Sunday, February 16, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #47: Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoet

What is a fairy tale? Is it a folktale in an ancient style, containing fantastic elements, iconic characters and a systematized plot that usually leads to a definite, and often bloody, moral? Or is it the modern, simplified successor of those nasty Marchen, dumbed down by generations of moralizers and bowdlerizers and animated-movie impresarios into a succession of generic Hollywood story beats punctuated by bland songs?

When the back cover of Beautiful Darkness calls it an "unsettling and gorgeous anti-fairy tale," it's clearly that deracinated modern definition -- the source of all of those "fairy tale weddings" and "fairy tale endings" -- that's meant. Because Beautiful Darkness is in the older tradition of fairy stories, with death and horrors and unpleasant lessons in plenty. (No one in Beautiful Darkness has to chop off her feet to keep from dancing to death, though -- in some things, the old tales can't be bested, or even equaled.) Although there's still something "anti" here -- traditional fairy tales were iconic and stark, set in lands of princes and talking animals and witches, with all of the details expected and clear and known from other stories. Beautiful Darkness has no such certainties -- some of the characters call themselves princes and princesses, but that's not linked to land or lineage or anything; it's just names of power they try to claim.

This graphic novel is written by Fabien Vehlmann, who I'm not familiar with. I believe his only previous work translated into English is Isle of 100,000 Graves, with Jason. The art is by the husband-and-wife team that works as Kerascoet; their work has been seen here in some Dungeon books as well as the Miss Don't Touch Me books (I reviewed both of those). Together, they tell the story of a group of creatures -- fairies? tiny humans? something less definable? -- from the moment before they lose their comfortable home and through their attempts to find new ways and places to live.

The main character takes the name of Aurora: we don't know what her name was before, or if she even needed a name. We meet her having a tea party with the prince, Hector, and then their world falls apart. Quite literally -- globs of undefinable unpleasant stuff begin to fall, the walls turn gelatinous, and Aurora and all of the others are soon fleeing for their lives. And what they flee is the body of a young girl, lying dead in a forest somewhere. Perhaps they all were the stuff of her fantasy life, brought to real flesh in the moment of her death. Perhaps they really did live in the interstices of her body, and somehow caused her death. Perhaps a million perhaps: the point is they are all little people, each somewhere different on the continuum between dolls and human, thrown into an unfamiliar world. Thrown into our world: the real one, with mice and birds and ants and hornets and fruit and mushrooms.

They try to befriend the animals, or conquer them. (Or ignore them, or fight them, or trick them.) They make mistakes, often fatal ones. They bicker and jockey for power. They are heartlessly cruel as only small children or fairies can be. Only Aurora tries to help others, or build a community, or shelter and feed the others. And one by one, in that heartless, childish way, they are gone.

Beautiful Darkness is a ruthless story, and if it has a moral it lies in the benefits of seriousness and compassion over frivolousness and status-seeking. Except for Aurora, the creatures who fled from the dead girl are all frivolous and heartless and concerned for nothing but themselves. But there's another character, Aurora's exemplar, who is anything but frivolous. So perhaps its moral is not as simple as those old tales, which always clearly laid out what they meant: beware the dark woods, always follow your mother's advice, don't talk to strangers, a deal too good to be true is indeed not true.

Aurora, I think, understands her lesson at the end of Beautiful Darkness. And we understand it somewhat, having followed her through her harrowing adventures. This is a dark, dark story, full of cruelty both meant and offhand, but it's told beautifully, with a light hand on the dialogue and a sunniness to the art that makes the darkness that much more stark -- that title is entirely apt. This is inherently a work of Beautiful Darkness.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

No comments:

Post a Comment