Review by Stacia Oparowski, Library Assistant
What begins as a classic Princess-meets-Prince fairytale quickly becomes a horrifying study of the human condition in the newly translated (from French) graphic novel Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascoët.
Aurora is a princess. She has gained the attention of the handsome prince Hector who seems very interested in her. Things seem to be progressing like a classic fairy tale when something goes terribly wrong as they drink hot chocolate and confess their feelings: a pink, gel-like substance begins falling from above. Soon, they are being overtaken by what appears to be blood. Quickly they rush to find a way out when Aurora is separated from Hector and her friend Plim. She finally escapes the blood and finds herself in the forest. She also finds that she escaped by climbing out of a nostril of a corpse. Then we are presented with a title page. It’s almost as if the creators are saying, Not what you expected, is it? This isn’t going to be easy. Would you like to continue?
Upon first inspection, the cover of Beautiful Darkness wasn’t particularly bothersome. There was a very small girl standing next to a very large hand. In a fairy tale, the hand could be a giant’s. The french cover is a bit more strange, but could still be interpreted as a slumbering giant, until you realize that unless they were in giant-land where clovers and grass were miles tall, the body is probably a normal-sized person (who could maybe possibly still be sleeping). Perhaps the graying of the hand was an indication of the truth, or sleeping outdoors by moonlight, but I remained blissfully ignorant until the final panel of the introduction. The blood didn’t quite look like blood ( it was pink!) but then it all became clear that I had deluded myself.
After Aurora emerges from the corpse, she finds that she is not alone. Hundreds more tiny people like her are now homeless and must fend for themselves in the wild. Some make their homes beneath or within the decaying corpse, but others leave and make nests or dwellings deeper in the forest. At first, Aurora takes charge, trying to help everyone adjust to their new situation. Eventually, though, resources become limited and everyone must fight to survive. Even if that means sacrificing their friends and families.
The light and colorful illustrations for the Spring and Summer seasons mask the deadly intentions of characters in the novel. With each page it seemed another character was destroyed, and yet I was happy to read on, enjoying the view. Later on, though, it gets harder to read. The colors change as do the seasons, and darkness sets in. As things become desperate, we see even Aurora grow more disturbed. And by the end, I wasn’t sure I knew her anymore.
One of the most interesting things about this graphic novel are the allusions to princess-type characters from movies and literature. Aurora and Jane, for example, reminded me of Hayao Miyazaki characters: San from Princess Mononoke and Arrietty from The Secret World of Arrietty, respectively.
This graphic novel was not easy, it was not gentle, and it was genuinely frightening; I loved it. I wouldn’t recommend this to sensitive readers, but for those of you who enjoy the psychological horror genre I’d say give it a whirl. It only takes about 30 minutes to get through, but you are going to read it again. With every read through comes more understanding, and more horror. I am incredibly impressed by the watercolors and always enjoy a full-color graphic novel, so those of you with an appreciation for art should pick this one up as well.
Fabien Vehlmann has written numerous comic books and graphic novels. This one in particular is a collaboration between himself and Marie Pommepuy, one half of the artistic duo Kerascoët. The other half is Sébastien Cosset. They have illustrated a lot of things, but my favorite (besides this) is Miss Don’t Touch Me. Their websites are all in French, but Google translate does an okay job.