Reviews: Bluebard, a Feminist Fairytale

Bluebeard: a Feminist Fairy Tale,

I’ve adored Glasgow duo Metaphrog’s work for many years now – their wonderful Louis graphic novels always entranced me, with a subtle mixture of the child-like innocence and deeper layers of darkness behind that bright world, that rewarded multiple readings. I think that aspect of their storytelling has paid off handsomely in their output for Papercutz, with the previous books The Red Shoes and The Little Mermaid. Both presented magical worlds, enchantment and wonder, complimented by Sandra’s beautiful artwork (please, do go and take a look at the Little Mermaid in particular, the art is gorgeous), but the storytelling never shies away from the menace and darkness that lurk within those tales. Our collective imagination of fairy tales have always carried these dark elements – they were, after all, as much cautionary tales as they were entertainment, and Metaphrog’s approach has been perfectly suited to this.

I’m sure most readers will be familiar with the idea of Bluebeard – the mysterious, intimidating wealthy lord of a large castle, who plucks a young, innocent maiden from her simple but loving family life in the poor village to be his wife. Or at least his latest wife – the castle walls are adorned with portraits of a number of women, previous wives. What happened to all of them? Even for adults, familiar with the story, there is still a compulsion to see it retold, to experience that combination of wonder and chills (for the wondrous often comes with a dark shadow, to dare wonder is often to also court terror), something rewarding about revisiting it again – and that is one of the hallmarks of many fairy tales, that they are infinitely re-readable, adaptable, giving new meanings at different stages in our lives and experiences.

For the younger readers, who this is principally aimed at, it may, of course, all be new, their first time entering Bluebeard’s richly adorned yet somehow cold and loveless castle. While the main story beats of Bluebeard are all present, Metaphrog take care to introduce the main characters in the village: after a glimpse of the castle, and the deep, dark, menacing forest around it, we see the village, in much warmer, happy tones. There are lovely wee touches throughout – mended sections on house roofs, like patches on an old piece of clothing, hinting at a people who do not have much, but are able to get by, make do and mend, and are content with it because as long as they have those little homes and their families, what else do they really need?

Young Eve, the girl who Bluebeard will later claim as his latest wife, receives the most attention here, and I was pleased to see her richly described, and her family and friends around her. In some versions the bride to be is a just a two-dimensional character there to serve the plot, but that would never do for Metaphrog, they are too skilled in storytelling, and besides, there is, as the subtitle “a feminist fairy tale” suggests, a quite deliberate move here to ensure that the female characters are fully developed, not just pawns in a story to be moved around by the men in their life, and it is all the richer for it. This also has the bonus of making the readers much more invested in the characters and their fates, with the relationship between young Eve and her best friend from childhood, Tom, especially touching, a lovely, warm, pure love.

The artwork, as you would expect from previous books, is utterly gorgeous, colour schemes moving from warm tones for the village and family life, to darker hues and menacing shadows for the dark forest around the castle. There are many beautiful details and touches – among the portraits of the former wives, for instance, one that bears a remarkable resemblance to another strong woman, Frida Kahlo – and influences to be spotted and admired, with the use of silhouettes and shadows in some panels putting me in mind of the astonishing work of early film animation wizard Lotte Reiniger., while some of the art, especially characters and their expressions, eyes and so on, hint at an anime influence.

While the younger readers may not get those references, they will still react to the styles, the colours and framing, while it offers these lovely gifts to the adults reading with their children – and this really is a book to share with your children, and then explore some of the themes and the influences (a perfect excuse to introduce them to Reiniger’s animation, much of it available on YouTube, a good diversion during Lockdown! Who knows, it may even inspire some creative art in the young readers). I’ve already paged my way through this twice and I think like previous Metaphrog books it is going to reward repeat readings as there is so much detail and more references to get in Sandra’s artwork, while the strong female characters are inspiring, especially for young girl readers, but it’s good for the young boys to be exposed to strong girl characters too!

Metaphrog’s Bluebeard is pretty much a perfect balance of the wonder and the scarier elements a good fairy story requires, while taking time to enrich the characters and present us with strong female protagonists gives a welcome contemporary aspect while retaining the story’s ages-old nature at its core,and the cautionary, coming of age journey into adulthood elements, while the artwork has pages that adult and younger readers alike will happily lose themselves in. Ideal for younger readers, even better for adults to read with them (and why wouldn’t you? Storytelling with children is one of the nicest shared experiences we can have). Hugely recommended reading for young and the older (but still young in reading heart) alike.

Bluebeard by Metaphrog is published on May 5th – check their Twitter feed where, since they can’t celebrate the book launch in a bookstore or school because of the Lockdown, they are going to have a virtual celebration for the launch day.

“You shall go to the ball…” – Cinderella

Directed by Beeban Kidron,
Starring Marcella Plunkett, Jane Birkin, Kathleen Turner, Gideon Turner, David Warner, Katrin Cartlidge, Lucy Punch, Leslie Phillips
Simply Media

The Cinderella story is pretty much an archetype – variations on the theme of the innocent, warm-hearted young lass who finds herself in awful conditions through no fault of her own, before finally finding good fortune and true love go back many centuries, with that scribbler of old fairy tales Charles Perrault in the late 1690s and the Grimms in the early 1800s crystalising the story into the form we’re familiar with today. This version is a television film from 2000, which aired on Channel 4, and boasts some solid British thesps like David Warner, Leslie Phillips and the late (and much-missed) Katrin Cartlidge, joined by Kathleen Turner (Romancing the Stone, Body Heat).

With such a well-known story there is always a question of why do another version? In this case it’s easily answered – because the film-makers have reworked it to be more relevant to the modern day, and in a manner that the younger viewers can enjoy, but which works well for the teen/YA and the adult audience. It is set in a sort of fantasy kingdom of strangely coloured skies, which has the traditional horse drawn carriages, palaces and country mansions, but also open topped cars and steam trains, royal orchestras but also a guitar playing, singing Prince. The Prince and his friends come across as a playful pastiche of the modern, hipper young Royals, the wicked stepmother (Turner) and her nasty daughters aren’t just nasty and spiteful to poor Cinders, they are also a nice comment on modern, super-shallow celeb culture, creatures who are empty inside but made-up exquisitely for outward appearance, the sort who appear in the pages of Hello and its ilk.

David Warner’s father returns from a business trip with a “surprise” – a new wife and step-daughters, to the shock of his daughter. Her shock is furthered by the way her new stepmother so obviously manipulates her widowed father and allows his new stepdaughters to bully her. This swiftly escalates from subtle manipulation to the far more obvious kind of control – Turner’s wicked stepmother is soon quite clear she is in this for money and the noble connections. Warner’s father has the noble title but not much money, so he is soon banished to sleep in the attic – “You know the rule: cash equals company.” despite this he still refuses to see what is going on (no fool like an old fool), and his daughter becomes increasingly isolated in what was once her own loving home.

A woman lives on her own and the whole world imagines she must be a witch…”

Cinderella retreats to the grave of her beloved mother on the hills, encountering a bird of prey who, in the best animal tradition in fairy tales, acts as a form of guide, leading her to a cave by the lake, a magical cave where the waterfall parts for her. Instead of a fairy godmother, here we have Mab (Jane Birkin), an odd being who is half-amused, half-offended when Cinders asks if she is a witch. She may not be a witch, but she does seem to have some magical abilities, and she helps Cinderella in her own peculiar way.

I somehow missed this when it was first aired, and I’m very glad I got a chance to see it now. While some of the effects are very early 2000s (not bad, just not as polished as you would expect today), that in fact adds to the charm here, giving the kingdom an other-worldly look that suits it quite well. And besides, it’s the story and characters which really matter here, and oh boy does Kathleen Turner clearly enjoy playing the wicked stepmother, in fact she seems to relish it, and she is delectably wicked here and, pardon the pun, having a ball with the role (as are Lucy Punch and Katrin Cartlidge as her nasty daughters).

This is an unusual, modern take on an old tale, played well, with some nice riffs on both popular culture and society (Turner inspecting her wicked daughters’ vast shoe collection and advising them “Remember the harder they are to walk in, the more effective”), while also tipping a knowing hat to the old folkloric tropes (“I hate happy endings”). This is a clever version of the Cinderella tale, with all the main beats given a nice, more contemporary twist (and yet still classic tropes), and it knows enough to have fun with it along the way, and take the viewer along too, with a big smile.

Cinderella is available now from Simply Media

Review: Porcelain

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog:

Porcelain: a Gothic Fairy Tale

Benjamin Read, Chris Wildgoose

Improper Books

I had my first glimpse of Porcelain towards the end of last year when Improper Books’ Matt Gibbs was kind enough to give us a sneak-peek ahead of the teaser pages they were taking to last November’s Thought Bubble. There are some works where I get an instant vibe – call it the bookseller’s tingle – that tells me even before I start that a book or comic is going to be good, and that instinct rarely misleads me. And after a good wait, when I finally got to read the entire book I was pleased to see that instinct was still sharp, because this is good work. Better than good work, it’s utterly beautiful, a delightful concoction that partakes of Victorian novels, elements of the industrial revolution’s real history, the fantastical fairy tale (and even elements of Bluebeard and perhaps Little Orphan Annie) and a very elegant form of Steampunk, all woven through a tale which is by turns mysterious, charming, touching and frightening.

We begin, as any good Victorian drama probably should, in the cold, snow-bound city with a group of ragamuffin street urchins. Overseen – and indeed brutally bullied by – Belle, they are braving the curfew in order to spy out opportunities for a little light larceny. The imposing gates and wall of a large estate promise a rich, tempting target within, but none of the children are willing to go in, because they believe an evil wizard lives inside the mansion. Eventually our young heroine is forced up and over the wall against her will – as it turns out, fortunately for her, since the small band she was with are brutally apprehended by the constabulary just moments later, and thieves, the constable delights in telling them, swing for their sins…

(pages here (c) Benjamin Read and Chris Wildgoose, published Improper Books, click for the larger versions)

Inside though there are still perils for our little heroine; as she descends a large, twisted tree, winter-bare, into the snowy garden beyond the walls there are eyes watching her, glowing, red eyes. Suddenly two gleaming white beasts emerge from the snowy darkness – but not flesh and blood beasts, no common guard dogs these. Instead they are gleaming white porcelain, some form of clever automata. But like a fleshly guard dog they are dangerous and set on protecting their master from intruders – luckily he spots the girl and halts them just in time. Understandably irked by this intrusion into his grounds this very large, bearded man demands an explanation. When she puts on an attempt at a posh accent and asks oh-so innocently, oh isn’t this where the ball is being held? I must be lost… At this point the man laughs and the ice is broken. In a more amicable manner he agrees to see her out, no harm done, but when the shabbily dressed child almost faints in the cold he realises she is tired and malnourished; picking her up in his huge arms he carries her inside for warmth and food.

And so the scene is set for a tale that mixes warm charm with hints of the dangerous and unspoken. The ‘wizard’ is in fact an engineer who creates the ‘porcelains’, which just like the ‘creamware’ of Josiah Wedgwood are all the rage. Except where Wedgwood perfected porcelain tableware to royal standards our rotund engineer crafts delicate porcelain mannequins which can think and move – his household has no other human being in it, just a staff of these delicately white, mostly silent automata. He alone can make them walk and act (and in a few cases talk), and he can scarcely keep up with the demand – which has made him very wealthy. And yet he sits alone in his vast mansion under the weight of a secret sadness, until the girl comes. Realising she has no real family to return to and only the cold street to live on, he asks her to stay. Both need to get used to being in a relationship – having a roof over her head and someone to care for her is new for our untrusting street child, while our wizard has to get used to caring for a child, which involves far more than simply clothing and feeding her. She slowly starts to trust and love, his clearly once generous heart is reminded that it too can love again, and it’s a very sweet sequence as two lost souls find reason for being by caring for each other.

It has been winter within these walls forever it seems. You have brought summer back to my life and this is my thank you. Happy birthday, sweet child.”

Of course if all went on as sweetly as this we’d have a shorter and more sugary tale. But anyone who knows their fairy tales – or even their Dickens – will know that something is going to happen, that part of the girl’s past (she and the engineer are never specifically named, deliberately) will come back, and there is the question of why an eligible and kind-hearted, wealthy man is living alone with only his automata for company. We know he had a wife, but what happened? He shows her the whole mansion, gardens and even his workshop (where he begins at her insistence to train her in his delicate arts), but one locked chamber in his porcelain workshop is forever off-limits to her, and as with the tale of Bluebeard the reader wonders what is really in there and worries that curiosity may eventually drive our little heroine to look where she shouldn’t. And then there is the question of the porcelains themselves…

It is to the great credit of Benjamin and Chris that what may seem to be a nice fairytale, semi Steampunk take on the Little Orphan Annie meets Bluebeard tale, proves to be much more. While it certainly partakes of those other stories it crafts its own distinctive path and is its own beast, taking in some remarkable twists along the way, which I won’t spoil here. It’s an utterly beautiful piece of work, a charming yet sometimes disturbing and scary tale – and a fairy tale should be scary as well as magical, it’s part of their raison d’etre – which boasts some truly gorgeous comics artwork by Chris (some of the scenes demand you stop reading the tale for a moment and just drink in the art, the magical porcelain garden splash page is simply wonderful).

It can be enchanting and magical (a special birthday present crafted by the engineer is wondrous), it takes in elements of the fairy tale and Gothic and Victorian novel, mixes the uplifting with the disturbing, but really, at its core its about that aching, deep need to care for someone and to be cared for and the way that enriches our lives beyond all measure; it’s about a daughter who needs a father and a father who needs a child. This is one of those books you will keep coming back to, the sort you will find yourself recommending to others and picking out as a present to friends, and without a doubt one of the most beautiful graphic novels of the year.