Reviewed by John Royal
The Beauty begins with a strong premise: Two years ago saw eponymous STD “The Beauty,” an STD which gives the infected a constant slight fever and turns them—appropriately—physically beautiful. The first page notes, “This was a disease that people actually wanted.” The book begins in a Beauty-changed world, the populace almost equally split between those with the Beauty and the Beauty free. This weird arrangement and the little attempt to explain the symptoms places the disease firmly in the horror-fantasy or magical realist genre; the book isn’t about the disease so much as it is about how the characters are affected by it. There is popular prejudices on both sides and terrorist opposition towards the disease, and the infected are suffering strange deaths.
The first volume follows the Beauty Task Force Detectives Vaughn and Foster as they investigate a string of sudden and violent Beauty deaths. They’re met with federal opposition and continue investigating anyway, leading them into a string of strange or violent encounters with shadowy governmental figures. The plot takes off rather quickly, beginning as a police procedural and becoming a violent conspiracy thriller. There are enormous consequences, backstabbing and changes of heart, and there are the ultra-violent whackos which Image Comics are known for. Unfortunately the genre tropes which drive the novel make the turns a little predictable—though the book is no less of a page-turner because of its ultrafast-pace and constantly ramping stakes. The ride is fun and tightly written, and there is a lot to discover.
The Beauty spun out of Top Cow’s Pilot Season initiative, its first issue winning the 2011 contest, and marks co-creators Jason A. Hurley and Jeremy Haun’s first foray into original work; Haun is an artist with primarily dark and horror bona fides, known for his work on *Batwoman* and *The Darkness*; he draws the pretty people well and the scary characters better.
The two make interesting and powerful artistic choices in distinguishing the infected. Haun communicates the difference expertly through his premise-conscious character design. Haun draws the infected with perfectly traditional beautiful faces and fit bodies, and he shows his range through the other characters. The character art in particular is well-done, with a strong range of realistic bodies and faces in the book—but sometimes the background art is traded for a dark shadow or dull gradient.
John Rauch’s colors also help distinguish the infected from the non: the flesh of the infected seem to glow, especially juxtaposed with the washed-out colors of the rest of the page. After the violent deaths of the infected, all light is shot through their mouths, and their flesh takes on the duller hues of the background. The coloring differences between the infected and the uninfected are especially true in the first issue, but in those followings this pattern mellows. The subtler color differences makes it more difficult to tell who is infected and who isn’t, beyond Haun’s character art.
Lacing the plot and the art is a subtle satirical bite, striking mostly icons of body prejudice and authority. We get the image of the indulgent, prejudicial, hypocritical, televangelist; the detectives visit sexual beauty worship at a sex-club called Vanity; we watch Beautiful floating heads discussing terrible things with a smile. There doesn’t seem to be much ironic comment with regards to The Beauty itself or the carriers wholesale, managing a balance between the books particular satire and with taking its premise and characters appropriately serious.
Withholding irony from the premise and its players let the main characters feel as uniquely as they’re drawn. Our two officers are refreshingly platonic, and their friendship is one of the pleasures in the series; their honest support comes sans tension and their platonic friendship is a breath of fresh air. As well, The Beauty celebrates a diverse set of realistically drawn romantic relationships which run the orientational gamut. For a satirical science-fiction action thriller, there is also a strong sentiment of neutral body positivity—characters aren’t shamed for having the disease and vice-versa.
For those more interested in the sociological or philosophical ramifications of this beautifying disease which people actually want, the plot is perhaps too tight. The work feels strangely fragmented in this way, revealing its themes mostly in seemingly extraneous details. Which isn’t to say that the main plot is removed from the themes The Beauty explores—merely that the plot and the characters eclipse the initial premise it sets out, changing the “question” of the story from “What if there was an STD which made people beautiful?” to “What if there was a popular disease which was killing people?”
Fortunately, the story does “answer” the question it raises. This first volume feels surprisingly self-contained and tightly wrapped for what’s ostensibly an ongoing series. This volume is even bookended by Voice of God narration reflecting on the changed statuses of the world. Reading this first volume with no context as to the creator’s plans, one might be surprised by the seventh issue coming out this May. In the interview episode of the Comics Alternative podcast, the creators let on that the series will be a kind of anthology series, exploring different moments in the two years of the Beauty so far. The next arc features a criminal—and I’m excited to see what this new character’s story might be.
Fans of Warren Ellis or Mark Millar’s science-fiction might find a new home in The Beauty. If you appreciate a fast-paced story that takes its high-concept and characters seriously, you’ll find a new series to love in The Beauty. It’s easier to catch than you think.
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