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Honour Among Punks: The Complete Baker Street Graphic Novel Paperback – June 15, 2003
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The story is great, a re-imagining of Sherlock Holmes as a female punk. You'll spend half your time figuring out who's who and the insight into the world of punk (Guy Davis was a punk earlier in life) is fascinating.
So yeah, recommended for the unique story and for historical value. Guy even says he may continue the story someday. Imagine his current genius art style and superior story abilities (see The Marquis, which he wrote and drew) transplanted to this world.
The mid-1980s was a very interesting time in the history of American comic books. In 1984 a black-and-white comic, the first issue of which had an initial print run of only 3,000 copies, hit big. I'm talking multiple print runs of every issue; toy tie-ins; animated cartoon; live action, nationally released movie from a major studio - that kind of "big". You may have heard of it - it was called....wait for it....Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The success of TMNT clued in many would-be comics entrepreneurs that, without the expense of printing the interior pages in color, you could do a decent print run of a comic book, black-and-white pages with a color cover, for only a few thousand bucks. Small self-publishers like Dave Sim with Cerebus has been doing this for years, but after TMNT the floodgates opened.
By 1985 we were into what is now referred to as "the black-and-white boom" as fly-by-night publishers sprang up across the landscape. Most of the books they turned out were poorly written, poorly drawn trash, but that didn't stop many comic shop owners, each hoping to cash in on the next Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, from ordering them by the metric ton. Inevitably in short order the black-and-white boom was followed by the black-and-white bust. By 1987 the shoddy b&w publishers were gone, taking quite a few comic shops with them.
By 1989 when Caliber Press started up, you would think the time had passed for a new b&w comic book publisher to enter the market. But enter it they did, and even prospered in a minor sort of way before finally going out of business in 2000. They did this by producing comics that, by and large, I can only describe as pandering to the basest parts of human nature. I literally can't describe some of the sexually violent, degrading, and perverse acts depicted in certain Caliber comics without having Amazon.com delete my verbiage. Some Caliber titles made the latest Mark Millar/Grant Morrison/Warren Ellis perversion fest look like two little kids playing doctor. Even the non-sexually grotesque stuff was horribly, gorily, graphically violent. If you wanted lovingly detailed drawings of limbs being chopped off human bodies, and heads exploding like overripe casaba melons (as Harlan Ellison would say), Caliber Press was your comic company.
Having said that, Caliber also, amazingly enough, put out some books that were really fine - stuff that would have been published by very few (if any) other comic book companies, not because they were especially, in the overall scheme of things, graphically violent, but because they were so off the beaten path. The most famous comic book published by Caliber was, of course, James O'Barr's The Crow. But as much as I love The Crow - and I say that as someone who owns every issue of the original comic, all purchased long before the movie - this was not the best comic book ever put out by Caliber Press. That honor - or honour - would have to go to writer/artist Guy Davis and co-writer Gary Reed's Baker Street.
Baker Street is a pastiche of Sherlock Holmes, however it's a very different take on the Holmes mythos. For one thing, it takes place in the present day, or at least the present day of the late 1980s/early '90s when it was published. For another, it's an alternate history tale, a literary subgenre that assumes certain historical events that happened in our world did NOT in fact occur, or occurred differently, and what sort of world might have resulted. In this case we assume a world that departs from ours in two primary ways. (1) World War I was much less severe, and World War II never happened at all, thus Europe was never devastated, and the great social changes and huge push forward in technology the wars produced never occurred. German zeppelins still exist, can be seen flying over London where this story is set, and Victorian era values still exist in the modern day. Baker Street could be classed as a member of the steampunk genre. (2) Whereas in reality in England the punk movement's most vital days were in the 1970s, after which it kind of burned out, in the world of Baker Street punk is still a vital cultural force. Thus we have the driving engine of Baker street: Victorian mores versus punk.
In this story we do not, actually, have a male Sherlock Holmes. Instead our "consulting detective" is a female ex-Scotland Yard investigator named Sharon Ford. After losing her job as a result of drug addiction, Sharon disappears for years. When she reappears it's as the punk, heavily made-up Harlequin, leader of a street gang called (oh YES) the Baker Street Irregulars. And of course she lives in a flat on Baker Street, and of course she places an ad looking for a roommate.
In Harlequin's case, however, she does not get Dr. John Watson as a roomie. Instead she gets blond, slightly overweight, achingly decent, naïve, inexperienced, amazingly whitebread young American medical student Susan Prendergast, who in short order finds herself sucked into Harlequin's world. Along the way she meets Harlequin's lover Sam (short for Samantha we assume). Sam is my favorite character in the series: pretty, punked-out, walking attitude. Sam is totally devoted to Harlequin, jealous and resentful of Susan, strong-willed, brave, with serious anger management issues who carries a straight razor and knows how to use it.
Baker Street was not a long running comic book. It only lasted 10 issues, originally published from 1989 to 1991. Internally it's divided into two discrete story arcs, titled "Honour Among Punks" (issues 1-5) and "Children of the Night" (issues 6-10). In "Honour Among Punks" several valuable pieces of jade have been stolen, which involves Harlequin and crew in a gang war between punks and goths; along the way we meet Lady Gothic, owner of the goth club Baskervilles (gotta love that name) with hints that she and Harlequin were once lovers. In "Children of the Night" Harlequin stalks a Jack the Ripperesque murderer. Since the Yorkshire Ripper's first two victims are violent rapists who've previously escaped conventional justice, are the murders feminist in nature? Is this a killer that Harlequin should really be trying to stop?
Artist Guy Davis co-wrote "Honour Among Punks" with Caliber Press publisher Gary Reed, however "Children of the Night" was entirely written by Davis. Reed has commented, "By the end, Baker Street was pretty much all Guy's." In addition to coming up with great storylines, Davis excelled at dialogue and characterization. From Harlequin's decency and wit, to Susan's shyness and slightly overwhelmed amazement, to Sam's snarky and cutting comments, to the goofball nice-but-not-terribbly-bright Toby and his running buddy Toller of the Irregulars, to....well, every character in the series, everyone had a different sound, a different voice. This is an area in which many writers fall short - Davis did not.
Baker Street also had great art. Guy Davis went on from Baker Street to do quite a bit of work for the major publishers, in particular a long run on DC Comics' Sandman Mystery Theatre, but he has never been better than here. His character designs were topnotch. From the tall, rawboned, almost regal Harlequin decked out in Kabuki makeup, hair sidewalled and spiked, wearing a Victorian greatcoat and clutching a walking stick to pretty, deadly Sam's black-and-white dyed hair, nose ring and leather jacket decked out with miles of chain to sweet and innocent Susan Prendergast's candy box face and well-padded figure to the decadent and debauched but somehow still sexy Lady Gothic and all the punks and coppers and killers in-between, Davis built an absolutely wonderful visual cast of characters.
In the violent scenes Davis was appropriately gory and shocking, but he could also be spooky and moody during tense chase scenes on fog shrouded London streets, masterfully captured the quiet, character-driven moments, and was quite adept at humor. All this occasionally alternated with very gritty, chiarascuro scenes where the artwork had an almost scratchboard-like feel. If I had to compare Davis' work on Baker Street to any other artist, it would be as a harder-edged Jaime Hernandez. If you know your black-and-white comic book artists, that's high praise indeed.
Honour Among Punks: The Complete Baker Street Graphic Novel collects all ten issues of the original comic book, as well as a couple of satellite stories. "A Case of the Blues" was originally published in a curious little one-shot titled A Caliber Christmas, an anthology featuring multiple short stories, one apiece from various Caliber titles. (Yes, I own it, in addition to all ten issues of Baker Street the comic book.) "Elementary, My Dear" was originally published in another anthology, Caliber Presents #9 (yes, I own that one, too) and is quite amusing. This is the story of what happens when Harlequin, Susan and Sam, one day when visiting a junk shop happen to run into....Sherlock Holmes and John Watson! Both Harlequin and Holmes are quite mutually impressed with each other, by the way. Also collected are various "extras" - text pieces, house ads, sketches and the like. A nice package overall.
Baker Street was not the most famous comic book ever published, nor even the most famous black-and-white comic book ever published. But it may well be the best comic book ever published, period. A bold statement, I know. Read Baker Street and see if you don't agree with me. If you have any liking at all for Sherlock Holmes, or murder mysteries, or punks, or stories revolving around well-drawn, strong female characters, or just extraordinarily well-done comic books in general, you will LOVE it.
Does the series go through a somewhat jolting art evolution? Yes. Does the style both toughen and become more detailed? Yep. Was it a privilege watching that transition? Absolutely. Were other styles incorporated? Very much so, flashback scenes were set into an amazingly separate mood, and it still complimented the usual work. Punk is portrayed in the super extravagant manner, and it's both harsh and intriguing.
The storyline evolves in a somewhat similar way, becoming more personal and dense with every passing chapter. Some things, you can absolutely see coming, but this does not detract from the tension that builds. The ending is somewhat resolved, but unfortunately, for me, never feels complete. The characters are all given their due space in the story. Background characters galore too.
It's surprising how many societal and political elements are touched upon throughout the course of the series. The entire work is set upon the stage of three powerful heroines, all of whose focus is on their character-development and not their breast size. Topics are examined throughout the series, including LGBT issues. While not handled delicately, and in some cases appropriately, most are smoothed through the remarkably modern lense of Sharon.
All in all, a good read. Not everyone's cup of tea, but decent for those of us who like a bit of substance to our readings.