Surviving the Golden Spirals

Ah-reum Han on Fabien Vehlmann, Hubert, and Kerascoët

I first stumbled into the dazzling, ruthless worlds drawn by award-winning Kerascoët—pen name for French cartoonist couple, Marie Pommepuy and Sébastien Cosset—via their graphic novel, Beauty (Beauté, translated by Joe Johnson), a collaboration with writer Hubert. It was mid-winter, maybe eight months after completing my M.F.A., and I was visiting grad school friends in Virginia and their fat tabby cat, whom I loved more than he loved me. Sitting on their living room floor, I met Beauty’s young protagonist, Coddie, as she came of age in a world where wishes do come true, but we must survive their consequences. Within the first bright pages, I was hooked.

Beauty found me at a time when words felt difficult. I had transitioned unexpectedly to a corporate career after struggling to make ends meet at a bookstore gig in Washington, DC. I needed to find health insurance, pay rent, plan a wedding. Then there were the rejections: from jobs, from internships, from journals. At a time when writing and reading felt heavy, I returned to comics: The Wicked and the Divine, Saga, Deadpool, Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Justice League. I liked their generosity, density, and elegance—how each page conspired with the full spectrum of my senses for meaning, how they distilled complex plots into scenes, demystifying the storytelling apparatus. I found room enough for myself there, between their selective frames, angles, colors, and text.

A few summers earlier, I took a class on the “The Art of the Scene” where I learned to listen for a story’s heartbeats. “Every story has three,” my teacher, Alan Cheuse, said. “Purpose, Passion, and Perception.” By this he meant that every great narrative, like Oedipus Rex, obeys an innate, urgent rhythm: It begins with the Purpose, a problem to be solved (Thebes’ mysterious plague), followed by the Passion, the complications of seeking that answer (search for the curse), and then the final resolution, the Perception (that infamous, blinding realization). Every story is alive in this way. For the next six weeks, we took stethoscopes to passages by Elizabeth Tallent, Anton Chekhov, Haruki Murakami—recording the pulses we intuited at the turn of a sentence or paragraph. We studied their anatomy, tried to replicate this same life in our own stories. These lessons followed me as I escaped into comics like Beauty, after a long commute home.

Soon after Beauty, I found Beautiful Darkness (Jolies Ténèbres, translated by Helge Dascher), this time a Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascoët partnership. I followed Coddie from her beginnings as a smelly, ugly girl to the moment a fairy queen grants her wish for beauty, and the costly implications of that transformation. Coddie reminded me of adolescent earnestness, but also the agony and anonymity of beauty, how beauty seemed always to inspire such aggression—the desire to possess, cage, and destroy. Similar to Beauty, in Beautiful Darkness, Aurora, too, must survive her subverted fairy tale as she dons the role of princess, then caretaker, then survivor. I couldn’t help noticing how the watercolor and ink complemented or contested the text at critical junctures, or how the panels stretched and sloped to make a moment more elastic, forcing my eyes to lag or skip. At times, they implicated me with their gaze, and at others made me complicit with what was implied between their borders.

I was still working at the bookstore when I heard of Alan’s sudden passing. In the months that followed, I frequented my memories of that summer class. One of Alan’s first exercises was creating a timeline. We practiced first on Oedipus Rex, then on our own lives. We created a chronological list of events, big and small, leading to the present day, only to strip it back down to its bones until finally, that first P, Purpose, emerged. At the time, we understood it as an exercise in finding the story, an illustration of how a story neither begins at birth nor ends at death. We dutifully used the three P’s to impose scaffolds on our own narratives. In hindsight, I wondered if Alan had simply meant that every story is bound to a greater narrative, like Oedipus was to fate. That when edited, over time, stories naturally oriented themselves into a shape, like golden spirals found in pine cones, or hurricanes. As I cried in the break room that day, dissolved and embarrassed by my own grief, I wondered what time would reveal about this story yet.

The prologue of Beautiful Darkness begins without traditional panels, simply the characters—Hector, Aurora, and Plim—against a minimalist background. Kerascoët’s colors bleed loosely onto the page, with little geographical context except for a couch and table, where Aurora meets Hector after the ball. The prologue’s lack of frames and borders on the plain, white page suggests Aurora’s story begins somewhere in the white lines between the panels themselves, suspended outside of conventional plots, time, and place. And perhaps it’s true, because this opening scene pivots away from fairy tales where prince meets princess. Just as Hector and Aurora are about to kiss, poised on the verge of their happily ever after, their world literally begins caving in. By the end of the second page, we find the first heartbeat, with Aurora’s exclamation: “Huh? But this isn’t how things were supposed to turn out!”

As if on cue, the panels then begin. In fact, they seem to box Aurora in as the walls collapse, and we feel her claustrophobia through the close-ups on her face. From panel to panel, she runs, dodges, and climbs through the muck until, finally, she crawls free. The last panel spans a full page, a zoomed-out aerial view that sets the stage for the story to come. It reveals that Aurora and her friends—who we now see are animated toys and dolls—have escaped from the decomposing body of a dead girl, miniature characters in a life-sized world. From this point, time is moored to decay in Beautiful Darkness. The body’s deterioration, ever in the background of the lush green scenery, maintains the story’s pace and counterpoints every character’s decision: both raising the stakes (death may be the outcome of a misstep) and trivializing their actions (compared to death, how silly to argue over who plays where?).

Thrust into this strange new world, where insects are their equals in size, the first tangible enemy that Aurora and the gang encounter is nature—weather, hunger, poisonous plants, wild animals. At first, they turn to social structures for answers. Aurora transitions quickly into her role as caretaker, figuring out a way to find and distribute food and shelter equally. However, after a short time, any semblance of her carefully controlled, play-pretend society, with its rules, taboos, and expectations, quickly devolves. Its decline parallels the deterioration of the girl’s body in the background. Vehlmann and Kerascoët spare few characters. One after the other, each falls victim to nature: drowned, gored, burned, eaten. The list of casualties grows.

If this story’s Purpose began with surviving nature’s horrors, the Passion lies in how the horrors are reciprocated in equal measure. The tiny, colorful characters exhibit a similar cruelty: one breaks off a beetle’s leg, another clips a bird’s wings, a group devours a blind mouse. Then, as the small characters try to tame their large surroundings, they also turn on each other. Those who transgress definitions of normal, such as one-eyed Timothy, are met with violence. In one poignant scene, Timothy admits “the others scare me,” before getting buried alive in a pencil case. Although at first the story seems propelled by the fight to survive and dominate mother nature, true brutality in nature is revealed to be human after all.

The title, Beautiful Darkness, already suggests this book hinges on false contradictions—the tension between beauty and ugliness, light and shadow, childhood and death. Journalist Colin Bouchat notes that the signature strength of the Kerascoët duo is their “juxtaposition of deceptively innocent drawings with a violent story.” It cross-examines our beliefs at every turn, so that we are left constantly fooled by our own assumptions. In both Beautiful Darkness and Beauty, these surprises result in horror and humor. What would happen if a story’s timeline continued beyond the enchanted kiss? What if true happiness hinged on beauty? In this version, the prince marries someone else, and a kind and noble heart is not enough to secure its own happily ever after. Because of these disrupted expectations, characters like Aurora have no choice but to change. We notice the beginnings of this inevitable unsettling almost exactly halfway through the book when, finally, Aurora begins crying, though she cannot say why.

We reach the peak of Aurora’s journey when, against incredible odds, she pulls together a forest party. The party is a small miracle, a product of Aurora’s sheer optimism and goodwill. However, just before the moment can be fulfilled, a mouse ruins it. Here we find Aurora at the height of her Passion, furious and lost, thwarted first by Hector’s rejection and secondly by the failure of her party, the last bastion of social order. She blinds the mouse. Enhanced by Kerascoët’s choice of red and black colors, this brutal scene is a turning point in Aurora’s development, but also in the reader’s. From the first panel to the second, the angle shifts so that the reader is positioned alongside Aurora, face-to-face with the mouse. The red and black colors invert, bringing the silhouettes of Aurora’s arms to the foreground, aligned with our own. Suddenly, the reader is an unwitting participant in the violence.

The final beat in Beautiful Darkness lies here: the image of Aurora, wearing the pelt of the mouse she has blinded, as she watches her enemies burn alive. It becomes clear that Aurora has embraced this new identity. The mouse fur is now clean, a part of her as the color of the pelt blends with her own hair. We see her between two active panels, dragging out the moments before the flame’s ignition. Aurora’s wide eyes stare directly at us, the readers, in that moment of Perception. She’s placed squarely in the moment, cool, blank, her mouth a grim line. In this moment, she has reclaimed her ending, which was robbed from her in that critical prologue, victim of neither scripted fairy tale nor human cruelty. For the first time, she acts entirely of her own accord, joining the ranks of Kerascoët’s many powerful and unconventional female protagonists. In the end, Aurora chooses her own prince, and chooses exile, to live in a clock, outside of time.

Vehlmann and Hubert’s work with Kerascoët charms me with the strange, strong, and unexpected young women at the center of their stories: Aurora, Coddie, Blanche, or Charlie, the young woman featured in Satanie, which was published last year and completed an earlier work. I read it over Christmas, almost one year after Beauty. It’s their most ambitious work yet—ambitious in terms of plot, world, and characters. Charlie embarks on an underground quest to rescue her brother, who went missing while trying to prove the existence of hell. As they descend deeper into the earth, madness surfaces. Two-thirds of the way in, I’m charmed by the scope of Vehlmann and Kerascoët’s imagination. I encounter austere Grecian civilizations, fantastical creatures, an underworld of psychedelic flora and fauna, each in their own way sinister and lovely. Satanie is subterranean fiction in the genre of Jules Verne, as gritty as Beautiful Darkness, but unapologetically psychological. As we fall deeper into the earth, Charlie becomes less clothed, literally and symbolically shedding surface trappings and identities, corresponding with our symbiotic descent into her traumas. The reader is left wondering what hell really is.

While Satanie reflects forward on what death means for the afterlife, Beautiful Darkness reflects back on what death means for the body, the life unlived, the life left behind. Reading through Beautiful Darkness again—now over a year into my job, married, and settling into routines that make time for the writing I love—I find new things to hold dear. In my favorite moment, we first learn the name of our protagonist, who until that point had been identified through appearance alone—the blonde girl in the white and blue polka-dot dress. This scene hangs on a series of frames revolving around one of the items that had fallen out of the dead girl’s satchel: a notebook inscribed with the name, “Aurora.” When the escaped toys ask who “Aurora” is, the young, failed princess claims the name for her own. I love this scene because I like to think that Aurora is, in fact, the dead girl from whom all these small characters have escaped. She has been granted a brief encore through this tale, reanimated beyond her earthly timeline, which has cruelly left her forgotten and alone in the woods. Real life is the true nightmare in this world, where time and death are powerless to the imagination.