Writer: Fabien Vehlmann
Translator: Helge Daschler
Publisher: Drawn and Quarterly
Release Date: February 25, 2014
This collaboration between Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascoët (the latter is a pseudonym for art team Marie Pommepuy and Sébastien Cosset) starts off like Alice in Wonderland, moves quickly into Candide and concludes like Kill Bill. In other words, it is quite a ride. Like the antiquated, unbowdlerized versions of fairytales left in old world Europe, it contains quite a bit of the darkness mentioned in its title: death, decay, haphazard cruelty, more death, betrayal, pain, maggot eating, cannibalism, public bodily functions and yet more death. It is not a bedtime story and, unless you want to put your children off princesses in the meanest possible fashion, you should keep it away from tender young eyes.
Warnings aside, the graphic novel is astoundingly beautiful, whether Pommepuy and Cosset render an 11-panel page packed with a range of angles and close-ups or just a single full-page image. The illustrations develop in complexity alongside the narrative. The opening pages are unpaneled, simplified and candy-colored, setting the scene for a story more in the whimsical Disney vein. Shortly after, a few pages of horror (a rainstorm, a narrow escape, the introduction of fate and finality) arrive steeped in a series of grays. But then the sun comes out, and bright lovely color once more saturates this volatile landscape. By story’s end, there’s considerably more detail on the pages, executed in earth tones and well-deployed shadow. You could probably strip out the words entirely and still absorb the impact of Beautiful Darkness.
That last statement should not be construed as minimizing the role of the writer. One of Vehlmann’s greatest strengths is that he knows when to shut up and let the visuals do the heavy lifting. Part of the reason the pages look so wonderful is because they’re often unencumbered by text. There are no paragraphs here, no characters crouching beneath the weight of giant word balloons. The well-chosen language, delivered with fairly flat affect, interacts with the images just the way it should: diverging from what the pictures show to convey nuance, understating to create an atmosphere of lurking menace and ultimately showing how easily we are won by empty promises. Discussing more details would rob this intricate experience, which swings between awfulness and awe. In an era when it’s easy to forget the crystalline fragility of mere existence, Beautiful Darkness is out to make you remember, watch your back and lie awake fretting into the wee hours of the night.