In Defence (Again) of Penny Dreadfuls

One of the strangest examples of the degree to which ordinary life is undervalued is the example of popular literature, the vast mass of which we contentedly describe as vulgar. The boy’s novelette may be ignorant in a literary sense, which is only like saying that the modern novel is ignorant in the chemical sense, or the economic sense, or the astronomical sense; but it is not vulgar intrinsically–it is the actual center of a million flaming imaginations.  –G.K. Chesterton, “In Defense of Penny Dreadfuls”

The Avengers–the blockbuster adaptation of the classic Marvel Comics series–just shattered the domestic box office record for an opening weekend, taking in over 200 million dollars (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2, was the previous record holder at 169.2 million). Bringing together Iron Man, the Incredible Hulk, Captain America, Thor, Hawkeye, and Black Widow, The Avengers presents a twist on the comic book movie genre by creating an ensemble piece with an entire company of superheroes, three of whom are enjoying successful solo franchises of their own. I have not yet had a chance to see the film, but before I do see it I want to join in the defense, begun yesterday by Angela Cybulski on her delightful log, Persephone Writes, of superhero comic books and the movies based on them. The genre of penny dreadfuls of which Chesterton speaks in his 1901 essay, “In Defense of Penny Dreadfuls,” is broader in scope than superhero comic books, but I have no doubt that Chesterton, that great lover of the Song of Roland, would have included superhero comics if he had known of them.

So what is this genre of penny dreadfuls?

It’s the genre of popular, fantastic, high-adventure, blood-curdling, death-defying, roller-coaster ride fiction–what Chesterton calls “the true romantic trash.”

But why does Chesterton commend the genre? Why shouldn’t we look down our noses at such trashy stuff? Even Chesterton admits that the genre, while heavy on the adventure, is light on emotional depth and character development:

The whole bewildering mass of vulgar juvenile literature is concerned with adventures, rambling, disconnected and endless. It does not express any passion of any sort, for there is no human character of any sort. It runs eternally in certain grooves of local and historical type: the medieval knight, the eighteenth-century duelist, and the modern cowboy, recur with the same stiff simplicity as the conventional human figures in an Oriental pattern.

So what is the point of indulging in the stuff?

Because it deals with certain fundamental truths about human existence, truths at once so fundamental and so dazzling that even the most ordinary of men (which means you and me and everyone) can grasp and wonder at them. “Ordinary men,” Chesterton elaborates,

will always be sentimentalists: for a sentimentalist is simply a man who has feelings and does not trouble to invent a new way of expressing them. These common and current publications have nothing essentially evil about them. They express the sanguine and heroic truisms on which civilization is built; for it is clear that unless civilization is built on truisms, it is not built at all.

Again, what superhero comics and other penny dreadfuls engage us with are high concept adventures that reveal the “sanguine and heroic truisms” which we never cease to contemplate and delight in. “The vast mass of humanity,” insists Chesterton, “with their vast mass of idle books and idle words, have never doubted and never will doubt that courage is splendid, that fidelity is noble, that distressed ladies should be rescued, and vanquished enemies spared.” Because we have never doubted and will never doubt such truisms, our penny dreadfuls run in familiar narrative and emotional grooves. And yet we never tire of them, because they are like food and water to the soul. “Literature is a luxury,” Chesterton says, “but fiction is a necessity.”

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