The backcover copy for Beautiful Darkness from Drawn & Quarterly calls it an “unsettling and gorgeous anti-fairy tale.” Rarely has a back cover been so perfect in describing the work. On the one hand, Beautiful Darkness is adorable: filled with princesses, adventure in a wonderland forest, and animals in cute costumes. After finishing a graphic novel bordering on the horror genre, the reader is left with a vacant stare from a mind unsure how to handle what it has just seen.
Author Fabien Velhmann is a French comics writer well known for his paradoxical deep-yet-whimsical works. Here he tells the story of Aurora, a princess who is pretty, well-mannered, and intelligent. While having tea with the prince Hector, her entire world comes crashing down, literally, as pink goo. Aurora claws her way out of the muck, the remains of the imagination of a little girl who now lies dead in the woods.
The other imaginings common to a little girl’s mind also dig their way out. We meet redheaded adventuress Jane, triplet dancers, wild boys and girls, babies, and living dolls, all childlike in their perceptions of the world. Aurora steps up as a leader, dolling out crumbs of cookies for rations and works tirelessly to build shelters. These are tiny people in a giant forest who try to adjust from a girl’s imagination to the real world.
Despite their innocence, or perhaps because of it, the little dreams quickly meet terrible fates. The woodland creatures are true animals that prey on them or are victims to childish cruelty like breaking legs off insects. Some of the imaginary figures turn to cannibalism, swallowing smaller people and make-believe that they are mommies as their victims squirm under digestion. Others become murderous barbarians or lose their sanity outright. Aurora’s rival, another and more beautiful princess named Zelie, serves as the doom for many of her peers, giving unquestionable orders without thinking of any dangerous consequence. Her thoughtlessness brings about live burials, corruption, and outright theft in a world with little moral judgment.
The art by Kerascoët, a husband-and-wife cartooning team, truly is gorgeous. Beautiful watercolors give at once a sense of realism as well as one of fantasy, juxtaposing the very real with the imaginary. The huge-eyed figures are reminiscent of Brian Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim, the Western homage to manga-style drawing. The cute innocence makes the horrors that come upon them all the more disturbing.
Beautiful Darkness is a powerful graphic novel packed with literary merit. Aurora’s adventures in the real world give her a strong and fascinating character arc, doing what she needs to do to survive. Through the story, the graphic novel raises questions of what it means to be a fairytale and what it means to be in the real world. Its critique of social norms makes excellent content for discussions and reflections, giving us all a chance to pause and think what of Zelie’s destructive games we might be blindly playing in our own woods.Powered by Sidelines