Holmes for the Holidays

A Vampire in Middle England: Warren Ellis’ Sherlock

In terms of the order in which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote them, ‘The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire’ was one of the very last Sherlock Holmes stories, but though it was published in 1924, it occurs before the turn of the century, in approximately the middle period of the great detective’s career, canonically speaking.

More than a decade on from the events of ‘A Study in Scarlet,’ then, and some years yet from his retirement in ‘His Last Bow,’ ‘The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire’ documents Holmes and his beloved biographer as they investigate what is ostensibly a very curious case: a conundrum like no other, which is to say, both testimony and evidence indicating the presence of a transplant from Transylvania in – of all places – middle England.

Of course Holmes and Watson are often seen to deal with the seemingly supernatural, and I am giving nothing away when I say that things are not at all as they appear in ‘The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire.’ The perpetrator here is no monster… merely a man.

Fast forward to 1996.

That was quite the quantum leap there, wasn’t it? But bear with me a moment; we’ll get back to Sherlock shortly.

So, it’s 1996. The year of Deep Blue’s crowning accomplishment – chess humour anyone? – and the discovery of the most excellent element Copernicum. Bill Clinton is the brand new man in charge, and at quite the other end of the spectrum, Caliber Comics is, alas, on the way out.

This small comics press eventually ceased operations in the year 2000, but before Spawn PowerCardz quite killed the company – damn and blast that man McFarlane! – Caliber had a nice little sideline going, specialising in Sherlock Holmes stories: specifically in graphic adaptations of a number of Conan Doyle’s classic narratives, as well as an assortment of new tales of the great detective, wedged as they were into every conceivable nook and cranny of the canon.

I had precious little interest in the latter category of Caliber’s Sherlock Holmes stories even then, when I was certainly not what you might call a discerning reader, at all of 12 years old, but thanks to the presence of so many of the single-issue adaptations in bargain bins at the comic book stores I frequented in those bygone days, I became quite familiar with, and indeed quite fond of, the former.

So when a little birdie told me about the celebration of all things Sherlock Holmes we’re having here on Tor.com, I simply couldn’t resist revisiting my very favourite of all Caliber’s faux-Conan Doyle comics: a reworking of ‘The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire,’ written by none other than Warren effing Ellis.

I’m not making it up!

These days, Warren Ellis is as close to a household name as there is amongst contemporary comic book creators, but everyone starts somewhere, and before the likes of Planetary, Transmetropolitan and The Authority were even a twinkle in Sir Ellis’ darkly sparkling eye, this infamous internet icon in-the-making was establishing his considerable talents in less visible venues… like Caliber Comics.

His adaptation of ‘The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire,’ retitled in the mode of so many of Conan Doyle’s stories today as simply ‘The Sussex Vampire’ – what’s wrong with adventure anyway? – is, perhaps predictably, kind of brilliant.

To begin with, for a tale told in a single issue, it’s a surprisingly substantial read, and somehow Ellis manages to squeeze in all the beats of Conan Doyle’s original short – with room to manoeuvre, moreover. Meanwhile, as opposed to the dreadfully dense, exposition-heavy affairs that often tend to typify comics derived from prose stories, his is a largely dialogue-driven script, lifted almost entirely from the instigating fiction, but quick-witted, and more kinetic than you might expect.

Now I don’t mean to imply that ‘The Sussex Vampire’ is action-packed, exactly. It isn’t. That said, Ellis affects a real sense of momentum as his Holmes bears in on the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth of this outwardly otherworldly case.

‘The Sussex Vampire’ could very easily have been “The Adventure of the Talking Heads.” Instead, even inescapably static exchanges are related in an interesting way; engaging both narratively and visually. And Ellis is smart enough to step back from the text when the story would be better served by its artist than its author. In point of fact, there are a few pages in between the two primary scenes – one of which takes place at home, while the other occurs abroad – with no dialogue at all.

It takes a talented artist to tell a tale, particularly one of such relative complexity, without text to fall back on. Luckily for ‘The Sussex Vampire,’ and us, Craig Gilmore – who I gather made a name for himself on Marvel’s Morbius – is absolutely up to the task.

He was little known in those days, and I’m afraid he’s no more familiar now – that is unless you’ve been keeping a close eye on the credits of Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon series, specifically the concept art section, or else the Spongebob Squarepants video game – but the man’s a rare talent.

To be sure, Gilmore’s pencils are an acquired taste, but rendered here in stark black and white, his gaunt lines and tortured angles suit this dusky delicacy down to the ground… maybe even six feet under it. The artist’s attention to the shadowy atmosphere of the piece is remarkable, and his penchant for profiles in suggestive silhouette make him a perfect partner for the sketchy environs of ‘The Sussex Vampire.’ It’s a real shame he’s no longer involved – so far as I can tell – in the industry, because on the basis of one all-too-brief adaptation, I’d say Gilmour is every inch a match for the similarly gifted Eddie Campbell, whose work with Alan Moore on From Hell this comic put me in mind of.

In sum, ‘The Sussex Vampire’ is an excellent adaptation of a sterling Sherlock Holmes story, fittingly illustrated and ably scripted by an author since risen to renown, whose early work – up to and including this superb single issue – deserves a great deal more attention than it gets. Warren Ellis and Craig Gilmour make for fine co-conspirators, and while ‘The Sussex Vampire’ isn’t as easy to find these days as it was for me, way back when – at least, not by legal means – if you can: do.

Niall Alexander reviews speculative fiction of all the shapes and sizes he’s partial to here on the mighty Tor.com, as well as in the pages of Strange Horizons and Starburst Magazine. When all else fails, you’ll find him burbling away on his blog, The Speculative Scotsman, or trying to figure out Twitter.


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