Sheffield Holmes, Adventure in a New Generation: About Major Holmes & Captain Watson
This article originally appeared in Sherlock Holmes magazine issue #11, Winter 2022/23.
Writer Jeff Rider launched the original Sherlockian comic book, Major Holmes & Captain Watson, via crowdfunding. The four-issue miniseries, illustrated by Ismael Canales, funded through two rounds in fall 2020 and spring 2021.
It’s the story of how in 1914, Major Sheffield Holmes, nephew of Sherlock and “Uncle Mike”, and the American Captain Imogen Watson solve a murder that has repercussions for a coming global war. The book was self-published under the Cloudwrangler Comics label, and it’s recommended for ages 13 and up.
Why a Holmes?
Rider has been working on this story in various formats since he was ten or eleven years old. He’s a long-time Sherlock Holmes fan but he specifically didn’t want to write about the detective. He says, “I love him, but he’s not my character, and so doing something Sherlock-related (in this case literally) gave me a chance to homage the character, to play in his world, but to also tell a new story that was mine. Plenty of people write Sherlock in plenty of versions, but I wanted to make something no one had seen, and really put a lot of myself into it.
“I grew up on classic adventure fiction and always just wanted to do my version of that stuff. As an adult storyteller trying to break into the world of comics, it was the moment that Doyle’s canon (or the majority of it) became public domain that really sparked Major Holmes & Captain Watson into life. I remember thinking, ‘I should remake that goofy story I wrote as a kid into a comic.’ And for weeks I could NOT let the idea go. I found myself walking around hearing the voices of the new Holmes & Watson in my head, they would just not go away, and I realized it was something I’d been waiting most of my life to write.”
Rider’s introduction to Sherlock Holmes came courtesy of his grandmother, a librarian, who gifted him, he remembers, when he was about seven years old, “a box of great adventure fiction: Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, and of course, The Complete Sherlock Holmes, this gorgeous two-volume set.
“I was a little young for them at the time, but it wasn’t more than a year or two before I’d devoured them all. I still have that original two-volume set of Doyle’s works that she gave me, they sit within arms’ reach in my office at all times, and they are nearly falling apart because they are my favorite version.”
Creating the Comic
Major Holmes & Captain Watson began as a short story, which Rider took to a San Diego Comic-Con networking event. An artist, Michael Dorman, who had a lot of noir-style detective art in his portfolio, loved the story, but he’d already done the work he wanted to do in that genre. He could, however, introduce Rider to Carlos Cabaleiro, who loved the characters. He drew a 12-page version for the web, as well as working on a second chapter, before moving on to other projects.
Those pages allowed Rider to assemble a sample ashcan for the project, something to show around. At another Comic Con, this time in New York, he met an agent who put him in touch with Canales and colorist Roger Sorucca, who are both Spanish. Despite the language barrier, email allowed development of further ideas. Rider explains, “Roger wanted to move the time frame of one fight scene to nighttime so, as the colorist, he could light the whole scene with nothing but Model-T headlamps and the muzzle-flashes of the bad guy’s guns. Or how Ismael got so excited when I found a vintage motorcycle museum in California that actually had the bikes we’d been using in the story. [I] was able to send him reference photos from angles you’d never find online. It’s that back and forth that really makes creating comics the best kind of story telling, for me.”
A Different Version of a Holmes
One thing that sets Sheffield Holmes apart is that we’re introduced to him in bed with another man. Rider made the decision to make this Holmes gay because he “wanted the new Holmes to be different. He needed to feel, to fall in love, to be a romantic. Due to reasons involving the parts of the canon that are not yet public domain, Sherlock Holmes can’t be depicted in that way, and often modern reimaginings take that so far the other direction that Holmes comes across as, frankly, an asshole. I wanted a hero who could deeply feel for the people in his life, and so we pulled NO punches when it came to his romantic life. Sheffield has deep emotional feelings for people, that’s one of my favorite things about him.”
Plus, once Rider decided his new Watson would be a woman, it was important to him that there was no hint of romance between them. “One of the most important parts of the story for me was that Sheffield Holmes and Imogen Watson are equals, true partners. Imogen is every bit the detective that Sheffield is, and maybe an even better secret agent. She and Sheffield are such good detectives they’re practically competing, each trying to constantly out-deduce the other.
“I realized that in that time, in 1914, a man and woman behaving that way would probably be viewed by those around them as flirting. Other people in the story would make assumptions about their relationship. That led me to worry we were using a negative trope, that she was his ‘beard.’ And that concern led to further story complexity.
“What if… it was by the design of their superiors, specifically Sheffield’s other Uncle and commanding Officer, Mycroft Holmes? Mycroft intentionally created the ‘New Holmes and Watson’ on the streets of London, he knew they’d be a great team for lots of reasons, and this is just one of them. The very nature of the friendship and partnership between Sheffield and Imogen works in the period setting as protection for him, but it also creates tension between Sheffield and Mycroft.
“Sheffield lives in the shadow of the reputation of one uncle, and the literal machinations of another. It means Sheffield himself struggles with exactly the same thing that I as his creator struggled with: how to be his authentic self, and not just the next Sherlock.”
Rider wraps these threads together into what he calls the defining theme of the book. Given Sherlock Holmes’ fame, even in his own stories, Sheffield bears a well-known name and the burden of that reputation. Rider explains, “Their secrets are dangerous parts of their lives. Sheffield isn’t just a detective and a spy, dangerous enough, but he’s a gay man who struggles with the idea he must keep that secret in a time when his very being was illegal. And he’s not the only one with secrets. Imogen isn’t truly a Watson, but her true lineage is also a danger to her.
“Everyone in this tale of detectives and spies has greater things to hide than just their mission or their case, and it adds a level of complexity that makes them so much more human. Every person has the absolute right to be exactly who they are. Far too many of us aren’t allowed to be, or feel we can’t. That’s often just as true in the modern world as it was in Sheffield and Imogen’s time, and using the time period and setting of the past I hope lets us shine a light on these issues right now, today.”
The Future of Major Holmes
If you’d like to see this adventure for yourself, Rider appears regularly at comic shows, but the easiest approach is to visit MajorHolmesandCaptainWatson.com. The comics are available in both print and digital formats, and the site also offers some prequel short fiction and various merchandise items. The two prequel stories will be collected with a new, third one, in a book released this past spring.
Reaction to the series has been greatly positive, which Rider calls gratifying. Distribution is planned to expand, as Rider is talking with a major publisher, who could re-release the series with greater comic shop availability. The four issues so far of Major Holmes & Captain Watson make up a complete story, but Rider has plans for many more.