There are countless stories for children with a simple underlying message of being yourself and appreciating your own unique traits. Beauty starts out similar, and many of the early messages are very on-point, but the story quickly becomes much more complex and mature, examining the diverse and extremely flawed characters in her world.
The story follows Morue, a young woman in indentured servitude as a fish scaler. The first impression Kerascoët’s art gives of her is in four wonderful panels where Morue is examining her appearance in isolation, first with disappointment, then opening her mind to the idea of her own beauty being acceptable, and finally being yanked out of contentment by the world around as she is teased by village children.
Morue is drawn to a life of glamor and happiness, so when she finds the faerie Mab she instantly knows that the thing she wants most is beauty. Mab casts a spell on Morue, not changing her physical appearance, but making her seem to be the most beautiful person anyone has ever seen. Sure enough, when she returns home even her caretakers do not recognize her, and the first man to see her is immediately driven mad by her beauty. We get our first vivid glimpses of the horrendous acts that are ignited by her beauty as the men in the village fight over which of them gets to sleep with her first, blatantly treating her as a sexual object rather than a person. Morue’s fear and protests are seen by the men as teasing in one of the most pure examples of victim blaming possible.
This book continues to ponder the effects of beauty. When all the men in the village are chasing after Morue, we also see the women turn on her out of frustration with their husbands’ actions, again blaming the victim of their husbands’ unwanted sexual advances. Morue quickly becomes a social pariah, literally climbing up a tree to save her own life. At this point she is whisked off by the prince of the nearby castle and we see her story quickly escalate.
Morue certainly isn’t a Mary Sue, and as soon as she gets a taste of luxury is overcome by avarice. In fact, many of her actions through a majority of the book are predominantly stupid and greedy, at times even bordering on the suggestion that people are meant to remain in their social class. She does show a desire for the kingdom to live pleasant lives, but this leads the prince to simply put on a show, dressing up small areas of the town for her inspection. While the town is going broke to pay for Morue’s luxurious lifestyle she is completely oblivious to the rampant poverty.
Hubert wrote a story with very clear messages, and while they are rather on-point at times, they are impressively fleshed-out. The ending, in particular, brings an excellent turn for Morue, where she finally becomes self-aware of the power her own beauty holds. And as we all know, with great power comes great responsibility (no, she doesn’t turn into Spiderman).
Kerascoët’s art draws from both European and Asian influences, showing warring tribes, struggling villagers, mischievous faeries, and the ever-unsure Morue. Throughout all of this the emotions of the characters are palpable. I’m confident that even without Hubert’s words on the page someone could flip through this book and follow nearly everything, which is quite a testament given the tremendous emotional range on display in this book. Although these artistic expressions are rather exaggerated, it matches the story in that regard. There’s certainly no abundance of subtlety at work here.
The art also only shows Morue’s “beauty” when it is clearly another character’s perspective. Definitely a strong choice because it emphasizes that Morue is still the same person she was before, and Mab’s curse, after all, was to change everyone’s perception rather than actually changing Morue’s physical appearance.
Although the story is a bit on point and lacks finesse it is nonetheless a very entertaining tale, and works with some interesting ideas regarding the power of beauty that are well worth consideration. Kerascoët & Hubert crafted a wonderful fantasy story unlike any other comics in current publication, and thankfully, after only three years in France, it’s been translated to English in this collection.