Monstrous, Beautiful, and Bloody: Penny Dreadful #1

Penny Dreadful #1 | Titan Comics (2016) Cover by Guillem MarchPenny Dreadful #1

Krysty Wilson-Cairns (writer),  Louie De Matinis (illustrator), Simon Bowland (letterer), Lizzie Kaye (editor)
Titan Comics
May 11, 2016

(Note: This review and interview contains some spoilers for and is based on an advance copy of Penny Dreadful #1 from Titan Comics.)

“Cheap sensational fiction.” That is how the original penny dreadful stories are described. Worth a mere penny in the nineteenth century United Kingdom, the romanticized serial novels of mystery and horror were very popular among their target audience of young working class men.

More than two centuries later, “penny dreadful” has come to mean so much more, to a far more diverse audience, thanks to the Showtime series starring Eva Green, Timothy Dalton, and Josh Hartnett. The series has just begun its third season, which sees our protagonists trying to pick up and sort out the pieces after the harrowing events and losses of the previous season. And still, their greatest foe haunts them…

Wendy Browne has been watching the series from the beginning, while Kate Tanski, despite some hesitation, caught up after season one and has been on board ever since.

Wendy: Penny Dreadful airs right after Game of Thrones so it was an easy segue on a Sunday evening when it was first introduced, but I had no idea how deeply a show about the classic monsters and those who hunt or become them would affect me. Ironically, comparing the two hit series, I feel like Game of Thrones would fit the original “penny dreadful” description far better with its reliance on sensationalism and cheap storytelling tropes, while Penny Dreadful relies on far greater depth. It is an incredibly beautiful series and an incredibly ugly one. All of the characters struggle with their own demons and have bared their monstrous souls to us and to each other through scenes and dialogue that are nothing short of poetry. I cling to every word they utter.

Kate: I didn’t start watching until after the first season was over, and it was because of reactions like Wendy’s that I decided to try it. I tend to be highly critical of adaptations, but the world that Penny Dreadful created and the characters it’s brought to life, drew me in. The creativity of the story–or stories, I should say–which are both faithful adaptations and subversive reinterpretations of the source material show a care and quality that I’ve rarely seen on television, much less in an ongoing series. I never know where the story is going to take me, but I’m along for the ride. I have absolute faith in this creative team, and that’s a rare thing.

Along with the third season comes the new comic book, written by Krysty Wilson-Cairns, which, while does not make up for the nearly 10-month hiatus (babies have been born, Showtime), does provide two narratives to follow along with for the next few months.

Wendy: I was instantly struck by how well the comic captures the raw passion and seething emotion of the show. The imagery is bleak, yet powerful, with dialogue that is only used sparingly. No word or colour or line of ink is wasted. As someone who has watched the struggle of the three characters presented –Vanessa Ives, Malcolm Murray, and Sembene–the weight of the story unfolding here is intense, bringing me back to the words that seduced me two years past:

Penny Dreadful S1E1 "Nightwork" (Showtime)“I’m trying to rescue my daughter. To save her, I would murder the world.” –Malcolm Murray, “Nightwork” (1.1)

Kate: It’s because of this faith in the show and its writers that I was so happy to read this comic and review it with Wendy, and my faith was not misplaced. Wendy and I are completely on the same page in terms of how this #1 manages to create the same aesthetic and mood as the TV show–which is very difficult to do in comics, and is especially noteworthy since this comic functions as a narrative prequel. But the comic is more than just functional. It’s experimental and gorgeous. It would also be a good way to hook comics fans who haven’t yet seen the show, because everything that makes the show artistically and narratively great is in here.

We are pleased and excited that Titan Comics offered us the opportunity to speak with the writer, Krysty Wilson-Cairns. 

Penny Dreadful #1 serves as a prequel to the series and opens with stark images of Mina Murray surrounded by the blood and violence of her new master, then switches to the softer, melancholy memories that we saw in the powerful episode, “Closer than Sisters.” What thought processes went into taking fans back to this time in the lives of our anti-heroes?

Krysty: We wanted the comic to be accessible to new readers, we also wanted to enrich the backstory for the fans – show the beginning of Sir Malcolm and Vanessa’s bond, show Mina and Harker’s harrowing tale. And if you’re up to date on your Season three episodes, you’ll know that our comic villain and our season three villain are one and the same! We always wanted the story in the comic book to enrich viewing of season three.

You’re coming on board for season three of the Penny Dreadful television series. Were you previously a fan of the show?

I was a massive Penny Dreadful fan. Season one was appointment viewing in my house. And one of the perks coming on as writer was getting to see Season two before it aired.

How did you feel about stepping into this role at this point in an established series?

Only about 99% terrified. The show is so great, everyone who works on it is a real talent, and so it was very nerve wracking and incredibly exciting to be coming in to it as one of the writers. John Logan was a writer I admired before I even knew I wanted to be a writer, so it was incredible to work and learn from him. Also everyone I worked with was so great the 99% terror slipped way down to about 10% after the first week or so.

Have you written comics before? Do you regularly read them? Are there any comics creators you find particularly inspiring?

I had never written a comic before Penny Dreadful. But I was a long time fan on graphic novels and comics. I find Brian K. Vaughn one of the most exciting creators out there. He hasn’t released a series I haven’t fallen madly in love with. I love Neil Gaiman, Art Spiegelman, Alan Moore, Mark Millar, the Lofficers. Red Son and V for Vendetta are some of my favourites.  

How does comic book writing compare to screenwriting?

There are similarities, ultimately both writing for comics and writing for the screen are visual forms, so there’s a lot of overlap.

Kate: One of my favorite things about Penny Dreadful is the way it incorporates many different works of 19th century speculative fiction. It’s not just adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but it’s also Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, and now, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It’s this incredible literary convergence/crossover/fusion of the literature of an era.

But I have to admit, I was also very pleased to see the comic go back to Stoker and reintroduce, or introduce properly, I suppose, Mina’s husband Jonathan Harker, who has been absent from the TV series thus far.

Is Jonathan Harker’s appearance here a way to explore that part of the story without crossing the narrative streams of the television show?

Krysty: I think as writers for the show, we always wanted to explore Jonathan Harker. He’s such an iconic character in Stoker’s novel and we always wanted to give him a Penny Dreadful spin.

Kate: I have a visceral dislike for horror movies, as well as things like blood, gore, and violence, which is why I was hesitant to watch the show despite my love for 19th century gothic literature. But when I watched, I found that the cinematography and art direction created enough distance for me to be able to enjoy the show. I felt the same way about the relationship between horror and art in Penny Dreadful #1.

Helen McCrory as Mrs. Poole in Penny Dreadful (Showtime}
Helen McCrory as Mrs. Poole

The artwork by Louie De Martinis is gorgeously experimental and visually striking. Can you describe your collaboration style and the scripting process?

Krysty: Louie is a complete master of the form, a wonderful artist who can be so expressive in the panels. Which was necessary for these rich, compelling characters that are masterly brought to life by the shows cast.  Louie understood the show and the style and themes we wanted from the very beginning, so he needed very little guidance or feedback form us! Andrew Hinderaker, Chris King and I worked on the outline for the 5 issues and then each scripted a section. Louie got the scripts and brought them to life in a way that blew our minds.

Penny Dreadful #1 Krysty Wilson-Cairns (writer), Louie De Matinis (illustrator), Simon Bowland (letterer), Lizzie Kaye (editor) Titan Comics May 11, 2016

There are five gorgeous covers for this issue. Do you have a favourite?

That is a very tough question, also — and I’m not sure if I’m allowed to say this – there are now seven gorgeous covers [Editor’s note: two of the covers are retailer exclusives]. They are all so exceptionally brilliant. Louie’s is magnificent – I have it framed, so it’s a winner in my book. I think Marguerite Sauvage’s cover and Ben Oliver’s cover are my other two favourites. They are both so evocative and very Penny Dreadful.

Wendy Browne

Wendy Browne

Publisher, mother, geek, executive assistant sith, gamer, writer, lazy succubus, blogger, bibliophile. Not necessarily in that order.