Saturday, March 19, 2016

The Beauty (#1-6)

“Two years ago,  a new sexually transmitted disease took the world by storm. This STD was unlike any other that had come before. This was a disease that people actually wanted. ‘Victims’ of this epidemic were physically changed by the virus. Fat melted away, thinning hair returned, skin blemishes faded, and their facial features slimmed.  It became known as The Beauty… Suddenly, perfect skin, flawless features, and a gorgeous body were only one sexual encounter away… Now, over half the country’s population  has the beauty, and the other half of the country hates them for it.”

The Beauty is built on an interesting premise: what if an STD (with only minimal side effects) made you beautiful? No more need for diet and exercise to get people to check you out. No more need for the average person to exercise self-discipline to maximize their genetic potential.  Beauty and overwhelming sexual desirability are just one lucky virus away. Who wouldn’t be tempted to become one of the elite? As you might expect, The Beauty spreads swiftly. 

But it turns out there’s a catch: a fairly horrible death is inevitable after one has been beautiful for a while. Fortunately, there’s a cure. Unfortunately, it appears that the cure will make the people as ugly as the virus made them beautiful. Throw in a Big Government/Big Pharma conspiracy to weed undesirables out of the population by not making the cure available for a while, and you’ve got a story for our times.

I read the first arc of The Beauty (six comics in all) after reading reviews noting the sharp commentary about a culture fixated with beauty and sex appeal. The Beauty was presented as modern parable, a cautionary tale of hedonism run amok. Indeed, writers Jeremy Haun and Jason Hurley write in an interview at the end of #1, “It was always a look at our broken society and the lengths we’re willing to go in the name of looking good.” Haun told Vox, "The Beauty is a morality play. We’re examining the lengths we, as a society, go to in order to look good. And let’s be honest, as a society we’re a mess."

At the beginning of The Beauty  #4, a slam poet distills the authors’ intent in one jarring soliloquy:

I am not enough. 
Screaming and streaming at me from screens large and small;
the year’s girl on the cover of every magazine.
“What a pretty little thing!”
They change the rules:
Be thin… but not too thin.
Be pretty… but make it look easy.
Too much hair here, not enough here, how dare you have hair there at all?!
Is that a wrinkle?
An extra pound or five?
There’s cream for that, there’s a surgery for that, there’s a disease for that.
Wipe it away, starve it away, burn it away.
Feel so pretty. And die for the pleasure of it.
“Do you not want to **** me? Then what am I worth…”
**** your standards. **** your beauty. Too little too late.

I give The Beauty high marks for what it is attempting. It reminds me of a comic version of the thought-provoking but disturbing Black Mirror, with a smattering of Scott Westerfield’s Pretties and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World thrown in for good measure. We often takes culture norms of beauty for granted; we just as often accept faulty ideas of what things give our lives worth – in this case, the idea that the more sexually desirable we are, the more life is worth living. That’s a great topic that needs to me discussed far more than it is.

* * * * * * * * * *

Yet from the beginning, I felt like The Beauty undermined its own message.

First, I thought the necessary visual medium undermined the author’s intended message. It’s one thing to read about beautiful people, body worship, and sexual fixation that permeates this story. It’s another to see it because, well, the beautiful people are drawn beautifully while the rest are not. I get it – it’s necessary to draw the contrast – but it felt counterproductive. The angry (and infected) beat poets of The Beauty’s world rightly rage against the dehumanizing nature of bacchanalian machine, but after the opening pages of The Beauty #3, the haunting words ring hollow. Surely there was a way to portray the story that did not undermine the power of the critique.

Second, the storytelling is internally inconsistent.  In a story that warns about the dangers of idolizing sexual desirability, there’s a lot of space given to nudity and sexual pursuits of various kinds. In a story that criticizes the demand to be a “pretty little thing,” all of the main characters are pretty, and relatively little. In other words, the worldview being criticized seemed embedded in the narrative, and the worldview apparently meant to replace it failed to be compelling or clear. 

Third, while the story rightly addresses the tension that develops between the haves and have-nots, it doesn't really explore the inner life of the Beautiful. Would they pick up the virus again knowing the cost?  Once they know about the antidote, how many would actually take it if it doomed them to ugliness for the rest of their life?  That would have more in line with the authors’ stated purpose. Perhaps this will show up later as the series continues, but the first arc of The Beauty spent more time exploring the hatred of the ugly toward the beautiful and the conspiracy against the Beautiful.

The first arc provides little more than a provocative premise, graphic (if not gratuitous) art, and some talking points for conspiracy fans. At this point, the discussion sparked by the potential of the comics seems more insightful than the comics themselves. There will, of course,  be more to this story than the first six comics. It’s very possible that the authors will be exploring the nuances of the clashing worldviews in a way that more fully hits their intended mark. That would be welcome, as the first arc has failed to fulfill the promise of a Huxleyan critique of a Beautiful New World. 

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