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Going Only Skin Deep in 'The Beauty #1'

A new disease leaves its victims feeling pretty.

The Beauty #1

Publisher: Image
Length: 32 pages
Writer: Jeremy Haun, Jason A. Hurley
Price: $3.50
Publication date: 2015-10

If there’s one thing that’s particularly disappointing to see in modern fiction, it’s a great idea smothered beneath common clichés. Of late, police procedurals, whether on screen or on paper, seem to be particularly guilty of this. As the genre has saturated the market, the many movies, shows and books it has produced have often demonstrated novel ideas within their narratives and characters that might have worked better on their own terms, without the marketable safety of exhausted staples and tropes.

Otherwise, the genre is being used to mainstream unique ideas, like the baffling decision to turn Mike Carey’s acclaimed fantasy comic Lucifer into a police procedural for television. Unfortunately, this is also very much the case with Image’s new series The Beauty, a comic with a fascinating premise that falls beneath the wheels of the run-of-the-mill police drama driving it.

The idea behind The Beauty is definitely engaging and relatable: the breakout of a new STD that actually turns people beautiful, in a kind of counterpoint to the infection portrayed in Charles Burns’ graphic novel, Black Hole. When a young woman with the disease is found spontaneously combusted on a subway, two detectives, one of whom has “the beauty” are tasked with uncovering the truth of this new epidemic.

The most intriguing aspect of The Beauty #1 is the cultural atmosphere established in the first few pages. With the onset of “the beauty” and its glamorizing effects, people across the United States are striving to catch it, watching themselves turn beautiful while they suffer the internal symptoms. All the while, the country is divided between the “beautiful” people and everyone else, the standard-looking citizens, causing tension among the populace. In response to the outbreak a number of “anti-beauty” groups have formed, which are attempting to show the public the dangers of embracing the plague.

This scenario in of itself exhibits so much thematic potential, especially given the recent cultural backlash against modern expectations of beauty and the body shaming that accompanies it. Whether it be the social privilege assigned to more “beautiful” people or the extremes degrees to which people will aspire to such beauty at the cost of their wellbeing (i.e., the health scares within the modeling business), there are very relevant topics to be explored within this setup. Even the idea of a disease that creates a particular cultural standard of beauty (“beauty” is not the same everywhere, after all), is an interesting conception of the pathological nature of such an outlook.

And the best moments in The Beauty #1 are the ones that make an attempt at considering these themes, however lightly they tread. One such instance is when one of the detectives finds his partner vomiting in the women’s bathroom. She exits the stall to look at herself in the mirror and comments, “It’s a disease! Who would want it?” This depiction of bodily destruction for the sake of beauty is one of the more poignant ideas in the comic, and like the rest of these considerate moments, quickly falls to the background of the main police narrative, with little time for reflection or comment. Given the grand potential of the premise, reading the story invokes the question of why a police narrative was the best way to explore this idea, and not simply an open-ended social drama in the style of Black Hole.

The other problem stems from the storyline itself. The issue’s events mostly involve the pursuit of a suspect from one of the anti-beauty cells, therefore leaving the latter half of the comic to an extended chase sequence that makes the comic a very quick read. Additionally, the mystery of the story isn’t much of one: the police are initially confused by how the woman spontaneously combusted, only to realize the answer fairly early on: the “beauty” must have done it. It’s not much we couldn’t have already determined. And what’s the alternative? Some person did it, not the disease? In which case the book’s premise is undermined.

The plot changes midway to focus on the detectives tracking one of the anti-beauty groups. So what’s the mystery? Maybe what the source of the beauty is, or what wants to be done with it, but other than that there’s not much of a narrative drive. And all of this simply seeks to detract from the much more interesting idea trapped within the story.

Overall The Beauty #1 is a very frustrating read, leaving one with the annoyed feeling of needing to point out to the book its own themes and aspirations as it strays from them. Hopefully as the comic continues, it will stop to take a breath and explore the ideas it has established. Otherwise, we’ll continue to see only a skin-level look at a much deeper issue.


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