Saturday 17 September 2016

Panel No. 33. Sidney Paget & Sherlock Holmes

Panel No. 33. Sidney Paget & Sherlock Holmes

Sidney Paget's most famous work. As you can see I'm looking suitably shocked as Sherlock Holmes falls to his certain death at Reichenbach Falls… Or DOES he…?

Describe a superhero without using the words super or hero or powers...

fictional character with an outrĂ© costume who defends the world from evil.


being with gifts greater than those of the average human.


A crimefighter – often with a sidekick – possessed with excessive courage.

Looking beyond the heroics, I might suggest that all superheroes have a weakness, an Achilles heel. Thor, for example, is just a dodgy-looking roadie for a heavy metal band without his Hammer. Kryptonite kills Superman, as any fule kno.

Going a little deeper, what does the superhero says about the society from which s/he springs? Back to Superman, it's difficult to separate him from the great liberal ideals of the American Dream: is he not the ultimate immigrant? He has TWO jobs and he's assimilated with such passion that he's practically draped in the flag. Ditto Wonder Woman.

Then take Batman, the libertarian face of the same silver dollar. The right to defend one's territory by any means necessary. Slow to anger but ruthless in retribution.

In this respect both Superman and Batman are personifications of the United States, the world's supreme super power. The World's Policeman.

Take this role and add it to the list above - costumesidekickpowerscourage and one fatal flaw - and you have a pretty good picture of the colourful superheroes of Marvel and DC.

Now sepia-tint the picture. Remove the brash colours but keep all the other elements.

A courageous crime fighter with special powers, a distinctive costume and a reliable sidekick...

It's elementary, no?

Whenever I lead the Sherlock Holmes walking tour for London Walks"Sherlock as Superhero" is one of my running themes. And is Sherlock not the personification of the old Empire? All conquering, firm-but-fair, the ever-so-English gentleman-amateur.

Origin stories play a big part in Superheroland – the incidents that made the heroes super in the first place: Spiderman was bitten by a radioactive spider; Wonder Woman was an Amazon and daughter of the gods.

Sherlock Holmes's origin story is one of the most fascinating in all of popular fiction. In the common conception of the great detective, he is the child of many fathers, including the actors who have portrayed him on screen.

The starting point is, of course, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who launched his first Holmes story A Study In Scarlet on the world in 1887. In terms of description, however, Doyle at first gives gives us only this…

In height he was rather over six feet, and so excessively lean that he seemed to be considerably taller. His eyes were sharp and piercing, save during those intervals of torpor to which I have alluded; and his thin, hawk-like nose gave his whole expression an air of alertness and decision. His chin, too, had the prominence and squareness which mark the man of determination.

In discussing Sherlock in graphic terms, by which I mean his look or image especially in the popular imagination, this gives us very little to go on.

It's at this point that I turn to Sidney Paget

If I may mix my pop-cultural metaphors for a moment, Paget is the Sherlockian equivalent of The Fifth Beatle – the third lodger at 221b, if you will.

Paget was born in London in 1860. His father was the vestry clerk at St James's in Clerkenwell. Having attended the Royal Academy Schools, he became an illustrator on the famous Strand Magazine, the picture paper published between 1891 and 1950.

It is through Paget that the famed deerstalker hat enters the world of Sherlock Holmes. It has become the great consulting detective's trademark. It first appeared in The Boscombe Valley Mystery in 1891…

… and has become such a part of Sherlock lore that a mere silhouette is enough to put us in the picture…

Baker Street tube station
Is there another character in all of fiction that can be conveyed so efficiently through illustration?

An often-repeated myth is that Paget used his brother Walter as the model for Holmes.

More widely accepted is the story that the original commission to draw for ACD’s stories had been intended for the aforementioned Walter Paget, also an artist, but landed in Sidney's lap in error. If that's true then it's the happiest accident in the history of graphic storytelling – for Paget, for Doyle and for generations of fans.

I remember drawing my own Holmes as a kid, during the school holidays when the old Basil Rathbone movies were played on TV. For this blog I tried to draw Sherlock Holmes again, for the first time in nigh-on 40 years. And when I scribbled my own version…

… I was surprised and impressed by Paget all over again

Following Paget's conventions (however roughly) I realised that when drawing Holmes one is essentially drawing a villain: the sunken cheeks, the downturned brow, the shadows thrown by the cape. The narrow eyes are pure evil. The domed cranium exaggerated by the cheekbones is The Mekon from Dan Dare and 101 mad scientists from strips and animation the world over.

With his illustrations, Paget instinctively tapped in to the dark side of Conan Doyle's famous character. In this, it is a most modern interpretation. It predates Frank Miller's landmark, dark reimagining of Batman in 1986 by 100 years. It's thrilling to think what Paget could have done in the field of graphic storytelling today.

The most recent screen Holmes, the cadaverously handsome young Master Cumberbatch, has breathed yet more new life into the character. And the hand of Sidney Paget is still present. His deerstalker becomes something of a running gag…

(Pic source The Personal Blog of John

Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman (Watson) feature in a recent comic book incarnation of Holmes, a Manga version of Sherlock A Study In Pink, published in English but with the convention of reading right-to-left still in place…

This English translation of the Japanese hit comic takes the TV script of Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss and presents it in a highly-stylised comic book form by artist Jay. And the London locations are expertly captured…

Sherlock: A Study In Pink is published by Titan

There's also a lot of really tremendous fan art out there, inspired by the Cumberbatch/Freeman twosome…

… much of it exploring the nature of Holmes and Watson's relationship…

The much-analised gay subtext is an area thoroughly out-of-bounds to Paget and Doyle back in the late 19th Century. But liberated 21st Century Sherlock fans (and scriptwriters) are having a field day.

Check out LOADS more Sherlock fan art here:

Holmes is a natural comic book hero. As well as being a prototype for the 20th and 21st Century superheroes we know and love, he's also worked with Batman

… fought The Joker

… and even starred in his own title, all for DC.

But far and away my favourite of Sherlock comics has been the recent all-ages romp The Baker Street Peculiars written by Roger Langridge and illustrated by Andy Hirsch

The action takes place in 1930s London where one of the Trafalgar Square lions comes to life and runs amok through the city! Only Sherlock Holmes can save us now!

The Peculiars are, of course, an update of the Baker Street Irregulars, Holmes's band of street urchins who function as his eyes and ears in the darkest corners of London. The Peculiars differ from the Irregulars in that they drive the story and have a wider race and gender mix, much more accessible to the young modern comic reader. It's really lovely stuff, both words and pictures. The imaginative adventure rages through London from posh West…

…to wild East…

… and has some great villains (scary AND funny) and a wonderful twist on the oft-neglected Mrs Hudson. (I'll say no more! But you can buy the comic HERE or, better still, make an enquiry at London's Eisner-Award-winning comic book store Orbital Comics - their website is:

There are no less than six portraits of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle held at the National Portrait Gallery – four photographic, one oil on canvas (by Henry L. Gates) and, my favourite, a Punch cartoon from 1926 by Sir John Bernard Partridge.

Like Paget, Bernard Partridge was born in London, son of the president of the Royal College of Surgeons and nephew of John Partridgeportrait painter to Queen Victoria. In a varied career (he was also, briefly, an actor) he worked as a designer for Lavers, Berraud and Westlake, the stained glass window makers. You can still see their former building today in Endell Street, Covent Garden…

Holmes and Paget were no strangers to Covent Garden themselves. Here's Paget's illustration for a The Blue Carbuncle, a Christmassy tale with a very important scene played out at Covent Garden Market…

Partridge joined Punch in 1891, the same year that Paget joined The Strand.

It was for Punch that he made the portrait of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle that is now part of the National Portrait Galley archive.

It depicts the writer with his head in the clouds, dreaming perhaps of fame among the pantheon of the great intellectuals. But the clouds turn out to be merely wreaths of smoke belching from Holmes's pipe and the great detective is portrayed as a ball and chain tethering Conan Doyle's literary ambitions.

How attitudes change.

In the 21st century popular writers such as J.K Rowling, Ian Rankin and Val MacDiarmid are called upon to hold forth on the affairs of the day in the media with graphic novels discussed alongside Booker Prize nominees in the arts pages of the quality press. Doyle and Paget would have thrived in such a climate.

In terms of choosing a locating for this panel of my ongoing Cartoon & Comic Book Tour of London, I absolutely LOVE Roger Langridge's Cambridge Circus and Palace Theatre (pictured above) but given that this is an homage to Sidney Paget, I'm going to direct you instead to the great illustrator's final resting place in East Finchley Cemetery on the East End Road in North London…

He may well be buried there but, as we have seen, his work lives on.