Thursday, September 08, 2016

There Are No Fairies In the Tale

Fairy tales retold in different times and places--a classic storytelling choice. There are a lot of ways this can go; I know people who are always on board, but for me it really depends.  Fairy tales themselves are relatively abstract and impersonal; they are about strings of events that have meaning in the context of the culture the story comes from, not about characters who grow and change.

When the string of events is used as a starting place, an author can tell a great story with the twist that I know what's going to happen, and it adds a layer of pleasure, of conspiracy, and of anticipation, but only when the author allows me to connect with a character who, in the original [Grimm/Andersen/Perrault] version, was barely recognizable as a human being.

Matt Phelan wrote Snow White: A Graphic Novel, and his choice of setting--the '20s and '30s in New York--caught my eye.  This is where Genevieve Valentine set her excellent novel The Girls at the Kingfisher Club, and I wondered what someone could do with Snow White. At the very least, I figured the comic would be pretty.

And it was pretty.  It was done in what I think is called inkwash, which is a mostly black and white watercolor style, which was lovely and dreamy and reminded me of the old French silent film of Beauty and the Beast. It was lovely to look at.

I wish there was more I could say about it, but I don't have a lot more.  It was...fine. It worked very nicely on the level of a fairy tale: Snow White's father is a stockbroker and her stepmother is an actress and she is sent away to boarding school and her father dies and she inherits his money and her stepmother tries to have her killed so she runs away and it's the '20s so all the poor people live in Hoovervilles and some kids take her in (seven of them!) and the evil stepmother poisons her with an apple and she sleeps till she is woken by a kiss and the stepmother dies through her own actions and everyone lives happily after.

I just ruined it for you, except that it was already ruined, because it was Snow White, and there was nothing you didn't know here.  There is no particular connection between the rich stockbroker and royalty, no comment on the stepmother's greed and envy or on Snow's pure innocence. In fact, both of those, and the father's passivity, are so broadly displayed that they're almost worse than in a standard fairy tale.  It's not just "she's innocent," which works as a shorthand for something I can picture a real person being--she's talking to a bunch of boys who are living in the street with no one to take care of them and telling them that most people are good and everything's going to be okay.  Her father doesn't just neglect his daughter in one sentence where we can fill in the blanks of all the ways a man can be mesmerized by an attractive woman; we are shown him loving his daughter and neglecting her, with no direct address of this discordance.

And I was actually kind of offended by how flat Snow was, and how evil her stepmother, and what an old sucker her father was.  The "gorgeous showgirl pretends to love an old man to get his money but is so, so evil!" is a nasty story that we've heard a million times and it kind of squicked me out here. 

So yeah, this was essentially a lovely illustrated edition of the same old story you've heard a million times.  It's really pretty, which is not nothing, but there isn't much else to recommend it.

(Thanks to Netgalley for a copy of this book for review.)

1 comment:

Linden said...

Coincidentally, I just finished a "Snow White" retelling (Winter, by Marissa Meyer). Based on your reaction to this, I think you would like Winter - and the whole series, actually.