Posted by: Abhay Khosla on August 5, 2014
Below the jump is a little essay about BEAUTIFUL DARKNESS, the Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoet graphic novel published by Drawn & Quarterly in 2014.
WARNING: THIS IS AN ESSAY ABOUT WHY I LIKED THE BOOK SO MUCH, NOT A CLASSICAL REVIEW, SO I POTENTIALLY SPOIL PLOT DEVELOPMENTS.
There are two spoilers– one, I spoil the premise (which … it’s the kind of book if you can go in relatively cold, I’d suggest it), and then near the end, I spoil the ending. I’m very sorry if you’re looking for a review on this one– I can assure you other people have reviewed it, it’s a terrific book and you should go read a review of it if you’re curious. There’s also a preview at the D&Q website, if you’d prefer just to see it for yourself– I think the preview might sell you on it, as it certainly did for me. I was just very struck by it and just wanted to talk about it freely, so– sorry if this one is not for you.
Anyways– that’s the preamble. I’ll put a little jump and then we’ll get going…
BEAUTIFUL DARKNESS BY FABIEN VEHLMANN & KERASCOET, originally published in 2009 as Jolies Tenebres, translator Helge Dascher.
Let’s start with this: Beautiful Darkness is probably going to wind up my favorite comic book of the year.[*1] So, there’s that.
The surface reasons why are pretty easy to spot– it’s NOT a book of subtle pleasures: pitch-black gags; unexpected violence and horror-jolts; a pervading atmosphere not just of dread but a corrosive disappointment in people and how people treat one another; and oh, the art! The art rigorously creates a precise world but without being too didactic– it still has a looseness and improvisation of line that warmly invites the reader in and requires their participation; it’s both suggestive and complete. This is a full-blast horror comic presented as a grand children’s adventure, but those two tones are balanced by a careful performance with the watercolors, in particular, that somehow bridges both worlds without disrupting either, at least for the most part. No matter what horror or cruelty is being depicted, this book is never not eyecandy of the highest order.
But these are the surface things, shallow things. Other perfectly nice comics have swell surfaces readers can just bounce right off. What makes this one stick?
If it reminded me of anything, Beautiful Darkness reminded me of another favorite book of a couple years back, the Winshluss Pinocchio, another sinister fairy tale notable for its art.[*2] It’s not a genre I have any interest in– the “dark & twisted fairy tale” genre isn’t one I’m too hot for, (a) never having been particularly obsessed with fairy tales and (b) because I’m a grown-ass man. I gave up on Fables at 5 or 6 pages into that first issue, don’t know anything about Wicked, skipped Malificent or that Twilight-ish Snow White movie, crush beer cans against my head, vomit on preschoolers, murdered a bear using only my genitalia, etc.
But it’s got this theme I guess I’m just always a sucker for, every damn time.
SPOILERS? Here is a description of the Beautiful Darkness for context: Beautiful Darkness takes that hoary saying that “sugar and spice and everything nice, that’s what little girls are made of,” and asks what happens to “everything nice” when the little girl is dead and her body left unattended in the woods to decompose. The confused fairy tale creatues that once dwelled in this dead little girl’s body have to crawl out of her corpse and make their way through our hostile world, to survive not only the predatorial nature of woodland creatures their fairy tale logic have left them unprepared for, but also their own darker sides which begin to emerge as the vicissitudes of their new lives ever-so-slowly dawns upon them.
A constant cruelty engulfs these otherwise delightfully drawn characters, but what is key is that the style of the art remains for the most part unchanged throughout these depictions. Fairy tale princesses are drawn with the same buoyancy whether they’re preparing a picnic or surveying maggots feasting on a deceased child.
And I think that consistency is what makes that book so thrilling. Yes, I imagine some audience members might find the book’s nihilism empty and a spiritual dead-end. [*3] But for me, that consistency speaks to a difficult, oft-asked and usually quite boring question of comics: what can comics do that other media can’t? What kinds of stories are comics quote-unquote “best for?”
These are usually NOT very interesting questions to me for at least four reasons.
One, I want to believe that a decent artist can make a wedding cake out of a comic about making toast, while a terrible artist can put you to sleep drawing spaceships flying into an obese elf’s twat. [*4] Two, maybe (and this is probably a pretty dumb theory) but maybe the very act of asking these questions over-inspire younger or less talented cartoonists to justify cramming fantasy elements into all of their work, rather than to try to find ways to be visually creative about “regular life“. Like I said, maybe a dumb theory, but just a theory. Three, most comics simply don’t beg the question because they’re pretty generic.[*5]
Fourth and finally, the usual, cliched answers to these questions are typically unsatisfying. If one is unlucky, prepare to hear something about the “unlimited budgets” of comics– even though years of summer movies have made plain that larger budget stories have never equated to more meaningful stories, but instead have always equated to grander and grander schmuck-bait. Scale is not story. Scale is not emotion. Scale is just scale.[*6] If one is more lucky, there ensues jargon about how the “reader controls the pace of the story”– which is at least true, but so academic that the actual pleasure of the thing just feels lost in it. How does being able to control the pace of a story translate to actual human pleasure? How can it improve a story? The fact a reader can stop reading a comic and look backwards 10, 20, 100 pages– well, how exactly does that make the experience better? How is this a medium really able to full engage its audience, if its strength are readers who can stop engaging with a story dead cold at whim in order to flip back 50 pages? And is it necessarily true that readers actually exercise this control in a meaningful way with any significant frequency, especially as page counts go up and up? Are there people lingering for hours over Craig Thompson panels when they’re contained in 5000 page books one has to slog through, the way people suggest (or panel 43 in the 3rd Vertigo trade of a series, or what have you, pick your poison), or is this just wishful thinking?
But Beautiful Darkness, I just think there’s something there.
Because the success of the comic comes from the dissonance (thanks, Roget’s Thesaurus!) between the the style of the image and the content of the image– because that dissonance itself is both what that comic is “about” and how it is about it. We are told the surface story of these characters in a particular vernacular, through a consistent style that only rarely wavers (a children’s fantasy style, with occasional interjections of drawings in a slightly more “realistic” mode to convey the non-fairy world), but what is constantly conveyed is not a story we usually associate with that children’s fantasy style but something else.
Like the Winshluss Pinocchio, like Tim Hensley’s Wally Gropius (another favorite of years past), like (well, I think we could debate whether Jim Woodring comics fit here [*7]), the discrepancy between style and content exists as a warning to the reader to beware the power of the seductive image.
- The cute character may not be so cute when it’s starving.
- The attractive young lady may not be sweet and safe when she’s afraid for her life.
- An adorable animal may sooner peck you to death than be petted.
Goddamn, I’m a sucker for this theme!
Anytime this theme pops up, my ears just perk up. But ours is a civilization driven by images– saturated by images designed to manipulate us to our horrifying detriment. This is the story of advertising at least, and the story of advertising is the story of a human overconsumption that basically threatens our species’ continued viability on this planet, let alone whatever spiritual cost has been inflicted. A guy in a turtleneck waves around a cell phone on a stage, and people end up waiting in line for days, even though they already own perfectly good cell phones. A politician waves around a test tube full of fucking sugar water, and war ensues. An educated but anorexic gentleman in Gobot cosplay is videotaped manually coaxing himself to orgasm in the back of a Del Taco, and the next thing you know, teen pregnancy rates in the contiguous United States are shooting through the roof. [*8]
We are slaves to Imagery, and to think that sophisticated powers have not realized that fact and have not endeavoured to capitalize upon that fact would be the saddest sort of naivety. Every war in recent memory began with politicans yelling the word “Hitler” at people. The tallest man in an election will usually be elected President of the United States. I can’t go into a Del Taco without becoming painfully erect now, painfully. The recent history of mankind is of the power of Imagery at war with human dignity and human progress, and all evidence points to humanity losing that fight pretty fucking resoundingly, holy shit!
As its title makes painfully clear (i.e. me even pointing this out is probably painfully stupid), Beautiful Darkness is comprised of “beautiful” images, but then very explicitly hides beneath those “beautiful” images a constant threat of violence and betrayal for those silly creatures stupid enough to believe the image and not look for the reality. Beautiful Darkness is redolent with surface pleasures but it is itself a warning about the lure of those very same pleasures. [*9]
This seems like a uniquely comic pleasure, the central pleasure of the thing arising from the dissonance between image and content. Would Beautiful Darkness have worked in any other media? Not in the same way– styles in film media, at least, are all bound by the limitations of photography, light, time, the economic expense of CGI; styles in books would come across as an affectation instead of the world-building that the visual information in comic can service. In film, violence would not be perpetrated onto fairy characters, but onto actors and actresses playing those characters. Actors/actresses are themselves inherently loaded images. Indeed, maybe the underlying “rightness of the status quo” is invariably reinforced by the very existence of the movie itself– maybe a celebrity actor (e.g. Billy Joe Brando) makes any movie into A Billy Joe Brando Movie, no matter what that movie has to say about our relationship to the Billy Joe Brando(s) of the world– why we create them, how we project onto them, etc.
Disney fans among you may be yelling at your screen “Gaston from Beauty & The Beast! This comic you’re hot for is just a horror version of the Gaston story, you dickless baboon.“[*10] But I would argue that the illusion of life that the Disney animators are so dedicated to is maybe the ultimate example of the problem I’m trying (and failing!) to get at. Even setting aside the narrow range of styles that have been typically utilized in big studio animation [*11], how effective can something that uses the illusion of life as its central appeal be as a tool to question our illusions? How can a medium interrogate the images around us when it has as its central goal to hold an audience in its thrall through the various deceptions of the “moving picture”?
Maybe comics are a narrative medium where there is enough distance between the image and the reader that the reader can stay awake to the essential falsity of images and can really think about what our images are doing to us. Maybe the pleasure of comics is that the reader is not only told something visually, but can question how they are being told it in a way that is far more true than is the case for film, games, television, etc. Aaah, I just get into this fucking theme when I see it! Goddamn! Both Mannie Fresh and I, fools for this beat.
But of course, even in comics, there is little cause for hope.
The American comic reader is typically presented with persistent fantasy images, most sponsoring fantasies of power, celebrity, the worship of youth, all the usual racial and sexual bullshit as to what constitutes “normal” for a hero. [*12] HERE AGAIN A SPOILER WARNING FOR THE ENDING OF THE BOOK. And this, of course, is the ultimate ending of Beautiful Darkness— the comic does not end with any “liberation” from images, but with one of the fairy tale characters even revealed to be mindlessly in love with the benevolent image of a sinister patriarchy that would surely be hostile to her existence if it deigned to even notice her. The characters aware of the danger around them and the folly of the images they are surrounded with are ultimately no more empowered by this information than any other character, and meets no better a fate.
Understanding the power of images over us doesn’t mean that we are freed from their power.
Understanding we can be destroyed by what we love doesn’t mean we can’t help but find it beautiful anyways.
 At least in the category of Comics That Aren’t Sexcastle since Sexcastle deserves its own category. My favorite comic book in the category of Comics That Are Sexcastle? Probably that issue of Captain America where Falcon gets date-raped by jailbait, or whatever. Surprise win!! I really thought Sexcastle had a shot at winning that category! It’s a real Dewey Defeats Truman.
 Pinocchio is the stranger and more inexplicable work, and so for me, maybe the more impressive work, in that it’s a little more committed to its sinister dream logic.
 I would think that nihilism might invite a “corrective takedown” type critical review– Hooded Utilitarian-style or what have you. I’d kinda think that’d be something someone out there would be inclined to write– I remember people expressing concern in the past when books come out and only got glowing reviews, a conversation about that Dash Shaw family book, in particular. I don’t know– we’ll see, I guess. Also, while I’m rambling nonsensically, did you know that some Marvel Comics super-fan went into the wikiquote for the word “nihilism” and threw in a quote from Thanos (via Jim Starlin)? “The Universe will now be set right. Made over to fit my unique view of what should be. Let Nihilism reign supreme!” Whoever put that on the Wikiquote page is a Goddamn American Hero. I salute you.
 This joke will be made into a 13-hour movie by Peter Jackson in 2016. Congratulations, losers!
 “Why isn’t this a movie?” when asked of certain Image Comics in my apartment would usually be followed by a long sigh, exhausted moments spent staring out at the horizon silently with shoulders drooped, and a light smattering of snickering and eye-rolling. Followed by back-rubs, champagne and readings of some erotic poems I’m working on entitled “Ode to Making Sweet Love” (hey, what rhymes well with “booty-shaking”?). I’m not going to lie– it’d get pretty fucking hot weird fast. There’d be, like, crazy necking going on. You know it. You know how we make it do [*13]. Then, things would just escalate out of control. Pleasure would become pain and pain would become pleasure. All the cheese in my fridge would stay cheese but grow a thick head of curly dark hair. Some people don’t mind, but me, I don’t like accidentally eating cheese-pubes. The art on Southern Bastards is pretty good, though– I really like how Jason Latour draws noses!
 This sort of talk is great if you like comics about talking animals wearing jetpacks or talking slices-of-apple-pie with throbbing hard-ons firing rayguns into writhing piles of angry babies. Some people get really excited by this sort of thing, and yell “comic books!” and throw their little adorable fists into the air. Those people aren’t “wrong”– hey, pleasure is pleasure. I would just prefer my dessert after a dinner.
 I dont think Jim Woodring counts since his work is so much of its own thing and so maybe pointless to talk about this way, but I feel like other people might disagree. I imagine there are a lot of examples I’m forgetting but just glancing at my own bookshelf just isn’t helping to remind me what I’m missing. Perhaps this speaks to the deficiency of my bookshelf though… Or just the crappiness of whatever I’m babbling about up there. Maybe I’m full of shit. Who cares? If you’re reading endnote 7, we can be honest with one another, I think. For example: sometimes I worry that being really handsome, I make my friends feel bad about their own bodies. I might very well be the leading cause of bulimia among middle-age introverts in the Tri-County area. That’s just something I have to live with. God, it’s good to finally just admit the truth! I love America.
 It is of course a well recognized logical error to mistake correlation for causation, and for that reason and also to avoid a lawsuit, I am compelled here to say that I don’t think Del Taco’s food causes teen pregnancy. But I do think teen pregnancy causes Del Taco’s food. Confusing? Yes but not as confusing as why America’s teenagers are all so addicted to the Del Taco Masturbation Follies category on Pornhub.
 For some readers, there might be a logical disconnect to all this hagiography I’m engaged in. After all, would I have bought Beautiful Darkness had it not been drawn in such a “lush” (ugh! I need a new adjective!) manner by the Kerascoets (the pen name for husband & wife illustrator Marie Pommepuy and Sabastien Cosset)? Does our understanding of that market reality somehow undercut what I’m talking about here, the way some people think certain movies are at their silliest in complaining about violence when they are themselves gory exploitation films? Or do we just say “don’t hate the player hate the game, p.s. hip hop hooraaaaay hoooo hayyy hooooo hip hop hooray hoooo hayyy hooo triggers from the grilltown illtown some ask how it feels now the deal is that we’re real so we’re still round don’t lamp with a freestyle phantom, aint’ trying to be handsome, shrinking what you’re thinking cause I’m vamping I live and die for hip hop this is Hip hop for today I give props to Hip Hop so hip hop hooray hoooo hayyy hooo hayyy hooo“? [*15]
 I have a nearly [*14] fully functioning penis.
 The “none of these people can draw more than one kind of woman in any of these goddamn movies” factor. We get it– you want to fuck an elf girl! [*4] Those years at Cal Arts really paid off, Casanova.
 I get really creeped out when defensive fans point at drawings of male superhero chests when they’re making arguments about sexism in comics, incidentally– I haven’t seen anyone talk about male chests as much as comic fans being defensive about sexism in comics. I’m not trying to setup a joke. That’s really genuinely creepy behavior. Way too into discussing man-chests!
 We make it do with necking.
 I don’t want to talk about it.
 “You heard a lot about a brother gaining mo’ ground, Being low down I do the showdown with any little ho round, no! I wanna know who you’re believing, through your funny reasons Even when I’m sleeping you think I’m cheatin’ You said, “I know you, Mr. O.P.P. man Yo PP man, won’t only see me man” You should’ve known when I ain’t hit it and step That I was wit’ it a bit not to consider the rep, heck! I did your partner cause she’s hot as a baker Cause I’m Naughty by Nature, not cause I hate ya! You put your heart in a part of a part that spreads apart And forgot that I forgave when you had a spark You try to act like something really big is missing Even though my name’s graffiti Written on Ya Kitten I love black women always and disrespect ain’t the way Let’s start a family today Hip hop hooray hoooo hay hoooo hay hooooo Hip Hop Hoorayy hoooo haayy hoooo haaaay hoooo.”