It’s only in the relatively coddled last century, when we actually started expecting most of our children to live to maturity, that fairy tales have become a preserve of innocence. Grimm was a very suitable double entendre, at least in the days before Disney and antibiotics. The real brilliance of Beautiful Darkness (Drawn & Quarterly, $22.95), though, isn’t that it returns the fairy tale to its gruesome origins — although there are acts that make baking a witch alive seem relatively tame and hands-off — but that it finds, in our tightly maintained innocence, a more modern kind of horror.
It begins with a wide-eyed young girl bashfully discussing the ball with her handsome prince, but their (literally) lily white world is quickly flushed, and they and a gaggle of other cute little cartoons end up washed into a world of grey — all of them crawling out of the body of a young girl, laying motionless on the forest floor. What happened to the girl is never really spelled out: There’s a lone lumberjack-type not far away who may know something, but we never rise above the perspective of our little creatures of imagination, and they take virtually no notice of the body, except to make homes in its hollowed-out skull and snacks of the maggots that start to infest it.
Though it eventually starts trickling down into their ranks, death is never something that actually shades their experience. An overgrown doll pops a tiny girl into her mouth, but the pseudo-cannibalism quickly becomes a joke, as the doll pretends to be pregnant, and the others laugh along. Later, a quiet, one-eyed girl named Timothy is buried alive, subject to the fickle whims and blasé cruelty of another would-be princess; the only time this is even remarked on again is at the next funeral, when Timothy’s body is found to be clogging the pencil-case casket. The little forest creatures who make tentative friends with our cartoons fare little better, getting their wings clipped in the name of having a ride, or their eyes gouged out for ruining a feast.
Obviously you can’t blame a mouse for not knowing proper dining etiquette, butBeautiful Darkness also suggests a level of (slightly more horrifying) blamelessness on the part of its human-ish characters; just as nature happens in a moral vacuum, the brutality and cruelty of our cartoons is nearly always underlined by innocence, a total lack of awareness of consequences of any kind, much less bad ones. It’s like children deciding to play doctor and then grabbing a real hammer to test reflexes: The gruesome outcome is born of ignorance, not ill will. (Although, just to give you some indication of where writer Fabien Vehlmann stands on human nature, one of the cruel recurring jokes of the book is that the characters who are even marginally more self-aware inevitably use that knowledge to screw over everyone else.)
All of this plays out under the eye of Kerascoët, a French husband-and-wife duo who balance the beauty and the darkness brilliantly. Their landscapes are suitably lush and enveloping, and their watercolours give everything the haze of make-believe. Set against their bright, sketchy cartoons, the plaintive realism of both the girl’s body and the animals adds an extra layer of horror, our imagination run amok all over us. The perfect accompaniment to Vehlmann’s harsh story, together they suggest that innocence is less a sanctuary than a shell, something that callouses us from the world no matter what we do to it.