Friday, December 11, 2009

Marian Churchland's Beast Review

Having been blown away by her work on the always-amazing Elephantmen series earlier this year, I jumped at the chance to read and review the debut original graphic novel for cartoonist Marian Churchland. Beast is the gripping story of a young artist and one of the most powerful reads of the year. Want to know exactly why I’ve been singing the praises of this book since I first cracked it open? Hit the jump to find out!

Written by Marian Churchland
Art, Letters, and Cover by Marian Churchland

Rising star Marian Churchland’s original graphic novel Beast was released recently by Image Comics and, quite frankly, is one of the best books you probably haven’t read yet this year. In 2009 Churchland has made a name for herself as a dynamite artist with her stellar run of issues on Richard Starkings’s Elephantmen title, which were collected earlier this year in the Dangerous Liaisons trade paperback. Fans of Churchland’s art from those issues will be equally as impressed with her work here, but are also likely to be floored by the quality of her writing.

Beast tells the story of Collette, a listless 20-something starving artist who barely gets by through unrewarding commissions and, as the story opens, has found herself in a funk regarding her current situation. Early on in the story she accepts a mysterious commission to sculpt a marble portrait of an even more mysterious client. Intertwined with this story is a second tale of a young sculptor in Florence that, centuries ago, purchased a piece of marble upon which to sculpt his masterpiece—the same marble that Collette is working with—only to be betrayed by his sister who began shaping the stone before being caught.

As the story progresses, Collette finds herself distanced from her own life as she becomes more involved not only in her work, but also in the story of the young sculptor and his sister. The more she finds herself the withdrawn from her life as it was prior to taking the job, the more fascinated and enraptured she is by the mysterious client, whom she knows only as the Beast. Upon finishing the piece, she struggles to find meaning in her own life, leading to the stories very surreal open-ending.

Having only been familiar with Churchland’s art, I wasn’t sure what to expect with her writing. I can honestly say that I never expected it to be this masterful. The story is told mostly through minimal, but clear dialogue accented with Collette’s inner monologues. The script is very direct and the story is extremely linear, which makes it all the more interesting that the plot itself and the meaning of the story are so open ended.

The story is stripped to its barest bones and left open to interpretation. This is all fueled by the fact that Collette is portrayed as an everywoman both in terms of her situation and her personality. Since Churchland only peppers the story with details, the reader is free to bring their own “baggage” to Collette, making the character as malleable as the marble she works upon—provided that the reader has the right tools for the job.

This can be off-putting to readers looking for a very concrete direction from the story. This is compounded in the story’s final act which begins with Collette being lost within her own life and ends with something incredibly surreal. If you are looking for proper closure, this is not the type of book for you, but if you are prepared to find your own meaning, than Beast is a beautiful metaphor for any number of things—including the search for personal meaningfulness, the creative process, inspiration and expression, and the abandonment of structure faced by modern 20-something post-college graduates. I find it hard to believe that any reader could not find something to latch onto in this story through which he/she can direct the meaning of the story.

As blown away as I was by her writing, Churchland’s art is still the biggest draw for this comic. She brings an incredibly unique style to the story that is comprised of mixing different drawing mediums from pencils to inks to even crayons. The end result is the perfect balance of finely-honed realism and a scratchy ill-defined style that blends surprisingly well thanks to the relationship between the art and the script.

I can honestly say that I do not remember the last time that I saw a comic book artist with such an amazing grip on body language. While her facial work is incredibly strong, so much of the tone and mood of this story is told through the bodies of its characters. From sweeping gestures to coiled frames to how characters hold themselves when they stand, Churchland utilizes the entire bodies of her characters to tell this story and does a brilliant job of it.

The art in this comic is clearly the work of a perfectionist and it shows. The amount of detail and care that clearly went into every page is staggering. You could easily get lost for hours within the pages of this book if the story itself weren’t such a compelling page-turner. There are almost no flaws to the art and those few that do exist bring character to the art.

The craft of this story is phenomenal, but it would all be for naught if it weren’t so entertaining as well. From the moment I picked up this book and cracked it open, I could not put it down. The second time yielded the same results, as did the third. Even as I flipped through the book to write this review, I found new things to love about this book and new details to pour over. It’s not just a great story; it’s a great story that gets better with each subsequent read.

This hauntingly beautiful book is beyond good. It’s so far beyond good that the single biggest compliment I can give it is that its excellence is so profound that it will inspire you to create something beautiful and meaningful, even if you know that it would be a futile attempt to reach the levels that this story reaches. Yes, Beast really is that good.

Verdict: Must Read. This year saw the release of number of high-profile original graphic novels like Asterios Polyp and Parker: The Hunter that you’ll find on nearly every Top 10 list and deservedly so. I honestly hope that Beast is amongst them, though I think that it will take some time for this quietly brilliant graphic novel to seep into the public consciousness. When it does, though, it will not let go and the praise for this brilliant work by the young Marian Churchland will be overwhelming. Simply put, this is definitely one of the most powerful reads of the year and one that should not be missed under any circumstances.

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Flip The Page said...

well you've sold me on it. let's see if i can pick it up before the years out

Ivan said...

Great review! I feel compelled to buy it. Will do next month.

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