Fabien Vehlmann (W)
Drawn and Quarterly
Beautiful Darkness is a modern fairy tale darker than any other. This story is absolutely nothing like Frozen. The first pages are presented in a clean cut, fairy tale format with a couple discussing a recent dance ball they attended. Then mid-tea sip their world is flooded with sludgy red goo. They flee outside into a slow reveal that they are exiting the corpse of a recently murdered young girl. The refugees are bite-sized denizens of this new world. Insects and mice tower over them; they are dwarfed even by bottle caps. From this point on we enter into a story so gruesome that it rivals the horror of Bluebeard combined with Baba Yaga.
The survivors split into factions as they process the fact that their host is dead (also, the extreme danger they face as tiny people in the underbrush of a forest. We’re talking Honey I Shrunk the Kids level peril). Some enter denial and settle for frolicking through the woods without any precaution. Others embrace the new social order to advance their own personal agendas, whether for control of the group’s resources or social climbing. One woman immediately gathers necessities and leaves to survive on her own. But our main character, Aurora, takes the practical approach.
Aurora coordinates food gathering, portion rationing, and dew drop collection. She forms alliances with the neighboring creatures, and builds shelters for the group members. These efforts are at first rewarded with gratitude, and she expresses the belief that it is within her power to make life normal again. As she promises her new friend Timothy, “I’m doing everything I can to make things like they were before.” The ugly truth is that things are already the way they were before. Their current world is filled with as much darkness and light as in their previous lives. After all, the reason they were expelled from the girl is because she was killed and left to decompose in the woods.
Death played a role in how they arrived to the forest, and now it wreaks havoc on their population. Their numbers dwindle rapidly, whether through infection, starvation, bird attack, or any of the other multitude of ways characters are killed off in this book. The survivors shrug off the deaths, even those of close friends. For instance, when one member of the dancing trio dies trying to get food from a nest, the other two just continue dancing. A happy-go-lucky demeanor is their default setting: the survivors keep on smiling, even in scenes of great cruelty such as when a group rip the legs off of a ladybug and then yell for it to perform tricks.
Aurora perseveres and continues working to build a new society, but then her work is taken for granted. Those that used to help her move on and lavish the glamorous Zelie with their oohs and ahs. Rather than repaying Aurora with respect and friendship, she is betrayed by the group with gossip, violence, and romantic back-stabbing.
Zelie and her crew snicker behind Aurora’s back, encouraging her to work even harder as they plot to steal her boyfriend. These same people murder one of Aurora’s friends immediately before the forest animal party she was throwing. A party that they didn’t even bother showing up to, by the way.
Then, to top off the treachery, Zelie marries Aurora’s beau Hector, without Aurora realizing that he was cheating on her. To make matters worse, there was not a single hint from her friends that a wedding was even being planned. Overcome with shock and grief, Aurora succumbs to the cruelty of their world.
She blinds a mouse, eats his heart, wears his pelt as a cape, flees the settlement, and briefly enjoys a peaceful life with another woman that fled from the group. Until the others follow her there. They murder her new friend, make themselves at home in their house, and expect Aurora to take care of them again. Except this time she is done with the Cinderella act.
The conclusion is as mixed a message as the rest of the book (hell, even the title is a mixed message). Aurora orchestrates a cunning trap to kill those that have double-crossed her, and then sets up a home for herself within the Murderer’s house. In this way, she is free from her tormentors (and they are disposed of with a clever trap that was triggered by the act of their betrayal). However, this can hardly be considered a happy ending as Aurora now lives in total isolation inside the cuckoo clock of a killer, a man she now calls her “sweet prince.” How devastating. How tragic. Yet, with the accompanying delightful artwork, this is a pleasure to read. Kerascoet’s imagery is like a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down. Beautiful Darkness is our world in a nutshell: beautiful, gross, cute, terrifying, funny, and somber.
The grim aspects are offset by extreme cuteness. It made me all “awww” seeing those teeny people dance, jump rope, and upcycle big people stuff for their itty bitty homes. This is basically The Borrowers with a dark, dreary twist. Kerascoet’s imagery places the adorable side-by-side with the macabre. There are panels containing elements as varied as flowers, sunsets, parties, babies, cannibalism, maggots, and graves. Every other detail alternates between the quaint and the grisly. An unsettling read.