One of our most eagerly anticipated comics for 2020, Mr Doyle’s Class Presents A Study in Scarlet sees Mad Robot Comics’ Matt Hardy (Murder Most Mundane) team up with Russell Mark Olson (Gateway City) to bring as a unique all ages reimagining of the first ever Sherlock Holmes story. But will this problems of adapting this classic be easily solved or will it leave them red-faced?
Publisher: Portsmouth City Council
Writer: Matt Hardy
Artist: Russell Mark Olson, Rob Jones
Hardy and Olson’s Mr Doyle’s Class Presents A Study in Scarlet cleverly reimagines this classic Holmes mystery as a school play. The roles of Holmes, Watson etc. are taken on by the students (including a young girl named Scarlett taking on the main part – much to the chagrin of her contemporaries) with their teacher Mr Doyle over-seeing the action and serving as an omnipotent narrator.
While an obvious choice in terms of the sequence of Holmes story, it’s not perhaps the most formulaic of reads, as Doyle had not yet established the conventions and rules of a Holmes mystery at this point. However, Hardy and Olson tweak and amend the structure of the story to make the whole thing much more readable and familiar to modern readers. The concept is your classic closed room murder with Holmes dissecting the clues around him. Hardy and Olson stick faithfully to the plot of the original, if not the structure, as they condense a large chunk in the middle of the book (which explains the murderer’s back story) into a series of educational vignettes.
In a lot of ways this is a reflection of the story as a whole. It’s treated more as an analysis of the story as much as it is a re-telling. While this definitely helps in terms of making sense of this unconventional story, it is not the most immediate of reads – especially if you are expecting it to be a rather conventional crime procedural story (as we have been conditioned to expect with other Holmes adaptations).
If you are new to Holmes then we found a quick read of the Wikipedia article on a Study In Scarlet, followed by a second read through really helped to make it all slot into place. (But if you are Holmes devotee you will already know all this!) However once we had done that you could see what a smart and imaginative adaptation it was. It definitely feels more like a book going into schools than it does a pitch at a mainstream gender flipped Holmes adaptation, but that’s no bad thing. Not all Holmes adaptations need to throw out all the original elements in order to make it work for a modern – after all Conan Doyle must have done something right to create such an endearing character! And the result of this approach meant we learned as well as being entertained.
One thing we were always sure about though is how it looks – which is absolutely incredible. As huge fan’s of Russell’s work on Gateway City, Lady Hollywood and Black Iris we knew this would be a perfect fit and his work doesn’t disappoint. The way he goes from Victorian inspired street scenes to the school play to the flashbacks is exquisite. His characterisation gives every page an energy and a vibrancy that really captures the enthusiasm of the kids, yet he manages to also capture the gravitas of the more serious moments. It has a very European feel to it, with bags of energy and exuberance (similar to Gavin Mitchell’s take on Rum Row) and that mix of cartooning and realism create a very stylised piece.
He uses a simple two panel per page structure throughout, which allows him to really push the boundaries of some of the pages and blend the panel borders to create effect, while also remaining within the quite rigid structure. It also makes the most of the A5 page size with panels not getting lost in the page. The red duotone colour scheme also works to perfection, giving the book that vintage yet contemporary feel. (As well as tying in smartly to the title)
Because this book has been jointly produced by Portsmouth Council, The Arts Council and the Conan Doyle Collection, and will be distributed in schools libraries in and around Portsmouth, this may not be a book which is easy for comic fans to get hold of. But if you can, then you definitely should pick up a copy! This is an outstanding piece of work that deserves to be on shelves in comic and book shops alike. It adapts the story in a really smart and informed way and by the end of reading it you feel entertained and educated in equal measures. Case solved!