Last weekend I visited Edinburgh for the Fringe Festival, and I got to see Tim Marriot perform Watson: The Final Problem. A version of the classic story performed entirely in monologue. It was a fantastic show that brought Watson to life. Marriot was entirely humble, and seemed delighted that people enjoyed his performance.
It brought me back to my childhood. I read a lot of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s works when I was young. I loved Sherlock’s way of analysing evidence and solving mysteries. It’s perhaps, in part, a reason I became a programmer – I very much enjoy the problem solving aspect of the profession.
It’s also a possible reason for a love I developed a little later. I fell in love with DC comics. Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, and especially Atom, were some of my favourite things to read when I was younger. I have a love for superhero stories that has since never dwindled.
But I wonder now if that started with Sherlock Holmes. Because the more you look at him, the more you realise that his stories are very similar to superhero stories. If you stare long enough you start to realise something more.
Sherlock Holmes is, in fact, the first superhero.
Sherlock Holmes features in a series of detective novels. Typically he solves crimes of many different kinds, fighting against the criminal underworld. Eventually he is hired by grander and powerful clients, solving mysteries involving criminal masterminds.
Superheroes on their debut tend to be crimefighters, and usually start out battling small-time criminals. Bank robbers, muggers, small time gangsters, and so on. Eventually their enemies will grow to include those more powerful. Gods almost. Sometimes Gods literally.
Sherlock Holmes never ended up fighting enemies that could eat entire planets, however we can see that his opponents become larger and more exotic over time, just as it is with superheroes.
Every superhero has his Metropolis, his Gotham, his New York City. Sometimes fictional, sometimes based on a real city, every superhero starts somewhere.
For Sherlock it is London. He knows the city, it’s back streets, it’s underbelly. He is intimate with London. It’s his city. While Sherlock doesn’t spend all of his time in London, often adventuring in the countryside, or abroad. London is his Metropolis, before Metropolis was even a thing.
In the books Sherlock wears clothes typical for his time. Tweed suits, a coat, sometimes a cloak and/or a cloth cap. He has a typical style, but it’d be a stretch to call it a superhero costume in the same way as the Batsuit.
As the years have gone on the apocryphal Holmes has developed a costume of sorts. If you do an image search for Sherlock, you will eventually come across an image of a man wearing a deerstalker, a large coat, and a small cloak (a precursor to the cape, perhaps?). He will be smoking a calabash – the pipe we now associate with Sherlock. The modern incarnation of Sherlock has a costume of sorts.
Of course, this seems the weakest argument, however we will see later how this is still an argument in favour of Sherlock being a superhero.
The Secret Identity
Most superheroes have a secret identity. It’s such a common trope that when a superhero movie ended with Tony Stark telling the press, “I am Iron Man”, it was a subversion.
Sherlock Holmes doesn’t have a secret identity. However, Sherlock does show the ability to use disguises in his investigations, so it could be argued that he dons a kind of mask on occasion.
This is perhaps the one superhero trope that Sherlock doesn’t fit into. The MCU has been subverting this recently – most of the Phase 1-3 superheroes don’t actually have secret identities. However, if you wanted to use this as a point against Holmes, the Superhero, then you wouldn’t be wrong.
All superheroes have one or more superpowers: x-ray vision, flight, invisibility, and so on. Holmes’ powers are a little more down to earth. We’ve already talked about his ability to use disguises. But, of course, his most obvious superpower is his ability to analyse and deduce facts. His ability could even be compared to that of a savant, and some incarnations of Holmes take this and often portray him as socially awkward or neurodivergent in some way.
People may argue that this isn’t enough to make him a super hero. But if being the greatest detective in the world is enough for Batman, it should be enough for Holmes. You may argue that Batman is super rich, and he can fight. Sherlock Holmes is shown in the books to be able to box, so he can definitely fight. And while he may not be super-rich, in the end he is certainly connected enough to access resources when he needs them.
Superheroes often become too powerful. The trope to combat this is to give the superhero a weakness. The idea of a hero with a weakness is so well known these days, that a weakness is often described as someone’s Kryptonite.
Sherlock, for all his smarts, has a major weakness: addiction. He smokes tobacco, and uses morphine and especially cocaine. While these substances where often used as medication at the time Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote his books, he has Watson clearly describes these addictions in a negative light. In some ways these drugs enhance Holmes’ abilities, but his dependence on them and their side effects are not healthy.
221B Baker Street. A non-existent address so famous that it now exists as the Sherlock Holmes Museum. This was the home base of Sherlock and Watson. It was their Batcave, where they would meet clients, discuss their cases, and drinking Mrs. Hudson’s tea. While not as extravagant or exotic as superhero bases tend to be in the modern day, it still serves the same functions in the stories.
Batman and Robin. Green Arrow and Red Arrow. Captain America and Bucky Barnes. Superheroes often have someone by their side, helping them fight the enemy of the day.
Sherlock is no different. The novels, though written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in real life, are written by Dr. Watson in the world of the books. He is a war veteran of the Afghan war turned writer, bringing with him a few skills that Sherlock lacks. He is a medic, a soldier, and most importantly a writer.
He meets Sherlock and, after becoming fascinated with him, decides to write his biography. In doing so he becomes his partner in solving mysteries, as well as his friend. It is perhaps the precursor to many of the hero-sidekick relationships we have seen countless times in superhero stories.
In most superhero stories they start small and unknown, then eventually become famous for their heroic deeds (or infamous for their perceived crimes). Holmes becomes famous after Watson starts writing books about Holmes. People start reading the mysteries, and Holmes becomes a well-known hero in London. His popularity sees him pursued by richer and more powerful clients, and going on adventures further abroad.
The Love Interest
It’s never been a requirement, but superheroes often have their Lois Lanes, Mary Janes, or Pepper Potts. Sherlock doesn’t really fall in love, with one possible exception. Irene Adler.
Watson often notes that Holmes seems to have no romantic interest in women. However, Adler is one of the few criminals that manages to defeat Holmes. Watson says that he has no apparent feelings or love for Adler, but that she became “THE woman”. Whenever Holmes referred to “the woman”, he was talking about Irene Adler.
Some later incarnations of Holmes interpret this as a love interest, and portray Holmes and Adler being in love more explicitly. She has become Holme’s woman in the mythology, just as she became “the woman” in the books.
Batman has the Joker. Superman has Lex Luthor. Sherlock has Professor Moriarty. Although he doesn’t appear in all the stories, he is at least mentioned in several books. And he is the one opponent who defeated Sherlock in the worst way possible: he kills him.
Or so we thought…
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was tired of writing Sherlock Holmes, so he has him die fighting Moriarty in a short story titled The Final Problem; the book that formed the basis of the play performed at the Fringe. Eventually he would be brought back in The Hound of the Baskervilles, written as a kind of prequel to The Final Problem. The book was so popular that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle brought Holmes back to life, having him knock on an aging Watson’s door, and explaining how he faked his death to hide from Moriarty’s associates.
Many adaptations of the novels have worked in Holmes faking his death into the story, and it is almost a tradition to kill Holmes off and bring him back again. This is a trope that has become common in superhero stories, especially the comics. Superheroes are constantly killed off and come back to life in various ways. Captain America’s backstory is literally that he was thought to have died in Antarctica during WWII, only to be found and thawed out in the modern day (whenever that happens to be for the current story).
Sherlock Holmes did it first.
Another thing that is common in comics is the retcon – where a writer adds a new layer to a story to reverse a decision a previous writer has done. Ranging from LMDs, time travel, alternate realities, or the Devil himself, writers have used various techniques to alter the past stories of their characters.
Although he was changing his own works, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was retconning his stories before superhero comics were even a thing. Sherlock Holmes never actually died, he just faked his death!
There have been multiple incarnations of Sherlock Holmes. From films, to TV series, and even to comics. They’ve been set in the modern age, in the past, or combined with other stories. There have been female versions, cartoon animal versions, monstrous versions, and evil versions of Holmes and Watson. Some are truer to the original novels than others, but most versions hold on to many of the basic tropes detailed in this article.
Just as superheroes have had many different versions and incarnations. The Captain America of the MCU is very different to the Captain America of the Golden Age. Robert Pattinson’s Batman is vastly different to Adam West’s Batman. But you can still look at these characters and know who they are supposed to be, what powers they have, what characters they will fight.
The same can be said of Holmes. Most versions of him start with an adaptation of A Study in Scarlet. They include his non-canon costume (or at least nod to it). They usually feature Irene Adler as a romance of sorts. And Professor Moriarty is the foil.
Even if you don’t agree that Sherlock Holmes is a superhero, his influence cannot be denied. Detective stories became popular enough that an entire series of Detective Comics was published. They would later shorten the name to DC, which is how they are known today.
One of the most popular characters published by Detective Comics was Batman, the World’s Greatest Detective. Perhaps there is a reason Batman became one of my favourite superheroes.
Sherlock Holmes is the first ever superhero. Prove me wrong.