Tuesday, 24 February 2015


You might imagine that with all my nerdy interests, including running my Justice League roleplaying game, I'm a big comic fan.  Certainly, just a meter from my RPG bookcase there is a comics bookcase equally rammed with DC comics - and a second such bookcase in the living room with a variety of graphic novels.  One cannot run a game about President Lena Luthor turning out to have her dad controlling her brain via Ultra-Humanite technology unless you are already pretty deep down the rabbit hole.

However, I haven't actually purchased many of late.  Previously I visited Glasgow comic shops once a week, picking up my usual spandex-and-violence fare as well as trying out some other odds and ends.  (Sister Superior, predictably, has a love of gothier comic.)  Following the 2011 DC comics reboot, however, my interest waned until only a handful of comics survived my regular reading list then finally atrophied completely.

The only thing keeping me reading comics was the Forbidden Planet book club.  And after a hiatus, it's back!

My local Forbidden Planet, one of several good comic shops in Glasgow

It's pretty much a typical book club - we meet up at regular intervals, all to talk about the pre-arranged book.  Being a comic shop we talk about graphic novels which we purchase from said shop.  The talk inevitably wanders into other nerdity including other comics we have been reading - and into the work of some of our attendees who write and draw comics themselves as independant professional geeks.

Our book club previously met once a month in the store - Monday nights after it shuts, a sort of dweebs lock-in - but sorta fizzled out a year or so ago for various reasons.  Sister Superior decided to try and revive it at the start of this year and our first meeting was on Monday.  It was nice to see everyone again and to read my first real comic of the year.

That first comic was Beautiful Darkness: details below the cut

This cover gets more horrible after reading the book
Beautiful Darkness is a French book, written by Fabien Vehlmann and illustrated by husband and wife team Kerasco√ęt.  It was chosen for our book club by Neil Slorrance but Sister Superior and I didn't really know anything about it until we read it - whereupon it become apparent it was some sort of weird anti-fairy tale, a sort of cross between Lord of the Flies and The Numbskulls

Sorry Pixar, we beat you to this one.

The art is a huge part of this book, with its watercolours making it resemble a friendly children's storybook all the while horrible things are happening.  (You might compare it to Stardust in that regard.)  The little faerie creatures go from one tradgedy to the other, essentially with childlike innocence and a total failure to understand consequences. 

Muted greens and browns portray the forest environment these tiny little creatures inhabit, but occasionally bright spark of red mark the latest misery to unfold.  Nature is usually the one dealing the blow, as in this section in which a little dude tries to get food by sneaking into a birds nest and pretending to be a chick.

This scene kinda sticks with me.
And yet.... this is not a cruel book, exactly because the terrible things that happen to them are usually their own fault.  The above picture can be seen as an allegory for someone's greed leading to their own demise and most of the deaths in the book are like that - they walk into a situation they shouldn't have and are only punished so much as they allow themselves to be.  

Classic faerie stories often had an instructional quality to them - they were warnings to children of what would happen if they disobeyed the rules, with punishments being meted out to those who transgressed cultural norms.  It was like slasher horror movies in that regard - just as Friday The 13th sees anyone who has sex or gets drunk pay for their indulgence, Hansel and Gretel are only in trouble because they're so goddamn greedy.  We've perhaps lost some of that edge with increasingly kid-friendly versions of those stories - the morals they were trying to teach us now lost in centuries of cultural shift - but Beautiful Darkness presents them in their original form.

Aside: If you like messed up faerie tales, might I recommend The Path?  It's a wee indie computer game updating the concept of Little Red Riding Rood.  It's not very expensive and not very long, but like Beautiful Darkness it stays with you and says everything it needs to in a small package.

It's only $9.99, dude
 Anyway, back to Beautiful Darkness, and the central character is Princess Aurora who along with the rest of the little pixie people finds herself trapped in the forest.  Society breaks down around her as, without any guidance on how to stay alive in the dangerous world, the little people do progressively crueler and stupider things.  The cruelty is the kind only children could really do - vicious and yet seemingly unaware of quite what they are doing.

Aurora tries to maintain some sort of normality and clearly sees herself as the leader of the group, but as time goes on things fall increasingly apart.  She ends up eschewing the group and spends more time in the woods, where she encounters a Human who is as terrifying as you'd imagine it would be to an inch-tall person.

Somewhere inbetween "Giant", "Alien" and "God"

In the end, while the others gleefully march to their doom with increasing stupidity and viciousness, Aurora somehow manages to wisen up while simultaneously seeming to become crueler.  The final section does not fail at the "horrible deaths" mark. 

After Sister Superior likened it to Heart of Darkness, I couldn't help but read Aurora in that last section as though The End by The Doors was playing over her every move.

My only friend, the end...
 Overall, I enjoyed the book as did most of the group.  Gary, member of Forbidden Planet staff and manly man who doesn't really enjoy books unless someone joins The Avengers by the end of them, surprised himself by going in with low expectations and finding it really gripping.  My missus ended up reading it twice in one sitting, getting much more out of it the second time.  Certainly, I found it very good, with a light touch moral message that meant there was a lot left to your own interpretation rather than being hammered down to the reader.

That said, there was a minority who disliked the book.  Dr Niall, our resident medical expert, seemed underwhelmed by it - I think partly because so much was left to reader interpretation that he wasn't really sure the book was actually answering any questions, just throwing them out and forgetting about them.  Certainly the demises within are grim and it's not a book for if you're in a depressed mood!

Next month the Book Club should be meeting, so I may continue to interrupt my ramblings about wargames and roleplaying games to talk about our reading material.

Original French cover

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