With a heroine bearing an uncanny resemblance to Snow White and a story peopled with buffoons, tyrants, and mischievous fairies, Beauty begs comparison, at least visually, to a Disney Princess film. But alternatively, it’s just about the farthest thing from it, and maybe that’s the point. Fairy tales are troublesome and problematic; there’s just as much darkness in childhood fables as there is light. Beauty is an all-around odd story, as creators Kerascoët and Hubert are wont to tell—it’s an investigation of what the implications of beauty being in the eye of the beholder really are, but it’s also more than that. It’s a fable about our need for stories and a sweeping tale of political intrigue with a few semi-tragic romances thrown in.
The story starts when Coddie, a maid named for her fishy smell and shunned for her homely face, stumbles upon a fairy who promises to grant her unparalleled beauty. Though Coddie herself does not actually change, anyone who gazes upon her sees the most beautiful woman they have ever seen. This gift allows Coddie to rise beyond her humble beginnings to the chambers of the local lord’s castle and from there to the king’s palace, where he throws out his own beautiful wife and new baby to marry Coddie. Coddie’s newfound beauty causes increasingly greater riots among those who must possess her, holds her captive to those who vow to worship her, and generally wreaks havoc on the kingdom.
In the meantime, Coddie, who once appeared simple and uncalculating, is watching and learning. Her illusory beauty holds her captive to the powers that be, but she’s not quite clever enough to harness it and use it for her own good. When she gives birth to a daughter who is plain (as Coddie’s true appearance is), but sharp and strong-witted, she slowly realizes she has something worth fighting for. She suffers and struggles as she slowly discovers how to harness the power of her “beauty.” In the end, Coddie discerns that one must use one’s own gifts or others will take advantage of them.
Overall, it’s less a story of the power of beauty and more of how one can let others determine their destiny or claim it for oneself. But it even defies this definition—it’s a surprisingly complex and dense story, as much interested in digging deeper into itself as it is in getting a point across to its readers. As such, it’s a great and intriguing read, hard to put down but also winding and slow. As you wind your way, the book makes you think long and hard about different aspects of Coddie’s dilemma and the absurd power of societal expectations.
There’s been a lot of love for the illustrations in Beauty, and I’m of two minds about them. They are brightly and expertly colored, using primary colors, especially fiery reds, to great effect. The characters, though emphatically cartoonish, are fully imagined and easily identifiable. The constant visual switching between Coddie’s actual and perceived appearance was very effective and a reminder of the strangeness and difficulty of her predicament. Even as a reader, it’s easy to be affected by seeing the “most beautiful girl in the world” and the homely Coddie, allowing the reader to question their perceptions while they read. That being said, I personally found the paneling to be a bit repetitive—it rarely flows beyond the twelve panel page (three delineated panels across and four down), and that, along with a less than perfect translation from the French, made the reading experience a bit stilted. But perhaps I’m spoiled when it comes to experimental cartooning. Kerascoët’s recent Beautiful Darkness was a bit more up my alley in terms of visual lyricism with a dark and serious core.
Beauty has received a lot of accolades, and it’s a powerful fable that deserves all the praise it’s received. It captures the timeless quality of fable while telling a fresh story, which is no small feat. Its density and depth make it a great, if sometimes perplexing, read, and even if you’re not sure what message you come away with, it’s worth diving into and being entranced by. It may haunt you, it might drive you a bit mad, but that’s the power of beauty, isn’t it?
Art by Kerascoët
NBM Publishing, 2014