Wild Will is an example of a ‘penny dreadful’, the sensational and sometimes bloodthirsty illustrated literature that achieved huge popularity from around the 1830s onwards. Originally known as ‘penny bloods’, early examples capitalised on the Victorian fascination with crime and murder, cultivated by a rise in mass literacy in England and the availability of cheap reading materials.
‘Penny bloods’ proved to be an instant success with a broad cross-section of readers. Early examples were usually eight pages long with a few illustrations and were collected as weekly ‘numbers’. By the 1860s, however, ‘penny dreadfuls’, as they become known, were targeted more directly at a younger, male audience, with finely detailed illustrations on each page (as shown here). Common themes included the adventures of highwaymen, pirates, wicked aristocrats or police detectives pursuing suspects. Though today they appear over-dramatic and implausible, penny dreadfuls were a publishing triumph and were responsible for encouraging reading among a poorer, less well-educated audience.