First thing I noticed when I picked up Beast was the back cover: A close-up of an oil painting, so close as to only fit the sweeping brush strokes, capturing the 3D effect of thickly-applied paint on more paint. The kind of thing it's rare of a 2D image to recreate. The brush strokes there are so real you expect to be able to feel them and at the same time, they represent nothing; they're totally abstract. After reading Beast, this makes perfect sense; the back cover encapsulates the story’s tension between realism and expressionism.
On the one hand, Churchland gives you panels of just hands, messy crossword puzzles, or dirt around the toilet, and on the other, you get Beast and all the otherworldly stuff he brings with him. It’s the driving force at the center of the comic, highlighting Colette's problems, and more simply, it makes the book interesting to read. Because the story focuses so much on emotions, the headbutting of real and unreal that goes on is perfect. Yeah, emotions are these weird swirly Beast eyes, but they’re also this intensely real things--frustration with dad, an obsession with passivity, a complex break-up--that have the same complexities that Churchland puts in the physical world around Colette.
She’s got to figure things out--just like any of us would--on the fly, in the moment, when it's right in front her face. The characters have this Cassavetes-like realism to them, where their emotions are understated and hardly spoken, but it's clear what they are and that a cavalcade of fears and anxieties are just bubbling underneath the surface. The dialogue has the same sort of realism, with the characters speaking more like actual people rather than characters using comic-book-speak.
Beast is always the one bringing these emotions to the surface, acting as a foil for Colette. When you first read meet him it’s not clear whether Beast is even real. Certainly the first night she’s there Colette wonders the same thing. The first time she meets him, he tells her a story that makes her cry. This is instantly a powerful moment since Churchland has already established--through the story's inherent realism--Colette's rather unsure, inactive character. You know the weight of what's happening even though it's near the beginning, and you can tell she's not a person to cry over everything. Beast is this intangible force that makes Colette leave her comfort zone to explore this unknown world/person that is the future, herself, emotions, creativity, etc.
Even though Beast is central to the story, Churchland talks about reining in the fairy tale elements in her afterword to the book. She says that when she was a kid she always thought that the part when the Beast turned into a handsome Prince was disappointing and fake. There's a natural attraction to fairy tales but any thinking, contemporary reader can't help but yearn for something a little more to them. Something that doesn't play-out quite so perfectly and harmoniously. So, Churchland keeps her Beast lurking on the fringes never gaining control of what is Colette's story.
It’s a clever flip on the classic fairy tale but it still keeps the central theme of transformation. And that’s what makes Beast great because no matter what is going on, each moment always remains rooted in the brain of Colette--be it real or unreal. It’s Colette’s transformation and it's The Beast that allows it to happen. And when Colette finally comes to terms with things, we’re never quite sure what she comes to terms with. Through her work and each encounter with Beast, she gets more comfortable. She starts to listen to him and realizes he’s not something that just comes in through windows and sends chills up your spine but some kind of hard to figure out inspirational force. The Beast is never defined even though he is a tangible character. He’s purposefully kept ambiguous and represent lots of things and one thing. But what's that one thing? Only Colette knows. The ending is the final culmination of it all. Plowing through crayon shadows to get to a photograph. It's art breaking through to our reality, not the other way around.