Author: Kim Garcia & Margaret Stohl
Artist: Cassandra Jean
Publisher: Yen Press
Rating: Teen (13+)
Release Date: February 2013
Synopsis: “Lena Duchannes is unlike anyone the small Southern town of Gatlin has ever seen, and she’s struggling to conceal her power and a curse that has haunted her family for generations. But even within the overgrown gardens, murky swamps and crumbling graveyards of the forgotten South, a secret cannot stay hidden forever. Ethan Wate, who has been counting the months until he can escape from Gatlin, is haunted by dreams of a beautiful girl he has never met. When Lena moves into the town’s oldest and most infamous plantation, Ethan is inexplicably drawn to her and determined to uncover the connection between them. In a town with no surprises, one secret could change everything.”
This was my first exposure to ‘Beautiful Creatures,’ as I haven’t read any of the books or seen the movie. To its credit the comic manages to stand well enough on its own feet: I was never confused about what was going on, but that might be because the plot is so simple and standard.
Beautiful Creatures is your standard teen paranormal romance, though the authors do put a bit of a twist on it by having the guy be the regular human and the girl be the dark, supernatural one. But the gender flip is very much a surface change, and the much more insidious tropes that run through the genre continue here. Lena might be the one with magical powers and a deep-dark secret, but she’s still protected by Ethan and harassed by everyone else at school for being different. While it’s annoying to see the same clichés over and over again, at the very least their relationship doesn’t come across as abusive. In fact, the two of them are kind of cute together. I could buy these two as a couple of teenagers falling in love for the first time, though I was less sold on them being star-crossed lovers bound together by fate.
While Ethan and Lena’s relationship seems relatively healthy, there were other aspects of the book that struck me as problematic. This is a book set in the South and yet race is never referenced, let alone the ‘S’ word (slavery). I’m not saying every book set in the southern United States needs to put this front and centre, but Beautiful Creatures has flashbacks to the Civil War and it’s noted in the summary that Lena’s family once owned ‘the largest and most infamous plantation’ in town. The fact that the books wants to deal with fate and free will, but never touches on the fact that Lena’s family once owned slaves, seems to me to be not only an over-sight but pretty disingenuous. To make it worse there are two black characters in the cast, and while they happen to be two of the more interesting characters in the book they are also subservient to the white characters.
The comic also draws a very clear line connecting sexiness to evilness. Ridley, Lena’s cousin, is a bad girl who’s been ‘claimed’ for the dark side. You can tell she’s evil because she wears a mini-skirt and a top that barely covers her bra. Lena on the other hand is demure and shy, and barely does more than kiss Ethan and hold his hand. Because the book is so clear about its morals, it makes it hard to believe that sweet little Lena will actually turn evil. She might worry about ‘going dark’ but because she’s such a good, modest girl, you know it’s not going to happen.
Beautiful Creatures takes a very black and white approach to good and evil. If you’re good, you’re a nice, wholesome person. If you’re evil, you’re a cackling, over-the-top villain who makes most Disney bad guys seemed subtle and nuanced. And best of all, you get no choice in whether you’re good or bad! Everyone in Lena’s family discovers which side they are aligned with on their sixteenth birthday, as if there’s a switch that flicks in their brain. This is a very simple way to view human nature, and it robs the characters of any, well, character. Even if the idea of clear-cut bad and good sides weren’t ridiculous, the fact that the characters don’t choose which side they’re on makes it so they have no personal reason for fighting. Nobody’s doing anything because of their own choice, so why should I care about them? Near the end there’s a scene which implies that Ridley at least might have some ambiguity to her, but it’s a just a drop in the bucket compared to all the other cardboard villains.
I’m talking about the problematic stuff because it is a big issue, but also because there’s not much else interesting to talk about. The plot moves slowly, and when we’re not watching Ethan and Lena trying to uncover their families secrets we’re watching cliché high school storylines. I know I haven’t talked about the plot much, but really it’s there’s not much to talk about. For most of its length the book gives us very little to go on, and then during the climax it’s like it starts making up for lost time by dumping revelation upon revelation upon us.
One thing I liked about this book was the art, but even that is a bit of a disappointment. First, the good: Cassandra Jean is great at drawing people, and her sketchy, slightly cartoony style reminds me a lot of how Becky Cloonan draws characters. It’s nice to see an artist who can make their characters lively while still being coherent. I definitely prefer her slightly ‘shagginess’ to the overly-polished styles used in similar projects (that’s right, I’m talking about you, nauseatingly pretty Twilight manga!) Also her layouts are well-done and good at moving the story along even when the plot flags.
I do feel there was a missed opportunity when it comes to backgrounds. Beautiful Creatures is supposed to be a southern gothic tale, but I didn’t get much of that in the art. The summary talks of ‘the overgrown gardens, murky swamps and crumbling graveyards of the forgotten South,’ but we hardly get to see any of that. When we do, it’s drawn in such a boring way that it could have been set anywhere. When you think of the work artists like Faith Erin hicks and Hope Larson put into creating both solid and evocative settings, it’s hard not to be disappointed that Cassandra Jean couldn’t pull off something like that here.
One last thing in Beautiful Creatures favor: it’s got a great cover. It’s shiny, has a nice use of purple, and the title font is cool. It manages to both allude to the original book cover while still clearly being its own thing. But a good cover doesn’t guarantee a good read. Beautiful Creatures wasn’t terribly bad, but it’s still far from good.
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Book provided by Yen Press for review purposes