Image Comics was kind enough to allow me to read a digital galley of this volume so I am pleased to review the series this week.
For all that we might claim that “beauty is only skin deep,” we sure spend a lot of time pursuing it. Every age has its own beauty standards and whether it’s in the media we devour, our own pictures on social media, the art we admire or the advertisements we see from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to sleep, there is never an escape from the need for perfection. It’s easy to lose count of the number of companies that promise a pill or a diet or an exercise that will make the pounds melt away or erase the wrinkles from your face. Most of us have to accept the reality that these either don’t work or are out of our reach. But what if you didn’t need any of that? What if there was another, easier way to become instantly beautiful? How many people wouldn’t snatch that kind of offer up? In the world of Beauty, physical perfection is just one sexually transmitted disease away. This new graphic novel series from Image Comics takes horror and science fiction in a new direction to examine our need/desire for perfection and the lengths to which we’ll go to in order to obtain it, even if the consequences are horrifying. Beauty is written and illustrated by Jeremy Haun with his co-writer Jason A. Hurley and colored by John Rauch. The series has just finished its first arc of six issues which will be collected and released in a single volume on March 22nd of this year.
Beauty introduces the reader to a world in which it is no longer necessary to live with the potentially ugly mug which God and/or your parents’ genes have granted you. Simply get infected by the disease Beauty (whether by paying for it or having sex with someone who has) and you will instantly become beautiful. While many are ecstatic about this opportunity, more than a few reject the idea of having to become beautiful to be acceptable. These groups actively advocate against the company which has created Beauty and when those infected with Beauty start to spontaneously combust, it will be up to two detectives, Kara Vaughn and Drew Foster, to figure out what’s causing those infected with Beauty to die sudden and horrific deaths. And they’re not the only ones interested in the case. Vaughn and Foster will have to navigate both the bureaucracy inherent in their jobs as detectives and powerful forces that have no interest in them finding out the truth. Even their own personal lives are tied up with Beauty in inextricable ways. Can they keep themselves from falling into the trap posed by such a seductive infection?
What makes Beauty compelling is the ways in which it utilizes the strengths of both science fiction and horror to create a future that is far from unbelievable. In some ways it reminds me of the horror movie It Follows. Both feature a horror that is transmitted by sexual contact (although in the case of Beauty this can also be a conscious choice) and a constant creepy feeling of having to always be looking over one’s shoulder. Detectives Vaughn and Foster are almost immediately in over their heads and their struggles to handle both their own personal lives which have been affected by the disease and get a handle on a mystifying case made them instantly compelling protagonists. Even better, the questions that Beauty poses are horrifying due to their very complexity. Beauty is a thorny issue and one that’s personal to any person who considers it. The implications presented by the disease make the graphic novel series both entertaining and one of those stories that forces you to question your own morals.
Beauty also features some very strong character development. There are a few more cookie cutter characters (particularly among the antagonists) but I was particularly impressed with the ways in which the detectives interacted with others and particularly the ways in which their relationship was developed. In many of the stories in which you have a detective partnership featuring a man and a woman, it ends up feeling like a contrived love interest element. Not so with these two. Foster is married and dealing with his own issues. Rather than Vaughn being presented as an option for Foster to escape his marriage when he runs into stumbling blocks, she acts as his best friend and partner, encouraging him to deal with the problems that concern him. Vaughn is easily my favorite character in the series. She’s smart, tough and capable without being a hardass. She genuinely cares for people and has her own issues to work though, which she does with the help of Foster. Their partnership was one of the greatest aspects of the series and the growth the characters showed throughout was impressive.
The artwork deserves particular mention because the graphic nature of some of the scenes and the brilliant use of color help to illustrate the horror of the series. When nearly everyone on every page is stunningly gorgeous, the vivid nature of the violence is made that much uglier in comparison. The stylistic choices give support to the strong writing and it’s great to see Haun excel in both roles.
Beauty isn’t perfect. As the first story arc, it leaves some questions unanswered, some of the villains are less fleshed out than I’d prefer and the reasoning behind said villains can tend towards predictable. However, the compelling premise of a disease which instantly makes you beautiful is well fleshed out and illustrated by Haun, Hurley and Rauch. And Detectives Vaughn and Foster make for a compelling pair as they try to unravel the tangled web surrounding the disease. If you enjoy more thoughtful and intensely creepy science fiction/horror, I would highly recommend picking this one up! I’m very curious to see where the creators take it in the next story arc!