Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson: The Super Heroes Prototype

What child hasn't heard of Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Ironman and a host of other super heroes? What they may not recognize is that Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson are the original protype for the modern superheroes.

Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson Superheroes

Before Superman (1938), before Batman (1939), before Spiderman (1962) and even before Dick Tracey (1931), two male detectives from 221b Baker Street (1887) partnered to rid the streets of crime and ushered in the world of super heroes.

There was a calm assurance of power in Holme's manner which could not be withstood.

Sherlock Holmes, A Super Hero?

It is true we don't picture Sherlock the Victorian super sleuth as a typical flying, fighting, swinging super hero. But let's investigate some of the features of Doyle's famed character and find the genesis of the next generation's literary entertainment.

The Detective

The first feature that all would recognize is that Sherlock is a detective. In fact he is THE detective.

Now, it is possible that some detractors of our super hero theory may object on the basis that Sherlock was not the FIRST detective to grace the pages of literature.

That argument is valid. It is true that C. Auguste Dupin from Edgar Alan Poe's The Murders in the Rue Morgue predated Sherlock by 46 years (1841 compared to 1887.) Poe is esteemed as the originator of the detective story and his influence on Doyle's later character is acknowledged by literary historians. (Of course, Sherlock himself felt Dupin was an inferior character, but we will get to that.)

Dupin, of course, is lacking some of the august features of his successor. Most notably: fame.

Ask anyone on the street who Dupin might be and you will likely get blank stares. Not so with Sherlock, whose hat, cape, and pipe are universal symbols for detectives.

No, Sherlock was not first, but Sherlock was and is the greatest. His popularity in the last half of the nineteenth century surpassed Dupin. Into the twentieth century he was laps ahead. The twenty-first century continues to witness the appearance of his new movies while the original stories still roll off the press.

Crime Fighters

Sherlock and his side kick solve crimes and fight criminals.

The world of super heroes, not yet known to gas-lit England, was going to do the same. Like Doyle, their writers had to come up with a variety of plots for a variety of criminals. They can't ALL be bank robbers.

But like Sherlock, they all have these features:

The Super Hero's Cape

Sherlock Holmes Cape

Holmes' holster, or coat with a cape around the shoulders, has been associated in the public mind with the clothing of a detective, just as his deer stalker hat is often considered the head-gear of any true private eye. (In truth, the deer-stalking hat was for traveling outdoors in the country. In town he would usually wear a black top hat like all respectable London gentleman.)

The cape, cravat, and hat became the picture of the famed detective.

Is it a coincidence that Superman and Batman also donned a cape?

He returned in a few seconds enveloped in an ulster and a cravat.

From "The Study In Scarlet?

The ulster cape reached the elbows allowing freedom of movement. The inverness cape, also popular at that time, was included in many original drawings of Holmes. It seems our detective needed a complete change of clothing depending on whether he was hunting urban or rural criminals.

The Trusty Sidekick

Batman had Robin. The Lone Ranger had Tonto. And Sherlock had Watson.

Because even a super hero needs help.

Watson, like the side kicks that followed, was an essential part of the story. Of course on a practical level he DID things that needed to be done. But more important, he needed to be there to be himself. Someone the super hero could talk to, to create a dialogue. The audience could follow the reasoning of the hero because, and only because, he talked to the trusted side kick. Watson wasn't an exciting or dramatic figure. But he was a necessity to Holmes and to us.

Read more Facts about Dr. Watson.

Super Powers?

So if Superman flies, Batman drives an invincible batmobile, and Spiderman swings on tall building with a web, just what does Sherlock do?

Sherlock deducts!

Give him a problem that stumps Scotland Yard and he solves it. Without X-Ray vision or miraculous abilities, he uses his brain and logic to solve the unsolvable.

A Genre in Development

Sherlock Holmes is to Batman what Mickey Mouse's Steamboat Willie is to: The answer, of course, is B. Just as the silent film "Steamboat Willie" introduced Mickey Mouse and ushered in animated cartoons, Sherlock Holmes lived at the brink of technological change and shaped the entertainment that was to come.

Television became universal, kiddos turned on the tube Saturday am when their parents tried to sleep-in, cartoons were created for the new market and an appetite for new characters was developed.

And from where do those characters spring?

Sherlock himself was too thoughtful, too slow, too methodological to keep the little tykes entertained. Action-packed criminal fighters were needed. Decade by decade the entertainment industry evolved. Cartoons became comic books, comic books became movies, movies became video games. (Note, for some characters, that order may be reversed.)

Youngsters liked invincible heroes who always caught their man -- just liked their great-grandmas and great-grandpas did when month by month The Strand magazine published the exploits of London's fictitious private eye.


Super heroes are human characters with unrealistic powers. Hyperbole is the word that comes to mind.

Perhaps Sherlock himself, though not quite as miraculous as the later entertainers, is also a tradition of hyperbole. His frequent reference to "his methods" creates an intrigue. Note that people still are researching and explaining that method.

Even more than Sherlock, his brother Mycroft is an exercise in hyperbole. "All other men are specialists, but his specialism is omniscience," claims Sherlock. (From The Adventure of the Bruce Partington Plans.)

Yea, Sherlock even states, He IS the British government. Pretty cheeky, huh? None of the later super heroes made THAT claim!

While Sherlock's powers never reach the clouds, hyperbole dictated to later writers the need for out-of-this-world abilities.

Leap Tall Buildings In A Single Bound

Jumping over skyscrapers, or swinging off of them, definitely was not Sherlock's forte. He never even thought about it.

But surviving Reichenbach Falls? No one else could have done it (granted it took him three years and a rather lame excuse for not contacting Watson to return.)

The next generation of heroes needed to outdo Reichenbach Falls. And so they did.

Saturday morning after Saturday morning kids watched their super heroes fly and throw and swing and skate and plunge and dive and jump to heights and depths Doyle never dreamed of. Their fans eagerly followed their actions before outgrowing them.

Long after putting aside the superhero capes, some discovered another literary hero when they opened the first short story that began: "To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman.

Another super adventure about to begin...

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Sherlock Holmes Pages

A catalog of our pages on Sherlock Holmes.

Sherlock: The Unit Study Sherlock Holmes Unit Study
8 popular stories for Middle or High School
The Speckled Band Speckled Band
Compelling mystery of the whistle in the night
Silver Blaze
Who, where, and why of a dead man and missing horse
The Red Headed League Red Headed League
A silly-looking prank masking an international crime
The Engineer's Thumb Engineers Thumb
Is this one of Doyle's best - or worst - stories?
Crooked Man
Crooked Man
A truly crooked man in a twisted tale of betrayal
in Bohemia
Scandal in Bohemia
Multiple scandals in this drama of love gone wrong
The Dancing Men Dancing Men
Irony of honor in one of his saddest cases
The Final
Final Problem
Doyle's daring decision and the outcry that followed
More About Sherlock Consulting Detective
Interesting tidbits about the world's only consulting detective
More About Dr. Watson Dr Watson and Sherlock Holmes
There's more to Dr. Watson than readers first see
Super Hero Prototypes Holmes and Watson: Superheroes prototypes
Are Holmes and Watson the super hero protypes?
List of All Short Stories List of Sherlock Holmes Short Stories
List of stories and longer books
Sherlock Holmes Quotes
Famous quotes, brilliant sayings, and intriguing insights
Action Plot Summary Summary of Sherlock Action Plot
The unique action plot made Sherlock stories a classic.
Who Is the Best
Sherlock Actor?

Sherlock Holmes best actors
If you want to watch, find who portrayed him the best.
Kids and

Sherlock stories for kids
Most appropriate Sherlock stories for kids
What makes Sherlock #1 Sherlock Holmes popularity
Why is he fiction's most popular character?
What about women?
Sherlock Holmes and Women
An armchair quarterback in the battle of the sexes

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