If you recall my reaction to the amazing graphic novel Beautiful Darkness, it will come as no surprise that I ended up with another Kerascoët-illustrated graphic novel. This one is an original fairy tale, no less, so I was sold pretty quickly.
Published by: Dupuis, 2013
Hardcover: 160 pages
Series: Beauté #1-3
My rating: 7,5/10
First sentence: Morue! Morue! Morue!
When the repulsively ugly Coddie unintentionally saves a fairy from a spell, she does not understand the poisonous nature of the wish granted her by the fairy. The village folk no longer see her as repulsive and stinking of fish—they now perceive her as magnetically beautiful—which does not help her in her village. A young local lord saves her, but it soon becomes apparent that Coddie’s destiny may be far greater than anyone ever imagined. Caustic and flamboyant, this fairy tale offers grownups an engrossing take on the nature of beauty.
Morue (Coddie in the English version) is quite ugly. She always smells of fish, as her job in the village is scaling fish and cleaning the house. Her ears stick out, her head is weirdly-shaped, her eyes are bulging. The ony person who is kind to her is Pierre, the chubby son of Morue’s employer. When her outsider status becomes too much to bear, Morue flees into the forest to cry and inadvertantly drops a tear on an ugly toad. Which – surprise! – turns out to be Mab, the fairy. She grants Morue one wish – and turns Morue beautiful. Well, sort of. Morue is still ugly, but everybody will perceive her as beautiful.
Beauté is, unsurprisingly, an exploration of beauty and what it means to have it or lack it. Morue goes from being mocked and ridiculed to being the center of everybody’s attention. She is so beautiful, however, that the fairy’s gift is more of a curse. Not only do all men suddenly want Morue, they are quite willing to be violent to get her. Morue falls in love with a lowly Duke, but thanks to Mab, is not satisfied with her life. After all, somebody as beautiful as Morue should at least be a queen!
Morue – who is later called Beauty – is an intriguing character. She starts out as a sympathetic heroine. A girl shunned for her looks, but with a kind heart and values that I could get behind as a reader. As things fall into her lap simply by virtue of being suddenly very beautiful, her character changes. She does make it to queendom and, at first, only wants her people to be happy. She wants to eradicate poverty (and tells her king to pass the appropriate law) but, one second later, runs off to try one of her 100 new dresses. She seems naive and childish at times, all while retaining some of her original character traits. I was glad that she had these flaws – vanity, distractedness, carelessness – because if her sudden change into the most beautiful woman in the land didn’t change her, the entire story would have lacked credibility.
Her story, told in three volumes, reads more like a slow descent into hell. I came to expect a fairy tale, and the style and story elements are all there. Princes, dukes, warring kingdoms, a beautiful queen… except things decidedly don’t follow any other fairy tale tropes. The body count is ridiculously high, Morue suffers for her beauty (and I don’t mean plucking her eyebrows or going through a daily beauty regimen), and things generally don’t turn out for the better. This twisted tale turns dark really quickly and reaches its high point in the third volume. People die left and right, Morue reaches the depth of her descent and wants nothing more than to be ugly again…
While the focus is on Morue’s story, there are side characters whose role in the big picture should not be underestimated. They, too, are influenced by beauty (or its absence) in their daily lives. The king’s sister, for example, is considered quite ugly and doesn’t expect to ever be married. But just as Morue has to realise that her beauty is a curse, her sister-in-law Claudine finds out that being unattractive doesn’t keep you from leading a happy life filled with love.
Much like in Jolies ténèbres, it struck me how much the authors let the pictures talk rather than use a lot of words. Most comics and graphic novels I read tend to have quite a bit of dialogue and explanatory text accompanying each panel. Here, the words are sparse, many panels stand alone without any text, so all you have (and all you need) is the artwork and the characters’ expressions to tell the story. This is surely a matter of taste but I was quite happy looking at the pictures and being told a story non-verbally. On a side-note: I noticed while Googling that the comic books are actually in full color, while my collected edition is kept in only black, white, and a golden-ish brown. I really liked the clean triple-color version but it’s interesting to check out some of the fully colored pages as well. Depending on your taste, you may want to buy the three volumes individually.
The art is simple, almost cartoonish at times, but the contrast between Morue as she is and Morue as she is perceived is striking. I’m not sure a more detailed style would work for this kind of story. Just like in Jolies ténèbres, the strength of the graphic novel is how much style and content differ from each other, how they should clash, but somehow don’t. This exploration of beauty, its power to free someone at the same time as corrupting them, was enjoyable to read, in a macabre sort of way. I adored the ideas, I liked Morue’s character development, I loved how high the stakes actually were. But the pacing was off in certain parts (court life, for instance, was quite boring and drawn out too long) and the story almost too bleak.
I did like the nod to other cultures in the epilogue. Morue-as-Beauty is the perfect woman – judging from a very narrow, western beauty standard. The epilogue acknowledges that and ends the book on a funny note. All things considered, I would recommend this novel, but it didn’t impress me as much as Beautiful Darkness.
MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good