Adler is exactly what it sounds like – a graphic novel taking Irene Adler, famously known to Sherlock Holmes only as ‘The Woman,’ into a life and adventures of her own. It is, even from its initial premise though, quite a bit more than that. It blends the world of Sherlock Holmes (who is conveniently beggaring about on Dartmoor looking for a big dog when this story takes place), with all the best (if most cliched) elements of steampunk fiction, letting Irene Adler live not only in the world of Holmes, Moriarty and Lestrade (all of whom make an appearance here), but also in her own response to the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
Her alternative League of Extraordinary Ladies includes some of the finest products of literature in it – including Jane Eyre (quite the way with an uppercut), Lady Havisham (fan of ballistic weapons. Tiiiny bit unhinged), and a little orphan. Named Annie. The League also – in a move which feels a little dubious – includes some real people from our own history, like Madame Curie and Queen Victoria (though she’s not as you knew her here, but is kept alive by steampunk science and fictional chemistry).
Opposite her, her own version of Moriarty is ‘She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named,’ an Amazon queen with a beef against the Victorian empire who stole her homeland out from under her. Her henchwoman is none other than junior vampire to the stars, Carmilla (from Sheridan Le Fanu’s tale of the same name). Also, many, many Amazons. Think Wonder Woman but obsessed and carrying guns. There is also a chorus of subsidiary important characters, but to tell you too much about those would spoil one of the major incidents in the book.
Tidhar’s by no means shy of giving you all the things that should make Adler sing – world-merging, grand plots, overblown schemes to destroy the empire, kickass Quentin Tarantino-style panels (You’ve never quite lived till you’ve seen Paul McCaffrey’s full-page illustration of the phrase “Ladies, lock and load.”)
There’s running about, an operatic assassination you won’t want to miss, some vaguely Sapphic vampire suggestion (which, to be fair, is entirely fitting for Carmilla), quite the high-stepping, butt-kicking Buffyfest, all of it illustrated beautifully by McCaffrey, so that it should move you, involve you, engage your interest and excitement, even raise your pulse.
Strangely enough, it fails to do at least most of that.
Possibly it fails to do it because the road-markers on its route are all fairly predictable and/or expected. From the trappings – there’s Adler as a knife-throwing devil-woman in a red dress, there are tight corsets, goggles, airships, a high-tech death-ray, etc – to the plot-beats, there’s rarely anything once the women are introduced that ever actually surprises.
In fact, while some things should produce smiles – like the almost beat-for-beat re-run of the introduction of Holmes and Watson, as Jane Eyre comes to share rooms with Irene Adler – they often end up as basic box-checking exercises. Adler plays the piano when working on problems, for instance, and feels it necessary to hammer the point home by adding “but definitely not the violin.” There’s a certain swish of style to Irene Adler, certainly, but she doesn’t at any point jump off the page and stamp her own identity firmly on the story.
There’s also the slightly unsteady relationship the story has with individual creativity. When you pluck fictional characters out of other people’s books and make new stories with them, it can be a great thing – see the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen of course for a reference point.
But here, there’s sometimes very little connection between the characters’ established personalities – Miss Havisham, old, lonely, bitter and conniving – with their rendering in this story – Lady Havisham, gun-toting aristo weapons expert – so there feels like a gulf of disconnection in which some of the point is either lost, or more likely sacrificed on the altar of cool.
And then again, there’s the sometimes uncomfortable use of real people. Not only is Victoria in this story, but Madame Curie makes an appearance, and even Nikolai Tesla is dragged into events here. Celebrity literary stories are probably fine. Celebrity historical stories probably need to tread a little more carefully than this if they’re going to leave a reasonable taste in the mouth.
And finally, there’s an occasional what-the-hell moment in the storytelling. Giving your readers a red herring is fine. Giving them a red death ray and then simply deciding it’s not the real threat anyway – and having your hero immediately realise as much out of the blue – will give a reader narrative whiplash and won’t encourage further engagement.
It’s possible that Adler might well evolve into something richer, more meaningful, and/or more fun as further adventures are had, but this origin arc feels like it pays mostly lip service to the characters it uses. It also makes the awkward decision to put our heroes on the side opposing the vengeance of an indigenous queen whose world was destroyed by imperial ambition.
Sure, you can do that – especially when you’re telling a Victorian steampunk story. In fact, pro-Victorian stories are inherently supportive of invasion, colonialism and empire. But there’s very little by way of seeing the viewpoint of the villain. It’s all slightly button-pushing – she was a queen, but Victoria’s army crushed her people and stole their land, so now she’s aiming for vengeance.
Therefore, Adler and her crew have to stop her, because her scheme is homicidal on a massive level. Sure, all plots that are homicidal on a massive level should be stopped as a matter of principle, but Irene Adler in particular being American, it feels like the opportunity for any empathy with someone whose country has felt the might of the British war machine and decided to fight back is squandered beneath the need for a good punch-up against a nominal baddie.
As we say, it’s possible that Adler will evolve into something really interesting and stretch itself into the characters it’s using. But when compared with the likes of the Mycroft Holmes graphic novels by Kareen Abdul-Jabbar and Josh Cassara, it feels like it has yet, after over 120 pages in its first collected edition, to really find its hook, its soul, or its philosophical standpoint. It looks good, certainly, but it needs to sharpen its game in future issues and books to really justify the time it demands of its readers.
Worth getting as an inevitable origin story, Adler has promise, even if as yet, it’s not doing quite enough to fulfil it. Tony Fyler