Sherlock Holmes: Adventure of the Opera Ghost (1994)
by Stephen P. Jones and Aldin Lee Baroza
There's another one? Yes, apparently there is. Behold the third Sherlock Holmes/Phantom of the Opera crossover to make it into published print, this time in comic format. All three books were published in 1993-1994, which leads me to wonder if there was some kind of explosion on the Sherlock Holmes fanbase that would have inspired this, but all I can come up with is the truly heinous 1993 made-for-TV movie Sherlock Holmes Returns, which defies all logic and entreaties for mercy, and I can't imagine it kickstarting a fanbase on its own. The reasoning behind this sudden crossover explosion remains a mystery.
As you can see from the cover art, this ain't your Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom. He looks positively mummified there, and will only get uglier as the comic progresses; his overall rendition is extremely faithful to Leroux's description, and very much evocative of the idea of a "walking corpse" that is so thought-provoking and viscerally frightening in the original story. Jones sparked my interest by outright quoting Kay in his foreword, prompting me to wonder if this was going to be based primarily on the Kay novel (answer: yes, it mostly is, but there are many elements of Leroux's original still intact), but he also followed that up with not only mention of Leroux, but also mentions Lloyd Webber in passing as well, and George Perry, who wrote one of the more widely read companion volumes to the story. I was duly impressed with his dedication and insight, especially when he hit the bulls-eye with his description of Erik as a "tragic-romantic villain", which was almost enough to stop me grumbling over the spelling error informing the reader of how "exiting" Leroux's novel is (comics, why can you never spell?!). Much to my delight, his sign-off proclaimed him to be writing from the University of Iowa, which is located in my hometown of Iowa City and for which I have plenty of academic respect.
The prologue features a quotation from the book of Genesis, which reaches its crux at "Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die." The quote is appropriate for a couple of reasons, the first being the idea that genius (or knowledge) is inextricably linked to instability and chaos, one of the core themes of the Phantom story and the greatest mental dichotomy in the character of Erik. This idea is here suggested to be bound up in the Catholic idea of Original Sin, suggesting that the pursuit of knowledge is at least in part responsible for Erik's instability and misbehavior, much as Eve's curiosity was responsible for the expulsion of humanity from Eden. It also, through the metaphor of Original Sin, suggests one of the fundamental questions of Erik's character: is it the evil in his soul that corrupts his face, as he believes, or is the ugliness of his face and the response of society the cause of his evil?
I found the art style a bit cartoony in the initial pages, but it picked up as it went along; while it was nothing to really write home about, I was satisfied with the portrayal and it didn't detract from the story any. The lettering style used in Watson's "memoir" narration took some getting used to as well, but it wasn't particularly difficult to swallow (though the continuing grammatical and spelling errors were).
While I had my doubts about the realistic odds that the suicide of a scene-shifter at the Paris opera house would make its way into the London Times, the rest of the initial setup, including the ads from the managers and the general mystery tone of the piece, was very reminiscent of Leroux's devices. It was refreshing to see the story approached in the same vein that it was originally written, something that the blending with the Sherlock Holmes canon makes even easier than usual. The entire comic is obviously a labor of love from someone who seriously enjoys both the Sherlock Holmes stories and the Phantom tale. I had to pause and make a note about the year in which Jones had chosen to set the story - 1896 - as it is several years later than the generally assumed date of Leroux's novel, but he mentions in his afterword that, since he was unsure of the exact date, he had chosen to set the story in the same year as the chandelier accident upon which Leroux based his famous falling light fixture.
This first chapter is full of things to love, such as Erik's unsettling attendance at the managers' farewell dinner, and his faithfully childish and frightening scrawl on the notes and ledgers. The Kay influence makes its first appearance in that Erik has a cat named Ayesha, who is borrowed straight from Kay's novel, although, bizarrely, the cat appears to be a fluffy Persian rather than Kay's aristocratic Siamese breed, actually resembling the Phantom's cat from the 1983 Markowitz/Schell film more than anything else. I wonder if that might be a shout-out to the daroga, an actual Persian person in this story. Madame Giry's a bit young and over-sexualized for me (good god, does she need to be depicted with boobs you can see from space? does that in some way help her character?), but that's pretty par for the comics course, sadly.
More interesting here is some delving into the character of Watson. While my inital suspicion that this was a response to the persistent Watson-hate in Siciliano's The Angel of the Opera turned out to be groundless, it was nevertheless refreshing to see Holmes' compatriot fleshed out as a full character in his own right for once, something that neither of the other crossovers bothered with much. Of particular note is all the attention paid to Watson's relationship with his now-deceased wife, which is hinted at in a few of Doyle's stories but which is never actually elaborated on. Jones' choice to emphasize Watson's memories of Mary and to describe her as a character and a love too fragile to survive the world recalls Kay's characterization of Christine rather forcefully, and Mary is, ultimately, almost more important a figure than Christine herself turns out to be.
Jones adheres fairly strictly to most of Leroux's storyline, his graveyard scene very faithful to the original novel's and most of his dialogue for Leroux's characters lifted verbatim from the original story. A few little historical anachronisms show up here and there, like Christine's very sexualized dress dress and scandalous lack of underthings during the dressing room scene, but overall it's nothing too intrusive... until the bewildering graveyard scene, at the end of which the daroga shows up with a rifle (?!?) and shoots Erik to run him off so he doesn't kill Watson. If that sounds like it doesn't make any sense, it's because it doesn't.
The chronology in the second half of the story gets a bit confusing, as Jones makes copious use of flashbacks and condensed time in order to jam the story into a two-issue comic format. Intriguingly, the siren returns to the somewhat unexplained, almost mythical status it had in Leroux's novel, being of indeterminate origin and almost overpowering in its beguilement. While Jones adds a whirlpool trap to suck Philippe and Watson under, giving things a much more concrete, realistic conclusion, Erik's later reference to needing to have a word with the siren is hard to pin down, being possibly either self-referential humor or an actual intent, and the haunting song of the siren seems to be occurring even as Erik is busy elsewhere with Christine. The mystery is handled very similarly to the way it was in Leroux's novel, and the deftly-handled mythological references: Watson says that, "Confronted by the siren again, I obeyed Circe's commands," as he tries to free himself from the spell, and later the whirlpool recalls Charybdis, one of the monsters of the Strait of Messina that the sirens were generally considered to be leading sailors to.
After a short detour that includes naming the daroga Nadir Khan, which is the name he was given in Kay's novel and another dead giveaway of influence from that work, we arrive at the most interesting symbolic part of Jones' comic: Watson's fever dream. The extremity of having been left behind while Holmes penetrates the underworld and the memory of the ghostly music from the graveyard at Perros-Guirec, which is quite literally the music of the dead, combine to give Watson very powerful dream flashbacks of Holmes' death in the tussle with Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls (in "The Final Solution"). Of course, said death was faked, but the dream is lent a startling immediacy when Mortiarty's face is replaced with Erik's, suggesting that the Phantom, rather than Moriarty, is the true equal and opposite number to Holmes' intellect; this is borne out when both Holmes and Erik fall to their deaths, neither managing to triumph over the other.
When the corpse of Holmes declares that there are "No reunions - death is final and that is that!", he is referring not only to Watson's deceased wife Mary, nor only to Christine's mourning over her father, but also to his own death; in a sense, Watson already sees Holmes as dead, in fact sees him as never having survived Reichenbach, and therefore Watson himself is utterly alone in the world (a situation which has its own parallels to both Christine and to Erik, of course). By contrast, the exhortation of Mary's ghost for Watson to forgive and forget echoes the need for Christine to move past her attachment to her father.
The Greek mythology element makes another brief appearance when Erik swears vengeance by Apollo, the god of the sun (and, incidentally, the statue on the roof under which Christine and Raoul pledge their love, which ties things yet closer to the story), and by Adamastor, the primeval spirit of nature bent on impeding and destroying mankind (not originally Greek mythology, but one of the Gigantes invented in the sixteenth century by poet Luis de Camoes), a figure that Erik obviously identifies with. Erik's terrifyingly skeletal physiology (he is mostly bald and has a cleft palate as well, among many other ailments) is dwelt upon for several panels, which really allows the reader to conceive a proper amount of pity as he continues his intelligent monologue, in which he is desperate to prove that there is indeed a human being trapped in that body.
Quite a bit of the detailed backstory that Kay invented for her 1990 novel, including events at the palace of Mazenderan and Erik's association with French architect Charles Garnier, have been borrowed and used here, though they are not overly intrusive and are used more to give the reader a better sense of Erik's character than to pad Jones' own version of the story. While Erik's background is pretty fleshed out (unlike himself, ha ha, I'm hilarious), I found myself wishing that Holmes hadn't fallen quite so far by the wayside; there are a few desultory mentions of him hiding out as a stagehand so we know how he got where he is, but he's almost a non-character, since center-stage is occupied pretty completely by Erik and Watson. I found it refreshing that Watson got to be in the forefront for once, but I still wanted a little more from the other characters, Holmes and Christine especially (and Raoul, too, while we're at it).
What I enjoyed most about that particular section was the daroga's description of the Phantom's morality: "Like a child, Erik is color blind to good and evil." It's a great description of Erik's amoral actions through most of the story. Generally, he acts in order to get a result, rather than for any abstract reason - he threatens the managers, for example, to get them to obey him, not because he views them as deserving of threats, and in the same way he holds Raoul hostage in order to secure Christine's acquiescence, not because he particularly feels the need to kill him (which he could have done at pretty much any previous time). While this does remove some of the extrapolated emotions that might otherwise be attributed to Erik, it also makes his redemptive realization at the end that much more pronounced.
Like most retellings of the story, Jones omits Erik's main motive for the chandelier-drop (the death of the boxkeeper that had replaced Madame Giry in the original novel) and actually moves the event to the same night as the masquerade ball. Also like most later versions, it's a much more sensational occurrence, and several people are injured and killed as opposed to the novel's single fatality. Christine's role as savior is emphasized here as she is the one who warns the patrons to run before the disaster, which is actually a bit odd in light of the fact that she plays a far smaller saving role in this version than she did in Leroux's book.
The final confrontation in Erik's house beneath the opera is not markedly different from its original version, except in that Holmes is in the torture chamber with Raoul and poor Watson turns up in the house on his own quite by accident (incidentally, when he hides in Erik's bedroom, the huge musical score of Dies irae - presumably the Mozart, though it isn't specified - on the wall is a great touch). Much to my mingled dismay and amusement, Erik doesn't end up letting the men out of the torture chamber; Holmes manages to finagle their way out, and then there is much engaging in fisticuffs, most of which just made me laugh and/or cry. As the previous silliness with the rifle in the graveyard, it didn't last very long, which was a mercy; the episode reminded me of the 1976 Bischoff book, which included a three-way swordfight when the author felt that there wasn't enough dramatic tension at the conclusion of the story. The only whispers of influence from the Lloyd Webber version of the story are also here, when Erik informs the visitors that this is "an unparalleled delight" (a line from Lloyd Webber's libretto) and when he calls Christine "Angel".
The climax of the story here actually is not in Christine's redemption of the Phantom, but, bizarrely, in Watson's. Erik actually steps back of his own accord upon seeing how distressed Christine is over Raoul's injuries, and Watson takes the opportunity to jump his portly ass in there and show the Phantom a picture of his dead Mary, telling him that they both have to let go of a love that will never return. It's not really Watson's action that stops Erik; he has already paused, shocked by the realization that Christine really does love her vicomte. This reinforces the daroga's earlier statements, making the angry, demanding Erik of a few pages ago less of a villain intentionally hurting an innocent love affair and more of a child that simply didn't understand the emotions at work. I was honestly a little worn out on Watson's grief by this point; it wasn't that it wasn't nice to see the character given a little more depth, but it often felt a touch overdone or too much like Jones was groping for an excuse to inject a little more pathos into a scene.
The wrap-up of the story past that point is fairly standard, with Christine and Raoul eloping (a nod is made to the fact that he is essentially giving up his life to be with her when Holmes mentions that Raoul has forfeited his estates to his sisters), Erik dying of a broken heart beneath the opera house, and an ending with Watson (who, hilariously, has taken Ayesha with him) finally selling his house and its attendant memories of Mary in order to try to move on with his life a bit.
More interesting than any of that is Jones' afterword, in which he states that he knows of no other crossovers of the Phantom story with the Sherlock Holmes canon (which blows a bit of a hole in all the attempts I was making to find any corollaries between the other two novels that mix the two!). In fact, I'd have to say that I enjoyed Jones' essays before and after the comic as much as the actual work itself; they showed a great deal of research into the story and a real understanding of the characters involved. I'd be interested in his other Sherlock Holmes works, if I didn't have about umpteen million Phantom versions still to get through.