Marian Churchland, Beast

BeastBeast by Marian Churchland

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

[I recently re-read Beast because I taught it in a class on the graphic novel. It more than stands up both to re-reading and to classroom discussion. I post below my review from the Summer 2010 issue of Rain Taxi, with a few minor emendations.]

Marian Churchland’s debut graphic novel turns what could be a hackneyed subject—the more-than-twice-told tale of Beauty and the Beast—into a stunning work of art.

Set in Vancouver, Beast begins at a bad time in the life of Colette, an aspiring sculptor in her mid-twenties who has just broken up with her boyfriend and who can’t find a way to pay for the expenses of her stone-carving craft. He ne’er-do-well father, however, has found her a commission: to sculpt a full-length portrait of wealthy client. The job’s menacing condition is that Colette must live in the client’s house for the duration of the work. Beast mostly unfolds in that house, a grand but run-down old domicile presided over by a curmudgeonly old woman and located in a shabby neighborhood with “an ex-gentry association that won’t quite rub off.” The book’s atmosphere is thus suffused with a sense of faded glory, like ghostly echoes on the site of ancient ruins. This emotional ambiance is vindicated by the plot when Colette encounters her client—the titular Beast—and his mysterious, even supernatural past. From that point, Churchland’s tale accelerates to a fateful, if thoroughly ambiguous conclusion. By the end, we are unsure whether Colette has tragically fallen prey to the Beast or triumphantly renounced the indignities of her everyday life for love of him. The question is left to the sympathies and sensibilities of the reader.

In an afterword, Churchland cites the feminist fairy tales of Angela Carter as an inspiration, but Beast differs in its aesthetic priorities from Carter’s stories. Whereas Carter achieves her distinctive effects by texturing post-modern didacticism with neo-Decadent verbal extravagance, Churchland works with a quiet style of accumulated quotidian detail. Beast is narrated, for instance, as a first-person account that foregrounds understatement instead of verbal play. In terms of visuals, Churchland rejects the cartoonishness of so many graphic novels that aspire to literary status in favor of a realist mode of drawing. She thus emphasizes objects and bodies in their three-dimensional solidity. But Churchland’s autumnal gray and sepia two-tone coloring, along with the occasional sketchiness of her lines, lend an insubstantial, almost smoke-like quality to the world she so carefully depicts, as if contemporary Vancouver were about to dissolve into the misty eternity of Beast himself. Taken as a whole, Churchland’s approach demonstrates that magic in a narrative works in proportion to the artist’s investment in reality.

Most importantly, Beast asserts the unique emotional expressiveness of the comics medium. Churchland’s marvelously observed drawings of subtle facial expressions and small gestures immerse the reader in an affective reality that prose fiction can only intimate and that film might over-literalize. Colette’s sculpture—as befits the fairy-tale origin of her story—becomes a work of love, but Churchland also imbues her own art with an evident passion for the visible that renders her courageously ambivalent account of the longing, wistfulness, and myth we cannot see all the more convincing. Beast signals the arrival of a serious talent on the comics scene.

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