A review a day: <i>Beast</i>

Wait, they let chicks write AND draw their own comics these days? Outrageous!!!!

Marian Churchland has a new graphic novel out called Beast, published by Image and costing $15.99. I enjoyed Churchland's art on Elephantmen last year, so I was looking forward to this when I heard about it. And dang, it was worth the anticipation.

Beast is phenomenal, both artistically and literarily (yes, I can coin words - I was an English major!). Churchland sort-of retells "Beauty and the Beast," but she puts her own unique spin on it.

We understand early on that she's doing this, so when she continues to subvert what we might expect, it's refreshing. We can't figure out where the book is going, which is always nice. And when she does reach an emotionally devastating conclusion, it's nothing like we expected.

The main character of the book is Colette Alleine, a sculptor living in Vancouver, British Columbia, who doesn't work very much as she's not well known. Her father, a failed art agent, has some contacts that give Collete work to do, and one day, he gets her a great gig - "a portrait in marble, all materials provided." Colette knows nothing about the job except that, but when she arrives at the address, she's taken in by the owner, an old woman named Roz, gets freaked out when she thinks someone is watching her, and is then taken to the studio where she's confronted by a giant block of marble. Then the subject of the portrait shows up - an impeccably dressed ... well, not a man, exactly, as he appears from the shadows, has a dark inhuman face, and fades into the shadows when he leaves. He tells Colette to call him "Beast" and explains that he's 500 years old. In 16th-century Florence, he apprenticed to a young sculptor who desperately wanted a commission. One day he got it, and he installed a slab of the best marble in his studio and prepared to work on it in the morning. During the night, his sister Cecilia started chiseling away it, ruining it for the sculptor. She never finished her sculpture, and that slab of marble now confronts Colette, and Beast wants her to carve his portrait from it.

Colette accepts this fantastic story rather readily, but she's still not sure if she'll take the job. She's not really a prisoner of Beast, but she does feel like something is keeping her there, and after vacillating for a few days, she decides to start in on the sculpture.

Colette, of course, is curious about her employer, but she never has the guts to ask him more about himself. She does find out more about Cecilia and even some information about Roz, but Beast remains elusive. She works at night because that's when he appears, but he often doesn't. She spends a month or so working on the sculpture, and after an illuminating conversation with Beast, she finally finishes it. He is greatly pleased, and she goes home, never to see him again. Of course, it's not that simple. She can't get Beast out of her mind, and even an attempt to reconnect with her ex-boyfriend goes poorly because he doesn't understand what she was doing. Finally, she decides to return to Beast's house, but she finds it empty ... except for an underground room, where she finally discovers the horrible secret he was keeping.

Churchland does a fantastic job building the tension throughout the book, as we're never quite sure if Colette is truly safe in the house. She has no idea what's going on with Roz, and after she meets Beast, she thinks about leaving and never coming back, but something keeps her there. It's fascinating that Churchland doesn't make any threats to Colette explicit, just allowing us (and her) to imagine horrible consequences for her if she runs.

Colette comments about her own passivity and cowardice a few times, and while we think she's being a bit hard on herself, it's fascinating to watch as she slowly becomes less passive and cowardly, not because she wants to change, but because her curiosity gets the better of her. And it's interesting that Churchland doesn't end the book with Colette's revelation about how to finish her sculpture, which is a beautiful and harrowing work of art. The creation of Beast's portrait only serves as a springboard to her greater revelation about Beast, which ties back, obliquely, to her own relationship with her ex-boyfriend. Colette's ex does nothing like what Beast has done in his past, but it's interesting how Churchland, in a few pages, parallels Tom (Colette's ex) with Beast's secret. It makes Colette's desire to see Beast one more time more disturbing and tragic. She's desperate to redeem someone who perhaps doesn't deserve it, and it makes her character far more interesting. Churchland deliberately leaves the ending enigmatic (I may be reading it incorrectly), and the questions that remain about both Colette and Beast make the book even stronger. We don't get the answers we crave explicitly spelled out, and it's up to us to interpret the final few pages. I think it shows the lengths to which someone will go for love and the horror that can occur because of it, but I could be wrong.

The art in the book is stunning, as well. I enjoyed Churchland's work on Elephantmen, but this is a step up (which is odd, as she writes in the afterword that she's been working on it for a few years). Her pencils seem stronger, more forceful, and the way she contrasts Colette's mundanity (remember, I can make up words!) with Beast's exotic nature is well done. He's never quite terrifying, despite the fact that his face is shrouded in shadow, his hair flows behind him like smoke, and his ears are pointed - he's more of a dark, tragic anti-hero, and Colette grounds him. Churchland pays close attention to the details of the book - Roz's house is dilapidated but proud, a relic from another time but still a force, while Roz herself is a woman who might once have been a stoic sculpture but whose edges have worn with age. Churchland adds nice touches to the house, from the strange painting above the door of the studio to the stranger painting in a hallway that we see only after Beast has what he wants.

The flashback scenes in Florence are marvelous and set up the haunting vision that Colette discovers in the basement when she returns to the house. Churchland does an amazing job with Colette, never allowing her to reveal too much of herself, showing her fear and other emotions with subtle changes in her eyes and mouth, even at the very end, when she suddenly understands what Beast wanted from her and what she wants to do for him. It's a beautiful comic, and Churchland smartly doesn't let the words get in the way of her art. Too often, we get writers trying too hard to get inside a character's head, but Churchland pushes that urge back and lets us come to Colette and Beast instead of forcing her characters on us. It makes for a contemplative book, but it also means that when Beast explains everything rather subtly to Colette, we understand it as she does, and we figure out the answers as she does. It's a nice trick that Churchland pulls off very well.

I haven't given too much away because it is such a beautiful ending. This is a comic that rewards your patience and asks you to puzzle out the emotions of two people who aren't the kind to express themselves too outrageously. It's a love story of a sort, and it's a horror story of a sort. Most of all, it's a wonderful work of fiction by a talented creator with a bright future. Based on this comic, I can't wait to see what Churchland does next.

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