This is a fairy tale that is not bedtime reading; this is a fable without a cute moral tacked onto its ending; this is what happens when storybook characters escape from death only to find mortality is very real and ready to pounce. The graphic novel Beautiful Darkness (Drawn & Quarterly), by writer Fabien Vehlmann, illustration team Kerascoet—Marie Pommepuy and Sébastien Cosset—and translator Helge Dascher, is as unsettling and haunting as it is fascinating—its title providing readers with perfect expectations.
Beautiful Darkness was celebrated throughout 2014 and named one of our Best of the Year picks, and when I read it recently during my summer vacation in the wilderness, it quickly passed around to those nearby, each of us with a “favorite scene,” and different “did you notice that?” moments and interpretations. What happens in the woods to Princess Aurora and her fellow companions is depicted with sometimes quiet malice and sometimes brutal punchlines. The grand mystery is one that is best left discovered by the reader—except to say that those looking for a clean resolution had best stick to Aesop. Beautiful Darkness remains just that—dark and full of murk despite its bright-eyed characters.
What can be revealed is that Aurora’s story starts with a courtship, gender roles all too familiar and clear—until everything decays with alarming speed. Aurora and an assortment of pixies stumble into an unfamiliar forest, their scale far below creature comfort—where ants are real threats [Click image at left to enlarge] and human footprints are massive. This is a story of social mores run amok and fates, where characters begin and end within a page, sometimes several pages—shocking vignettes that creep until it’s too late. As Aurora attempts to keep her fellowship safe, her numbers drop, and readers are treated to painted horror, like the bird’s nest that in any story would be a sweet example of inter-species harmony—but here is an unforgiving lesson in anatomical compatibility.
Even with all these read-and-then-re-read moments, there is that larger mystery to Beautiful Darkness—hints in a dream, red herrings, and a giant. And Aurora. Call it anti-fairy tale, post-fairy tale, or one of the best comics published in 2014, Beautiful Darkness is the wolf inside Grandmother’s nightgown.