Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #344: Beauty by Kerascoet & Hubert

One of my favorite quotes from comics is "The valuable lesson is that you can get what you want and still not be very happy." It's not a usual sentiment for adventure stories about thickly-muscled fellows and the psychotics they pummel, but it's deeply resonant with those of us who live in the world that really is.

I want to say something sweeping about French comics here, to complete the comparison, but I'll avoid that. Every nation has millions of stories to tell, and thousands of stories that actually do get told -- hundreds of them very well, deeply and resonantly. I've only read a couple of dozen modern French stories, most of them in comics form, all of them in translation. I can pontificate about the US, and only feel mildly out of my depth doing so, but to do the same about a foreign country would be farcical.

So let me instead say that Beauty is a fine graphic novel -- by the team of Hubert and Kerascoet, who were so good and so cutting about women, men, and power in Miss Don't Touch Me -- and that it could have that quote as a frontispiece. I know that Kerascoet is a husband-and-wife art team, and that they already had the magnificent Beautiful Darkness (written by Fabien Vehlmann) out this year. But about Hubert, I know nothing: I assume he's male, from the name, and I've read the Miss Don't Touch Me books. Other than that, he seems to be unknown to American audiences.

But he tells a knotty and subtle story here, beginning in a fairy-tale world of medieval kingdoms and fairies that quickly becomes solid and real. Coddie is the ugly daughter of a widow, living at the sufferance of Coddie's cruel and demanding godmother in an obscure village somewhere in the Kingdom of the South. Even worse, because of her daily chores, she always smells like fish. But one day she cries over a misshapen toad -- and that toad turns out to be the fairy Mab, under a spell, and Coddie's tear frees her. In return, she will give Coddie one wish -- and Coddie wishes for beauty.

Those of us who know a bit about myth will not credit Mab's claim to be a good fairy, and any reader will notice quickly that her gift is at best much too generous: Coddie's new beauty is overwhelming, driving all of the men of her village into fits of ardor and causing her to flee to the local lord, Otto. He protects her and loves her -- installing her in his castle as mistress -- and renames her Beauty.

But the former Coddie is flighty and shallow -- and badly influenced by the advice of Mab, who flits in and out of her story. So Beauty decides nothing less than King Max will suit her, and he, too falls in love with her the minute he sees her. (There's only one man in the whole book who doesn't instantly fall for Beauty, and it's strongly hinted he is gay -- her enchantment is to be irresistible.)

The King's smart and scheming sister, Princess Claudine, tries to use Beauty to foster her own ends, but Beauty is too much of a blunt instrument: the knights kill each other for her flighty favors, and King Max throws over his Queen -- and sends the kingdom tumbling towards war with its more barbaric Northern neighbor -- to have her.

Beauty was originally three French albums, and the first two see things getting progressively worse for the Southern Kingdom, all because of Beauty. (Or, perhaps, because of Mab's poisonous enchantment.) It could be read as a parable for men's lust, or self-destruction more generally, or several other things -- or just read as a sharp story of one girl thrown far too deep far too soon and how she finally learns to swim.

Kerascoet gives this story a visual pop, with flat bright colors like Pop Art and a main character whose face is either Coddie's or Beauty's depending on what the viewpoint of that panel is. Beauty is bright and hard and cold -- and terribly, terribly beautiful.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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