As early as 1962, actor Basil Rathbone, who had experienced fame as Sherlock Holmes on the screen and on radio from 1939 to 1946 and had supplied voice over narration work for the WIND IN THE WILLOWS segment of Disney's THE ADVENTURES OF ICHABOD AND MR. TOAD in 1949, concluded in his autobiography IN AND OUT OF CHARACTER, that "the only possible medium still available to an acceptable present-day presentation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's stories would be a full-length Disney cartoon."
Rathbone's prediction of a Disney cartoon somewhat came true with the release of THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE in 1986 where Basil of Baker Street stood in for the famous detective. Amusing in retrospect, the failure in 1985 of Paramount's YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES resulted in Disney's sudden re-titling of the famous children's story from BASIL OF BAKER STREET to THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE because of the fear that audiences just didn't care about Sherlock Holmes. Of course, the name "Basil" for the mouse had been inspired by actor Basil Rathbone who had performed as Sherlock.
"He is a gentleman who never lived and who will never die!" declared actor Orson Welles about Sherlock Holmes when he introduced a radio production where he performed the role of the legendary sleuth.
Without a doubt, Sherlock Holmes is the most famous detective in history. The silhouette of the tall, slender, hawk-nosed man with his deerstalker cap and curved smoking pipe is an instantly recognizable image. Holmes' supporting cast is almost as well known: his ever-faithful companion, Dr. John Watson; his older brother, Mycroft Holmes; his patient landlady, Mrs. Martha Hudson; Scotland Yard's sometimes bumbling Inspector Lestrade and the "Napoleon of Crime", Professor James Moriarty.
The world of Sherlock Holmes is a living example of the romance and intrigue of Victorian England. It was an England where the London fog swirled outside gaslit rooms, and the rattle and "clip clop" sound of a horse drawn two wheeler carriage on cobbled streets disturbed the comfortable silence.
Much of Holmes' London is still very much in existence today from the Bow Street Police Station and Hyde Park to the many exotic sounding railway stations like Charing Cross and Euston where Holmes and Watson began some of their colorful adventures.
Only 221B Baker Street does not exist, nor did it exist during the time of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The author purposely chose a real street but a ficticious house number. Numbers 219 and 223 Baker Street (and everything inbetween) today belong to an imposing office building with a receptionist in the lobby trained to handle inquiries about the fabled detective, including routing of letter Holmes still receives from all over the world.
For many people, Holmes is more real and better known than most of the celebrities and political figures who fade so quickly after their brief moment in the spotlight.
In A STUDY IN SCARLETT, Dr. Watson gives the first description of Holmes in the following passage: "His very person and appearance were such as to strike the attention of the most casual observer. In height he was over six feet and so excessively lean that he seemed to be considerably taller. His eyes were sharp and piercing ... 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 decision." (On the other hand, Professor Moriarty commented in THE FINAL SOLUTION that Holmes had "less frontal development" than the Professor had expected.)
However, it was more than just the striking physical appearance that made Sherlock so unique. Holmes was no superhuman sleuth. He had flaws. While he possessed an amazing mind filled with exotic information, he was almost totally ignorant in areas of more common knowledge like literature, politics, and philosophy. He did however have a profound knowledge of chemistry, British law and the sensationalistic horrors committed by criminals.
His lack of concern for other areas of learning was explained by Holmes himself when he said: "I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it ... It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it, there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge, you forget something you knew before."
That was one of the reasons that Holmes maintained a library and scrapbooks in his work.
While the image of the intellectual sitting in his library shifting through clues and using the skills of deduction is prominent when people think of Holmes, it is often forgotten that Holmes was quite an athlete with particular expertise in boxing and swordsmanship. Once, when a giant of a man threatened Holmes by bending a poker into a horseshoe shape, Dr. Watson was amazed when using only his bare hands, Holmes was able to straighten it. What is also usually forgotten was Holmes' addiction to cocaine, an exotic habit he used to relieve depression and boredom and to sharpen his senses. While in today's society, such a habit would be frowned upon and be a cause for concern, a hundred years ago, it did nothing to dampen Sherlock's ever-escalating popularity.
"I hear of Sherlock everywhere!" exclaimed Sherlock's brother, Mycroft in THE GREEK INTERPRETER and that conclusion is even truer today than during those early years of his first appearances. No fictional character has had such amazing success in so many different media for over a century. Films, books, plays, cartoons, tv shows, radio dramatizations, and records continue to be produced featured Holmes and Watson.
For one generation, it was the image of William Gillette that represented Holmes. Gillette, a stage actor, performed frequently as Holmes from 1899 to 1935. It was Gillette who was the inspiration for artist Frederic Dorr Steele who drew the illustrations for the American editions of Doyle's stories.
Steele often based his drawings on photographs of the actor. It was Gillette who popularized the deerstalker cap that had first appeared in the British editions illustrated by Sidney Paget and it was Gillette who adopted the curved pipe supposedly because it was easier to deliver dialog with it in his mouth.
For a later generation, it was Basil Rathbone who was Sherlock Holmes. Rathbone and Bruce made fourteen films as Holmes and Watson. "There was nothing lovable about Holmes," stated Rathbone, "He himself seemed capable of transcending the weakness of mere mortals such as myself."
Conan Doyle had little enthusiasm for his most famous creation and never quite understood Holmes's continuing public success. "If my little creation of Sherlock Holmes has survived longer perhaps than it deserved," stated Doyle, "I consider that is very largely due to these gentleman who have, apart from myself, associated themselves with him." Although Doyle was specifically praising the work of several actors and illustrators of the time, his comments apply to the work of two people who captured the magic of Sherlock for newspaper readers in the mid-Fifties.
Writer Edith Meiser and artist Frank Giacoia produced one of the most greatly admired recreations of Conan Doyle's work for the comic pages of the daily newspapers. In the Fifties, newspapers were in serious trouble as the public was turning more and more to television as the primary source of entertainment and information. In an attempt to attract and maintain readers, newspapers sought to develop new features. On the comic strip page, this meant the introduction of new strips based on characters from popular detective fiction such as Mike Hammer, Perry Mason, The Saint, and the spiritual father of them all, Sherlock Holmes. Unfortunately, these strips were short-lived not because of lack of quality but because readers were no longer willing to make the day-to-day commitment to the traditional story strip.
Edith Meiser (1898-1993) is perhaps best know for her work in radio, in particular the Sherlock Holmes radio show which ran three nights a week and was heard live on the East and West Coasts. Meiser graduated Vassar College's drama department and established a career as a professional actress, writer and producer. (In fact at the same time she was writing the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, she found time to perform as Gale Gordon's wife in an episode of I LOVE LUCY entitled "Lucy's Schedule".)
The Sherlock Holmes radio show began as a dream of Meiser's (who claimed to have been a fan of the detective since the age of eleven) who fought for years to get it on the air. Meiser single-handedly wrote the show for a dozen years and then with the help of some additional writers for another five years. Some stories on the radio show were based on Doyle's stories (THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, THE COPPER BEECHES, etc.) while others were original tales (THE VAMPIRE OF CADIZ, MURDER IN THE WAX WORKS, etc.) Writers for the series included Leslie Charteris (creator of The Saint), Anthony Boucher and Denis Green.
Meiser received special recognition for how her work emphasized the moodiness of the original source material over excessive physical violence. Meiser's original stories for the series were so well written that her work was warmly praised by Doyle's widow and son who declared her work "admirable, absolutely admirable". The radio show ended in 1950, a few years before the beginning of the comic strip which ran from March 1, 1954 to November 17,1956. The comic strip was officially authorized by the Doyle Estate.
The skills Meiser acquired in radio made her an excellent choice to script the comic strip. She had been used to establishing a scene with a small amount of dialog as well as writing for the distinctive speech rhythms of different characters. Her understanding of the world created by Doyle resulted in the comic strip not only having accurate adaptations of Doyle's tales but original stories that remained true to the spirit of Sherlock.
A daily continuity strip offers its own unique challenges. The first panel has to recap the previous day's event, the middle panel has to move the story forward and the final panel needs to be a cliffhanger either in action or dialog to make the reader pick up the next day's paper to find out what happened. (And the Sunday strip needs to recap the previous week's action for readers who only got that edition and yet not add anything significant that weekly readers might miss.) Meiser proved more than equal to the task.
Despite Meiser's very great contribution, one of the key elements that made the strip so memorable was the artwork of Frank Giacoia. Giacoia produced artwork for comics for over forty years. He worked for a variety of publishers including PRIZE, GLEASON, ZIFF-DAVIS, WESTERN, TOWER, SEABOARD, and HILLMAN. However, his most extensive credits were for DC and MARVEL where his versatility was in evidence on books ranging from superheroes to westerns to teen humor and more. (While at Marvel, Giacoia often had to use the pseudonym "Frank Ray" so that he could still produce work for DC at the same time.)
Giacoia received his greatest recognition as an inker. He never overpowered the original penciller but enhanced the work with a vibrant, slick line. Artist Don Heck once confided to artist Richard Howell that "if you're drawing away, and your anatomy's a little weak, Frank'll slap it in just like that. He knows it better than most pencillers."
Despite effusive praise from his peers, Giacoia remained a polite, self-effacing true professional who continually turned out quality work. Giacoia was not confined to comic books nor to just inking.
When the Sherlock Holmes strip ended in 1956, Giacoia was involved with his own newspaper strip based on the Civil War, JOHNNY REB AND BILLY YANK which ran from 1956 to 1958. In the Eighties, Giacoia also did work on various newspaper strips including FLASH GORDON and SPIDER-MAN. Giacoia's passed away in early 1989 leaving an impressive body of work behind him.
Unfortunately, like so many classic comic strips of the past (especially this Sherlock Holmes one which was published by a syndicate that has long since gone out of business with no syndicate galleys or proofs surviving), it is difficult for modern audiences to try and track down a complete run of the strips. In 1989, Malibu Graphics announced it was going to print a four volume series which would reprint the entire series of strips thanks to the collection of Comics Historian Bill Blackbeard whose library of old strips have benefited many historical projects.
Unfortunately, Malibu only published one volume in the series with six complete Holmes stories. While this volume is long out of print, Ken Pierce Books, which has an extensive catalog of volumes of comic strip reprints, still has copies of that first volume at half the original price.
An ad for the 1914 film version of the adventures of Sherlock Holmes declared: "It is a story of the supreme cleverness of Sherlock Holmes in which is unraveled a tale of human suffering and in which an innocent man nearly suffers for the crime of the guilty one. The masterful style in which this absorbing plot is told in pictures will hold your audience spellbound. It is a picture with a punch, action, dramatic intensity, romance and cleverness." Such a description is an apt evaluation for this comic strip of the further exploits of Sherlock Holmes. It is a journey back to a time both familiar and unfamiliar where evil schemes can only be prevented by the cool logic of Mr. Holmes and the good natured enthusiasm of Dr. Watson.
The head of the Baker Street Irregulars once said, "The people who insist he must be dead are the same ones who said he never lived. So we don't pay any attention to them."