The Sign of the Four: a Sherlock Holmes graphic novel

sign-of-the-fourThe Sign of the Four, the second of Sherlock Holmes’ many stories, came about because of a dinner party. Talent scout J.M. Stoddart, host of the party, signed both Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde to contracts for novels that night, the resulting publications being The Sign of the Four and The Picture of Dorian Gray. I.N.J. Culbard and Ian Edginton have teamed up to retell four of Doyle’s stories, as well as The Picture of Dorian Gray, under publisher SelfMadeHero. [Editor's Note: Culbard and Edginton's The Sign of the Four and A Study in Scarlet are published in the United States by Sterling.]

The classic opens with a restless Sherlock Holmes and a concerned Dr. Watson, discussing Holmes’ significant talents as they go to waste after their first case. The pair are called upon by Miss Mary Morstan, who comes bearing a mystery. Her father, an officer in an Indian regiment, disappeared under strange circumstances almost ten years ago. Over the past six years, Morstan has been receiving valuable pearls annually from an enigmatic benefactor, who now wishes to meet with her. With the promise of a case, the detective and his partner are soon off at a breakneck pace, attempting to solve a puzzle with roots in India, a forbidden treasure, a one-legged man, and his strange companion – who manages to baffle Holmes and Watson.

Edginton and Culbard do a fine job of boiling down the original book into a graphic novel, leaving readers with a fast-paced mystery. It’s been several years since I’ve read any Sherlock Holmes short stories or novels, but after reading The Sign of the Four, I’m eager to return to them. Holmes and Watson translate well to the comic format. The detective shows an almost manic glee as the mystery grows murkier and Watson observes it all with a sense of bemusement. Many of the other characters, however, fall flat in comparison. Watson’s romance and eventual proposal to Miss Morstan seem to come out of nowhere – they interact briefly during her first visit and the subsequent journey to meet her benefactor. Beyond that we don’t see the two together until the end , when Watson has suddenly fallen desperately in love and Miss Morstan returns his affections. For a story that emphasizes the importance of following facts, this plot point needed to be expanded.

Culbard’s art is an excellent fit for the story. Drawn in a noir style that recalls pulp magazines, the art creates a sense of the dark, dingy haze of London, Holmes’ mess of an office, and the creepy alleys and docks they visit. The color scheme is primarily blues, grays, and browns, with bold outlines and features for the characters. The art reminds me of a cross between Faith Erin Hicks’ expressive characters and Darwyn Cooke’s square-jawed, Golden Age-inspired style. You’ll see a lot of talking heads in this book – after all, it is Sherlock Holmes telling you how this mystery went down. But many of the backgrounds suffer for it, becoming washed out and difficult to see. The focus is on the characters: the eerie lighting of the London streets on their faces, the flush of policeman Athelney Jones’ cheeks after climbing stairs, or the gradual fading of the circles under Holmes’ eyes as the mystery proceeds.

Speaking of which, some libraries may have difficulty placing this because of the depiction of Holmes’ cocaine use. The book opens with him injecting himself and Watson objecting to the damage he’s doing. It closes with Holmes surmising that he can always, when bored, return to his “seven percent solution”. Another issue, a sign of the time in which the story was written, is that a “hideous savage” is at the heart of the mystery. Readers may find this objectionable – Culbard draws Tonga with a green hue and he resembles a gremlin more than a human being. Still, both these issues are true to Doyle’s version and would be impossible to remove without doing a disservice to the original material.

Fans of Sherlock Holmes will be pleased with the way that Culbard and Edginton captured the spirit of the stories. Readers who have not yet been exposed to the detective may find themselves seeking out the short stories after reading this. They may also enjoy the brief introduction, written by a Holmes scholar, and explaining some of the history behind the book’s creation.

The Sign of the Four: a Sherlock Holmes graphic novel
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Ian Edginton
Art by I.N.J. Culbard
ISBN: 9781402780035
Sterling, 2011

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