Musings: Beauty by Hubert and Kerascoët

It is hard to thoroughly discuss any work with any brevity. Often times a critic’s thoughts and ideas about a specific piece must
be abandoned due to word counts. I admit I do this regularly – instead of
bringing up all of the thoughts I have about a piece, I tend to edit and pursue
those which make a strong and cohesive review.

Sometimes, I’d prefer to get a little long in the tooth –
which is why I’m reviving a feature I’ve used in the distant past at Sequential
State, simply titled “Musings.” Instead of a regular review this week, dear
readers, I’m inclined to talk a bit more than usual. Musings is a less formal,
longer-winded version of my regular writing, and you’ll get to see more of the
stream of consciousness that pervades my criticism practice. Hopefully that
interests you.

In some ways, 2014 was the year of Kerascoët. Starting with
March’s Beautiful Darkness, and followed by both Beauty and Miss
Don’t Touch Me
 around SPX, these three are all beautiful hardcover
books published in English by Drawn and Quarterly and NBM Publishing.

Beauty is a collection of 3 separate books
originally published in French by Editions Dupuis, and features a young woman
named Coddie whose bulging eyes, shrunken chin, overlarge ears, and distinctive
fishy-odor from scaling fish all day make her something of the town scapegoat.
She is constantly ridiculed by people in her provincial town, and she hopes to
find love and acceptance. One evening after a torrent of abuse from her
godmother, Coddie goes to the forest to collect firewood, and happens upon a
struggling toad. She weeps for the toad and for herself, and in doing so
releases Mab, an enchanted faerie. In return for releasing her, Mab binds
Coddie with a glamour that makes her appear to be the most beautiful woman in
the world.

In this setup there are a few things that interest me; the
first is the use of Mab as wish granter and eventual antagonist. Queen Mab is a
classic faerie whose appearance in text goes all the way back to Romeo and Juliet. In folklore and in
Shakespeare she takes the role of dream-deliverer (and also likely herpes
bringer, based on Mercutio’s soliloquy). But in more recent poetry and fiction,
Mab is an extremely powerful Unseelie faerie, often called Queen Mab – a queen
of ice, winter, darkness, and the void. It seems as though this version of Mab
is the one that makes it into Beauty. The appearance of Mab
specifically at this early stage of the book feels like a portent of the things
to come.

The nature of Hubert and Kerascoët’s main theme reveals
itself very early in Beauty. After being ensorcelled, Coddie goes
back to her godmother’s home. Her new beauty is revealed to them and
immediately her godfather is accosting her. “And your neck… so soft. One wants
to bite it. And your bosom. It’s calling my hands. Let me touch you.” When
Coddie refuses him, he says “Don’t be shy! I can see it’s what you want. I can
see it in your eyes.”

She was asking for it. She wanted it. This language pops up
throughout Beauty, and it’s essentially the same as “If she
didn’t want to be raped, she wouldn’t have dressed that way,” and its ilk,
the wretched language of rape apologists and deniers. The victim-blaming language
Hubert and Kerascoët use is important,
and with it, they are making a very sharp point here – despite her enchanted
nature, Coddie is not enchanting men to be lustful, violent, and greedy – these
men are convincing themselves that they are entitled to her.

One thing that is extraordinarily clear is the way in which
Coddie’s beauty is a danger to her. Her sex appeal is used as a weapon that men
will use to attack her intentions, her morality, and very often attack her
physically. The threat of rape is often around every corner.

And honestly, the world of Beauty might as
well be the world we live in now. A 1998 National Institute of Justice survey
estimates 1 in 6 adult American women has been the victim of an attempted or
completed rape, and a 2007 study estimated that 19% of all college women in USA
had experienced rape or attempted rape since entering college. And we see this
everywhere, and every day. “Mississipi teen burned to death.” “Man convicted of
running a revenge porn website in California, faces misdemeanor charge.” This
is real life. Beauty is real life.

The threat of physical damage in Beauty is not just from men, but also from women, afraid that they
will be left by their husbands, jealous of Coddie’s appeal. In the beginning of
the book, Coddie is branded with a hot coal to mar her face; her captors are
appalled to find that the coal does not affect the glamour. This is another
form of the male gaze, in the sense that the women of Beauty have
accepted the toxic male gaze as a part of normal life.

Importantly, Kerascoët and Hubert do not illustrate Coddie
as the all beautiful Beauty except in specific circumstances. Coddie is often
seen as herself, with her distinctive features, except when specifically under
the male gaze. When a man or woman has adopted this gaze, it is only then when
Coddie becomes Beauty.

Toxic male-centered language also plays a role in Beauty,
best seen in the dialogue of Coddie’s godmother’s house. Her godfather calls
her a tease. Her godmother who calls her a slut and a demon. This is a constant
throughout the book.

We see this adoption of toxicity in another way – when the
King of the South sends away his wife “for infidelity,” so that he may marry
Coddie, the Queen wastes away. She has accepted her role as possession. Now no
longer possessed, she can find no value in herself and wastes away.

Coddie too often is treated as a possession. As the men
around her become more and more possessive, they treat her less and less like a
person. The King’s sister Claudine uses her as a pawn to wage political battle
upon the Northern Kingdom. Possessive verbs abound here; when The Boar King
storms the castle and finds the King of the South gone insane, killing his own
men, he is shouting “You wanna steal her away from me, eh? You want her for
yourself!!!” When Coddie is eventually captured by the Boar King, she is
purchased for a large sum of money and then thrown into a box to be carted back
north. Anyone touching or trying to open the box is murdered. The point here is
clear, that Coddie is a treasure to be hoarded, not a person to be loved.

But Coddie isn’t helpless, and she isn’t a doll or a lump of
gold. In her private moments, we see her naïve and foolish, angry, petty, sad,
and generous. It is in these moments that Kerascoët and Hubert gently remind us
that Coddie is complex person. Her mother sees this, her captor’s wife sees
this (at some points, but also sees the threat she can become), the women
around her in many parts of the book see this. But the men around her do not
see her in this way.

In building the first two books, Kerascoët and Hubert have
created a world of problems. But in the third and final piece of Beauty,
they seem to offer their characters (and by proxy, ourselves) a resolution.

Coddie starts to realize that if she is to survive, that if
anything is going to change, she has to not only claim herself for herself, but
she must crush the male-centric world around her and build it back up.

Mab, in a sense, is the antithesis of Coddie’s revelation
and transformation. Mab is a solution to the male gaze, in a sense, a cure of
violent proportion. Allow men to completely wipe themselves off the map for
Coddie. Allow the lands of men to perish before her. When all the men are dead,
all the women can be free. But Coddie’s ascension is a denial of that “cure”
and a model by which to build a new world.

Coddie moves forward from her prison and takes command of
the world. It is important that by the male gaze she has gained wealth and power, and then by the male gaze she loses it and becomes a prisoner. Only after she has lost everything can she ascend. She uses her beauty as a weapon, and instead of turning all men upon
each other, forces them all on their knees. But the solution isn’t the
subjection of men – rather, it is the destruction of the source of the problem,
the faerie network, a representative for Mab and her glamor, the
crystallization of the male gaze.

Throughout Beauty, Kerascoët and Hubert have
built a compelling faerie tale model of our own world. They have written Coddie
as a complicated human being, and have given her a storyline both wrapped up in
and independent of men; this alone is important – so few faerie tales give
women agency in the way this story does. But Beauty also
serves as a stark reminder that unless we as a society change the way we view
women, there will continue to be pain and suffering. Likely one of the best
books published in English in 2014, Beauty is a gorgeous book,
and a comic to own, keep, and cherish. Recommended.

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