Meet Aurora, a tiny sprite marshalling her fellow pixies through thickets and a decaying corpse. She doles out cookie crumbs to friends after a rain storm, preaching fair rations. She sets up a relief tent in the dead girl’s satchel. In the first pages of Marie Pommepuy, Sébastien Cosset and Fabien Vehlmann’s “Beautiful Darkness,” you worry that she is — like so many precious lost-in-the-woods heroes — a do-gooder of the simplest, most blameless sugar.
She seems that way, until she sees her friends casually maim and betray each other, tittering and flying kites in gorgeous watercolor landscapes, untroubled by the hurt of one another. The corpse gradually rots. The animals pluck them off, and when one pixie disappears or dies, no one else bothers to investigate. Gradually, Aurora’s good will darkens to a more burnished sort of hurt justice.
John Crowley describes this French comic as having Alice In Wonderland’s offhand cruelty and Moomin’s sweetness. There’s also a good bit of Osamu Tezuka (Astroboy, Phoenix) here — childlike sweetness next to grotesquerie, death witnessed through tender eyes, then never commented upon or referred to ever again. You’re denied access to any of the characters’ internal dialogues. All you can see is the camera’s view of a lush playland’s gradual rot, and tiny alliances rising and dying in an instant. It works extraordinarily well.
Zelie plays the Judge Holden of this Blood Meridian. Almost everyone (except Aurora and a couple others) is thoughtlessly selfish in this world, but they’re selfish in a child’s way, a stage 1 on Kohlberg’s moral complexity scale. Not so for Zelie. She’s the political genius, scheming to take things just to prove to herself she can have them, playing one friend against another, then tossing them aside. She and Aurora alone are sharp enough to fathom their fellow pixies’ feelings and motives, only Zelie doesn’t care.
The watercolor artwork here is painfully beautiful, and the book (despite its relative brevity) is best read on three separate sittings — one for each season — to take in the rise and wane of the miniature empires, and the enduring grudge of its characters.