Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Four-Color Fairy Tales: Fashion Beast.

You know, I feel like for Beauty and the Beast Month I should really tackle something with some more bite to it.  Something that’s edgy and offbeat and subversive and very much not for kids.

How about a version of “Beauty and the Beast” set in a dystopian version of the ‘80s fashion industry and devised by the creator of the punk movement and written by the man who created the deconstructionist superhero comic book Watchmen?

Fashion Beast, as this comic is called, was created from an idea by Malcolm McLaren.  McLaren was a British impresario and artist in many fields but is probably best remembered for managing the pioneering punk band The Sex Pistols.  It is written by writer Alan Moore, a man best known for deconstructing superheroes with Watchmen as well as creating other groundbreaking works like From Hell, V for Vendetta and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.  The story is adapted to the page by Antony Johnson and Facundo Percio.

Fashion Beast was dreamt up by McClaren as a fictionalized version of the life story of designer Christian Dior mashed up with the fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast”, with a heavy influence from Jean Cocteau’s film adaptation.  The Introduction by Alan Moore states that the story for Fashion Beast was originally devised as a movie during a time when McLaren was experimenting with film.  For various reasons, the movie wasn’t made and the screenplay for it languished in obscurity until William Christensen from Avatar Press discovered it and asked Moore if they could adapt it into a comic book.  Moore asked McLaren and pretty soon things were off and running.  The collected edition of the comic hit stands in 2013.
The story itself takes place in an undisclosed city in a world that’s on the verge of nuclear winter.  The main character is a woman named Doll Seguin who works initially as the coat check girl at a nightclub.  This lasts until a fateful encounter with an aspiring designer named Jonni Tare gets her fired from her job.  Seeking employment, she goes and auditions to be a model or “mannequin” for reclusive designer Jean Claude Celestine (notably, Jonni Tare also works for Celestine as the person in charge of dressing the models).  Celestine is a man who no one sees because he never leaves his studio.  Rumor is that he’s ugly and deformed, a wretched-looking reclusive genius.  During the course of her audition, Doll leaves the building while wearing one of Celestine’s designs and gets assaulted by a mob.  The dress is now ruined but rather than run away returns to explain what happened to the dress and return it to its owner.  This sets Doll on her path as Celestine’s chief model and the heroine of a surprisingly good “Beauty and the Beast” adaptation.

Alan Moore has a reputation of being one of the best comic book writers in the world.  Personally, I’ve always found his work to be more of an acquired taste.  Sometimes I like his work, sometimes I don’t.  However, I’m impressed with this.

It’s interesting to see all the parts from the original story that find their place in this one even if they’re in an unexpected place.  Doll Seguin is Belle, but she’s also Belle’s father.  She’s the one who goes to live with the Beast in his castle, but also the one who loses her source of income and goes to recover it only to pluck the metaphorical rose.  Doll doesn’t have shrewish sisters in this story, but they are reborn as Celestine’s shrewish keepers.  Jonni Tare is essentially the Prince reborn in a separate character from the Beast (a reading that will make more sense if you read the comic).  And Celestine, of course, is the Beast.  There are even “blink-and-you’ll-miss-them” callbacks to the original story.  In many versions of the story, one of the traits of the Beast’s garden is that half of it is always in Summer while the other is always in Winter.  In one scene between Jonni and Doll, Jonni notes that even though they may be on the verge of nuclear winter there are only two seasons in Celestine’s salon: Spring and Fall.  This is because there are a Spring collection and an Fall collection.  Perhaps a little bit of a stretch for some to notice, but a nice callback nonetheless and one that fits in the fashion world depicted in the comic.
The somewhat haggard-looking Mr. Alan Moore.
The nature of this comic also allows Moore (as he usually does) to make some commentary on the wider world, as well as to outwardly state some of the subtext that could be seen in the original story.  In one scene, Jonni Tare talks about why he thinks Celestine designs clothes the way he does.  He describes both Celestine and his designs as being too demure and sexually repressed and muses on what the effect of being locked up like that is.  And come to think of it, that could be a perfectly good allegorical reading of the Beast himself if you’re into that sort of thinking.  Man’s more animalistic, sexual nature but isolated and locked up and held at bay by his own shame.  In many versions of “Beauty and the Beast”, the Beast is often depicted as something of a passive-aggressive sad-sack who is prone to some degree of self-flagellation.  Celestine is certainly no different.  Almost to underscore how sterile everything is in Celestine’s salon, the seamstresses and tailors who put together his designs do so in uniforms that resemble surgical scrubs, complete with face masks.  Celestine himself engages in a speech about fashion, clothes and the power of appearances that is frightening but also has a ring of truth to it.    Even those who are interested in the study of gender in fairy tales or comic books might have an interest in this because according to the introduction, Doll is supposed to look like “a woman who looks like a man trying to look like a woman” and Jonni is supposed to look like “a man who looks like a woman trying to look like a man”.  And that is largely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to commentary.

Fashion Beast is an interesting and challenging take on the “Beauty and the Beast” story.  It’s also one that has a few twists to it that I won’t spoil.  I’d definitely suggest it for anyone looking for a decidedly different take on this story.  Perhaps not Alan Moore’s most definitive work, but one that’s definitely worth a look.

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