Penny Dreadful versus The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

Penny-Dreadful-Vanessa-Ives

[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?

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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.

4604356351_babb2f8aa3_oNot 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‘s characters:

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.

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Serious Monsters

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.

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Further Reading

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’.

Victorian Monsters? Strategies of Appropriation in the Neo-Victorian Mashup

Octopus Portrait, © Yumiko Utsu, from the Victoriana: The Art of Revival exhibition
Octopus Portrait, © Yumiko Utsu, from the Victoriana: The Art of Revival exhibition

This post originally appeared on the Victorianist, the postgraduate blog of the British Association for Victorian Studies, on 18 May 2015. It is reposted here with the kind permission of the editors.

I should probably preface this post by admitting that I’m not a real Victorianist. The Victorians were one of my undergraduate passions, and I continued to read and write all about them during my MA, but somehow I was always more interested in how we speak about the Victorians today than in how they actually spoke to themselves or to us. It was the fantasy of the Victorians that I found most intriguing. For the purposes of today’s post this works out well, because although the texts and subcultures I’m currently researching are often set in the nineteenth century, borrowing Victorian politics and aesthetics, they aren’t really Victorian either.

Specifically, I’m talking about the monster mashup, in this case the kind that appropriates objects, texts and contexts from the long nineteenth century and combines them with a very twenty-first century monster culture. These mashups come in many flavours, and can be found in virtually every artistic medium. You’ve got computer and console games like Fallen London or The Order: 1886. There are monster mashups in film and television, like Van Helsing (2004) and Showtime’s Penny Dreadful (2014). They’re also in the fine arts, and a rich selection of monster mashups found themselves displayed at the recent Victoriana: The Art of Revival exhibition in 2013.

You’ll also find monster mashups, perhaps more predictably, among the ranks of comics and graphic novels – consider Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (1999) or Pinocchio, Vampire Slayer (2009). And of course there are novels, like Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula (1992|2011) or Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker (2009). Arguably the best-known monster mashup in novel form is the ‘novel-as-mashup‘, popularised with 2009’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and continuing with such groan (or grin) provoking titles as Wuthering Bites (2010) and Grave Expectations (2011). These mashups lift the very words, sentences, and chapters from the texts they appropriate, changing a word here, a paragraph there to create a new (if ultimately very similar) text. From lowbrow to highbrow, drama to comedy, there’s a monster mashup for everyone.

'Mr. Darcy watched Elizabeth and her sisters work their way outward, beheading zombie after zombie as they went.'
‘Mr. Darcy watched Elizabeth and her sisters work their way outward, beheading zombie after zombie as they went.’

The targets of these mashups aren’t exclusively from the nineteenth century, but an overwhelming number have thus far turned to the Regency and Victorian eras of Britain’s literary history for their source material. Copyright laws are no doubt partly responsible for this, as is the fact that we’ve got so much physical and visual material to draw on from the nineteenth century onward. The public education system is another likely culprit, as the most popular mashups (and the ones that attract the most media attention) tend to involve the classics of art and literature that most children in the Anglo-American world are introduced to during their early education. These are also the texts that have been kept alive by a seemingly endless series of adaptations, whether on the stage, by the BBC, or in cinemas.

A few weeks ago one of my fellow Cardiff PhDs, Daný van Dam, shared a post on Gail Carriger’s ‘Parasol Protectorate’ series (2009-2012), another monster mashup set in Victorian London. She wrote the following about the series’ Victorian appropriations:

Like many other neo-Victorian novels, Carriger’s books return not so much to the Victorian period and its history as to contemporary ideas about the Victorians, projecting present-day concerns upon an earlier period.

The precise nature of the relationship between neo-Victorian fiction and the past it references is something neo-Victorian studies is very interested in. In her book History and Cultural Memory in Neo-Victorian Fiction, Kate Mitchell puts the situation this way:

‘The issue turns upon the question of whether history is equated, in fiction, with superficial detail; an accumulation of references to clothing, furniture, décor and the like, that produces the past in terms of its objects, as a series of clichés, without engaging its complexities as a unique historical moment that is now produced in a particular relationship to the present. […] Can these novels recreate the past in a meaningful way or are they playing nineteenth-century dress-ups?’ Kate Mitchell, History and Cultural Memory in Neo-Victorian Fiction: Victorian Afterimages (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), p. 3.

With the monster mashup, answering this question is usually fairly straightforward: this is clearly a case of dress-up. In appropriating historical texts and contexts, these overtly fantastical monster mashups don’t necessarily seek to restore or revise the past, but rather to bring it back to life as a new text, and in a new context. They are twenty-first century texts in a Victorian coat. Regardless of their apparent superficiality, these kinds of creations and discussions are important in postmodern culture. Dress-up and performance serve their own purposes, and nostalgia can be an end as well as a means. 

Screenshot from Failbetter Studios' browser-based game 'Fallen London'.
Screenshot from Failbetter Studios’ browser-based game ‘Fallen London’, which allows you to play as a citizen of this monstrous city.

Postmodern theorist and critic Fredric Jameson has frequently returned to the subject of historicity and nostalgia in his work, often in conjunction with utopia. Both nostalgia and utopia, he argues, paradoxically evoke a kind of perpetual present by fetishising either the past or the future. Unfortunately, both are doomed to creative and subversive failure – nostalgia because its narrative of the past ultimately only serves to circumscribe the present, and utopia because its totalising narrative of the future inevitably morphs into dystopia. It is the failed deployment of these two elements that has resulted in postmodernism’s stagnation or end of history.

Nevertheless, Jameson continues to pursue these twin impulses of utopia and nostalgia, aiming to contribute to:

[T]he reawakening of that historicity which our system – offering itself as the very end of history – necessary [sic] represses and paralyzes. This is the sense in which utopology revives long dormant parts of the mind, organs of political and historical and social imagination which have virtually atrophied for lack of use, muscles of praxis we have long since ceased exercising, revolutionary gestures we have lost the habit of performing, even subliminally.

For Jameson, in other words, though nostalgia and utopia are both doomed to failure and stagnation, the urge to imagine, to fantasise, and to create using these impulses remains vitally important. In this sense the creation of history-saturated fantasies is much more for the sake of present-day culture than it is an homage to history. Neo-Victorian fantasies help keep both history and imagination alive in popular culture, giving them a much-needed stretching.

Dan Hillier, ‘Mother’ (2006). Altered engraving.
Dan Hillier, ‘Mother’ (2006). Altered engraving.

As a side effect of the way they ‘stretch’ history, monster mashups also manage to revitalise history, mythologise it, and even change it in a sense. These texts encourage discussion between disparate groups of people. They also force old texts into new contexts, revealing our historical and hermeneutical distance from (and closeness to) the old contexts. This recontextualisation of the Victorians can sometimes have productive results.

To give one example, these reality-blurring and genre-bending monster texts often draw attention to the constructed nature of the self, and the problems inherent in contemporary representations of identity and otherness. Monstrous others have stood in for racial, sexual, and social minorities for hundreds of years, but in the words of Judith Halberstam, in contemporary Gothic the monster is no longer totalising:

The monstrous body that once represented everything is now represented as potentially meaning anything – it may be the outcast, the outlaw, the parasite, the pervert, the embodiment of the uncontrollable sexual and violent urges, the foreigner, the misfit. The monster is all of these but monstrosity has become a conspiracy of bodies rather than a singular form.

In contemporary Gothic, monsters are us, and we are all monstrous. In any case, through this ‘conspiracy of bodies’, neo-historical monster mashups can call out cases of imperialism, colonialism, or patriarchy without singling out a particular minority victim. Monsters represent otherness, but not a particular Other. Symbolically they oscillate between the centre and the margins, endlessly deferred. Consider Travis Louie, for example, with his fantastical portraits of Victorians. These both call us to identify with the characters they depict and present those characters as alien. Louie has a whole series of these ‘Victorian cryptozoology‘ images as well, which evoke discourses of imperialism and colonialism.

© Travis Louie
© Travis Louie

Naturally this oscillation doesn’t automatically mean that using monsters in mashup texts is unproblematic. Specific monsters are still socially marked in different ways – the homoerotic male vampire, the sexy female robot, the lower-class zombie – but monsters do add a layer of mediation, a buffer between audience and story. Texts like these open discussions of otherness that might otherwise be met with resistance or increasingly negative accusations of ‘political correctness’. And, as always, imagining difference in the past potentially creates space for difference in the present. History and its cultural traces provide the foundations and reference points for today’s ideologies.

Roland Barthes has a great deal to say about the way history and tradition become myth. For Barthes, mythologies are formed to perpetuate an idea of society that adheres to the current ideologies of the ruling class and its media. Mashups, as part of the domain of popular culture, certainly contribute to the perpetuation of society’s myths (the nation, heterosexuality, gender, etc.). They are rarely subversive in the traditional sense, but because of their appropriative nature it is difficult for anyone to control which ideas and ideologies are communicated to audiences and readers. There is always ample room for divergent interpretation.

anno-draculaIn writing about the process of mythologisation, Barthes also refers to the tendency of socially constructed notions, narratives, and assumptions to become ‘naturalised’ in the process, or taken unquestioningly as given within a particular culture. Monstrous or fantastical history inherently resists such naturalisation, because it refuses to be taken entirely seriously, though certainly possible to politicise it. Monster mashups make history strange – or sometimes reveal the strangeness of history. Kim Newman has claimed that he initially decided to write Anno Dracula in response to Thatcherism and the rise of neo-Victorian political sentiment in the late 80s. This novel describes a Victorian England in which Dracula had succeeded in Bram Stoker’s novel, and come to rule over Great Britain. In this alternate history, which can be read as ironically similar to our own, Newman re-evaluates stereotypically ‘Victorian values’ as monstrous, ultimately showing that we often see what we want to see where the Victorians are concerned.

In a discussion of the Neo-Victorian graphic novels of Alan Moore, also extremely political, Jason B. Jones argues that what makes such mashups subversive is not their disregard for literary categories or forms, but their potential redefinition of our very identities and cultural spaces. He states: ‘[s]uch game playing foregrounds the extimate aspects of historical change, as something neither wholly external nor subjective’. In other words, texts that mix history and fiction while also playing with genre convention make the reader more readily aware of the constructed nature of even the most serious history. 

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Anatomy of a Cover

0ec06a8b4e7a3c88a15b846bf68cbb5dWe’re always told that we should never judge a book by its cover, but the truth is that a lot of work goes into making sure we do. A cover generally gives us an immediate idea of the genre, register, and target audience of a book. A good cover will also generate excitement and interest, and make a book stand out from the texts around it. Book design may even save the independent publishing industry, where according to The Independent publishers are ‘springing up to provide a certain kind of reader with what they want, more than ever: the book as beautiful, covetable, keep-able object’.

Because the cover is such an important part of selling books, often the same book will have multiple different covers for various countries and age groups. Take the ever-increasing variety of Harry Potter covers as an example. Book covers also generally get an update when they’re reprinted many years later, as was the case with the subject of today’s blog post: Kim Newman’s series of alternate-history vampire novels, Anno Dracula. You may recall that I posted a few weeks ago about the second book in this series, The Bloody Red Baron, and how it deals with the balance between entertainment and ethics in its reproduction of WWI.

These books were originally released in the ’90s, when they were marketed to a very different audience. As you can see below, the original cover for Anno Dracula (the first book in the series; 1992) has a distinct Anne Rice feel to it:
Anno Dracula

The reprinting from Titan Books, however, has a very contemporary feel, and taps into the growing neo-Victorian market. In a blog post on Titan Books, illustrator Martin Stiff of Amazing 15 talks about how they arrived at the new cover, and what was discarded along the way. Martin was kind enough to let me reprint the post for you here:


For a series of books where the characters and plot span the entire twentieth century it was always going to be tough to come up with a series design which could evoke the period while also being consistent across the range.

We tried some more traditional approaches to begin with, a half-and-half style cover with a lady vampire and an image which suggests the particular decade the book is set but these felt a little boring, like we’d seen them a million times before.


Mulling it over we struck upon the idea of a continuing series of posters, with each designed in the style of the period. The first, Anno Dracula, is set in the 1880s, so I mocked up a faux Victorian music-hall poster. This sat nicely with the adult nature and looked quite sophisticated – and the central idea of the poster fashion changing with each title was a great concept. But for some reason the idea never struck home with everyone and it got shot down. But like any good vampire it was soon to rise from the dead…

Our next round of covers used a simple framing device and an ‘object’ – a blood-stained locket on Anno Dracula, an Iron Cross on The Bloody Red Baron and so forth. For a while this was the cover Titan used for sales purposes and it seemed for a while it was going to be the final cover too. Never completely comfortable with the concept we continued to fiddle with the cover and tried some versions which combined the ‘object’ idea and the ‘poster’ idea but again, nothing really worked as well as we wanted it too.





It’s very easy, after producing so many different ideas, to get a little bogged down with the approaches you’ve already tried so we went back to the drawing board and tried some entirely new directions. The concept with these were to use a well-known building which could illustrate the plot of each book (hence Buckingham Palace for Anno Dracula). We kicked about the illustrated church cover for a while, with different logo treatments and different colour ways, but again it fell at the final fence.


Finally – and as frustrating as this may seem – we went right back to the beginning! The original music-hall poster concept seemed to have lodged into people’s imaginations and more we deviated from it with the other ideas the more we all realised how much we liked it. We brought it back to the table and continued working on it (we rejigged some of the text, added new quotes, etc. – and we actually made it look like a real poster on a wall) and suddenly we had our final cover!

Part of designing a series of book covers is ensuring any ideas you might have will work across the entire range. So, using the principle concept for Anno Dracula, we worked up the second book – The Bloody Red Baron. We were lucky enough to find an evocative (and out of copyright) WWI German propaganda poster and with a little twist (the black clouds turning into bats) we hit upon a really eye-catching cover!


As you can see below, the final cover for The Bloody Red Baron ended up being slightly different, though the overall idea is the same:

AnnoDracBloodyCv

The next two books in the series, Dracula Cha Cha Cha (1998) and Johnny Alucard (2013), follow a similar pattern:

anno_dracula_chachacha

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What do you think? Do these covers make you want to pick up a copy?

If you’re interested in learning more about book cover design, BBC Radio 4 has a 30-minute podcast on The Art of Book Cover Design, with John Wilson. There’s also a nice TED Talks on the subject with Chip Kidd, associate art director at Knopf, and a video from Random House where they interview some of their designers. You may also want to check out Lousy Book Covers, a Tumblr account dedicated to sharing some of the best of the worst.

On the Front Lines Between ‘Funny’ and ‘Offensive’

Art by Billy Ludwig.
Art by Billy Ludwig.

Seeing as today is April Fool’s Day (or April Fools’ Day, as Wikipedia pointedly suggests I should be apostrophising it), and most of the commentary on the day’s festivities seems to border on despair and desperation, I thought it might be fun to post something about the uses and limits of humour.

The line between what’s funny and what isn’t is a fine one, and is often purely a matter of context. Even when successful, humour is always a question of morality, politics, and aesthetics. One need only look at the recent Charlie Hebdo shootings and controversy to confirm this assertion. Humour can be used to point to both serious and trivial issues, and whether it is productive is always a question of perspective.

In the introduction to their 2005 essay collection Beyond a Joke: The Limits of Humour, Sharon Lockyer and Michael Pickering have the following to say about the distinction between what is considered funny and what is offensive:

It is generally regarded as being beneficial to laugh about things, including ourselves; to get problems off our chests and ‘see their funny side’; to look back on what was previously regarded as very serious, maybe even tragic, and ‘have a good laugh about it’. There are clearly many cases where this is so, but equally there are others when it is inappropriate to laugh, when humour does not sit happily with the general tenor of an event or situation, and when a joke is regarded as overstepping the mark, as being beyond a joke.
(p. 4)

In this definition of the border between humour and harm, the focus is on whether the object of ridicule is the person laughing, or some unspecified other. A few pages later Lockyer and Pickering use the example of a female Muslim comedian, who tells a joke about being felt up during a pilgrimage to Mecca. Were a Christian man to tell this joke, they argue, it would ‘shift from being a joke at the teller’s expense to a joke told at someone else’s’ (p. 9).

From the cover of Beyond a Joke
From the cover of Beyond a Joke

Nazi jokes and humour are often the target of these kinds of questions. Is the Japanese ‘Nazi chic’ trend excused by the fact that the perpetrators aren’t German, and weren’t even alive during World War II? At what point are we responsible for the images and ideas we appropriate?

Lately I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the borders of the humorous. I recently finished a first draft of a chapter on humour in the novel-as-masup (Jane Slayre, Wuthering Bites, etc.), which is also under review as part of an upcoming book collection. In these mashups, the question of humour is mainly one of triviality. The very idea of combining Jane Austen and zombies or sea monsters is so silly it almost crosses the border of humour in the other direction to become boring. Even for those inclined to be disturbed by the potential defacement of a literary classic, is it really worth getting upset over fiction? Because I’ve been working on it so much I’m a bit tired of the whole genre at the moment, but I’m also writing on a tangential paper for the upcoming Material Traces of the Past in Contemporary Literature conference in Málaga, Spain (naturally the location had nothing to do with my decision to attend).

Art by Billy Ludwig.
Art by Billy Ludwig.

For this paper I’ll be looking at how the creation and inversion of ironic distance complicates readings of historical fiction in the twenty-first century. Rather than looking at the nineteenth century as I do in my chapter, I’ll be covering some texts set during the two World Wars. The first is Kim Newman’s The Bloody Red Baron (1995 | 2012), an alternate history novel that imagines Count Dracula leading the German forces during WWI. The second is Billy Ludwig’s manipulations of old photos from WWII, modified to include iconic images from Star Wars.

The Bloody Red Baron was a largely uncontroversial novel, both at its original 1995 release and at its reprinting in 2012. Ludwig’s photomanipulations have seen some moderate internet blowback, however, as has the similar If Star Wars Was Real photo series. This comes despite the fact that the two sets of images clearly mesh well aesthetically, partially due to the fact that George Lucas drew liberal inspiration from both World Wars when creating the Star Wars universe, as fan and historian Cole Horton demonstrates. When you get down to it, both texts are technically doing the same thing: inserting fantastical characters and images into historical contexts. What makes the one potentially upsetting, while the other is accepted as harmless?

The 2012 reissue of The Bloody Red Baron has some flashy new cover art.
The 2012 reissue of The Bloody Red Baron has some flashy new cover art.

One answer might be the visualness of photography. It’s inherently more confrontational than text. With a novel we have the right not to read, or to ‘look away’, as it were. In her 1968 article ‘The Social Control of Cognition: Some Factors in Joke Perception’, Mary Douglas argues that humour needs to be permitted as well as understood in order to be perceived as a joke. There is nothing particularly offensive about any version of The Bloody Red Baron’s cover art, or the book’s title. You never know where Ludwig’s photomanipulations might pop up, though, confronting you with something you have no chance to opt out of.

A woman runs for her life from an AT-AT.
A woman runs for her life from an AT-AT.

Another answer might lie in the question of celebrity. In The Bloody Red Baron, Kim Newman mainly hijacks famous historical figures. By stepping into the public spotlight, these figures have abdicated their right to privacy – at least to a certain degree. Additionally, many of these famous figures remained far from the front lines during the war. The same cannot be said for the lowly foot-soldiers and everyday citizens featured in many of the Star Wars photomanipulations.

What do you think – are these images offensive? If so, where do they cross the line?

New to the Reading List (05/12/2014)

New books 05/12/2014In this initial phase of my full-time PhD research I’ve been doing a lot of reading. Fortunately Cardiff University’s library has a massive selection of books in my field, specifically on the Gothic and on neo-Victorian fiction. They were missing a handful of books that I really felt I needed, so about a month ago I put in a request for a few of the titles I figured I would need most urgently. Yesterday the first round of these newly-purchased books arrived at the Arts and Social Sciences Library (ASSL) for pickup. These were, in order of publication:

Hock-soon Ng, Andrew, ed., Asian Gothic: Essays on Literature, Film and Anime (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2008)
Newman, Kim, Nightmare Movies: Horror on Screen Since the 1960s, 2nd edn (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2011)

Levina, Marina, and Diem-My T. Bui, eds., Monster Culture in the 21st Century: A Reader (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013)

I’m very much looking forward to digging into these, and figuring out whether I can use them in my thesis. Newman, as well as Levina and Diem-My, will likely contribute to my introduction and general literature survey, while Hock-soon Ng’s book will hopefully become part of my discussion of transnational fan cultures and the multimedia monster mashup. I’m also looking forward to picking up the other half of my book order, which should consist of another three books on similar topics (including one on Buffy).

How awesome is it that I get to read critical theory about monsters and popular culture? Answer: pretty awesome.