The following is a review/analysis. If plot details or analytical conjecture would ruin the experience for you, please read the album first. Enjoy!
A dead child is only the beginning of cruelty in Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoet’s Beautiful Darkness. This eurpoean graphic album, available stateside from Drawn and Quaterly, juxtaposes the life of a child with the death of child in a manner that breaks the heart and chills the spine.
The story begins with Aurora having tea with her love interest, Hector. Soon the world collapses around them. The escape their prison to emerge from the fresh corpse of a young girl. Dozens of fairy-like characters emerge prancing about and gradually making sense of this new world.
Through the course of the narrative, we see the sprites commit acts of cruelty motivated by carelessness, curiosity, and contempt. Aurora, ever the plucky heroine, does her best to care for the befuddled community, often undercut by their actions. Characters kill and are killed in gruesomely cute panels, maimed by nature and each other. Still Aurora presses on building homes and providing food without judgment.
Mean girl sprite, Zelie, acts out the cruelty of intent. She bullies and ostracizes her crew, at one point convincing an “ugly” sprite to bury herself alive. Later she has her body exhumed so they can reuse the coffin for someone she liked better. Eventually Zelie steals Hector from Aurora. Confronted directly by cruelty Aurora blinds her friend the mouse for peeing on her party. After the others kill the mouse, Aurora wears his skin as a cloak and escapes with a level-headed matronly sprite named Jane.
A kinder story would end there, with Aurora abandoning the cruelty of community for the despairing safety of isolation. This story is not kind. Aurora and Jane take up residence in a nearby cabin, owned by a mysterious human man. Jane warns Aurora against going near the human. “He stinks worse than anything.” But Aurora likes the smell.
Zelie approaches with the survivors of the community. She sings her presence, endangering them all. Jane rushes off to protect the newcomers. When Zelie arrives she has Jane’s bird, but claims to know nothing of her fate. Zelie bosses her way into the cabin, insultng Aurora’s taste and spoiling her isolation. In the penultimate scene, Aurora retaliates by marching the rest of her people into an oven and watching as they are burned alive. We depart the narrative as Aurora declares the man her prince.
The subtext of the book is that Aurora and the sprites are parts of the dead girl, echoes of her consciousness. We learn early that “Aurora” is, in fact, the dead girl’s name making Aurora the sprite her primary stand-in. Yet the rest of the sprites also emerge from the corpse and are no less elements of her humanity. At one point a sprite pulls the legs off a ladybug, the archetypal image of childish cruelty. These charming grotesques lived inside the girl, as they live inside us all.
The final moment is the most piercing. Not the murder of Zelie’s entourage, such a thing is cathartic and corrosive, but not unexpected. It’s Aurora’s love for the man which cannot be countenanced. On the surface it’s a return to form. Aurora, in love at the beginning returns to love at the end. Yet this human figure, who stalks the forest near the body and keeps a broken doll on his floor can only be child Aurora’s murderer. In the end, when Aurora has freed herself from all her cruelties, at the price of her own soul, she returns to seek solace in the one who brought all the evils upon her in the first place.
Beautiful Darkness is the kind of comics we need more of. It not only has a sustained thematic subtext, but uses the images to convey information not present in the text. Too often we default to a double dip of narrative from text and image. As readers we’re taught to treat the illustrations as secondary. This album, using the full power of the medium, elucidates a story that couldn’t exist in another form. Highly recommended.