Part Thumbelina and part Lord Of The Flies, this graphic fairy tale is a must-read.
GROWING up, I always wondered what would happen to the Numskulls if Our Man, and later, Edd died. Drawn and Quarterly’s fairytale horror Beautiful Darkness now gives me a pretty graphic idea.
No idea what I’m talking about?
The Numskulls are tiny men who live in the head of a man called Our Man in a classic comic strip from British children’s weekly comic The Beezer.
The little fellows control Our Man’s faculties with a machine-like division of labour.
When The Beezer stopped publication, the Numskulls migrated to The Beano, setting up their home inside young Edd Case to manipulate his senses.
With the little soldiers – Brainy, Snitch, Radar, Blinky and Cruncher – looking after their own interests and trying to live their own lives while manning the different “departments” in Edd’s body, you get a lot of hilarious antics.
In Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann and husband-and-wife illustration team Kerascoët, we also have Numskulls-like creatures – miniature magical beings instead of tiny men – inhabiting a human body. Their adventures, however, are neither fun nor funny. And while the realm of Beautiful Darkness is as fantastical as that of the Numskulls, it is full of grim reality.
We first meet the tiny creatures – fairies, dolls, princes, ballerinas – in a seemingly enchanted forest. Aurora, an effervescent Thumbelina-like fairy, is excited to meet her Prince Charming, Prince Hector, for a little tea party.
It’s the stuff a girl is made of. Aurora and Hector’s rendezvous is cut short when their human abode collapses. Lo and behold, it turns out to be an angelic-looking young girl. Now dead, her perished body is no longer habitable, forcing the tiny creatures to abandon it.
As the little creatures stumble out of their decaying human host, they find themselves in a “real” forest. And you know what they say, it’s a big, bad world out there, especially when you are itsy bitsy – surviving in the natural world of the giants becomes a great struggle for the evacuees.
Only Aurora seems unaffected by the size and state of their new home and wastes no time in marshalling her fellow refugees to build shelters, gather food and collect dew-drops for their survival out in the wild.
Like in any fairy tale, Aurora and crew never lose their innocent joy, singing and dancing while they face the dangers of their new paradise. Yet death is never far behind, continuing to wreak havoc on their existence and causing their numbers to dwindle rapidly. Before long, the sunny creatures turn on themselves as they break into factions a la Lord Of The Flies to gain control of the new community.
Many of Aurora’s crew defect to join the opposing faction led by Zelie, the stereotypical evil queen of the tale.
Zelie commands her minions to make Aurora’s life hell – stealing her food and killing off her friends – while plotting to steal Prince Hector.
Overcome with shock and grief by the betrayal, Aurora gives in to the cruelty of their world.
Bedlam ensues and Aurora flees to the edge of the woods, where she hooks up with another survivor fairy and sets up home in the hut of a woodsman. But like the parasite she is, Zelie refuses to leave Aurora alone and hunts her down.
Infused with macabre twists, Beautiful Darkness out-grims the Brothers Grimm with its dark cautionary moral. This is a bedtime story that can give its readers nightmares. As it more than hints, there is a lot of ugliness in this beautiful world. And a happy ending does not always come to the good, something that Aurora herself discovers.
From Into The Woods to Frozen, so many fairy tales have been deconstructed with dark insights and quirky twists that it is becoming cliched; Beautiful Darkness still manages to be both fresh and surprising.
Much of it has to do with the detailed attention lavished on each tiny character, forest creature and living plant in the woods while creating a larger-than-life canvas for Aurora to draw us into her bleakly magical universe.
Ultimately, it is the juxtaposition of innocent whimsy with bloody savagery – in a rosy tone that belies the creeping darkness – that makes this graphic fairy tale an engrossing page-turner that cannot be missed. It’s beautifully haunting.
Beautiful Darkness, and the Eisner-winning titles listed here are available at the graphic novel section of Kinokuniya, Suria KLCC. Call 03-2164 8133 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.kinokuniya.com/my.