“Penny Dreadful” #1 offers a slick, atmospheric prequel for fans of the Showtime series. When Vanessa Ives receives a disturbing vision of her estranged friend Mina Harker, she recruits Mina’s father for a rescue mission. Writers Krysty Wilson-Cairns, Andrew Hinderaker and Chris King move speedily through the character introductions and setup scenes, giving the characters’ hunt a great sense of urgency. Artist Louie de Martinis’ glossy, dark art gives everything a horror-movie tone that suits the subject matter and differentiates the comic from the TV show. All told, “Penny Dreadful” #1 is a solid addition to the series’ canon.
Whatever its merits otherwise, “Penny Dreadful” #1 is clearly geared toward existing fans of the show. The creative team doesn’t spend any time developing the characters or summarizing their backstories. One- or two-line references (“Whatever sin, it has been forgiven in your suffering”; “I do not expect you to credit my visions”) are the only signposts that the reader receives, and many of the nuanced emotions from the show — guilt, wariness, self-doubt — are only present if the reader can fill them in using their existing knowledge. This approach has its advantages, but new readers should be warned that this issue probably won’t grab them emotionally.
It’s easy to see why the team took this direction, though, as the issue benefits from confidence and speed. The writers dive right into the chase and don’t spend page space rehashing the character histories and motivations that most of their readers will already be familiar with. As a result, the hunt for Mina has a strong sense of urgency and unexpectedness. Even for readers who aren’t invested in the characters, the pace of the wolf attacks and vampire slayings keeps things exciting. Most of all, though, the speedier, less explained approach gives “Penny Dreadful” #1 an air of confidence. This is a book that knows what it’s about.
Louie de Martinis’ art is perhaps the most distinctive part of the book. He intersperses mixed media backgrounds and glossy blocks of thick color with rotoscope-style character faces for an ungrounded, gothic-slasher aesthetic. In one sequence, wolves ambush Vanessa, Sir Malcolm and Sembene’s carriage in the woods at night; these panels provide a fine showcase for Martinis’ art. He captures the confusion of a sudden attack, the almost impenetrable dark of the wood at night and the suddenness of the wolves’ arrival. The writers are also smart enough to let the artwork do plenty of storytelling, and so Martinis is free to use perspective, page layout and coloring to create a tense, nearly dialogue-free fight.
Martinis’ aesthetic is admittedly quite different from the visual style of the show, which is more horror film than slasher flick. I personally missed the carefully planted Victoriana details and clear sense of place, which help to highlight out the more bodied, intimate elements of horror. Martinis’ work is slicker and more frenzied. However, there’s no denying he grabs my attention with his slashing line work and backgrounds of bottomless black and furious red.
As a whole, “Penny Dreadful” #1 is a snazzily executed prequel. If some more character development is performed on-page, it will become a truly memorable series.