Victorian Undead: Sherlock Holmes Vs Zombies by Davide Fabbri and Ian Edginton
I have to concede upfront that I am a bit of a fan of graphic novels - a genre often unfairly dismissed as "comics for adults" by the uninitiated. Whilst superficially this may appear to be true, if you take the plunge and open the covers, you quickly find that they actually have more in common with films than comics - a storyboard-plus if you will. Where they differ however is that films nowadays inevitably have to curtail their creative aspirations and "play it safe" in order to garner support from the producers and ensure safe profits for their stakeholders. Graphic novels have no such constraints and are free to innovate, pushing the boundaries of creativity, imagination, art and even taste. It's ironic but no surprise that Hollywood itself has recognised this quality as it attempts to prey upon every popular graphic novel as a source of new material for films, sadly to the detriment of the original. So perhaps then it is only fair that graphic novels repay the compliment?
Sherlock Holmes vs Zombies is a shamelessly tongue-in-cheek exploitation of the current Hollywood obsession with Zombies. The novel opens when a strange meteorite streaks across the sky of Victorian East London heralding an outbreak of disease which quickly kills the victim yet ghoulishly reanimates their corpse leaving them to propagate the disease by biting others in their newly acquired obsession with the flesh of the living (no surprises so far). We soon learn that this initial outbreak is quickly contained and covered up by government agents. But our tale proper begins some years later when the redoubtable detective Sherlock Holmes and his faithful companion Dr. Watson are invited by Inspector LeStrade of Scotland Yard to offer their opinion on one of these "corpses" freshly uncovered during the excavation of the London tube. No sooner do they commence their examination than Her Majesty's Secret Service arrive to intercede and advise Holmes to "suppress his investigative inclinations". Of course, this only serves to convince Holmes that there is more behind this discovery than meets the eye, and he and Watson embark on some covert fact-finding. They soon discover a large underground cache of the creatures from which they barely escape aided by Holmes' brother Mycroft. Matters rapidly escalate and it quickly becomes apparent that they are on the cusp of a major outbreak of this killer disease. Worse, the focussed machinations of such inherently mindless creatures point to some malevolent genius controlling them in a manner which threatens not only the integrity of London, but the seat of the British Empire itself! ('Nuff said).
The story is engaging and reasonably well crafted containing many elements that are based on historical fact, such as the involvement of Dr Snow in the "outbreak" in East London in 1854 which was in fact Cholera and not Zombie plague. Naturally for the genre, plenty of story elements have been exaggerated or subtly twisted to suit the purpose of the narrative. For example, introducing weapons and vehicles from the first World war a full 20 years earlier in history plus the presence of "automatons" (robots) in a Victorian setting lends a delicious element of Steampunk to the mix. The dialogue for the most part is unsurprisingly Victorian, being descriptive and suitably verbose in a pleasingly Dickensian manner. Of course, combining Zombies with the iconic Sherlock Holmes was always going to leave the novel open to being viewed as kitsch - and it is, but it seems to revel in it. Even the cover art playfully but inaccurately depicts Holmes as a decomposing corpse (in the story Holmes remains reassuringly human throughout).
On to the art, which I have to confess I had more problems with than with the writing. For the most part it supported the story well enough with the zombies being suitably gruesome and the lighting in the dimly lit warehouse sequences being creepily atmospheric. But I found some of the colouring over saturated for my tastes particularly in the opening chapter with the impending meteorite and again underground in the zombie cavern. This may have been a conscious stylistic choice of course, but I found it quite distracting. I must also point out that I found the flashback chapter plus a couple of full panels deployed throughout the novel to be quite incongruous. These were clearly drawn by another artist and with the characters differing so wildly from those depicted in the main story panels that I actually found it annoying. Why for example was it thought necessary to have Holmes wielding a Sabre in the main panels when in the story panels he clearly uses a Kukri? Conversely, why is he shown in the main story panels as chisel-jawed and of a muscular stature when he should be drawn as in the main panels: Basil Rathbone-esque, pinch-faced and wearing the worries of one who has seen too much ill in the World? I also seriously question the disposal of the customary deerstalker and Meerschaum for a bowler hat and cigarette - despite the customary liberties taken with the storyline, I felt this was verging on heresy! To conclude the grumbles, I have to also say I found the quality of the paper used for the pages of the novel to be a bit too thin. Several times I inadvertently thumbed through 2 pages at a time which was irritating and led to concerns over durability.
Whilst this review may come across as negative, overall I genuinely liked Sherlock Holmes vs Zombies, even if I didn't love it. The story was good and the Steampunk elements made it a pleasantly diverting way to spend a couple of hours indulging in pure escapism. For the reasons above and at the somewhat daunting full retail price of £14.99 I cannot wholeheartedly recommend it as a must-read. But if you see a copy for under a tenner, you could definitely do a lot worse ... especially if you're a fan of Zombies!
This Victorian Undead: Sherlock Holmes Vs Zombies book review was written by Colin Templeman
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