Review–The graphic novel adaptation of Peter S. Beagle’s iconic fantasy The Last Unicorn

Review by C.J. Bunce

Once upon a time and long before Charles Perrault wrote down his version of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty in the 17th century someone else created and shared through the oral tradition the fairy tales we know today.   Before Jack and the Beanstalk and Snow White were collected as stories and written down and shared by familiar names like Grimm someone first thought of and created these elemental and immortal characters.  But we will never know the names or these writers, shake their hands, ask them questions and know much about them at all.  Creators of more modern classic tales are long gone as well, like Tolkien, Carroll, White and Lewis, and luckily a lot has been shared about them and their works.  We know these creators of immortal works–stories that stick in your memory.  But is The Hobbit and Alice in Wonderland and Winnie the Pooh and The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe as elemental to our storytelling tradition as Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty?  Maybe.  If they don’t quite fit in that category they are certainly on the next shelf over.

Fans of fantasy and science fiction often waiver on the concept of living in the here and now.  We all sometimes seem out of place and time, as we were fitted for some other purpose–perhaps a knight in medieval times or a pilot on a space freighter centuries from now.  But here we are in 2012.  But in today’s world we have certain freedoms–you can pick and choose what you like, gravitate toward what inspires you and participate via comic conventions and historical faires and get a snippet of what living in other times could be like, if you can only imagine it.  Would you like to live in a world where Shakespeare is hashing out his next play?  Where H.G. Wells is concocting his next place of exploration?  We can latch on to the fact that there is still a grand storyteller in our midst of the ancient storytelling tradition.  The story we’re focusing on today is The Last Unicorn, a pure fairy tale of the elemental variety that just happened to have been created in the year 1969 and not 1369, penned by the much-lauded storyteller Peter S. Beagle.  Hundreds of years of readers in the past just missed out on The Last Unicorn, you could say, and we are just lucky that we didn’t miss it and can read it here and now.

IDW Publishing’s release this month of the first installment of Peter S. Beagle’s first novel, A Fine and Private Place, in graphic form (reviewed here earlier this week), caused me to stumble over the 2011 hardcover release of Beagle and Peter Gillis’s adaptation of The Last Unicorn.  As graphic novels to some extent are distilled or abridged versions of the original novels, what jumps out at the reader is whether or not the core story elements are good or bad, so-so or exciting.  The adaptation of The Last Unicorn is a triumph of sorts, as it recounts an epic quest on par with the adventures of the limited pantheon of classic fairy tale characters everyone knows.  It makes you question whether it belongs among the more archetypal fairy tale stories like Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast, or those later written fantasy novels from the 19th century that are equally beloved by loyal readers.  It of course doesn’t matter, but you can be hard pressed to find any other story quite like The Last Unicorn.

In storybook form, with bright and brilliant art and a sweeping story you wonder why this work was not completed decades ago.  How many kids have missed out on this story in our day?  Of course, readers read–and those who would be transfixed by a fantastical story of a female unicorn out to find whether she is indeed the last of her species or not already have gravitated to the source work and/or the animated movie adaptation.  Droves of devotees to Beagle can be found congregating around his cramped booth in artists’ alley at San Diego Comic-Con each year, proof that Beagle is as popular and admired as ever–a literary giant we are lucky to have in our midst.

Of course to most people unicorns and glitter and butterflies are silly things tainted by cartoons and toys of the 1980s.  To those I would hand this version of the story.  This graphic novel adaptation dispenses with the cartoony nature of the unicorn, the glitzy rendition in part caused by the novel’s own animated adaptation from 1982.  The unicorn in this story is in a situation quite grave.   And its story is treated with eloquence and solemnity.  Not since The Hobbit was adapted by Charles Dixon with art by David Wenzel, reviewed here last year, has a literary adaptation been so well done.  After comparing the two graphic novels, The Last Unicorn seems an even better work, full of drama and emotion and an incredible use of color to tell the story in a vibrant way.

The story of The Last Unicorn is poignant and the journey taken by the unicorn perfectly paced.  The unicorn encounters trials, makes life-changing decisions, and meets a host of advisers, fools, crooks, and friends on her journey.  The characters range from a butterfly that speaks in broken song, to a poor magician (or a more accurately a bad magician), a ramshackled street girl, a vile troll-like carnie, a satyr, a spider, a cerberus, a dragon, a witch enchantress, an imprisoned harpy, a talking skull, to a withered evil king, an errant prince, and a relentless crimson red bull.  All of these are classic archetypes from fantasy–yet all stand out as original in this tale.

The story is handily adapted into six chapters (originally released in six issues) and includes a forward by Beagle and an afterward consisting of an exhaustive and interesting interview between Beagle and friend Connor Cochran, as well as a good interview with Gillis.

A big part of a graphic novel adaptation hinges on the artwork.  Renae De Liz‘s pages create a world familiar to fans of the animated film, yet it is also nothing really like that earlier adaptation.  Characters are visually more fleshed out, drawn in a classic storybookland style, with no silly or squat characters.  De Liz to one extent seems to be from the same art school as Michael Turner (and would be a great artist for Aspen Comics, no doubt)–her females in The Last Unicorn have the same innocence and lost girl motif as Turner’s key girl subjects.  De Liz’s husband Ray Dillon served as inker and colorist for this book.  And the color is so important to the scenes that Dillon’s color work stands out as an achievement itself.  Great purples and blues and greens mix and sweep along with the plot.  The art and color of the fire and lightning-emitting red bull comes as a surprise when you turn the page to its arrival.  The innocent and beautiful white unicorn is almost scorched by it on the paper’s edge as it runs from it across the pages.  De Liz’s glass-eyed troll-like enchantress Mommy Fortuna looks to be someone you’d find traipsing around the world of The Dark CrystalThe dimwitted expressions of Schmendrick are unmistakable.

A great read for old and young alike, The Last Unicorn graphic novel is available at and Beagle sells the work himself, offering signed and personalized editions of The Last Unicorn and his other works, available at his website.

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