Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down

Beautiful Darkness, by Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascoёt
Drawn & Quarterly, 2015

Reviewed by Rebecca Baker


Unknown-1It was nice to hear the voices of little children at play, 
provided you took care to be far enough away 
not to hear what they were actually saying. 
-Terry Pratchett

It seems to be an unwritten requisite of being a kid that, at some point or another, you secretly imagine tiny people living inside your guts. Maybe the little folks are in charge of sorting the correct type of food into the correct storage bins, or pumping your heart, or finding the right multiplication tables in your memory in order to ace those math exams. Whatever their function, they seem to be ubiquitous in the imagination of childhood.

In Beautiful Darkness, this fantasy becomes a disturbing and literal truth. First published in French in 2009 as Jolies Ténèbres, it regrettably took six more years for Vehlmann and Kerascoёt’s lovely little mindwarp to reach our Anglophone shores. This graphic novel tells the tale of a plucky homunculus named Aurora who, along with her whimsical companions, is forced to flee their warm, safe home inside a young girl’s body when she—inexplicably—dies alone in a rainstorm. Vehlmann and Kerascoёt offer no background about who she is, what she was doing, or why little humanoids like Aurora suddenly start crawling out of her face. The reader, like the protagonists, is suddenly and forcibly thrust into a world that they have no way to comprehend.

Kicked out of their native fairy tale, Aurora and her pals strive to create a new one. Each adorably-drawn personage seems to represent one of the many selves contained within the mind of a pubescent girl: the simple-minded child she was, the brave leader she wishes to be, the insecure ugly one she’s afraid she is, the sociopathically selfish princess she sometimes evinces, the Prince Charming she imagines but can’t really conceptualize, and the independent woman she will one day become. They are all here, and must forge ahead through the new world they have been flushed into.

Initially a selfless captain, Aurora sets up camp, doles out food, and plans parties to build community cohesion. Her bright subjects surround her, eager to help. But as the seasons change from spring to summer, fall to winter, their world starts to seem a little less promising. The omnipresent—yet never-mentioned—corpse decays around them. So does the little society that Aurora struggles to hold together. Members of their party get eaten by unscrupulous animals, innocent games become psychopathic, and the up-start populist princess marries Aurora’s own Prince Charming in a well-calculated publicity stunt.

Much of the drama unfolds in strange, episodic, one- or two-page scenes. The characters remain blind to the desperate implications of the larger picture. Many of them mirror and eventually emulate their bleak situation: they are as casually cruel, gleefully naïve and meaninglessly destructive as a toddler pulling the legs off spiders. Aurora watches in despair as her friends desert her and her society unravels. After all, her ideas—sensible as they might be—just aren’t as much fun. Eventually, she comes to the brink of that abysmal coming-of-age epiphany we all face sooner or later: life is intrinsically meaningless, and even that doesn’t matter since you can’t take anything with you anyway.

Yet it isn’t all bad. Vehlmann and Kerascoёt provide some genuinely beautiful scenes of caring, loyalty, and strength. A few folks (for better or for worse) even find ways to thrive in the Great Outdoors—perhaps not in ways that we would endorse, but when your ancestral home is a desiccated corpse, social mores as we conceive of them start to look pretty arbitrary. Beautiful Darkness may be a fairy tale gone cracked, but it is a fairy tale nevertheless: maybe love does win out in the end.

REBECCA BAKER will graduate with her MA in English Literature in June. She is going on to study cognitive and technological approaches to literature at UC Santa Barbara this upcoming fall. She enjoys graphic novels, pinball, clever animation, science fiction, and responsibly executed postmodernism.