I was surprised when I saw the byline over a column in Time magazine some months back — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, all-time leading scorer of the National Basketball Association. In the magazine, he writes, usually, about some racial issue, and he always makes good sense. But I was surprised again when I saw his byline on a comic book — specifically, Mycroft Holmes and the Apocalypse Handbook, debuting last fall. From straight expository prose to fanciful fiction.

Mycroft Holmes coverAnd then I was again astonished — even more so this time — to learn that Abdul-Jabbar is a New York Times bestselling author, having written twelve books, including three childen’s stories (one of which won the NAACP Award for Best Children’s Book), two autobiographies, several historical novels, and the prose novel about Sherlock Holmes’ older brother, Mycroft Holmes, his first work of fiction, which he wrote with Anna Waterhouse, a professional screenwriter and script consultant.

That’s a lot of writing credit for the seven-foot two-inch Basketball Hall of Famer (since 1995).

And now, a comic book.

Comic books require a wholly different writing sensibility than prose fiction. More like script-writing for movies or television. Again, Abdul-Jabbar had help: Raymond Obstfeld and Joshua Cassara. Roles are not specified, but my guess is that Obstfeld helped with the story and Cassar did the drawing. And they do all right.

Abdul-Jabbar, an English and history graduate of UCLA, became addicted to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories early in his basketball career and claims to have adapted Holmes’ powers of observation to the game in order to gain an edge over his opponents.

“I read the Conan Doyle stories during my rookie year in the NBA,” Abdul-Jabbar says in the comic’s closing pages, “and was fascinated by Holmes’ ability to see clues where others saw nothing. I was intrigued by his ‘older, smarter brother’ [Sherlock’s characterization] who was involved with government at the highest levels.”

So high are the governmental levels at which Mycroft works that Sherlock once says the government could not function without him.

The debut issue of the comic book begins with a five-page episode in which a man in a derby hat wearing a scarf destroys a museum and, presumably, kills several people who happened to be within. None of which has any apparent connection to the tale that follows.

The narrative begins in Cambridge in a philosophy class. It is there we meet Mycroft Holmes, the older brother of the more famous Sherlock.

Mycroft is mentioned in only a few of the canonical Sherlock Holmes stories, and he appears in only two. In both, he is described as “strapping,” and Sidney Paget’s picture of him show him to be somewhat stout. Admittedly, the Conan Doyle tales take place some years after this comic book adventure, which is dated 1874. At that time, Mycroft was, to judge from Cassar’s portrait, a normally proportioned even somewhat muscular youth.

In the only self-contained complete episode in the book, Mycroft engages in an intellectual debate with his professor — and wins. For which impudence, he is almost tossed out of Cambridge.

He displays wit and towering snobbery. He’s self-satisfied, has a high opinion of himself, and he’s snooty. In these traits, he’s much like the effete know-it-all snob Philo Vance in the detective stories by S.S. Van Dine (aka Willard Huntington Wright). Not an admirable personality even if gifted. Mycroft’s younger brother, who shows up later on, is a much more likeable character.

As if to demonstrate Mycroft’s masculinity, we see him next, naked in bed with a young woman, equally naked. They are interrupted by the arrival of a somewhat peevish Sherlock, who explains that Mycroft’s invitation to visit was arranged deliberately so that Sherlock would see a naked woman. “Lord knows,” Mycroft says, “with his personality, this will be his only opportunity [to see a naked woman].”

While Mycroft and Sherlock exchange witticisms, the apartment is invaded by three men wearing masks. After a couple pages of scuffling, they kidnap Mycroft; we next seem him suspended upside down from a ceiling.

Kareen Abdul-Jabbar photoIn his exchange with his captors, Mycroft proves himself a gifted observer—not unlike his brother Sherlock— determining by keen observation that his chief captor is the “dean” of the Cambridge school who managed to get him reinstated after his go-round with the philosophy professor.

This is something of a mis-characterization: Conan Doyle’s Mycroft was noted for his superior memory, not his powers of observation; for those, he, Mycroft, relied upon his younger brother on those rare occasions when Mycroft ventured outside the halls of government.

Sherlock describes his brother this way: “He has the tidiest and most orderly brain, with the greatest capacity for storing facts of any man living. In that great brain of his everything is pigeon-holed and can be handed out in an instant.”

And the departments of government rely upon Mycroft’s memory to sort out the issues upon which decisions are required.

But in demonstrating his ability to discern not otherwise evident facts by observing tangential evidence — Sherlock’s speciality — Abdul-Jabbar’s Mycroft reveals, also, his courage — his imperturbability — in the face of a very threatening situation.

It was probably Mycroft’s being denominated Sherlock’s “smarter brother” that attracted Abdul-Jabbar; everything done here makes that point. In contrast, young Sherlock seems somewhat (and merely) ill-tempered. Abdul-Jabbar doesn’t explore Mycroft’s fabulous memory at all.

As Mycroft is explaining what observations led him to his conclusion about his captor, a door bursts open and a woman wearing a tiara storms into the room, demanding to know “if this is the young man who is willing to sacrifice his own life to save the world — and more importantly, the British Empire.”

There, the issue ends.

Who is she woman? Probably Queen Victoria. She’d be 55 at the time of this story, and Cassar’s visual fits.

Abdul-Jabbar’s story presents a not quite acceptable (to Sherlockians) interpretation of Mycroft Holmes. Although it deviates noticeably from the Conan Doyle version, we can accept Abdul-Jabbar’s Mycroft as a younger, not stout at all, Mycroft — still in college, long before his plumper self became, due to his memory for bureaucratic and other details, indispensable to the British government. His snooty demeanor, however, clashes violently with Conan Doyle’s Mycroft, who was polite and at least as verbose as Sherlock but not annoying. And he was even deferential to Sherlock’s superior talents for detection, that not being Mycroft’s forte.

Abdul-Jabbar’s Mycroft, we must note, is young. And Abdul-Jabbar’s previous version of the character, in the novel, was somewhat older — 23; and he, while still too self-absorbed, was not the snob he appears in this comic book.

Cassar’s artistry — his storytelling, breakdowns, panel compositions and page layouts — are expertly bent to relate and enhance the drama in the narrative tasks before him. We can ask for no better.


I’ll probably return for the second issue. Not because Abdul-Jabbar’s Mycroft is Conan Doyle’s but just to see what Abdul-Jabbar does with his version of the character. So far, he shows a mastery of the comics form.


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