Looking back, Johanna Draper Carlson has only been a part of my Sherlockian social circle for a year or so but she feels like someone who's been an evergreen member of the community. Johanna's online presence just elevates everyone around her. And the perspective she brings to every conversation is a great mix of knowledge and fandom, bridging two big groups in our hobby.
I got to meet Johanna in-person when we were at the Celebration of Sherlock Holmes conference in Chicago last May. Johanna is such a delightful person to hang around with! And she contributed a wonderful piece to The Monstrum Opus of Sherlock Holmes so I can now say she is also a delightful person to work with! And after reading this week's interview, I bet you'll be thinking the same thing.
How do you define the word “Sherlockian”?
I generally try not to. “Someone who likes Sherlock Holmes,” I suppose, would work for me. Whatever version, whatever format, whatever medium. I love that we’re continuing to get closer to a world where there’s a Sherlock out there for everyone, and I enjoy talking to people about which versions they like and why.
Some of that is due to past experiences. I spent a couple of decades in comic fandom, where a few bad apples made things difficult. I’ve had to pass a trivia test to demonstrate I have enough knowledge to be considered a real fan, and I have had to ignore insinuations that women are “fake geek girls.” As a result, I can be sensitive to perceived gatekeeping. If someone says they’re a fan, or a Sherlockian, of whatever variety, that’s fine by me.
I love Sherlock Holmes in part because there are so many variants and flavors and portrayals, and I enjoy learning about why he’s interesting to others, whether they’re traditional, prose-only Sherlockians or media fans or creating their own stories. When they have a perspective different from mine, all the better — that’s more for me to learn from.
How did you become a Sherlockian?
My origin story has three parts. The first is that I read the Baring-Gould Annotated Sherlock Holmes as a kid. I’ve always been interested not just in stories, but how the stories are made, and the behind-the-scenes. The annotations helped me understand basics, like how much money was worth then compared to now, but also that there were some very devoted fans of this character. (I’m still amused by the fixation on the weather in order to “correct” Watson. Having worked for a comic book company, my understanding of how serial stories are created, and the “just make the deadline” approach I often saw, likely colors my analysis.)
The second part was moving to Madison, Wisconsin, and discovering the Notorious Canary-Trainers, the local scion society, shortly thereafter. They’re a wonderful group that gathers monthly to discuss a story. I’ve come to understand that they’re rather low-key in comparison to some — no dues, no publications, no set agenda — but most importantly, the people were friendly. Having a group to meet with regularly was encouraging, particularly during the past few years, when we met online.
Speaking of which, the third part is the pandemic lockdown. I rediscovered the BBC Sherlock during that time, and then met a bunch of fans of that show virtually. That reawakened my interest in media appearances of the character. I also visited various online gatherings, which gave me a good overview of the diversity of Sherlockians. And how welcoming they could be!
The welcomes extended to opportunities to write. I queried both the I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere blog and Sherlock Holmes Magazine, which resulted in my reviewing Sherlock-related books for the blog and contributing articles to the magazine from issue #5 on.
What is your profession and does that affect how you enjoy being a Sherlockian?
My day job is Software Development Manager. That gives me a familiarity with tech, which means I could set up our society mailing list and help with virtual meetings.
My long-lasting other occupation has been writing about comic books, manga, and graphic novels. I launched my website ComicsWorthReading.com in 1999, and by my reckoning, although it’s not as active these days, it’s the longest-running independent review site online that covers all genres and formats of comics, including graphic novels, independent press, alternative, manga, graphic memoir, superhero comic books, and mainstream works, as well as related media.
Also during the pandemic, some other comic journalist friends were regularly gathering online. I told them how much I was enjoying rediscovering my love of Sherlock Holmes, and they encouraged me to combine the two interests. I launched SherlockComics.com on February 21, 2022, and that has led to being invited to make presentations and conference appearances on the subject, which I very much enjoy.
My technical background means I know how to create a website, and my time as a comic journalist means I know how to tell other people about it. I discovered that there were various sites online with lists of Sherlock Holmes in comics, but none of them were what I was looking for, which was more specific.
I wanted to know which appearances were stories, and which merely cameos. Were they using a traditional portrayal, or did they take another approach? Telling original stories or canon rework? And how could I find these stories without hunting down back issues?
That’s why I created SherlockComics.com. It’s intended to be an index to comic-format stories about Sherlock Holmes and related characters in comic books, manga, and graphic novels. My focus is on stories others can relatively easily find and read, if interested, so I talk more about collections (TPBs), reprints, and books in print than collectibles or cameo appearances. I also try to give some guidance as to who might like which stories without giving away too many spoilers.
Oh, one other thing about my profession — I can’t deny that making a good living makes it easier to visit conferences and gatherings and meet other Sherlockians. So long as I can get the time off.
What is your favorite canonical story?
My scion name comes from “The Speckled Band,” and that’s a classic. My favorite character is Mycroft Holmes, which means “The Bruce-Partington Plans” should rank highly. I’m going to pick, though, “The Blanched Soldier,” because it’s so petty, which makes it fascinating to me.
I think many of us are inspired by the close relationship between Holmes and Watson, one of the immortal fictional friendships. Reading a story where Holmes alternates between passively aggressively insulting his former partner and obviously missing him is so emotionally telling. He’s sentimental, darn it, and that reveals a side of the character that’s not as well-known.
Plus, this is the story that gives us two wonderful quotes: “deserted me for a wife” and the one we all know about “however improbable.”
(My very favorite story is “A Study in Pink” because it’s a terrific example of how to keep these stories alive for new generations.)
Who is a specific Sherlockian that you think others would find interesting?
I thought I was walking on eggshells with the first question! This one is tricky for me. I’ve met so many wonderful people in the Sherlockian world. But I think my favorite Sherlockian is Dorothy L. Sayers, because she was so inspired she created another of my favorite detectives, Lord Peter Wimsey. (I finally got an offshoot of the Canary-Trainers to start reading the novels so I would have someone to discuss them with.)
What subset of Sherlockiana really interests you?
I should probably say the comics, as I think that’s why you asked for the interview (and thank you very much for that!), but to broaden that a bit, what really interests me is seeing how many stories have been inspired by the Great Detective. Whether you call them fic, pastiches, sequels, or fanfiction, I love the diversity of subject matter and the many outstandingly creative ideas people come up with.
Particularly with fic, it’s a brilliant way to find so many unusual concepts. Someone’s got a hobby or an interest or an opinion, and they combine it with Holmes, Watson, and their supporting cast, and a story results.
One of my personal favorite themes is time travel, as when an 1895 Holmes winds up in present day, or a modern John Watson visits the past (especially when one used the setup Connie Willis created, as seen in To Say Nothing of the Dog). One I found particularly enjoyable had a past Holmes demanding of Mycroft that he use the secret government time machine to send Watson to the future to be cured of cholera, where he was treated by modern Watson.
Those kinds of stories are great for exploring what makes the characters universal and timeless as well as how they can continue to be relevant.
How have you seen Sherlockian comics change over the years?
That’s a tricky question to answer, as I am coming to them from a historical, looking-back perspective — I only started paying attention to them a year or so ago. There are plenty of people who’ve been following them as they came out, and who have much more extensive collections.
I focus on stories about Sherlock Holmes, where he (or she or a related character) is a prominent part of the goings-on. Since starting, I have had the pleasure of meeting people who have gone for the deep dive, picking up anything that had a one-panel cameo or even just a deerstalker. That’s dedication!
But looking back, it appears to me trends in Sherlockian comics mimic trends in the greater comic industry. We see an explosion of young reader versions of The Hound of the Baskervilles as schools and libraries begin realizing how educational comics can be. We see a rise in more diverse portrayals — including versions starring people of color and women — when crowdfunding allows people to more easily find audiences directly and put out more personal interpretations.
Most obvious are the media connections, as we see more action-adventure takes when the Downey/Ritchie movies are out, for example. Sherlock Holmes is such a well-known character that tracing the various approaches — in both content and format — taken with him over the years shows in microcosm changes in the comic industry, from expanding audiences to reprint viability.
What are some favorite Sherlockian comics that you've come across?
My favorite, for the humor and the use of two sets of beloved characters, is Muppet Sherlock Holmes. Sadly, due to licensing changes, it is long out of print. And because it was a kids’ comic, lots of the copies got read to pieces or otherwise destroyed. Which is a darn shame.
I adore the game-playing in the choose-your-own-path Graphic Novel Adventures put out by Van Ryder Games. There are six volumes now, each with multiple cases, and I think I’ve maybe solved a total of two across the series.
I really want someone to reprint the two-part Marvel Preview Hound of the Baskervilles from 1976, because it’s moody and theatrical and gorgeous.
I enjoy the Shirley & Jamila series because it provides hope for the future, with two young women detectives helping out their classmates. As you’ve likely gathered by now, I like seeing people take these characters and their abilities and involvements and find new ways to tell stories with them.
And for pure laughs, Ghostbees’ Consulting Detectives webcomic is a brilliant portrayal of the classic characters with a modern-day sensibility, making them ever more human.
What book would you recommend to other Sherlockians?
The book I come back to each month (coordinated with our society’s reading schedule) is About Sixty: Why Every Sherlock Holmes Story Is the Best, edited by Christopher Redmond. Some of the essays provide new insight, some seem to be making the case that any Holmes is great, but I usually learn something new from it. Plus, now that I’ve met some of the contributors, it’s fun to see who wrote what.
Where do you see Sherlockiana in 5 or 10 years from now?
I’m excited, sooner than that, to see what happens after all the Arthur Conan Doyle stories become fully public domain in 2023. I know several people waiting to launch creative projects at that point. Hopefully that leads to a blossoming of interesting works inspired by the originals.
In the longer run, I have strong hopes that we will continue to see more acceptance of varying types of Sherlockians and different sources of interest. Fans these days are more likely to have come from the media versions, and it’s obvious to many that new blood is necessary to avoid societies aging out and disappearing. I hope we can continue to reach out to new people and include them in, just as Sherlockians have been welcoming to me.