Shirley & Jamila’s Big Fall. By Gillian Goerz. Color flatting by Mary Verhoeven. Dial Books, 2021. ISBN 978-0525552895, US$12.99. 240 pages.
The first comic I read in 2022! I read it on January 1. I thought I'd break out of my self-imposed hiatus to write this quick review:
More complicated and less charming than the first Shirley and Jamila book (which I reviewed almost exactly a year ago), this one adapts a Sherlock Holmes tale by Conan Doyle into a somewhat incredible middle-grade story of bullying and comeuppance, one in which Shirley and Jamila commit burglary and break a lot of rules in order to solve a nasty problem for everyone at their school. I admire the book’s emphasis on kids’ agency and cleverness — adults don’t solve the problems here, kids do — but the resulting story is hard to believe. Essentially, Goerz has taken up an Edwardian thriller, in which the blackmailer gets his just desserts at the point of a revolver, combined it with familiar middle-grade tropes about the excitement and anxiety of a budding friendship, and then tried to engineer a nonviolent, affirming, and progressive payoff. I didn’t quite buy it.
The Shirley and Jamila books recast the Holmes and Watson relationship with two middle-grade girls, the White, Anglo-Canadian Shirley Bones and the Pakistani Canadian Jamila Waheed. Goerz portrays contemporary Toronto as a welcoming multiethnic community and promotes an ethic of inclusivity and diversity. The first book, Shirley & Jamila Save Their Summer (2020), is about a theft, but the thieves turn out to be relatable and redeemable characters, and the book becomes a paean to tolerance and understanding. This second book, however, has an out and out villain, one who isn’t quite humanized and certainly not redeemed. He is, tellingly, a rich White boy who epitomizes privilege. This villain seeks to hide his insecurity by gathering secrets, blackmailing his classmates, and turning them against each other. Masking his aggression with smarm and false concern, he is an abhorrent character, loathsome through and through.
Of course, Goerz can’t have him shot at point-blank range, à la Conan Doyle, but she has to defang him somehow. This is where the book’s secondary plot about friendship comes in, as a new friend of Jamila’s becomes the means of his undoing. In essence, Goerz introduces a new character into Jamila and Shirley’s friendship dyad, testing their connection to each other, while trying to convert Conan Doyle’s tale of a blackmail victim’s revenge into something more positive. Along the way, the story skirts moral complexity, justifying questionable decisions made by Shirley and Jamila in the pursuit of justice. The original Conan Doyle story endorses vigilantism (key to Holmes's appeal) and excuses Holmes’s deceptive tactics, spying, and use of disguise and feigned friendship in the name of a higher good; these same moves look strange when committed by a fifth-grader. Again, I didn’t buy it.
So, I have my doubts about recasting Holmes and Watson, originally 19th-century British men of fortune, as contemporary school kids in a progressive milieu. This second book stirs up those doubts. Its plot-rigging is, again, hard for me to believe, and the Jamila/Shirley relationship isn’t helped by Shirley’s Holmesian habits of secrecy and spying. The resulting mix is unsteady, with Goerz working hard to foreground Jamila's perspective but Shirley upstaging Jamila with her eccentric, Holmes-like brilliance and cool scheming.
That said, this is a briskly cartooned, inventively laid-out graphic novel, more visually dynamic than its predecessor. The story’s highlight is the extended, multi-chapter burglary carried out by Shirley and Jamila, a sort of tightly wound heist sequence that takes up a good 90 pages. This is exciting stuff, a tense, precisely staged caper (I imagine that Goerz relished the challenge of staging it). I have to admit, I expected more serious moral repercussions afterward, and I’m disappointed that Goerz didn’t push the hard questions, but there are some nice, suspenseful moments along the way. I hope Goerz will do further Shirley and Jamila books, though I also hope that she doesn’t pattern their stories so closely after Conan Doyle — her characters and milieu seem to call for something else.