to double quotation marks in the second. Guess they couldn’t make up their mind about which one to use.) Later on, Houdini is interrogating a man who says both “Ciroc! He knows of film” and “Ciroc knows of film” within the same panel. I suppose this might be a stylistic choice, but given the mistake made earlier in the book, it caught my eye.
In the end, I’m left with a lot of mixed feelings. I think that someone who isn’t as much of a stickler as I am for Holmes and Houdini would honestly probably enjoy it. Like I said, I really want to like this comic. I’m just not sure it’s for me.
Sherlock Holmes vs. Harry Houdini is available from Dynamite Press November 12, 2014.