Created by: Fabien Vehlmann, Kerascoët
Published by: Drawn & Quarterly
ISBN: 1770461299 (Amazon)
What can you say about a work you can’t be sure you understood, a communication garbled in translation? Would it be fair to judge such a thing at all? If I see a movie but am mystified as to what happened in it or what it meant, it’s hardly fair for me to say either that it was great or horrible. I might as well talk about how I felt about the latest Takeshi Miyazawa piece despite the fact that my cataracts11Note: I don’t actually have cataracts. Just a minor and 100% glasses-correctable astigmatism. make actually seeing the work with any clarity impossible. If I don’t understand the thing, I am entirely incapable of judging its value, its ability to succeed at what it attempts to accomplish.
The temptation of the everyday consumer-critic, filling Amazon and Goodreads with 5- and 1-star ratings and more than their share of exclamatories, is to complain that the work was not made accessible enough. If I the reader, viewer, appreciator cannot grasp its meaning, then the creator failed the task of communication. Obviously I’m sympathetic because we all like to imagine we’ve acquired the acumen to properly understand any reasonable thing. Also there does exist the possibility that a particular author, through a mismanagement of storytelling, simply didn’t do it right. Eleanor Catton recently and properly, I think, took aim at this notion:
These days, the idea of being a “good reader” or a “good critic” is very much out of fashion—not because we believe that such creatures do not exist, but because we all identify as both. The machine of consumerism is designed to encourage us all to believe that our preferences are significant and self-revealing; that a taste for Coke over Pepsi, or for KFC over McDonald’s, means something about us; that our tastes comprise, in sum, a kind of aggregate expression of our unique selfhood.
So while the potential exists that a work fails in its goals and so is confusing, very very often the problem is instead within us—because we imagine ourselves to be wise, intelligent, and critics and our tastes to be objectively Good. Caution, therefore, is merited. And this is especially more often the case when authors show every instinct toward being talented enough to say exactly what they intend to say.
I’m going to be up front on something that concerns one of my favourite comics from the last fifteen months: I don’t understand Beautiful Darkness. I loved it, but I don’t get it. Not yet at any rate. Maybe some day. When I’m older, perhaps. Or maybe later this afternoon when everything just suddenly clicks and I’m left wondering how I could have missed something so obvious. But likely, I won’t ever discover the depth of its purpose without some sizable assistance—perhaps some focused conversation with like-minded friends, hashing out details and proposing interpretations.
So then how can I justify my rating of this book? If I don’t know what it meant, or even necessarily what happened, can I reasonably tell you that you should read and enjoy this book even as I did? Perhaps not.
But all the same, I did enjoy Beautiful Darkness. I was entranced while reading. It held me rapt with its grim and lushly vibrant sense of itself. So instead of justifying why a person should enjoy Vehlmann and Kerascoët’s book, I simply talk about why I did. At least for now, while I fail to understand it.
Artistically speaking, Beautiful Darkness is a tremendous exhibition of the illustrative craft. I first encountered Kerascoët’s work in Miss Don’t Touch Me, which was lovely and wild and inspired me to pick up the present book. However grandly I felt toward Kerascoët, reading Beautiful Darkness was revelatory. The artist flits between cartooning and realism deftly. His colours paint a world very much like our own. Warm, cool, sinister, cozy. Just taking a moment to flip though Beautiful Darkness infects the soul with the sense that people are amazing, that wonderful things are afoot. It’s possible that there might be a more visually splendid comic released in 2014, but probably not super likely.
The writing is funny, and its Hunger Games-style22Or Battle Royale if you’re so inclined. I know I am. storyline evolves at brisk enough a pace that readers will never have the opportunity to grow bored. The situations presented are morbid and darkly humourous. I laughed and gaped at several points—a rarity for me.
It’s the other aspect of the writing that I can’t be certain about. The part about What Happened. On the surface, it seems pretty straightforward. A young girl dies in the forest and a host of tiny, often grotesque people emerge from her corpse and struggle to survive in the woods. But it really isn’t that simple. There is more there, sometimes under the surface and sometimes squirming on top. I found the publisher’s descriptive text unhelpful and probably actually wrongheaded.
Kerascoët’s and Fabien Vehlmann’s unsettling and gorgeous anti-fairy tale is a searing condemnation of our vast capacity for evil writ tiny. Join princess Aurora and her friends as they journey to civilization’s heart of darkness in a bleak allegory about surviving the human experience. The sweet faces and bright leaves of Kerascoët’s delicate watercolors serve to highlight the evil that dwells beneath Vehlmann’s story as pettiness, greed, and jealousy take over. Beautiful Darkness is a harrowing look behind the routine politeness and meaningless kindness of civilized society.
None of this reads like someone who actually grokked the work. At least not closely. I may not understand Beautiful Darkness completely, but I do understand that the above reading is incompatible with the text as revealed. Aurora is not a princess. The idea that this is an allegory for human survival against the instinct for societal self-immolation fails to fit the available information. Other reviews invoke Lord of the Flies (which is fine, I guess) but leave it there with William Golding’s critique of the natural human spirit as being essentially depraved (which is not fine, and actually lessens Beautiful Darkness as a mere derivation of a common observation).
I don’t wish to be too contrarian because it’s likely that these readers didn’t understand the book any better than I did.33My Interpretation
My guess works well sometimes and less well at others. I think that, likely, these small creatures are miniature incarnations of the many facets of Aurora The Dead Girl’s personality and that Aurora The Little Creature is just one of those facets (and perhaps the one most commonly associated with Aurora The Dead Girl). I think the feral one is probably the facet that represents Aurora’s terror in her demise. And still, barrels-full of questions remain.
I don’t understand why they’ve bubbled to the surface. I don’t understand what it means that they eventually weed themselves out until, Highlander-style, there can be only one. I don’t understand how Aurora was to have died (she was surprised by her death but there were no wounds or blood on her corpse). I don’t understand the place of the Man in the story, whether he bears some connection to Aurora The Dead Girl (and hence to Aurora The Little Creature). I don’t understand why Aurora’s body is left to decompose, with the Man so close at hand (certainly he would see or smell her as he passes close enough to nearly step on Aurora The Little Creature). If he killed her, why not hide the body? If he didn’t, why not recover the body? Is Aurora really literally dead at all? Is it significant that the Man has a broken doll? What is the man working on so diligently? Making too much of something, going for the facile interpretation—it’s an easy trap to fall into when one feels as though they have to say something wise, intelligent, or insightful about a book. I feel that pressure a lot. And I’ve fudged things before as well. So it’s not like I’m blameless. I think I just wished for better criticism because I love this book and want to understand it.
I love this book for what it appears to be. I love this book for the promise of what it might be. I love this book in the same way a sixth-grader might have a world-shattering crush on the girl two rows back in World Cultures. She is seen and heard but ultimately only known tangentially. But still, she is a fixation—and adored. That is Beautiful Darkness to me. It’s lovely and amazing and probably the most perfect thing ever created. Just like that girl in sixth grade you never spoke to and whose real identity remains a mystery to this day. Unattainable and foreign: the perfect crush.
Good Ok Bad features reviews of comics, graphic novels, manga, et cetera using a rare and auspicious three-star rating system. Point systems are notoriously fiddly, so here it's been pared down to three simple possibilities:
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I am Seth T. Hahne and these are my reviews.
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