Irene Adler has a nemesis—Moriarty—and he desperately wants something from her. But Adler has more important things to worry about, like finding a roommate so she can rent a place in London. Moriarty and his henchmen will just have to wait.
Simon Bowland (Letters), Paul McCaffrey (Artist and Colours), Lavie Tidhar (Writer)
February 5, 2020
Readers of Sherlock Holmes will immediately recognise the name Irene Adler—she was one of the few minds to outsmart Holmes in Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories. In popular fiction, Adler has generally been cast as Sherlock’s romantic interest, and that aspect of her identity often subsumed the fact that she is also a remarkable adventuress in her own right. A story that focuses on Adler alone, without the cumbersome romantic attachments, has been long overdue. A story where she goes up against Moriarty, while Sherlock chases phantom dogs in some distant country? Great idea.
But Adler #1 isn’t just about Irene Adler fighting the good fight against Moriarty—the protagonist of this story is actually Jane Eyre. Here, she is a nurse in the Boer War, who takes on doctoring duties when the chief physician is killed in action. Jane returns to London a little bit scarred (emotionally and physically) but ready to start a new chapter in her life. Enter Adler, via a mutual acquaintance, Lady Havisham.
Half-way through Adler #1, we already have some of the most well-known names from literature, and it’s great to see these characters interact. They’re all technically occupying the same area at the same time, so why not team-up? Traditionally, team-up stories are so often all-male, or feature a single female character who promptly becomes the love interest for one or more of the men on the team. A departure from the norm was nothing short of welcome.
But why, oh why, is every creator listed on Adler a man? Why is this happening in 2020? When do marginalised creators get a look-in?
The fact that it is an all-male team behind-the-scenes is evident in the opening pages. When Jane and her colleague are caught in a blast, leaving the doctor dead, a soldier comes racing to Jane, desperately pleading for her help to save his friend. Jane knows it is up to her to take over the job. Does she immediately go to the soldier’s aid, since she is the only person there skilled in the medical field? No! She stops to declare that she is nurse, not a doctor. Why would that matter to a medical professional who is fully aware of the limitations of the situation It’s such an obvious ‘humble woman knows her place’ moment that it immediately ruined the reading experience for me. What’s worse is that her momentary lapse inadvertently leads to the death of the aforementioned soldiers.
There’s also a lot of emphasis on Jane’s partner dying in the war—it’s one of the first things Irene deduces about Jane when they meet. Because how can we have a female protagonist without a lost love? Even with Adler, there are missteps in her characterization. She is introduced to readers exactly as Sherlock almost always is, rudely making deductions about the person in question, without their consent or any consideration for sharing intimate knowledge of a person within earshot of others.
While this introduction has always been annoying with regards to Sherlock’s characterisation, when applied to Adler, it comes across as inauthentic and unoriginal. The Adler we are getting in this book isn’t a person in her own right—she is an extension of Sherlock. And that is patently unfair. Adler has her own personality and she deserves to be portrayed as someone distinct from the famous detective she has always been attached to.
Adler’s introduction was so obviously riffing off of—copying?—Sherlock that I almost had to close the book. If the only way to show a woman with similar abilities to a man is to recreate that man in female form, then you don’t know how to write women.
I wish these were the end of my issues with Adler #1 but they weren’t. An Amazonian queen only appears in a couple of panels but, of course, she is wearing highly sexualised clothing. Because why not throw some racial fetishization into this book, while we’re at it? She’s also an extremely pale Amazon because colourism is also a thing here.
The art is, otherwise, quite beautiful. I love the strong use of colours—so many period-set stories tend to overuse the sepia tone but fortunately, Adler #1 doesn’t. The costumes are gorgeous and vividly detailed; you really get a sense of time and place just through the clothes the characters wear. On the other hand, I would have loved more detail to the characters’ faces, particularly the female characters. While the bone structure is different for all the women, the features themselves are identical. They all have big eyes, long lashes, pert little noses, and extremely full-lips. They look so alike that I had to distinguish the women by their hair colour. The men, however, all looked different—long faces, square jaws, round heads, the works—each was so distinguishable that I had no trouble knowing who I was following. Again, the fact that an all-male team created this story is stamped on every page of this book.
This comic comes across as a rip-off of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen—which is insulting to the characters featured in the story. They deserve better than to be knock-offs of a largely-male team—it’s not original, but worse, it places women as a group that needs to play second fiddle to men. Had the story at least been written well, this misstep could have been ignored. But even the story and character treatments don’t do the women justice.
I was really excited to read this book but that was a mistake—because it wasn’t written with the audience in mind. Adler #1 was created by people who have their own limited understanding of women and have recreated that in a comic book. Considering the recent Nancy Drew 90th issue controversy and this mess of a story, one would hope that publishers would stop putting all-male teams on female-driven books. But I wouldn’t hold my breath for any changes in the industry just yet.