A review of Beautiful Darkness, but mostly how it relates to my recent worries about violence in fiction.
Right around Christmas, I read this sort of weird-looking comic. Definitely not my usual thing, but it was the book of the month at the comic book store and it was pretty and hey, it’s Christmas. Turned out it fits right into all the inner debates about violence and guns and ethics I’ve been having.
I think I’ve made it pretty clear I’m very anti-violence. I hate the idea that my future kids might play and enjoy violent games, I worry about all the games and stories I’ve collected without thinking much about the content. My solution has been to try and eliminate it altogether, make all games cooperative, look for entertainment that’s all positive, confronting aggression in myself.
But this question keeps popping into my mind – what about self defense? I’ve been pretty adamant that I don’t want to have a gun or know how to use them or generally have anything to do with them, but I don’t have the same problem with learning to defend myself without a weapon. And from friends who took self defense classes, I know that the methods you learn there can also do a lot of damage.
Obviously the difference is that I would seek to do as little harm as possible, just enough to eliminate the danger. But then again there are gun owners who feel that’s why they need guns, to quickly eliminate threats with minimal damage. And what about fictional heroes that do violence but just enough to eliminate the danger? Given a strong enough danger, a lot of violence could be justified (and glorified) from this perspective.
It’s the glorification that’s giving me problems. Earlier this week I struggled with the phrase “war hero.” I understand it in theory. I get that it’s not intending to glorify the violence but what was accomplished through it. In the case of It’s a Wonderful Life, that meant shooting down planes and likely killing enemy soldiers in order to save others. No one focuses on the lives lost, only those saved, but still he’s being called a hero for killing people. I can’t accept that. Horrible things are still horrible when done by good (even heroic) people for good reasons. Labeling someone a “war hero” suggests it was their violent actions that make them important and heroic.
Enter Beautiful Darkness. (Spoilers and fairly graphic imagery ahead.) An intentionally horrific comic about a lot of people doing horrible things. Not intentionally, not because they’re “evil” or intending to hurt each other. They just don’t care. They don’t see the other people as people, they’re each only concerned with themselves. And they have very short attention spans.
Over and over again in this comic you’ll see a character display some sort of attachment to another. That baby’s so cute, I want to take care of it. The prince is so charming and handsome, let’s get married! And then something terrible happens to that other person because nobody cared to help, and everyone moves on in an instant. There may be a moment of sadness or even a burial, it may be that everyone moves on without noticing. There’s this very dreamlike feeling to it all, and events are forgotten as soon as they happen.
The comic is vague about what’s actually going on, leaving a lot to the reader. But here’s my take. See, the world around the main characters is fairly realistic in terms of art. They’re a bunch of doll-like or cartoon-like characters in a realistic-looking forest. And there’s a very realistic dead child that they all tumble out of at the beginning. Yikes.
The child shares her name with the main character of the story, Aurora. Aurora is also the only one of these cartoon characters who seems to have a more complex mind. The other characters are much simpler, concerned mostly with entertainment and instant gratification, much like cartoons or even like very young children. They haven’t quite learned that other people exist yet.
Aurora is different. Sort of. She still has this naive innocence and a simplistic view of the world, but she’s very concerned with the other characters and tries to take care of them. She’s also connected to big-Aurora and reacts to what’s going on with that body over the course of the year, though she doesn’t recognize why. My interpretation is that the other characters are figments of a child’s imagination, a shallow view of the world and other people informed by children’s stories.
Now that something terrible has happened, she sees them in a different light. Cartoon-Aurora represents her consciousness working through this disturbing revelation. People that are pleasant and friendly one moment turn on you in the next without a second thought, and your best friends may abandon you in an instant for someone who doesn’t care for them at all. And without help from the rest of the community, so many people are lost and not even mourned.
Aurora doesn’t stay innocent for long, and when she commits violence it’s just as troubling for other reasons. The other characters don’t think about it, aren’t trying to hurt anyone, they just aren’t aware other people exist in the same way they do. When Aurora’s driven to violence, it’s intentional. She does it first because she’s hurt and angry, later because the few remaining characters (most die off one at a time while no one else is paying attention) have invaded her home and are threatening her way of life.
So we have out-of-control emotional violence, self-defense, and that everyday violence we commit by just not caring enough to act. All are treated seriously here and all give us room to mourn. The act of self-defense isn’t glorified or forgiven any more than the other acts. It’s all tragic. We see the ones left behind and are upset that we can’t reach out and help. We want to rescue Aurora’s victim while also comforting her for the pain that leads her there. And we want Aurora to be safe but we also recognize that the action she’s taken to ensure that is horrific. Even if we hate the other characters and there’s no emotional loss for them, we recognize that she’s done a bad thing.
One of my favorite things about the comic is this cape Aurora starts wearing right after her first act of violence. It’s made of the mouse she hurt and the others killed. On the one hand, it makes sense to wear it because it’s getting colder (there is snow on the ground soon after this). But it also drastically changes her appearance without changing much at all. She’s still the same person, same childish tea-party-ready dress, when she takes off the cape she pretty much looks like she did at the beginning. But there’s been a change, and this extra skin is also a layer of protection against what she recognizes now as a harsher world. This is one of my favorite things about comics, the way tiny visual details can contribute so much to the story, and this is one of the best examples I’ve seen of it.
At no point in this story do I find myself cheering or even relaxing. The characters are all struggling to live in a world that requires violence to do so. At one point we see the girl on the ground get up like she’s just been taking a nap. Then one of the doll characters screams, we see that it’s just a nightmare, and she’s still living in the girl’s skull. All of these characters only exist outside of the girl’s mind (in my interpretation) and have lives of their own because she’s dead. Her well-being is their destruction.
And that’s how a lot of this is. Following your own wants and needs will lead to others’ suffering sometimes. There’s not much to be done about that, and it all gets very depressing. It should be depressing. It’s important that we can read this and have empathy for the forgotten, the betrayed, even the enemies sacrificed. It’s also important that we can take that into the real world and understand the people who suffer to give us the lives we have. Underpaid and poorly treated workers, people living in poverty, all the many people who are forgotten or outright targeted by the systems that run our lives. And all the people we hurt ourselves through inaction or thoughtlessness or more intentionally in our anger or fear.
Harming others is never heroic. If I can’t (yet) have a world without violence, I think it’s important to have one where we can at least agree not to reward or glorify it. We should be so affected by all of the levels of violence across this spectrum that we want to end it, in ourselves first and then in the wider world. As we see in Beautiful Darkness, limiting our focus to the positive does just as much harm. We have to be awake to the harm in our world if we’re going to stand a chance against it.