Bonnie MacBird is regarded as one of the top Sherlock Holmes writers, and her five Sherlock Holmes Adventures for HarperCollins have developed a following. Frank Cho is a top Marvel artist whose cover illustrations are legendary. Together they have collaborated on WHAT CHILD IS THIS? – a Sherlock Holmes Christmas novella. A Holiday pick by both the Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, WHAT CHILD IS THIS? is newly out in paperback for Christmas 2023. It is a delightful and unique entry into the Holmesian world – written by Bonnie and beautifully illustrated by Frank.
Bonnie and Frank explain how the collaboration came about.
BONNIE: The Baker Street Irregulars (BSI) are a famous Sherlockian organization in the States and hold an annual gala every January. The programs are illustrated and suddenly had a new look with carefully inked drawings combining a period and modern look – a simply beautiful take on Holmes and Watson. Who did these beauties, I wondered? Frank Cho! Frank is a Marvel superstar but I didn’t know that at the time. However, I was knocked out by these gorgeous pen and ink renderings… and struck up a conversation with him. Besides being Sherlockians, both of us share a love for the pen and ink style of the late nineteenth century, and the conversation carried forward. I soon discovered how deep his Sherlockian roots were!
FRANK: I think, like you, I’ve always been a big Anglophile, especially anything relating to 19th-century Victorian England. I grew up watching Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes but also Hammer Studios monster movies. So, Sherlock Holmes and the horror genre has occupied my mind since childhood one way or another.
My best friend, Mike McSwiggin, reignited my interest in Sherlock Holmes and Victorian England about 20 years ago when he gave me the Naxos Sherlock Holmes series on audiobook, read by David Timson, for Christmas or my birthday. These Sherlock Holmes audiobooks sent me down the rabbit hole and the rest is history.
BONNIE: My love of Holmes goes back to age 10 when I devoured the canon and its hold on me has never let up. Jeremy Brett of course is an indelible Holmes, but I’ve also loved many screen versions before and since, including Benedict Cumberbatch, with the wonderful Martin Freeman as Watson. Hugh Laurie as House. Peter Cushing, Christopher Plummer, and of course Basil Rathbone. I could list many. They are clear in my head, though in my novel I see them younger than most of these actors.
FRANK: But then how did you think of me for WHAT CHILD IS THIS?
BONNIE: For my fifth book in the series, I pitched my editor at HarperCollins something a little different from the first four books. WHAT CHILD IS THIS? was to be a softer tale, no murder – but a definite pair of mysteries with some action elements. It was to be a Christmas story and shorter length – a novella. I saw it as a gift book and was thinking of having illustrations. Your beautiful work for the BSI made you the perfect choice. HarperCollins was delighted when I suggested you.
Of course, Frank, you are most well-known for comic book covers—superheroes, beautiful women, monsters and action pieces. Did illustrating a Holmes book feel like a departure for you?
FRANK: Yes and no. Since I love old black and white movies, I’ve always envisioned Sherlock Holmes in black and white so it was an easy and natural transition from creating these bright and kinetic comic book images to these atmospheric black and white images.
BONNIE: And of course, I’d seen your beautiful Holmes and Watson illustrations on the BSI programs. As for Holmes and Watson themselves, I write and envision them in my books as vibrant, handsome men in their mid-thirties, which they would have been in the time period.
FRANK: I agree with you, Bonnie. I see both Watson and Holmes in their thirties. For me, Sherlock has a more “bird of prey” look about him … almost vampiric with a fountain of tireless energy behind his eyes, while I picture Watson as a sturdy “everyman” with a slight military bearing and more benevolent vibe.
BONNIE: It was fun choosing the scenes to illustrate.
FRANK: It was a team effort. My girlfriend, Ashalie Evans, and I read through your book a few times and selected what we considered to be the most exciting and relevant scenes to portray.
BONNIE: Yes, you and I were easily in agreement on those. And you generously added some small items to sprinkle throughout, adding to the Christmas feel! I love those. The cigars, the wreath, etc. What was especially fun was that you added a cat into one scene which did not appear in the writing. But I loved the idea and reverse engineered him into the scene, to good effect!
BONNIE: I particularly love how you also captured two reoccurring characters in my books. Heffie O’Malley, the half-Jewish, half-Irish street urchin who proves helpful from time to time. And the thorn in Holmes’s side, the French detective Jean Vidocq. Both of these have become readers’ favorites and you nailed them perfectly.
Frank, you introduced me to the illustrator Franklin Booth, clearly an influence on your work. Can you talk about what inspires you in his technique and how you incorporate it into this work?
FRANK: I was actually introduced to Franklin Booth through Bernie Wrightson’s Frankenstein book. In the Foreword or Introduction of that book, Bernie talked about how Franklin Booth influenced and inspired the look of his Frankenstein art. Again, I’ve always been fascinated by Victorian England, and Franklin Booth’s line-heavy art style perfectly encapsulated that look for me.
BONNIE: It speaks to me, too, Frank. Both beautiful as art in itself, and illustrative of story at the same time. I love what you did in WHAT CHILD IS THIS? and hope we will collaborate again.
FRANK: Yes, of course! I hope so, too!