Beast Week Coda: Wailing for her Demon Lover
"He's um . . . I don't know, kind of inscrutable." These words, spoken by Colette at the opening of Part Two of Marian Churchland's Beast in an abortive attempt to describe the book's eponymous anti-hero to her friend Jane, could just as easily be used to describe Churchland's book itself. Beast is that rare example of a comic--though we could easily apply this to novels or movies--that, by borrowing elements from other works, artists, movements, forms and genres, becomes something utterly new and unclassifiable and still somehow manages to be beautiful, meaningful and affecting. Originating from a dream that is not a little reminiscent of "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," Churchland borrows the structure of her favorite fairy tale, using it to construct an ambivalently Freudian, post-feminist pleasure dome, populated by Italian Renaissance artists, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and even a little bit of Byron, by way of Paul Pope.
Though Churchland's book ultimately deviates from its original in many fundamental ways, it is useful to remember that "Beauty and the Beast" is a tale that begins with a father's prostitution of his daughter. Beast's opening, in which Colette is taken by her father to a mysterious sculpting commission that he arranged, imposes a sense of ambiguity, the feeling that something is being withheld from the reader, that we don't have all the information, which propels the whole of the narrative. The relationship between Colette and her father is clearly transactional; she relies on her him to divvy out whatever "bottom-feeder" art commissions he is able to, but the revelation that he is unaware that she is no longer with her boyfriend (whose name he struggles to remember) reveals that they have long since retreated from any traditional notions of familial intimacy. The scene is a perfect, exceptionally economical opening to the book, introducing each of the book's major themes--gender politics, creative integrity, menacing and complex sexuality--in a scant few pages.
One of the fascinating things about Beast, and perhaps that aspect of the book that makes you want to keep going back to it, looking at it more closely, is that Churchland resists taking any of its elements to its logical conclusion and therefore pigeonholing the narrative. Thus, while the story has some very definite things to say about women and creativity and power, these statements are problematized by some of the book's imagery and the ambiguous sexual position of Colette vis a vis Beast. A great subtle example is the the juxtaposition of panels which show the upper portion of the Carrera marble slab atop Colette's body from the waist down. At first glance, this appears a relatively straight-forward association of the artist with her medium. But a closer look--perhaps a dirtier mind--reveals the great white phallus of the marble towering over Colette's crotch.
Of course, Colette is only able to complete her sculpture when she abandons the gradual chipping away of the chisel for the power drill's penetration. In effect, Colette denatures the marble's monotonous masculinity by drilling it full of holes. The image, then, is one in which the masculine and feminine are present together--the marble embodies both qualities.
This sort of fluidity of imagery and representation is consistent with Churchland's illustration strategies. Colette, though undeniably gorgeous and feminine, has a boy's long arms and narrow hips. The aggressively Byronic Beast, who owes perhaps just a small debt to Paul Pope's Batman, occupies a similarly ambiguous position with respect to gender, with his long delicate fingers and narrow shoulders.
I don't mean for any of this to suggest that this is what Beast is about. Indeed, as I mentioned above, it is the book's ambiguity, its consistent refusal to lend itself to one particular reading or interpretation that makes it so interesting. There are lots of other curious questions planted throughout the book, such as the hinted at association of Roz with Cecilia or Colette's highly unstable hair-length, but they aren't questions which beg resolution, they just present interesting and variable readings.
The point, of course, is that Churchland has created an admirably, no, remarkably complex and rewarding narrative that augments her already apparent (to me, anyway) illustration skills. This bodes well for those of us who like to read smart comics that aren't smarty-pants comics, comics which are personal but not sappy-autobiographical. Marian Churchland officially enters that growing pantheon of interesting and talented creators who are bucking the typical categorizations of high and low comics and in doing so pointing toward a rich possible future for the medium.