Kerascoët and Vehlmann, Fabien (2009), Jolies Ténèbres, Dupuis ISBN 978-2-8001-4238-8
[English translation: Kerascoët and Vehlmann, Fabien (2014), Beautiful Darkness, Drawn & Quarterly Translated by Helge Dascher ISBN 978-1770461291]
I will admit. Even though I read quite a healthy number of comic books and graphic novels and whatever else your preferred nomenclature is, I rarely come across a book in the genre that really, truly, profoundly delights and astonishes me any more. Jolies Ténèbres by Kerascoët and Fabien Vehlmann is such a comic. In it, the creative trio (Kerascoët is a duo of artists, consisting of the Parisian Sebastien Cosset and the Brest native Marie Pommepuy, who also co-wrote the script with Fabien Vehlmann) takes us onto a journey that is both magical and horrifying, into a story that’s equal parts allegory, fairy tale and gritty realism. The art and the writing complement each other so well that it is difficult to believe that the book is not the result of one person’s inventive but slightly strange brain and in a way it is Marie Pommepuy’s creation, since it’s based on her idea, and she is both part of the writing and the illustrating team. The book was published in France in 2009 and has been translated into multiple languages, one of which is English. It’s published in English by Drawn & Quarterly and I hope they managed to produce as fine a volume as the original publisher Dupuis, because the book on my desk is magnificent in every way. Magnificently written, magnificently drawn and magnificently produced. In its English translation, the book has made a number of best-of lists – and with good reason. This book is more than a compelling read – it’s also endlessly re-readable, offering layers upon layers to its spellbound readers. The creative team doesn’t deploy allegory as a cheap moralizing technique and yet there’s an air of almost medieval weight to the way life, death and obsession is meted out on the books’ faux-adorable characters. Beautiful Darkness is very, very good and manages to strike the difficult balance between being very smart and clever on the one hand, and incredibly enjoyable on the other. Buy it, read it. Go on. I’ll wait.
I admit I haven’t had an opportunity to read Drawn & Quarterly’s translation, but I found one editorial decision highly dubious. Even though the French edition makes clear that the book is based on an idea by Marie Pommepuy, that the script was written by Pommepuy and Vehlmann and that Kerascoët (i.e. Pommepuy and Cosset) are the illustrators, and the French spine has “Kerascoët & Vehlmann” as the attribution, the English edition has, in big and bold letters, the attribution “Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascoët” and most reviews I could rustle up treated Vehlmann as the author and Kerascoët merely as the illustrators. This might seem like a minor issue, and a bit of an odd issue to mention this early in the review, but it irks me. Maybe because I’ve just put up my review of Hunger’s Brides and was reminded of the fact that, going back all the way to the middle ages, as Karen McKnight showed, men were primarily seen as authors, and women at best as mechanical escritors. I’m sure Vehlmann contributed most or a hefty chunk of the script. Of the three artists involved in the project, he’s the one with the most extensive experience writing comic book scripts. Yet Pommepuy’s involvement at all stages of the project seems at least as significant, and pushing her aside to share the illustrating role strikes me as odd. Especially because Beautiful Darkness is, to an important degree, a book about female experience. It’s a female encounter with death, a female mind disintegrating into a large mass of overwhelmingly (but not exclusively) female characters and shards (I’ll explain in a moment) with an ending that directly addresses questions of family, patriarchy and dominance. Moreover, the French book jacket shows two women, one pale, faded, real and dead, one colorful, cartoonish and curious. No matter what your interpretation of the book is (and there’s a fair variety of possible readings in a book whose authors pride themselves on the indeterminate story they crafted), there’s no doubt that this is a profoundly gendered story. These being the facts, I am rubbed the wrong way by Fabien Vehlmann being the first and most distinguishable name on the cover of Drawn & Quarterly’s Beautiful Darkness.
So much of the book’s first reading depends, I think on the surprise of what develops and how it develops, so I won’t discuss the plot, except to mention the premise. A dead girl lies in a meadow in a wood clearing. She’s roughly 8, wearing wellies and next to her is a school bag. Has she been murdered? Has she died of natural causes? Has she had an accident? We are not told and depending on how you read the book as a whole, we might not know even after the book’s conclusion. The image of the dead girl as we first see her, rain pouring down on her still body, is powerful, realistic and frightening – and comes as a bit of a shock to the reader who has read the opening pages of two cartoonish, cute characters having a sort of tea party as their house suddenly collapses. In the next pages, a multitude of cute, cartoon characters leaves the dead body through its various orifices. The book is painted in watercolors (I think), but the cartoon characters with their large eyes will remind the reader more of the black and white traditions of manga and the inventiveness of the golden age of Spirou magazine, when it carried early versions of now legendary and bestselling titles like Boule et Bill, the Smurfs or the eponymous Spirou (when it was written by the great André Franquin). The manga association mainly stems from my reading of the work of Osamu Tezuka, as far as I have read it, which combines adorable, large eyed characters with at times brutal or terrifying stories, which is not something I associate with the French tradition. Additionally, the French tradition as outlined skews very male (with Peyo’s Smurfette even having become shorthand for a misogynist trope), while the Tezuka line allows for more room. The tensions and violence in gender relations are part of Tezuka’s work as early as 1949 when he first published Metropolis and continuing with books like Princess Knight (aka “the Mother of all shōjo manga”) and Ayako (cf. my review here). That said, I don’t have enough background on the genre to really elucidate the comic book lines of influence on Beautiful Darkness.
Embedded in the comic is the story of a young girl who has suddenly fallen into a topsy-turvy world of confusion, and has to use her wits to combat it and make her way through it – a story clearly reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland (it helps that the color scheme of the character in question broadly corresponds to the Disney version of Alice in Wonderland). There are only light similarities (the topics of eating and consumption are prominent in both books, themes of perspective, truth and identity are discussed in both books etc.), but in a way, Beautiful Darkness is constructed out of a vary broad set of light resemblances. Another similarity can be found in the rich tradition of children’s book characters that live with or alongside humans and that are not quite animals and not quite human like The Wombles or especially Mary Norton’s The Borrowers. The book uses these influences as a kind of distancing effect – we see the cartoonish figures make do with everyday objects that they employ for strange or humorous effect. Another reference are surely Tove Jansson’s Moomin books, especially the early ones, where Jansson just throws her creations into all kinds of adventurous situations. The first one, The Moomins and the Great Flood seems particularly of interest as a comparison, which includes the art of the illustrations. We have strange, small characters in a dangerous and confusing natural environment, we have animals used as transportation by characters that are cartoonish and neither human nor clearly animal. There’s a limit to the role that children’s books can have in the creation of Beautiful Darkness, however, since the book is not just dark as the title suggests, but also very brutal, sometimes abruptly so. The only genre that can offer similar levels of cruelty and darkness are fairly tales, especially the unexpurgated versions. Look at the Grimm Brothers. There’s a story in their collection of a girl walking around with her cut off hands tied to a string and hung around her neck.
More significantly, look at Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales. Less obviously brutal than the Brothers Grimm, the Danish writer composed fairy tales that were equally rooted in folk tales as well as in the fertile imagination of a talented writer, writing in the mid-19th century, with modernity in full swing. Significantly for a reading of Beautiful Darkness, Andersen’s stories are not clustered around a moral message, which was loudly decried at the time of publication, but the lightly worn immorality has helped ensure Andersen’s longevity. Immorality is an important aspect of the comic. Not because it’s intentionally immoral, but because it carefully and intentionally sidesteps the idea of moralizing its story. Frequently, story twists are actually twists away from an expected and moralistic fable. That’s also what separates Beautiful Darkness from yet another tradition: allegory, especially medieval allegory. It’s entirely feasible (up to a point) to read many of the cartoonish characters as emblematic of aspects of the young girl’s personality. This is not far from classic books like Pilgrim’s Progress, which has remained a fascinating read for centuries. Other books that allegorically discuss human nature like Lord of the Flies are obvious candidates (perhaps, even, if we employ a generous abstraction, the Hunger Games) for interpretative foils. But both Bunyan and Golding have a message to impart to their respective readers – Kerascoët and Vehlmann do not. They make use of the seductive power of allegory, and of the interpretative paths it opens for their book but ultimately they decline the moral commitment. They are aware of all the intertexts or at least many of them, and sometimes appear to offer them to the reader on a silver platter, telling them: we know that you know. They use them to get the reader’s brain to work, to read the text more attentively, more precisely, more openly. They invite us to read the book not as this or that but as this and that. Discussing the different personalities living in us and looking at what happens to us when we fall into the wilderness, left to our own devices, for example.
And this, at the end, is where I return to my earlier rant. I did say the book does not commit to an easy morality – but it is not without commitment. It’s a very tightly scripted story with no lost panels, with every page, every panel, every detail constributing either to the plot or the atmosphere of the book, but on a different level, with all the allusions and the ambiguous readings it allows, it’s also baggy and expansive. It challenges easy readings by offering us dozens of intertexts and then breaking with them, in one way or another, eventually ending in a symbolically and psychoanalytically rich final tableau. My first association was with Luce Irigaray’s early and controversial SPECULUM: De l’autre femme. Like Irigaray’s explosive book, there’s a way to read Beautiful Darkness as commenting on a certain gendered tradition of storytelling without really arguing a case, just offering its readers a way to think through it. Because that was my association upon reading it I find the foregrounding of Fabien Vehlmann a bit irksome. I do think the book has a commitment: a commitment to storytelling itself. Or maybe I’m over-interpreting. Even without all my blather, the fact is that Beautiful Darkness is a lovely, funny, terrifying, mystifying masterpiece of the genre. Please read it at your earliest convenience. This is my 6th review this year and it’s very clearly the best book I’ve reviewed so far. I’m not exaggerating. If you like comic books you will love this. GO NOW.
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