Review by C.J. Bunce
Fairy tales seem to be everywhere this past year, beginning with a TV rivalry of sorts between Once Upon a Time and the superb series Grimm. Lost Girl, the Canadian TV series winding up its third season in the States, has been a brilliant series, full more of folklore than fairy tales per se, yet it truly highlights the “fae” of the genre. Movies like Snow White and the Huntsman, Mirror, Mirror, and Red Riding Hood have shown that classic tales still have resonance with mainstream audiences, because the source stories are, quite simply, timeless.
In comic books, Bill Willingham’s Fables series has pretty much cornered the market for a full ten years. New this week, British writing husband and wife team Leah Moore and John Reppion and new comic book artist Aneke introduce us to a new fairy tale series, Damsels, a mash-up of women in fairy tales. The concept is obviously not new. Women helm most popular fairy tales that get retold these days. In fact, if you read issue #1 of Damsels the story structure may remind you of another women-themed work, Lost Girls, by Alan Moore. Lost Girls pulled together three classic characters, Alice from Alice in Wonderland, Dorothy Gale from The Wizard of Oz, and Wendy from Peter Pan. Lost Girls pretty much dispensed with the original spirit and intent of the original writers, and for that matter, any original elements from the source works. Damsels looks like it is doing the same, and at least so far, veering away the original Grimm stories. Hopefully Damsels doesn’t make the same mistakes made in Lost Girls, or just as bad but on the opposite end of the spectrum, become Disney-filed in later issues.
Damsels is also just more fun than Lost Girls (again, I mean the really bad (porno)graphic novel with the “s”, not the really good TV series without the “s”). The comparisons are obvious, and even more so when you know that writer Leah Moore is the daughter of Alan Moore. Alan Moore actually plotted Leah Moore and John Reppion’s comic book limited series Albion, so they have actually worked together in the comic book business. Whatever the nature of the influence, Alan Moore seems to have rubbed off with this new story.
In the town of Caumont, which looks like Belle’s quiet village in Disney’s (very good) film Beauty and the Beast, a girl named Rapa (whose name readers would know only from the blurb advertising the next issue) finds herself a bit like Aladdin, not from the A Thousand and One Nights stories but clumsily bouncing around as at the beginning of Disney’s (pretty good) film Aladdin. She seems to have a memory gap, like Jennifer Morrison’s Emma Swan from ABC/Disney’s TV series Once Upon a Time. From the first page it appears Rapa could be Gretel, from Hansel and Gretel, based on her being asleep and waking up near a (intentionally?) ghostly image of Gretel getting bitten by an evil, flitting fairy. A dream of a past occurrence perhaps?
Caumont has many elements of the typical fairy tale town,a nd some new elements. You’ll find here unhappy shopkeepers, a fellow and his goats, a giant tortured Shrek-like ogre, fairies bought and sold as slaves, fairy magic, satyrs, and other elflike beings with the look of C.S. Lewis’s creatures in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. So if you like all these past fairy tale and fairy tale inspired works, you will easily slide into this new world of Caumont.
We don’t really get a good grasp yet on what are gearing up to be the lead females of Damsels: Rapunzel, now a queen in this story, and her husband, named King Persine, who lead Caumont, and visiting cousins Queen Talia, who appears to be Sleeping Beauty, and her husband King Aurore, both en route to the castle from their kingdom, Perrault (as in Charles). These two women leaders have a traitor in their midst, a magic-wielding fairy, and indeed, the fairies are the best part of this first issue of the series, but second to a slick, sharp-toothed Goth-looking mermaid who tries to rescue the girl Rapa.
It’s all so strangely familiar, isn’t it? In Issue #1, Damsels seems to be taking a path very closely with the TV series Once Upon a Time. Yet, familiarity is one element of how any retelling works. What really matters is how these characters will build from their origin stories and how cleverly a new story can be told. All said this first issue of the series is a good start, both in story and art.
The worst part is probably the ill-conceived title, Damsels. When you have a word so engrained in our lexicon being tied to the phrase “damsels in distress,” and if you are, what I hope, creating a series of strong women characters, the title itself seems to stand in the way. “Damsel in distress” has long been a primary targeted stereotype of feminist criticism. Issue #1 features Michael Turner/Soulfire-inspired cover art, and the women characters seem more ethereal than determined. Maybe it’s just Dynamite’s way of marketing a female-driven comic to a male audience? Unless I am all wrong and these women actually are damsels in distress, needing rescued by their princely men? In that case I will be very disappointed.