Friday, June 2, 2023

The Sherlock Holmes Canon-Event

There's a concept that the new movie Spider-man:Across the Spider-verse uses that is very Sherlock-Holmes-relatable. A little surprised we didn't get there first, but Sherlock has always been solidly rooted in the mystery genre, despite notable ventures into fantasy or science fiction, however, so there's a great excuse. And there are other reasons as well.

Sherlockians have long been into the Canon of Sherlock Holmes, no doubt about that. We work out the lives of our favorite characters building upon Canonical detail, try to expand the Canon from our own interpretations, etc., etc. But what we tended to hold fast to was the idea that, even in our pastiche-worlds, there is just the one Canonical Sherlock-verse. When BBC Sherlock blew out the walls of Canon and we started to see Sherlock and John as tennis players, mermen, or whatever variant a Sherlockian enjoyed creating, an up and coming generation of Sherlockians started seeing the potential for a Sherlock Holmes multiverse, but it wasn't immediately embraced by our more traditional venues.

In decades past, it was even fashionable in Sherlockian publications to pooh-pooh new Sherlock Holmes stories that ventured too far from Canon, and folks liked to publish rules for pastiche. No celebrities. No bringing in Moriarty, Mycroft, or Irene. Emulating the original model as much as humanly possible was the way to go. But BBC Sherlock changed all that from square one, and it used the "Canon-event."

Sherlock Holmes was suddenly in the modern day, using a cell phone. And things were happening to him that were Canon, but not Canon. He didn't have to go to Switzerland to face Moriarty in a high place. Irene Adler didn't have to sing opera. And yet we all saw the old Holmes Canon reflected in these new Sherlock Holmes stories. And we even saw a second sort of fanon lock itself in that made a lot of folks unhappy with the way those tales turned out.

Comic book writers, handed characters that existed in World War Two with newer versions created comics had a fall and rise, started playing with the concept of a multiverse in the 1960s. Spider-Man: Into The Spiderverse, the first in the animated trilogy we're now seeing part two of, took that concept and ran with it. Spider-man did not have to be a story told just one way. He could be noir, he could be cartoony, he could be a totally different character . . . or could he?

That''s where the Canon-event comes in.

Spider-man:Across the Spider-verse goes meta without breaking the fourth wall in ways that make one reflect upon our own fandom and the tales we tell of Sherlock Holmes. What are Sherlock's "Canon-events," those parts of his story that we would definitely retell despite changing time, place, or other Canonical background details? With a comic book character, it's easy -- plant a spider on their chest and give them webs and you've pretty much got a Spider-man. Sherlock Holmes is a little more nuanced.

And while some might just go "stick exactly to the Canon," it's in those new variations that characters evolve and survive through generations. It's in those variations where we truly see what makes Sherlock Holmes what he truly is. If you can rip him out of London, change his gender, and still give the audience a feeling of "Yes, this is Sherlock Holmes," it adds so much more to our culture than a word-for-word retelling of The Hound of the Baskervilles.

On a deeper level, the exploration of Canon in tales like Spider-man:Across the Spider-verse is saying something about seeing the connections between other people and ourselves. We actually love talking about our Canon-events as Sherlockians, those moments in our own origin stories where we came to love Sherlock Holmes. Sherlockians are as different as varieties of spider-based superheroes, yet there is a literal Canon event in each of our pasts that put Sherlock Holmes on our t-shirt or bow-tie. 

For a movie with no Sherlock Holmes trappings, references, or anything else, I sure saw a lot of Sherlockianly relevant work in the tale told by Spider-man:Across the Spider-verse.

And I'll be thinking about it for a while.


  1. I still pooh-pooh pastiche that venture too far from the Canon. If others enjoy ineffable twaddle - so be it.

  2. I've always thought it was strange that the BBC Sherlock series named random characters in certain plotlines after characters in stories that were unrelated to the plot in question. Reusing familiar names just hurts my brain—it's the opposite of a canonical event (or you might call it a Touchstone of Canon)

    Certain other things (like there being a journalist/chronicler and a ratiocinator as the principle characters, their job being to investigate...something, and a general disregard for expected norms/bucking the establishment to complete their mission) are a must for me, otherwise, even if you use a character garbed in houndstooth or burberry with a deerstalker, calabash (or other) pipe, and magnifying glass in Victorian's just a cash grab/marketing ploy to use the name Sherlock.

    Exhibit A: