The collected edition of FASHION BEAST, including issues #1-10, is due to arrive from Avatar Press in both hardcover and trade paperback in August, and since plenty of comic reading compatriots have expressed to me that they will be waiting to read the series as a collection, this review will be divided into spoiler-free and spoiler-heavy sections for both audiences. The comic has a long history, nearly 30 years to be exact. Alan Moore was commissioned by Malcolm McLaren to draft a feature-length screenplay of an adaptation of Beauty and the Beast including elements from McLaren’s life in 1985, concurrent with Moore’s work on WATCHMEN, and sadly, the screenplay was never filmed. Avatar Press, who have handled several Moore properties as adaptations of short stories and performances, as well as scripts written for the comics medium, approached Moore about adapting the screenplay into a comic series, with Antony Johnston adapting it to comics format and Facundo Percio on art. It has received largely positive reactions from fans who have noted that the visual aspects incorporated for filming have worked well in the conversion process and left the series more strongly Moore-accented than works he has been less involved in adapting personally. Part of what has enabled the series to function well has been the serialized format, not simply a hatchet job to divide up the story into units, but a careful arrangement of material that leaves the ready hanging issue by issue with old-fashioned and comics-friendly cliff-hangers. For that reason, it can be read just as well in issue format as it will be in a collected edition. In fact, it was even a hardship to wait for each issue to make it to shops, waiting to read the follow-up to each episode.
For a Beauty and the Beast adaptation, it’s far from predictable, and even if you start to foresee where things are headed in the last few issues, the tension doesn’t wane. The conclusion leaves you with plenty of room for thought and a kind of Usual Suspects rethinking of the themes and messages inherent in the comic. The story features a lowly but personally glamorous coat-check “girl” Doll who lives, like the rest of the troubled population of the world of FASHION BEAST, in grinding poverty amid social unrest as things teeter on the brink of nuclear winter. She auditions to be a “mannequin” model at an almost diabolically powerful fashion house run by the reclusive and god-like Celestine, a man who brings dignity and style to a world that’s harshly divided between the haves and have-nots, but is strangely rooted in a Victorian prudishness and cool reserve. He’s a being reputed to be horribly disfigured, and oversees his empire from a glass-walled room overlooking his show-floor with an ornate hand-mirror and a deck of Tarot cards for company, meanwhile while he sketches his deceased mother’s image over and over again as a source of inspiration. Among Celestine’s employees is the ambiguously gendered designer Jonni, who seems to possess a strange authority over Celestine, but Celestine never gives his/her radical and much sexier designs the time of day, nevertheless Celestine keeps him/her around for mysterious reasons. I’ll leave the plot elements there for those who are waiting for the trade editions.
The artwork on FASHION BEAST is strong, but not overstated. Avatar is known for its host of variant collector covers, but in this instance, the covers for the series are fascinating, providing strange windows into meaning and significance. Some depict heightened scenes from the story, while some are more fashion-oriented and seem to make claims about the characters and roles they play. Particularly desirable are the more expensive Tarot card covers by Paul Duffield, a blend of traditional Tarot images and ethereal clear-line artwork. A cover gallery collection might be in order for a book like this because they are so evocative of the story. One of the most appealing features of the series, beyond the fact that it stems from the mind of such an eminent storyteller, are the colors. Their simplicity, and consistency are selling features, and the palette is duly sepulchral, near-Gothic, with excellent contrast in purples, golds, and reds that may actually be an intentional nod to traditional Tarot colors. The colors leave room for the inking, always deeply-lined with an eye toward texture. So much of the story can only fly within a convincingly created visual world, and colorist Hernan Cabrera deserves a great deal of credit for its success, alongside artist Facundo Percio who has an uncanny ability to freeze moments of movement and emotion focused on gesture and facial expression.
When fans refer to the elements of a screenplay still visible in the comic, they are probably noting the use of wide-screen panels to establish settings, particularly early on in the comic, and also the use of panning in frame by frame in panel structure, too. In the first issue, when we are introduced to Doll and Jonni’s rooming house, we get the sense of a large cast, initially, the way a film might establish a social group based on their domestic lives. There are also plenty of silent panels that focus on reactions or the sequences of a task being performed which suggest a camera’s view of events. In the first issue, the silent panels occasionally number as many as 5 per page, and the entire first issue has an unhurried pace, setting the mood and tone for the rest of the series, though it also ends in tension, like the rest of the issues. But I wouldn’t agree with any claims that this is simply a screenplay loosely cut into acceptable comic format; it shows consistent use of comic storytelling techniques, even if it fits the “decompressed” format most common in long story arcs these days.
For those wondering if they ought to pick up FASHION BEAST, whether in back issues or in collected format, keep in mind that this is an urban fairy-tale with some gritty commentary on human nature, that it handles themes of sexuality on a page-by-page basis, and that it has strong, if flawed, protagonists who are successful at maintaining your interest in their fates. It is a very entertaining book with humorous dialogue and plenty of noble, pathetic, and petty behavior to remind you that it’s a comic about humanity, and what that means. It is not, however, an action story that’s comprised of post-apocalyptic combats or superheroic bravado. You’ll get angry, violent mob scenes, and the context of war, but the tension in the story revolves around the paths the characters choose to follow and how honest they are with themselves and others.
[*Spoilers start here!]
Issues #1 and 2 have a moderate pace that would work well with a sound-track and music does play a major theme early in the series, evoking the dream-worlds of glamor that people, especially Doll, create for themselves to conjure their inner visions of themselves. It’s an uneasy form of escape from the harsh world of FASHION BEAST outside of Celestine’s fashion house, but their commitment to this form of escape does not seem particularly pitiable. It comes off as brave, actually, largely due to Doll’s feisty self-possession. The details of her struggles are particularly poignant, as others attempt to tear down her dignity, and alas, Jonni does plenty to punch holes in that steely persona, but may not be entirely wrong in doing so. Doll and Jonni are foils for each other in pretty meaningful ways, and the reader finds themselves questioning both. It’s clear that in #1 and 2, Doll is set up as the protagonist, the hard-boiled transvestite against the world’s prejudice, but what’s remarkable is how we see her change through the series and her weaknesses become all too exposed. That leave room for Jonni’s ascension, and his no-bullshit attitude, of course, becomes increasingly appealing. What we’re watching is the transition of one age, Celestine’s, into another, Jonni’s, which can engage more closely with the society festering and reaching for an outlet beyond Celestine’s walls.
What’s clothing got to do with all this? It’s obvious that it’s a meaningful metaphor for something, and occasionally dialogue breaks through, often from Jonni, to provide a frame of reference, as well as from Celestine. For Celestine, clothing is about separateness and enclosing the individual, almost an armor forged to hold back the changing, and increasingly dark world outside. It’s cool and remote. For Doll, clothing is about building an outer identity to match an inner sense of self, and her Marilyn Monroe look of the first issue dominates the world she moves in despite her stumbles. She thinks she knows who she is. The question is, is she willing to change or be changed? She seems to think that she won’t change if she changes her clothes, but the reader sees the increasing fallacy of that premise. Jonni’s clothes are also interesting, he (as it’s later revealed) sets up, like Doll, an intentional blind on his gender, a challenge to expectations. Since Celestine’s fashion lines seem exclusively concerned with women, this forms an strange dialogue with Jonni’s appearance. He wants to design for women, and sees himself as part of that world, too. If you dive deep into psychology on this one, it could also be that Celestine is “the” man of the series, leaving no room for Jonni to take up a masculine role of any variety. He’s unformed in his gendered identity, perhaps, and fine with that, for awhile.
When Doll makes her first escape from Celestine at the end of issue #2, you get the sense that she’s holding onto her own persona, and setting a boundary beyond which she’s not going to allow personal change, but for Moore-watchers, you’ll find a V for Vendetta-like deconstruction of her persona through violence and despair not drastically unlike Evey’s stripping away of self in V. Doll is stripped of her fine gown, robbed of her wig, and left to confront a spare version of her haggard self in a mirror in issue #3. Unlike Evey, she rejects help initially, or a lesson learned, by pushing Jonni away when he attempts to guide her forward. But Celestine’s motivations are even more pointedly suspect that V’s; he wants to play with Doll “like a doll” in a calculating manner. For the record, Celestine’s matrons are especially creepy, even in their more human moments. They protect the status quo and make sure Celestine’s gospel stays in tact, but they might as well be carrion hovering around a world in decay, and that’s the tension building in the series. With the introduction of Doll into Celestine’s world, he begins engaging with another being in a way he hasn’t before and that change is uneasy. The reader gets the sense that things could either become remarkably more positive or that all hell will break loose, and they are not sure which outcome is more likely. Keep your eye on Celestine’s Tarot cards for hints at those developments.
As Doll begins to eclipse Jonni in her confidence in issues #4 and 5, often forced and sieve-like, you have to wonder if she’s taking out her past feelings of abuse on him. Now she’s top of the heap and has somebody else to kick around. When she was the underdog she was fairly heroic, but she’s not turning out to be a good master. This adds to the seriousness of FASHION BEAST as a story about humanity. She can’t be gracious to others because she’s never lived in a gracious world, never been given a break in life, until now, and doesn’t know how to grow into her new state. She becomes a little two dimensional during the mid-sections of the story-line, and we wonder if she deserves to be moved around like a mannequin if that’s all she really wants to be in life. As we learn in issue #5, she’ll even take credit for Jonni’s ideas to ingratiate herself to Celestine. This leads to one of the funniest and strangest full-page spreads in the series when Doll and Jonni grapple like a pair of pre-schoolers in a spilled vat of psychedelic paint. It hammers home that they are being depicted as child-like once inside Celestine’s walls, a kind of regression and reforming of their identities and under Celestine’s rule, that’s how they will probably stay, with no room for growth in the carefully moderated atmosphere of repression. Another shocking moment in issue #5 is when Celestine, confronted in the dark by Jonni, beats Jonni savagely like an abused son, but only after Jonni calls him out on what he considers to be extreme failure of vision. Their relationship is revealed to be the definition of unhealthy, and the reader is reminded that Celestine is a “beast”, not a tame creature.
Yet Celestine’s declaration in issue #6 that “in the image, there is power!” rings true for the world of the book. It explains where he has come from and how he has achieved his status, forcing an image on the world to command respect and invite obedience. It explains Doll’s initial dressing up and Jonni’s clothing choices. Clothing has become a way that people control their own sense of reality in FASHION BEAST. What may occur to the reader later, however, is that the image in control, whatever it may be, can therefore be changed, and the power can be shifted. That’s virtually heretical under the rule of Celestine, but it’s one that gets Jonni beaten up. Doll moves further into Celestine’s dark world as she spends more time with him and realizes the enslavement his mother created for him, particularly the use of the sinister mirror to keep him totally devoid of personal ego. The reveal that Celestine is, in fact, handsome, may be one that readers see coming in the Beauty and the Beast tradition, depending on what versions of the fairy-tale you’ve read or seen. But it is still poignant, contrasting with his mother’s extremely abusive legacy. Doll’s agreement not to tell him the “truth” about his appearance is extremely dubious. She’s safeguarding her position, refusing to rock the boat, and that’s suspect. Like his mother, she feels she’s doing him a favor by keeping him down. That shows how much Doll has become a mannequin, really, devoid of emotion by training. She’s not ready to make personal decisions about change for herself or for Celestine.
Issue #7 sets the stage, during winter, of increasing social unrest, and the many faces of Doll continue to emerge, cut off from caring about the world outside, merely shocked by bestial behavior from mobs. It’s Jonni who keeps hammering the fact that she’s becoming inhuman, as cut off as Celestine. But something finally gets through to Doll via Jonni’s commentary, which leads to her temporary second escape. Jonni, showing Doll the lights below the fashion house of the night-time city, says of the lights, “all trapped in their own little orbits. Is it nice? Being a star?”. Doll insists she’s “doing just great”, but soon takes off, partly prodded, it seems, by an increasing sexualization of her relationship with Celestine. The forboding gets heavy in issues #8 and 9, clearly betokening something bad is going to happen, and probably to Celestine, as he outfits Doll in a funerary veil and quibbles over how long she’ll be gone and exactly when she’s coming back as if he’s making plans. Likewise, Doll’s visit home is a funeral march through a world that has only moved a little further toward the abyss that was yawning, but that slight movement reveals just how dark things have gotten. Much more like V’s world. Jonni’s guidance through Doll’s old haunts is full of meaningful hints that there’s a “beast” in humanity waiting to be let out, and an animal vigor, however violent, that he still sees as a source of hope, but it’s not appealing to Doll. She’s allowed herself to be caught up in the climate-controlled fairy tale with Celestine and it’s hard for her to address reality again. But, in the end, she doesn’t have any choice in the matter. Strangely, Celestine knows more than she does about the way things are going, perhaps through his use of Tarot, and he hasn’t blinded himself to it. It’s an age he sees dawning in blood, his own.
When reading the single issues, I wondered how FASHION BEAST could make two more issues worthwhile after Celestine’s gory suicide. And I may have even been a little put off by this fairy-tale. There was enough ambiguity in Celestine’s death at the end of issue #8 that it could have been a lesson in Doll’s failure to reach him, as a person, in her Doll-like state. I wondered how she could come back from that kind of failure. But the fact that before dying, Celestine asks Doll to return to her roots in a vague way, through music, raised questions. Was he encouraging Doll not to lose her humanity? And yet she turns around and keeps Jonni from his inheritance in the protection of the status quo, a status quo that outlives through inertia, even Celestine’s wishes. It’s a major testament to way that Celestine has transformed her. She had become a product, an object, the example of the “power” in the “image”, which for Doll, had everything to do with the clothes she wore. The juxtaposition of Doll with a sketch of Celestine’s mother at the end of issue #9 suggests that she has become Celestine’s mother, something the fashion guru was not-so-subtly creating in her all along. There’s a real possibility, too, that the new reign of an old terror could have continued in that vein without direct interruption from a resistant force in the form of Jonni.
Jonni’s return is abrupt, maybe even perfunctory, and the final issue of the series does come off as a little rushed, but by withholding detail, the comic leaves room for ambiguity, one which no doubt Moore intended to stick with readers. He returns as a conquering force, with the authority of Celestine (is this really what he wanted to be?) and speaks to doubts in Doll’s mind about the whole trajectory of events. She seems a little easily led in this conversion to Jonni’s vision, but we could assume that her own resistance has been reaching boiling point and waiting for an opportunity to explode. By agreeing to wear Jonni’s clothes, even a wedding dress, she’s showing an attraction to her old life and way of thinking, some of her old bravado, at least. Her violent showdown with the matrons is also some of the old Doll coming out, fighting for her life, and some scrap of identity, though in doing so she becomes the “image” of the new age. How believable is it that she and Jonni wind up as “the Lovers” of the Tarot?
They are clearly twins, both born from the same seedy boarding house, and created in new form by Celestine in radically different ways, so there’s a natural affinity there. They might even be the two sides of the same coin in changing the world, necessary to each other. But they are still Celestine’s “children” and that means the seed of the old world is part of their creation. There’s a little overconfidence and maybe even sadism in their declaration that the “beast is dead” which also hints that things might not be as simple as they seem. Jonni’s final panels, staring into Celestine’s warped mirror confirms this; there’s always a danger of carrying the burdens of the past, giving into the same pressures, and simply becoming the new dictator of a freed state. Moore leaves us there with that statement, and it’s a strong way to conclude the themes of the series. It leaves you a little dissatisfied with the protagonists you’ve followed all along, but confirms the ways in which they’ve changed. They’ve become more “powerful” but through what “image” exactly? The final image, of the Jonni’s twisted visage in Celestine’s mirror does leave the series with a signature impression of sordid grandeur, part and parcel of the beast’s legacy.
FASHION BEAST leaves you with the unsettling sense that people, even the most free-thinking can be the product of reaction, and in doing so, like Jonni, become part of what they loathe. Or, in a lighter interpretation, compromises are inherent in power attained, a corruption hidden in power, part of the Faustian bargain. Some of the biggest questions left for the reader concern how much people are self-determining in their identities, and how much a product they are of their heroes or mentors, taking the good with the bad. The Doll of issue #1 had some sterling qualities, and we aren’t sure if they fully emerge again by the end of the series. Jonni, too, had some points for bravery and vision throughout the series, but some of that may have been lost in his overconfidence by the end. Together they might make up the sum of the parts necessary to forge a different path than Celestine’s, but they aren’t out of danger. And whether they ever will be is left to the reader. The series does tell a complete story, however, one with definite movements and with specific ideas in play, and that makes it significant and ambitious. It would have been a great shame for the screenplay never to have seen a visual format for fans, and though it might have made a strong film, it makes a solid comic series, perhaps an even more solid graphic novel, for readers to revisit with new questions.
Title: FASHION BEAST, #1-10/ Publisher: Avatar Press/ Creative Team: Alan Moore, Malcolm McLaren, Antony Johnston, writers, Facundo Percio, artwork, Paul Duffield, Tarot covers, Facundo Percio, covers, Hernan Cabrera, colors, Jaymes Reed, letters
Hannah Means-Shannon writes and blogs about comics for TRIP CITY and Sequart.org and is currently working on books about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore for Sequart. She is @hannahmenzies on Twitter and hannahmenziesblog on WordPress. Find her bio here.