Showtime’s Penny Dreadful, which premiered its third season this week, has now come to the world of comics thanks to UK publisher Titan Comics. For those out there unaware, the TV series Penny Dreadful is something of a “remix” of classic 19th century gothic horror literature, taking certain elements from novels like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, and in this new season, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
I used the word “remix” because, while it’s incredibly faithful to certain aspects of the original novels in certain respects, Penny Dreadful jettisons canon completely in other ways. The main characters of the series—Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) and Vanessa Ives (Eva Green)—are entirely new characters who are related to Mina Murray Harker, the main female protagonist in Dracula. And yet, Mina herself is barely glimpsed in the series, as she’s really just a entry point for our new characters.
The first issue of Penny Dreadful, which is written by Krysty Wilson Cairns, from a story by Cairns and Chris King and Andrew Hinderaker, fills in some of the story gaps from season one of the show, which centered on Sir Malcolm Murray and Vanessa Ives’ quest to rescue Murray’s daughter Mina from the clutches of a sinister “Master” vampire. The master vampire, who goes unnamed (although we know it to be Dracula) he has abducted her from the clutches of her husband Jonathan Harker.
On the television series, we never actually see Harker, and he’s only briefly even mentioned, despite being the lead character in Stoker’s novel. It’s in the pages of this comic that we finally meet Harker for the first time, as Sir Malcolm and Vanessa journey to his home to find clues to the whereabouts of their lost Mina.
The first five pages of issue #1 are actually a retelling of scenes from episode five of season one, “Closer than Sisters,” which revealed the backstory of Vanessa Ives and the Murray family. In that episode, we discovered that Vanessa and Mina were childhood best friends, but she betrayed her by sleeping with Mina’s fiancé before the wedding, which was discovered by Mina. The wedding was called off, and the Murray family banned Vanessa from setting foot on their grounds. The grief and shame allowed Vanessa to become vulnerable to spirits and demons, which were a struggle for her to overcome. Eventually she did, and when Mina is abducted by Dracula, she offers her services to help her father Sir Malcolm find her.
After the initial five pages, we get the first moments that really step outside the confines of what we’ve seen on the series, as Sir Malcolm, Vanessa and Sembene (Malcolm’s African manservant) take a carriage to the home on Mina’s husband Jonathan, looking for clues. However, their carriage is attacked by wolves, presumably under the sway of Dracula. When they reach Harker’s home, Mina is nowhere to be seen, and once again, the trio is accosted by Dracula’s vampiric minions, this time in humanoid form…but they have help dispatching them from none other than Jonathan Harker, who makes his first official appearance in the world of Penny Dreadful.
It turns out that even before Mina’s seduction into the world of vampirism by Dracula, she and her father were not on speaking terms, because he deemed that her choice of husband in Jonathan Harker was “beneath her.” Clearly Sir Malcolm comes from a family of wealth, and wouldn’t approve of his daughter marrying someone who was merely middle class, as mixing of the classes was definitely taboo in Victorian England. But it was during this estrangement that Mina was taken by Dracula, something that is newly revealed in this comic, which adds to the layers of guilt that Sir Malcolm feels in the TV show for what happened to his daughter. In this sense, the issue adds a new dimension to the show.
The ultimate result of Malcolm and Vanssa’s search for Mina is revealed in the series, so there isn’t much suspense there for fans of the show. And this comic is basically just made for fans of the show, even if it is a prequel technically, it plays on the reader’s foreknowledge of events. Basically, this book isn’t for newbies. So the only new wrinkle to the story is the introduction of Harker, who appears so briefly here that we barely get the chance to know him.
As a Penny Dreadful fanatic, it’s fun to see some of the unknown parts of the story revealed, but if there’s one thing that I didn’t enjoy from this comic, it’s that it only felt like a companion to the series on a sort of superficial level. I say this mostly because the television show’s strongest element, aside from the superb acting, is the incredible writing. More to the point, the incredible (and often lengthy) monologues that the actors are given by series creator John Logan, who writes every episode of the show.
This TV series has a great command of language, in a way few modern shows do, and the sparseness of the story in this issue feels so different as to almost not be Penny Dreadful. Ultimately, the comic chooses to focus on action instead of talking. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I guess I was expecting more from this issue based on the source material.
On the surface, the art for Penny Dreadful is lovely, but it suffers from that problem that many comic book adaptations of live-action source material often suffer from, which is that often it looks like the artist was taking stills from the show, and simply tracing them over a light board. Because of that, the characters in the issue look a little bit too much like their TV counterparts, and occasionally it gives things that “uncanny valley” look, popularized by artists like Greg Land.
However, unlike Greg Land, the composition on may of these pages is very well executed and often just plain gorgeous, especially in the scenes created especially for the comic, like the vampiric attacks on our heroes. The coloring is particularly beautiful. Since, according to the credits on the book, the entire artwork was done by artist Louie De Martinis, it’s especially impressive.
So do I recommend Titan’s Penny Dreadful? Well, if you’re a hardcore fan of the series I say pick it up for sure; it adds enough new elements to the story that are interesting and sure to excite fans of the source material. But temper your expectations, because it doesn’t have anywhere near the layers found in John Logan’s excellent scripts for the TV series… at least not yet. But it’s all interesting enough that all the “Dreadfuls” out there will be very entertained by this issue, and probably want to come back for more.
RATING: 3 OUT OF 5 BURRITOS
Penny Dreadful #1 is available on May 11, 2016 at your local comic book store.
Images: Titan Comics, Showtime