Is Sherlock a Superhero?
I found myself pondering this question, as one does on a slow holiday afternoon.
The first part of the answer is to figure out how you define a superhero. I’ve done this previously. My definition of superhero is categorical, looking at whether a given character has a preponderance of the common characteristics associated with the genre. So let’s run those down, looking at both the original Arthur Conan Doyle stories as well as the character from the Sherlock TV show.
1. A superhero fights for justice.
Well, obviously. There are a number of canonical cases where Holmes decides to let a criminal go. The one that most immediately comes to mind is the Christmas story “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle”. In “The Adventure of the Dancing Men”, Holmes says “I am very anxious that I should use the knowledge which I possess in order to insure that justice be done.”
In Sherlock, the title character obviously has no problem taking justice into his own hands when there is no other option. The cases of Adler and Magnusson are the two most obvious examples.
2. A superhero has a distinctively unusual visual appearance.
The deerstalker and magnifying glass (and in historical mentions, the pipe) have become so obvious that they made a Lego figure called “detective”, and by using those features, it’s clear whom it’s supposed to be. (Even if those features were more the choice of the artist Sidney Paget than the writer, in some cases.)
Sherlock makes fun of the hat because they have to acknowledge it in some way, and they still put him into it more than once. “Wear the damn hat!”
The show expanded the standard outfit by adding the Belstaff coat, which became instantly recognizable, such that the character can be recognized purely by silhouette. (Well, the curls and scarf help.)
3. A superhero has abilities beyond those of the common person.
Again, obvious. Classic Holmes has his encyclopedic knowledge of crime, his observational skills, and his chemical knowledge. For instance, when we meet him, he’s creating a new test for blood stains.
In the modern day, the internet replaced the first characteristic, but the observational and deductive abilities are still nearly supernatural. He comes even closer to the exceptional when he later pulls himself back from death by pure will.
4. A superhero often has sidekicks and rival arch-villains.
Sherlock Holmes defined both with John Watson and Professor Moriarty. (As a note in passing, the nature of serial writing in Arthur Conan Doyle’s day was that characters didn’t reappear. With the exception of Moriarty, the only other villain mentioned more than once that I could find was Hugo Oberstein, a German spy.)
5. Many also have secret identities (although this expectation has become less popular in modern times).
Although not living as a different person for substantial periods of time, Holmes was a master of disguise, to the extent that he fooled Watson in the ACD stories. He used the secret identity of “Sigerson” and possibly others during his “death”. Also, in “His Last Bow”, he goes undercover as “Altamont” for spy purposes.
There’s an interesting parallel here, as the superheroic secret identity has faded in popularity due to growing discomfort with the idea of a hero lying to their nearest and dearest. Watson’s anger at being lied to after Sherlock’s two-year disappearance demonstrates the kind of greater emotional authenticity that stories aim for now.
Given the above, in my mind, yes, Sherlock Holmes is a superhero. But then, I don’t see that term as derogatory, as some others do, just descriptive.
By the way, here are some panels from Detective Comics #572 (1987) in which Batman meets an incredibly well-preserved Sherlock Holmes.