The Penny Dreadfuls Bloody History

The so-called “Penny Dreadful,” a weekly eight page tabloid, was the forerunner of the British comic book. The books were a serialized novel or novelette, which began in the 1830s, but was characterized by the fact that the stories told were illustrated lurid tales of adventure and sensation. In other words, the Penny Dreadful was essentially a Victorian-era Gothic horror comic.

Tales for the British Youth

A grand British publishing tradition at the time was to serialize mainstream works of fiction by authors such as Charles Dickens. These serialized novels cost a shilling and were aimed at the British Working Class. The Penny Dreadful (also known as story papers, the Penny Bloods, or the penny numbers) was launched as a cheaper counterpart to this “high-brow” entertainment.

The Dreads, at one-twelfth the cost of the mainstream work, were targeted at adolescents and began as reprints or rewrites of Gothic Horror classics such as The Castle of Otranto; but, soon, original works began to appear. The serialized tales followed the deeds of a highly charismatic protagonist and the serial would often be stretched for over 100 episodes which included long side-tracks to discuss a region’s peculiar geography or fauna.

The Dreads always featured a eye-catching cover drawing and they also integrated illustrations throughout the text making them, in many ways, the historical antecedent to the first true British comic book, Ally Sloper’s Half Holiday which would follow in 1884.

The AntiHero Takes the Stage

One of the more interesting aspects of the Dreads was the fact that the protagonists of many of the stories were notorious for their criminal or horrific side. One of the more popular series featured the adventures of, as George Perry and Alan Aldridge in the Penguin Book of Comics, describe it: “the terrifying and grotesque Spring Heel’d Jack who enjoyed something of the notoriety later to be assumed by the real-life bogy-man Jack the Ripper.”

Other notorious title characters included highwayman Dick Turpin, Sweeney Todd, and Varney the Vampire. The Dreads also mocked such respectable papers of the day as The Illustrated London News. The Penny Dreadful’s satiric version of this sober newspaper was The Illustrated Police, a police procedural serial which focused on the most thrilling and gruesome aspects of crime fighting in its exaggerated illustrations and prose. The Dreads also reprinted and re-packaged material from their American cousin the “Dime novel” also known as the the “yellow Beadle.”

Harmsworth and the Ha’penny Dreadfuller

In 1893, British Publisher Alfred Harmsworth, both as a means to profit from the success of the Penny Bloods and in an attempt to stop what he saw as the moral havoc the Dreads were inflicting upon British youth, began publishing new story papers priced at only a half-penny. Harmsworth’s books were initially melodramatic allegories which taught the best British ideals.

However, slumping sales soon led to Harmsworth’s ha’penney papers printing the same luring tales as their competition. A.A. Milne (of Winnie the Pooh fame) wrote that, “Harmsworth killed the penny dreadful by the simple process of producing his ha’penny dreadfuller.”

Through their integration of images, serialized story-telling, and use of the paranormal and horror, the Penny Dreadfuls were the primary predecessors of the British comic book industry. The gothic tropes, sensationalized art and lurid storytelling would emerge have a direct impact on the EC line of horror comics as well as the contemporary line of Vertigo comics published by DC.

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