It’s a rare experience to find a comic that obviously holds great personal importance to the artist, and at the same time, is equally meaningful to the reader. Not to mention a book which is exciting, beautiful and has awesome references to Renaissance art. Marian Churchland’s Beast combines all these things for a wonderfully mastered debut graphic novel.
Most of what I love about this book comes out of my own subjective interpretations of events and details, but I think that’s what makes this book so special. Any artist, writer, or anyone who’s ever created anything can undoubtedly see themselves in Colette, the main character. Her relationship with the dark, amorphous character of Beast accurately captures the confusing, scary, and amazing feeling that comes with the pursuit of artistic motivation. You can feel its presence in a room, maybe you can even put your hand on it, but there will always be times where you question whether or not it’s even real. Anyway, she says it all better than I can.
The art alone speaks on the creative process. Churchland’s visible pencil lines and light, tonal washes seem delicate and deliberate. It’s like looking at an x-ray of a comic, where you can see each individual line and sense all the care that went into making the piece complete. The only issue I have with the art, which Churchland acknowledges in her afterword, is her treatment of Colette’s face. Her expression tends to be repetitive and difficult to read emotion on. From looking at other examples of Churchland’s work, like her issues of Elephantmen and even the work from her personal livejournal and deviantart, she definitely knows what’s up with faces. Perhaps it’s just a problem with the character of Colette in particular, but I feel like Churchland’s art flourishes when she goes for the less literal, more cartoonish expression. I stand by Scott McCloud’s assertion that the less detail in a face, the more room a viewer has to project themselves onto a character (See Understanding Comics, pg. 36). With the meaningful story in Beast, I feel like the answer to the issue of Colette’s face may be closer to what Churchland does in her awesome idea for heated pajamas.
The bean-shaped smile, the sideways apostrophe eyes are goofy, sure, but those objects, when abstracted like that, are read more as symbols than the actual objects they are supposed to be. We already know the meaning they convey. It sounds obtuse, but this technique has the possibility to read deeply into a character's emotions.
As a senior art history major in the process of trying to further my education, and taking steps to make a career out of what I love, the themes in Beast have particular resonance to me. The inclusion of Carrara marble in the book is a factually accurate detail which firmly places Beast's past in Renaissance Florence, but for me it has this dopey, really personal connection which melds the book to my experience. I haven't really been to Carrara, but I took a train through it, and in my hazy, half asleep and madly homesick brain, I have a distinct image of how the mountains looked like they were covered in snow, when what I was seeing was actually marble. I know it's like beyond cheesey, it's like a huge chunk of the stinkiest Limburger from old cartoons, but actually seeing (from really far away, granted) the place where the marble for greats like Michelangelo's David came from and getting this kind of intangible sense of vastness and simplicity of nature and art is, you know, really fucking heavy.
The afterword, where Churchland explains the creation of the book, clearly exhibits the devotion and love she has for her work. Both she and her gentleman caller, Brandon Graham, both have this way of writing about working on comics that gives you so much hope about sustained effort and labors of love that you just want to punch all negativity in the face, grab a pen, a brush—whatever, and do the damn thang.