Fans of the hit TV series Penny Dreadful are over the moon these days, after it has been confirmed that the show will be back for a third season. The show has a lot going for it: impressive cinematography, strong performances by Eva Green and Josh Hartnett in particular and some cracking dialogue. But the real kicker is the way it has bound together the storylines of some of the most famous Victorian novels: Dracula, Frankenstein and The Picture of Dorian Gray. The resulting mash-up could have failed in about eleven different ways, but showrunner John Logan and his team made it work. Quite a few reviews noted that the show’s template was similar to an earlier, even more masterful Victorian crossover epic: Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s comics series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
The premise is a mouth-watering one: in late 19th century England, Campion Bond (an ancestor of James Bond) invites Wilhelmina “Mina” Murray (from Bram Stoker’s Dracula) to lead the titular team against a mysterious doctor in possession of cavorite (from H.G. Well’s The First Men in the Moon), a substance that can be used to make flying machines. The rest of the team includes Allan Quatermain (from Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines), Hawley Griffin aka The Invisible Man (from the H.G. Wells novel of the same name), Dr Henry Jekyll / Edward Hyde (from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) and Captain Nemo (from Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea). Soon enough, the team realise that the real villain of the piece, who had been pulling the strings behind the scenes, is none other than James Moriarty, the Napoleon of crime himself, who had survived his apparently fateful fall at the Reichenbach Falls (from Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories).
When you have someone like Alan Moore, there are certain things that come as a given: immense erudition, an acute sense of history and a sociological awareness that goes beyond the scope of most comic-books. However, Moore is also aware that this is, first and foremost, an action comics series: the hits keep on coming, supported ably by O’Neill’s vibrant illustrations and erring-on-the-garish colours. Hyde’s savagery is shown in impressive detail: he tears through scores and scores of men as easily as a knife slicing
Captain Nemo’s characterization is subtle and perhaps the high point of the first volume. He hates England with a passion, of course, being Indian. But he is intelligent enough to realise that some dangers are of greater import than nationality. And make no mistake: this is the merciless, Kali-worshipping killer that Jules Verne created. True to form, he likes killing in dozens at once: with a mini-harpoon machine gun in his hand, at one point he kills about 30 men in one blood-soaked panel.
Mina Murray and her sharp tongue are also given ample screen time by Moore and O’Neill. I personally think that Eva Green’s character in Penny Dreadful is more than a little inspired by this version of Murray. Both are liberated, strong women who are haunted by their past and think nothing of going head-to-head with unspeakable horrors. Both face subtle forms of gender discrimination from their colleagues.
Moore is known for his experiments in intertextuality, so it wasn’t a surprise that a project like this came to be helmed by him. He takes things a step further still. At the end of each volume of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, there is a prose story that explains the back stories of its protagonists. Observing Moore’s prose pastiche here is a joy: in addition to his other considerable talents, he is a gifted mimic and his riffs on Victorian literature are worthy of deeper study on their own. By the end of the third volume, Moore has brought in characters from Dickens and Woolf into the mix and never once does this look forced or unwieldy.
This, surely, is one of the greatest achievements in comics history.