Image and the Beast

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Colette, a young sculptor looking for work, finds a job with a mysterious client who wants her to carve his portrait out of marble. The client turns out to be a shadowy creature, and the block of marble, she discovers, has a long history that threatens to engulf her entirely.

The Beast  graphic novel by Marian Churchland is definitely something else for Image Comics who normally specialize more in creator owned super heroics or more action oriented fantastic tales. Instead what we get here is a contemporary retelling of La Belle et la Bête whereupon the author delivers a personal twist.

The pure of heart and wealthy-becomes-despondent la Belle, daughter of a merchant is transformed into a struggling artiste, fresh a terminated relations ship and school and an absent father that tries its best but cannot escape his own nature. Though the absent father part is not really dwelled upon, it is fitting for the modern environment.

After all, in the original story, the merchant trades his daughter for his freedom after he got caught by la Bête for stealing his precious rose of which the trading-up part also doesn't sound like responsible fatherly behaviour. The rose here is the promise of a highly paid commissioned sculpting work for Colette, setup by the father. It's all about the money.

Whereas la Belle had to wait a few months before seeing her Beast, Colette does not need to wait that long because it is quite difficult making a portrait without seeing the portrayed. From here on in, the story sets off on its own and any comparisons between the original and Marian Churchland's version would seem to be unfair. For one thing, the back story of the shadow creature Beast is very different than the one in the fairy tale and involves the running theme of art and creation.

The writer/artist weaves an interesting tale. Colette is a protagonist that carries some damage, coming out of a broken relationship and a split up family with a none-too-responsible father in charge - the mother is never touched upon. Churchland sticks to the essentials here and delivers her soliloquy's with razor focus. This is Colette's world and we're just reading about it, so to speak. It is befitting of the undertone of Romanticism that runs through the novella, particularly to the isolation of the protagonist. It leans perhaps closer to German Romanticism with its fascination with myths and stories than American Romanticism that tends to be more Gothic in nature.

However this focus also has a few side effects. The graphic novel is more like a graphic novella. The storytelling is spacious and open in its rhythm but cannot disguise the fact that there is not much story going on here. Though we feel with Colette's heartbreak and emotional frame of mind, Churchland does  not completely elevate the character beyond her universal feelings of sorrow and feeling lost. Also the Beast remains to much of a cypher to justify the ending. though it - and the subsequent escalation - is a direct result of Colette's fragile frame of mind, it leaves a bit of an aftertaste. In the afterword, Chuchland talks about wanting to avoid the regular happy ending with the Beast turning into a prince but, without meaning to, she creates her own version of the ending that is not so different in intent than the original though it is more personal.

What's interesting about Beast is also the injection of the art theme. Some time is given to theories about art and the act of creation. The sculpting is mentioned as the erasing of boundaries linking it to the romantic notion that the form is already present in the block, the sculptor frees the shape from the prison. It is the personal view of Colette and of course is linked to her worldview and the actions she undertakes. It is a nice bit of character work that also delivers some insight into her personality.

It is a very laid back book though, it takes its time to make a point and devotes many panels and pages to establish mood and atmosphere. It has some good scenes like the one where Colette, after overcoming her initial fears, meets the beast head on and asks for his name. Afterwards her image starts fading into the block of marble. A nicely timed sequence giving rise to her lingering fear and visualising the monumental task before her.

However this cannot disguise the fact that the camera remains too static. Often times, characters face the camera either directly or with one/third of their faces turned and much of it are upper body shots. It is a talky GN and the storytelling feels too much like a camera following the characters at eye height. Even in the 'action' scenes, you get a feeling of watching a set of freeze frames.

Marian Churchland's line work is a thing of beauty though. She obviously derives pleasures from the small things in life, giving attention to background (though there aren't many and one of them is an empty room with a big marble block in it) and especially characters. Her lines swerve and flow over the page and nothing is diminished by the monochromatic colouring that are applied straight over her pencil work. She even uses a typeface of her own handwriting, designed by Richard Starkings with whom she worked on his Elephant Men series. Just leafing through the package makes you want to read it. The line work draws you in like tendrils from a berry tree.

Beast from Marian Churchland is a very promising beginning from a starting writer/artist. It is a passionate tale of following your instincts and delivers a nice punch to the classic Beauty and the Beast story tale. It is not without it's flaws but it is honest and beautiful and reading Beast, you do get a sense that this tale comes from the heart of the creator. Like one off the characters says in the book "there's life beneath here. Search for a pulse and you'll find it".

Beast by Marian Churchland is published by Image Comics. It is a 154 pages counting graphic novel, retailing for €15.99 and is available in finer bookstores and comic shops across the world.

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