[EDIT: I penned a running review series of Penny Dreadful season three for the Victorianist. Click here for direct links.]
This article contains (very) minor spoilers, so if you haven’t yet seen Penny Dreadful or read The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, you may want to steer clear.
When the Showtime/Sky television series Penny Dreadful was announced, many fans and critics accused it of plagiarising Alan Moore and Kevin O’Niell’s comic book series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. It does, after all, feature a very similar cast of characters and draw from similar nineteenth-century texts, especially if you count the abysmal film adaptation from 2003. Both mashups feature characters plundered from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, though LoEG showrunner Mina Murray is replaced by her father Malcolm (played by Timothy Dalton) in Penny Dreadful, as the unofficial ‘leader’ of the band of monsters. Sir Malcolm Murray, like LoEG’s Allan Quatermain, is a hunter and explorer who spent much of his life in Africa.
The role of leading lady in Penny Dreadful is assumed by Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), who bears a striking physical similarity to LoEG’s Mina, and, if we’re generalising, both texts also include a troubled young doctor (Henry Jekyll in LoEG and Victor Frankenstein in Penny Dreadful) and a token minority whose main task is to be brooding and mysterious, and to facilitate the other characters in their development (Captain Nemo in LoEG and Sembene, played by Danny Sapani, in Penny Dreadful; though to be fair to LoEG, Nemo is much more fully developed as a character than Sembene has been). If we take the LoEG film adaptation, both mashups also feature characters from Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey and an American gunslinger. The initial similarities are indeed striking.
Initial similarities aside, however, Penny Dreadful has less in common with The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen than you might think. Most of these accusations of plagiarism ignore the fact the Moore was also influenced by mashup texts like The Other Log of Phileas Fogg (1973), and, ironically, was himself accused of plagiarising Kim Newman’s novel Anno Dracula (1992) back when The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was first published. Most accusations of plagiarism directed at Penny Dreadful also don’t consider that both the monster mashup and the anti-hero team were around long before either Penny Dreadful or The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Now, as it finishes its second season and sets itself up for another, Penny Dreadful has clearly made a name for itself in its own right. How, if at all, does it relate to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and to what extent is it worth comparing the two texts?
I’ve recently re-read the full comic book series, and am currently (re)watching seasons 1 and 2 of Penny Dreadful for the thesis chapter I’m working on, which has given me the opportunity to consider these two literary mashups side-by-side at some length. Apart from the fact that the public domain material used in both mashups renders it legally impossible to label either as an act of plagiarism, Penny Dreadful and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen do quite dramatically different things with the same building blocks.
If nothing else, Penny Dreadful and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen are an interesting case study in the potential of the mashup as an art form. Despite drawing in many cases from the same pre-existing material, each recombined product is distinct and creatively unique enough to satisfy even the fiercest supporters of the myth of creative genius. Which is the ‘better’ mashup? Fortunately, few have ventured an opinion on the subject, though each certainly has its strengths.
A Bit of Fun
As Mark Clamen of Critics at Large points out in his early analysis of Penny Dreadful, the similarities between these texts are largely superficial. In his review, he probes at the heart of what separates the two:
[Penny Dreadful creator John] Logan’s universe is explicitly gothic to Moore’s more steampunk sensibility, and far less expansive than the graphic novels, both in population and historical ambition.
Not only do the two texts have different aesthetics – LoEG’s cluttered panels often contrast sharply with Penny Dreadful‘s tidy-even-when-gory framing – they also have different approaches to the (late) nineteenth century. Penny Dreadful‘s interpretation of the source material
sees Victorian monster texts as literary classics
, embodiments of the authors’ efforts to come to terms with their environment and with themselves. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
, on the other hand, selects its texts primarily for their entertainment value and sense of adventure, often playing with the fact that we’re still entertained by the same inappropriate things.
Both mashups approach the Victorian canon with a certain reverence, but from completely different angles. As part of an excellent re-reading session of Alan Moore’s work, Tim Callahan talks about
how Moore saw The League
as ‘almost a bastard stepchild of Lost Girls
, just suddenly realising the richness of the literary landscape we’re surrounded by, and that it’s all laying there for the taking.’ In the video below, Moore discusses the development of some of LoEG
For Moore, at least, constructing a story around these characters was clearly about creating a ‘rip-roaring, swashbuckling period adventure’ from the bones of classic adventures he himself admired. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is a superhero narrative at heart, and never takes itself too seriously – it’s possessed of a healthy dose of camp. It deals with plenty of serious issues along the way, but this is never really the primary goal of the narrative. The point is to have some fun with the heroes (and villains) of Victorian fiction. It’s a testament to More and O’Niell’s skill as artists (and to the comic book medium as a whole) that The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was able to have fun and offer an insightful critique of its source material at the same time.
In Penny Dreadful, creator John Logan is set on imbuing Victorian monsters with a fresh sense of horror rather than humour, to make them truly frightening
again. The first season took itself particularly seriously, and several critics openly suggested that the show might benefit from a bit more camp
, and the inclination to enjoy itself more
. The second season lightened this serious tone somewhat, but despite its fantastical subject matter, the comparatively mundane themes Penny Dreadful
deals with, embodied by its cast of very human monsters, forms the show’s focus. Logan himself explains why this show isn’t really
about monsters at all:
‘Within all of us we have secrets, we have demons. We are all monsters,’ says Logan. For him, Penny Dreadful is about the figurative monsters in all of us. Ironically, the serious tone of the show often gets in the way of its message, while The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen‘s irreverent humour allows it to stretch the characters and contexts it appropriates to a greater degree. Although Logan has noble goals for the show, the ‘monsters’ revealed in the process are often disappointingly one-sided.
At the moment, despite Logan’s claims that the show is an ‘exciting way to play with the central duality of what it is to be man, what it is to be a monster, what it is to be woman’, Penny Dreadful seems vastly more interested in certain, arguably more popular or accessible aspects of this ‘central duality’ than it is in others. The show seemingly has no problems exploring hot topics like feminism, bisexuality or trans identities (with varying degrees of success, it should be said), but any time it tries to tackle questions of race or colonialism, for example, the focus is inevitably on white, masculine guilt, inadvertently reproducing the power structures it seeks to undermine. For this and other reasons, Genevieve Valentine of io9.com has suggested that Penny Dreadful might have become too Victorian for its own good in this most recent season, often indulging in the familiar stereotypes of its setting rather than pushing the boundaries of horror. Only time will tell, but despite continuing reservations on an academic level, I personally enjoy Penny Dreadful immensely, and I’m looking forward to finding out what season three has in store.
If you’re interested in the literary references to be found in Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, look no further than Jess Nevins’ exhaustive annotations. If you’re looking to explore the cultural context of Penny Dreadful, the internet resources available to you are varied and plentiful. Den of Geeks‘ Michael Noble has a short and interesting piece on some of the mythology and Victorian culture that informs the show, as does Shirley Li from Wired. The official website also has a large selection of supplementary reading, viewing, and listening, including a great production blog. On the more academic side of the spectrum, Sarah A. Winter has written a short article on Penny Dreadful and the Victorian theatre, and Conrad Aquilina and Daniela Attard have put together a delightful, illustrated dissection entitled ‘Penny Dreadful: dismembering and assembling the Victorian Gothic’.