Lauren Beukes opens “Fairest” #8 with the line “The past is a dead dog,” echoing L.P. Hartley’s proverbial opening line of “The Go-Between”: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Indeed they do, especially if the past was in a magical kingdom within an actual foreign country. Thus Beukes begins the story arc of “The Hidden Kingdom” with a premise rich in Japanese mythology.
After this ominous meditation on the creep and weight of the past, the action of the story moves to the present. After one page of breathing space to introduce Rapunzel in her gilded captivity, Rapunzel’s past comes to find her in a visually breathtaking attack by paper cranes in a flurry of broken glass and blood. Beukes niftily combines two allusions into one: a thousand origami cranes, which by Japanese legend can grant one wish, and death by a thousand cuts, a form of torture and execution from Ancient China. A detour to Brooklyn draws Jack Horner into the net of the story, and Rapunzel draws in a further portion of the Fableverse by appealing for help first from Fabletown’s government, and then, in desperation, from a seedier source.
For all its promise of richness and depth, this first chapter is shallow in characterization and story (but will probably read well in trade). Beukes’ use of a wide supporting cast from “Fables” is necessary to foreshadow developments about the Homelands being opened, and it feels appropriate to the rules of Fableverse, but nevertheless all this setup eats up panel time and the story barely begins to get anywhere before the issue ends. None of the characters, especially Rapunzel herself, are sufficiently developed enough in “Fairest” #8 for the reader to care much about them yet, and Rapunzel’s mission is still shrouded in secrecy from the reader and even from her closest friend and hairdresser Joel.
The potential of the setup and Inaki Miranda’s art may be enough to hook readers anyway. Miranda’s pencils handle multiple worlds with ease, from the peaceful interior of Rapunzel’s Woodland Luxury Apartments to the crazy onslaught of Tokyo’s amazing nightlife. Eva De La Cruz’s colors are wonderfully appropriate and highlight the transitions from apartment to courtroom, airplane to city. Miranda and De La Cruz’s jump from the noisy city chaos and the teeth of a new adversary to the muted, minimalist last page instills creeping dread and suspense in the reader for what trials and horrors await Rapunzel in her quest to be reunited with her children.
Beukes’ dialogue and diction have a compelling precision, both in the opening sequences and in Rapunzel’s chilling confrontation with an unnamed foe who asks “Do you think I’m pretty?” This woman is a version of the Kuchisake-onna, the Slit-Mouthed Woman, a modern Japanese urban legend about a wife mutilated by a jealous spouse. A Kuchisake-onna wears a surgical mask, asking victims “Am I beautiful?” and if answered with a no, she kills them; if answered with a yes, she will lift the mask, revealing her disfigured smile, asking “Am I beautiful now?” It’s a spectacularly clever touch by Beukes and Miranda to update the Kuchisake-onna by making her young and dressing her in wild Tokyo streetwear.
Beukes and Miranda scatter in a few visual flashbacks to Rapunzel’s old life in the Hidden Kingdom, including a body floating in a lake and a tableau of blood on shattered porcelain. These also promise juicy backstory. The strongest parts of “Fairest” #8 by far are the sequences within Tokyo or those involving Japanese iconography, and while it took a whole issue to get us there, it’s good news that the titular Hidden Kingdom and Rapunzel’s past are in a place inside Japan.