Sherlock Holmes and Superman are both unusual men, to say the least. Hence, they have each aroused a sustained curiosity in their readers to understand how they got that way. For Sherlock Holmes, readers must rely on hints, dropped artfully within the canon stories and novels, of his early family life, his education, his formative exploits in the science of detection, whereas for Superman, his formative years already loom prominently in his story, and are essential to creating his myth.
New treatments of these characters’ early years, therefore, face different, complementary challenges. Sherlock’s youth must be rather thoroughly imagined by would-be authors, whereas Superman’s youth must be re-imagined. As examples, I will consider two recent books that make fine contributions to their respective literatures: The Crack in the Lens (Foolscap & Quill, 2010) by Darlene Cypser and Superman: Earth One (DC Comics, 2010) by J. Michael Straczynski and illustrator Shane Davis.
In The Crack in the Lens, the dramatic irony of all we know about the Great Detective could hang heavy, but Cypser blends old and new plot elements with a light, enjoyable touch. At seventeen, Sherlock is not yet the dominant figure that he will become. He is subject to the implacable will of Squire Holmes, who does not understand or indulge his youngest son. Sherlock’s older brothers are more benevolent presences. Mycroft has the most insight into Sherlock and is the most help to him in the end. Sherrinford, who displays a natural warmth and good will, is the solid, eldest brother who will one day be Squire. Though “not incisively intelligent in the manner of his two younger siblings,” he is, as goddessinsepia observes so perceptively, “earnest and compassionate in a way that foreshadows the presence of Dr. Watson.” As a reader, I was heartily glad to meet him here.
One more figure dominates Sherlock’s young life, his new 25-year-old tutor, a certain Professor James Moriarty. He has been hired to further Sherlock’s chance of getting a place at university to study engineering, thereby fulfilling his father’s determined wish for his future career. Squire Holmes recites the man’s qualifications: “He comes highly recommended and is reported to possess a phenomenal mathematical faculty,” earning him a university chair which he had lately resigned to seek “more prestigious employment” (p. 48). Sherlock is already astute enough to wonder to himself “why a man would agree to tutor the youngest son of a country squire if such glory awaited him elsewhere.” The battle of wits began early for these two and the novel develops this angle with ingenious care and faithfulness to Sherlock’s relatively powerless position as a young student. One very effective engine of suspense is the question of whether (and how) Sherlock may overcome this distinct disadvantage.
Another catalyst will be the fate of Violet Rushdale, daughter of one of the tenants on the Holmes’ land. Sherlock’s romance with Violet is the most original element of the novel, and given its seeming improbability to most students of Sherlock Holmes’ character, Cypser offers it up rather seamlessly and convincingly, creating both a watershed moment and a dark secret that explains much of what drives the adult detective. When the Constable says, “There’s no detective on earth who could find her now,” I could almost see young Sherlock mentally picking up that gauntlet! This moment beautifully foreshadows both his impatience with the police and his attraction to the seemingly insoluble case.
In Superman: Earth One, we find Clark Kent struggling with grief over Pa Kent’s death, worry over his mother, and indecision about his own future. Clad in leather jacket, dark red hoody, and jeans, he is pacing the streets of Metropolis, with his shoulders hunched and his mouth set in sullen reflection. Clark is morose and on the brink of making a cynical career choice, albeit for the lofty motive of supporting Ma Kent financially.
Newly graduated from Smallville Junior College, he has headed for the big city, Metropolis. As a professional athlete or even as an engineering research scientist, he could take advantage of his superior physical and mental gifts to become a star, and reap a big payday. In the end, he will choose a job where he is not so obviously a standout, in fact one where he can fade to the background. If he joins the Daily Planet as a reporter, he will need to learn some things from his associates, Lois and Jimmy, and from his boss, Perry White. But interestingly, he doesn’t make this choice right away, but only after events force his hand.
He is forced to make a decision about himself when interplanetary enemies come to destroy the last son of Krypton. Shall he face them as the man he truly is? Superman: Earth One is particularly deft at reimagining this critical decision in a new way, while keeping some continuity with his Smallville upbringing and his origins as fans of the character know them (see the io9 ComicReview for a detailed comparison with Superman’s standard history). I won’t give more details of how the confrontation plays out, but be sure to read the coverage of it in the Daily Planet (thoughtfully reprinted at the back of the book). I enjoyed seeing Clark use at least one ace-in-the-hole when it came to reporting on Superman.
Both these books attempt to catch their remarkable protagonist at the crossroads, at the moment when events elicit a defining decision. As goddessinsepia says in her excellent review of The Crack in the Lens, the book ends as young Sherlock is “on the cusp of greatness.” In Earth One, Superman’s greatness is first revealed, to the world, to some cosmic villains, and especially to himself, as events shape his decision and draw forth his commitment.
Sherlock Holmes and Superman are both beloved and highly influential characters, each earning a solid place on The Fictional 100.
Noteworthy reviews for further reading:
- Goddessinsepia’s blog: Better Holmes and Gardens: Book Review: “The Crack in the Lens”
- “In Superman: Earth One, Clark Kent is the boy who fell to Earth” Review by Cyriaque Lamar, io9 ComicReview