‘Penny Dreadful : Volume 1’ reviewed

❉ Collected for the first time, Titan’s prequel series recounts the events that led up to the first season of the Showtime series.

Break out the red ink. Penny Dreadful has crossed over from the world of TV into the medium of the graphic novel. In some respects, given the extent to which Penny seems like the demon offspring of The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, it feels like the series is coming home. Or at least dropping by to visit the parents.

Truth to tell, the prospect of a prequel to the Showtime Victorian horror show did not excite me. For one, I have, if not an aversion, this innate interest-vacuum when it comes to prequels. Surely, if there was more prior story of sufficient note to merit my attention they would have started the original tale at an earlier point. Or embedded it all in flashback. For another thing, if we’re to have more Penny Dreadful – in any form – then I would have thought something tacked on the end would be preferable, because the TV series appeared to trail off with more of an ellipsis – and possibly a question mark – than a full stop.

Fortunately, there are always exceptions to the prequel principle that manage to win me over and this, while it does retread some material that was covered in backstory and flashback, delivers a tale that does warrant telling. Not to mention, one that segues nicely into the TV series, both in terms of content and tone.

And it’s not just about the red ink. Although there is a ‘healthy’ mix of blood and shadow to many a page to ensure the colour palette marries well with the aesthetic of the TV version. The character likenesses of the key players – Murray, Sembene and, of course, Vanessa Ives, are pretty good too – with Timothy Dalton being the best-captured of the lot. The dialogue is also tailored well to fit the character voices, so you feel you are in familiar company. Not friends exactly, because, you know, you do not want to be friends with these people, but when actors’ portrayals form such a compelling part of the appeal of a TV series, it’s important to translate something of that onto the page if they are to be rendered in a different medium. Every little helps.

But, more significantly, the story combines moments of visceral, gory action – an ingredient not uncommon to graphic novels – with more measured, brooding drama – surely more difficult to convey on the page – in a characteristic blend that is unmistakably Penny Dreadful. At times the characters are sketched like ghostly apparitions – even those who aren’t inhabitants of the spirit world – which lends the reading experience an additional haunting quality.

And the frames bleed atmosphere, helping to complete the illusion that you are merely enjoying a missing pilot episode they happen to have unearthed.

The story concerns itself with the three main series regulars already mentioned – so don’t go exploring in hopes of finding Victor or his Creature or Billie Piper or Dorian Grey – and feeds further on the exposed jugular of Dracula. By which I mean the original Bram Stoker novel. Without serving up too big a side-dish of spoilers, suffice to say it investigates the story of Mina in relation to Jonathan Harker and Lucy Westenwra. With, as you’d expect from a Penny Dreadful episode, detours into background for some of the characters – Sir Malcolm Murray and Sembene, for example, and their expedition in Africa. More than that, I think, need not be said.

With its striking visuals and a patient, proficient grasp of storytelling, it weaves a mystery that is less about the mystery than it is about the impact on the characters, their motivations and relationships, involved.

Overall, the product has all the marks of quality and attention to detail that you’d expect as soon as that high-definition title sequence starts crawling across your screen at the start of every episode.

Included as appendices, this publication has behind-the-scenes features on the show itself – a discussion on vampires, from the perspective of creature design and the challenge of coming up with something that hadn’t been seen a thousand times before, plus a nice character profile piece on Vanessa Ives.

All in all, the creators of this graphic novel have crafted a decent companion to the series and have perhaps only stitched themselves up by segueing quite so well into Episode One. Because although this calls itself Volume 1, this weaves its way towards an end note that I’m not sure allows room for future volumes.

Although maybe there is scope for prequel material for other characters – Rory Kinnear’s Creature must have done some interesting stuff on his travels that we haven’t yet been shown, for example? Ordinarily, as I say, the prospect wouldn’t excite me, but based on this publication, colour me intrigued.

‘Penny Dreadful Volume 1’ (Writers: Krysty Wilson-Cairns, Andrew Hindraker; Artist:  Louie De Martinis) is onsale in comic stores 1 March 2017 and on sale in bookstores 28 March 28. 128pp, ISBN: 9781785853685. For more information on how to order, visit: http://titan-comics.com/faqs/how-to-order/

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