Adler is billed as ‘the League of Extraordinary Gentlewomen’, seeing the Sherlock Holmes character Irene Adler teaming up with other characters from Victorian literature, such as Jane Eyre, and Miss Havisham, as well as some historical figures, to stop an Amazon queen who’s planning to turn Marie Curie’s research into a weapon of mass destruction.
As soon as I heard this description I was very excited for this book. Not only do I have a soft spot for literature of this period, but I absolutely adore Sherlock Holmes fiction, so seeing Irene Adler leading a team of strong female characters seemed to be written for me. Unfortunately, the book seemed to be unable to live up to any of this promise, and was hampered by some very off-putting issues.
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First of all, Irene herself is, I think, completely wrong here in every way. The Irene that was present in the original story (and it was only the one she was in) was a capable woman, one who not only outsmarted Holmes, but altered his views on women and taught him to not underestimate them. Over the decades since her appearance her use in various pastiches or re-imaginings has cast her as Sherlock’s greatest love (there was no love story between them), an adventurer to rival Holmes, and even a Kung Fu dominatrix. The Irene presented here is just Sherlock Holmes.
The first time we meet Irene is when she’s introduced to Jane Eyre, our other lead protagonist. Jane has just returned from the Boer War where she served as a nurse, and is looking for lodgings. Through a mutual acquaintance, Miss Havisham, she’s introduced to Irene. Irene immediately deduces that Jane was a medic in the war, is overly rude to her, and then the two of them move into a flat together where Irene mulls away her time practising her music, wearing a dressing gown, and getting into mystery adventures. It’s a complete copy of the Holmes and Watson dynamic, which if not bad enough in itself, is made even worse by the acknowledgement that Holmes and Watson exist in the world too. It feels like a lazy attempt to show how she’s like Sherlock by just making her exactly the same, which doesn’t actually give her any character of her own and leads to her feeling like a bad rip-off.
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This was only in the first issue, and I was hoping that it would get better from there, but it didn’t. The main antagonist for the book is Queen Ayesha, a woman whose kingdom in South America was destroyed by the British Empire, so she’s come to London to exact her revenge. Whilst this is fine motivation, her character, much like Irene’s, has a lot wrong with it. First up is the way she’s dressed. The book dresses Ayesha, and all her warriors, in next to nothing. Their clothing seems to be nipple covers and loin cloths, with the occasional cape thrown in. Their designs, much like Irene and her allies, seem designed purely to titillate and arouse, drawn for a male gaze where seeing a woman’s breasts almost falling out is paramount above practicality or comfort.
Unfortunately, the issues with the Amazons don’t end there. Despite coming from South America, every single one of them is the palest white, with bright blonde hair. Any design that feels like it could be true to people from that region of the world seems to have been thrown out in favour of what can only be described as Norwegian super-models playing dress-up. I can’t think of a single reason why these aren’t women of colour, why they don’t represent the peoples of South America. It’s incredibly jarring, and kind of insulting.
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Despite copying the origins of Sherlock Holmes, dressing its female characters like dominatrixes, and having some serious issue with race and colourism, the book tries to tell a compelling story, and is interesting in parts; but these moments are few and far between. Instead, readers have to contend with action scenes that feel ridiculously over-the-top or incredibly dull, and not even the inclusion of some of the most notable characters in literature can help them.
I don’t know how the book failed as much as it did, how it took such a good idea and did it so wrong, but I would like to hazard a theory. The book is about female characters, it’s about women doing amazing things and being just as competent as men; yet it appears that not a single person on the creative team is a woman. From the writer, to the artist, and even the letterer, they’re all men. I’m not saying that men can’t write good women, but why was this project not given to a female writer, someone who could point out the cliched dialogue and the sexist designs? I’m not saying it would have solved all the issues with the book, but I can’t help but think it would have at least stopped it being painful to read.
Adler is out now from Titan Comics.