Kareem Abdul-Jabbar turned heads in 2015 when Titan Books announced Mycroft Holmes, a novel co-written by the former basketball player that follows the exploits of Sherlock's lesser-known brother. Abdul-Jabbar remains a unique presence in American culture—a superstar college and professional center known for his "skyhook" shot and years with the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers, he remains the NBA's all-time leading scorer. But is also a respected cultural critic and bestselling author, and was named a U.S. global ambassador by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2012.
Now he has taken Mycroft into the world of comics with Mycroft Holmes and the Apocalypse Handbook (with cowriter Raymond Obstfeld and artist Joshua Cassara), a globetrotting Victorian adventure with steampunk overtones that hits stands on August 3. Abdul-Jabbar, who has also written about his relationship with the late Muhammad Ali for PW, speaks about his history with the work of Arthur Conan Doyle, what it's like to change gears from prose fiction to comics, and his inspirations for the roguish title character.
Why the graphic novel adaptation? Do you have any history with, or passion for, the form?
I’ve been reading graphic novels since the 1960s. As a child, I loved the imaginative adventures that were like portable movies. Then, with the rise of Marvel’s pantheon, I liked the way the characters’ personal problems paralleled the exterior conflicts of fighting villains. They could save the world and 20 minutes later they’re trying to figure out how to pay the electric bill or impress a girl. More recently, the graphic novel has become a sophisticated art form that merges the best of the adventure story with serious social commentary. Garth Ennis, Alan Moore, and Brian K. Vaughn are particularly good at that.
This story takes place before the events of your novel, Mycroft Holmes. Do the events of this series have any effect on that story?
No, the graphic novel universe and the novel universe are separate realities and never the twain shall meet. The novel allows me the opportunity to present a more detailed story, while the graphic novel is more like poetry: every word, every panel has to resonate. There’s very little room for musings. Having said that, I really love the different approaches and the challenges of each form.
Mycroft’s stories seem to focus more heavily on otherworldly—or futuristic—powers than those of his sibling. What made you decide to go in this direction?
The graphic novel lends itself to the visually fantastic. Of course, the novel does too, as so many wonderful writers have proven. But the graphic novel combines art, color, dialogue, narrative, and visual momentum in an enormously appealing balancing act. There’s also a lot of appeal to being able to read an entire story arc in one sitting that most novels don’t give the reader.
Also, the futuristic elements in the graphic novel are a visual representation of the way I look at Britain during that era. Scientific discoveries and industrialization were breaking apart the old social traditions and ushering in a new age of wonder and social justice based on the future rather than holding back people based on past notions of social classes.
Are there any people—fictional, historical, or contemporary—whose personalities have influenced your conception of Mycroft?
Too many to mention. For the graphic novel, I wanted a roguish, witty, young man whose intellect left him feeling isolated and purposeless. Then he is recruited by a favorite professor and Queen Victoria and suddenly finds a way to channel his talents to give him a purpose. The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo were inspirations. But so were the mystery novels of Walter Mosley and Raymond Chandler.
What sort of changes in your writing process did you need to make in order to write for a comic, rather than for a novel?
As I said, writing a comic book is more like writing poetry than writing a novel. Every word and every image must count. It must convey a mood or further the plot or develop the character. There are a limited number of panels per page and a finite number of pages per issue. It’s like writing an Elizabethan sonnet. Making it all work within those confines is one of the things I loved—and hated—most about writing it.
In the Sherlock Holmes source material, Mycroft is described as even more brilliant than his brother, but sickly and uninterested in field work. What made you decide to make him more dashing and physically fit here, and in your novel?
Remember, it’s Sherlock who describes Mycroft and Sherlock is not necessarily a reliable narrator. He has his own petty jealousies and is quite competitive with Mycroft. We touch on their relationship in the first five issues, but I think there’s much more to do there. I’d even like to see them on a complete adventure together. That should be entertaining.