Friday, August 2, 2013

Grownup & Gritty Rapunzel Heads To Japan in "Fairest: The Hidden Kingdom" (Fables Spin-Off)

The Hidden Kingdom - collection of Rapunzel issues #8-13 in one volume (Vol 2)
Note: This is a lengthy post - partly because I've included as-large-as-possibly-can-fit preview pages, so there is much more after the jump. While this series will not be everyone's taste it should be of great interest to anyone who loves Japanese fairy and folktales, as well as exploring the darker side of Rapunzel tales. I have linked to many more previews so you can have a good idea of what to expect, should you be concerned about the "darkness" of this series before reading. While there truly is a lot to be excited about in this series for fairy tale folk, it remains very adult so please use your discretion.

In a 6-part epic, Rapunzel lives one of the most regimented lives in Fabletown, forced to maintain her rapidly growing hair lest her storybook origins be revealed. But when word of her long-lost children surface, she races across the sea to find them--and a former lover. Rapunzel struggles through maternal heartache in modern Tokyo, along with heavy doses of Japanese folklore and some truly horrifying hair days in “Fairest: The Hidden Kingdom.”

I have to say, I am very intrigued by this preview and what Lauren Beukes revealed about writing this self-contained story under Bill Willingham's encouragement. The 6-part story runs through Fairest #8-13 and has just been released on Tuesday (July 30, 2013) as Volume 2: The Hidden Kingdom (see head of post for this cover).

Ms. Beukes is one an Arthur C. Clarke award winning writer who's style is initially hard to describe (edgy, modern, gritty, imaginative, witty, playful and sharp). I adored Zoo City, which could be loosely described as a gritty urban fantasy unlike anything I've ever read (and, being quite harsh in the light of the setting and subject matter, certainly won't be for everyone).

While Ms. Beukes clearly knows her magic and folklore, it feels incredibly real when she writes about it. It doesn't feel like fantasy and I wouldn't be at all surprised to walk into one of 'her" towns and see it exactly as she wrote. Nothing happens as you expect yet it still feels very reality based (which in turn makes you look at the real world with different eyes). This is probably why she's such a good fit for this Fables spin-off. Although the Fairest series is said to have a more of a fantastic "bent" than the original Fables, there is nothing sweetly "fairytale" (note the merged word, denoting pop-expectations) about these stories either, particularly this Rapunzel tale.
✒ ✒ ✒  ✒ (click the "Read more" link below this line) ✒ ✒ ✒ ✒ ✒ 

This is Rapunzel with serious grit and zero (I mean ZERO) pixie dust. While it's not primarily horror it is horrific at times and Beukes doesn't shy away from those aspects of the story nor the very real heartache, adult situations and dangers Rapunzel goes through. The more I consider the traditional Rapunzel's past, her present (as presented briefly in Fables and explained below) and the future crisis she deals with here in this story, the more it seems that taking it to Japan is, surprisingly, a natural fit.

(Note: Anyone who has ever spent time exploring Japanese stories or cinema* will have a good idea of how darkly things can twist and turn, so be warned that these are not stories for the faint of heart, or those who can't handle some horror or alternate adult situations from time to time. That said, the reviews are clear in their praise of both author and artists for not crossing - what they feel to be - the line into gratuity. You definitely don't want to leave these comics around for the kids to pick up though.)

From HeroComplex:

The graphic novel by award-winning South African novelist Lauren Beukes (“The Shining Girls”, "Zoo City") and Spain-based artist Inaki Miranda (“Tribes: The Dog Years”) takes the fairy-tale character into modern Tokyo and Japanese folklore on a search for her long-missing children. The strong-willed, smart heroine encounters monsters, conspiracies and a fox-y former lover, among other things, in a vividly drawn, terrifying and tender tale that’s rich in Eastern myth and cinematic horror, and dosed with humor. 
This is a self-contained story, and Beukes and Miranda quickly bring readers up to speed on the life this Rapunzel lives. 
The flaxen-haired fable resides alongside other human-looking but fantastical characters in the magically disguised Fabletown neighborhood of Manhattan, albeit under strict conditions, as her rapidly growing hair (4 inches an hour – more under stress or excitement) could raise suspicions among the denizens of the mundane world. Her closest companion is Joel Crow, who cuts her mane several times a day. 
Her quest begins when a message arrives from Japan. She must steal away – with some help from a duplicitous witch she knows all too well – to search for her children. 
“Fables” fans who didn’t read this arc as it arrived in single issues will see the back story of a character who’s scarcely appeared in that series and get their first look at the Japanese fables community. Regulars Jack, Frau Totenkinder and Bigby Wolf all play roles. The story is set before “Fables” No. 1. (The volume also includes a single-issue story about Princess Alder, a dryad, as narrated by Reynard T. Fox, Esq.; it’s written by Willingham with art by Barry Kitson.)
Let's get some excerpts from interviews with Lauren Beukes to help illustrate her unique take on Rapunzel. First one question and answer to help ground the direction this story takes (from GeeksUnleashed):
Lauren Beukes
GU: Why did you choose to focus on Japanese ancient folklore to drive Rapunzel’s story? 
Lauren: It was the hair. It’s so much a part of a Japanese ghost stories. It was a natural fit and the universe hasn’t explored Asian fairytales much, so it was a perfect opportunity to play.
When you explore more of what Ms. Beukes means you begin to get an idea of how Japanese folklore elements, an urban gritty city and the fairy tale character of Rapunzel might get along so well in the right hands (note: I included a possible spoiler section about folklore and hair because of the fairy tale significance of it. Hopefully it helps explain one of the reasons I find it so fascinating - not the horror aspects, though there are those, so be fore-warned, but how those particular elements of folktales dovetail  - or should I say, are woven in - so nicely into this Rapunzel narrative):
HeroComplex: Can you talk a little about using hair to horrific ends? 
LB: Rapunzel is all about the hair. Japanese horror is all about the hair. I figured it couldn’t be a coincidence. There’s also Rapunzel syndrome, where distressed girls (typically) eat their hair as a soothing mechanism and it forms disgusting clumps called bezoars in their stomachs. 
HC: In delving into Japanese folklore, was there any particular story or creature that was new to you that you were especially drawn to – and what struck you about it? 
LB: So many. I loved the tanuki, who are rowdy, brawling, drunken raccoon yokai who can inflate their testicles and beat them like a drum (although obviously we couldn’t show that) and the legend of kuchisake-onna, or the split-faced girl, mutilated by a spurned lover. 
[Warning: Spoilers] I obviously riffed off “Ringu,” but it was amazing to go back and find the original ghost story it was based on, “Banchō Sarayashiki,” or “Okiku and the Nine Plates,” which dates back to the 1700s at least, and the infestation of Okiku mushi in wells – worms that look like they’re bound in thread … or hair. [End spoilers]
HC: Rapunzel has not been treated well by maternal figures. How do you see that affecting her feelings about being a mother? 
LB: It becomes reactive. She’s determined that she won’t be like Totenkinder. She won’t abandon her lost daughters until she’s forced to by terrible circumstances. 
I’m very interested in artificial divisions between people, I’m interested in social inequalities, and I’m interested in how the past comes back to haunt you. And in this particular arc, it’s called The Hidden Kingdom and it’s Rapunzel’s very very dark past and the children she thought were lost, who have come back and she’s trying to go find them in Tokyo, and it goes horribly horribly wrong. And there are yokai who are Japanese monsters and there are yakuza and it plays off a lot of Japanese fairytales and mythology and ghost stories as well as more contemporary horror tropes and it’s been so much fun to do. (last paragraph source Sci-fi Now) 
Let's take a quick look at a preview to give you an idea of the story set-up in graphic form. (Warning: one expletive is included.)

Not long after, we meet the dubious character of her mother...

... who sets her firmly on the road to Japan. Then we get some truly beautiful visuals via flashbacks that explain this trip to Japan is actually a return:

I'm going to add some excerpts from reviews because, frankly, it's all really fascinating and should help you decide whether or not you think you'd like to check this set of issues out for yourself:

From Weekly Comic Review:
“In addition to the rather scandalous lifestyle choices she’s made over the years, Rapunzel simply seems more raw and primal than her fellow fair ladies.  You certainly can’t see Snow, Briar, Rose, or Cindy, even at their most desperate hour, spinning a nest of their own hair, strung and webbed across the boughs of a forest.  Combined with her urgent, instinctual hunt for her children, Punzel has an animalistic quality that makes her relationship with a kitsune almost logical.”
“This issue (#10 which is part 3 of Rapunzel's story) emphasizes how Beukes has really made use of Rapunzel’s hair as a character of its own, from which all kinds of eerie phenomena can emanate.  It’s pretty impressive that someone can take a plot device that’s been traditionally a bizarre joke or, at best, a tool for both slapstick and magic (see Tangled), and turn it into a threatening entity, something that endangers others and Rapunzel herself.  That last page demonstrates a rather twisted bit of imagination on Beukes’ part, but one that really works.”
Another excerpt here - with a nice nod to Totoro and the nekobasu (catbus), showing a little of the fantasy aspect of the comic, as well as the sort of awkwardness that can happen under pressure:

From Talking Comics, who say #10 is a great 'jumping-on point", even if you haven't read the previous ones:

“A seemingly kind heart takes pity on Rapunzel as she goes into labor, but there are other motivating factors involved. There is something special about these missing twin girls, and the well-timed midwife knows something while everyone else is in the dark. Rapunzel is out to find her daughters, but there is a possibility that these daughters are bigger and more important than Rapunzel herself.”
And a quick summary of issue #10 from Beukes herself:
(In this issue) ... sh*t gets real: Rapunzel reveals the story of her missing daughters. There’s a tricksy talking cat, personal fall-outs aplenty, a nest of hair in the forest, a helpful midwife with a poison apple and something really horrible in the end.
Intense stuff, no?!

You can see many more preview pages of the Rapunzel issues at the link HERE (& there's more pages HERE), read the rest of the interview, including how the collaboration between Willingham and Beukes came about and, how the direction for this version of Rapunzel came to be, along with a lot more information anime lovers, Japanese cinephiles and Japanophiles will love.

(There's also another interview with Lauren Beukes, discussing her first foray into Fables HERE.)

While there is no confirmation yet of Ms. Beukes writing more for Fables or Fairest, when asked if she is interested in doing so again her response is: "I'm pitching, I'm pitching!" I hope we get to see more of Ms. Beukes' "play" in Fabletown and beyond.

As I said, previously, it's not for everyone (the covers collected below will give some indication) but, for fairy tale folk - especially those interested in Japanese and Asian fairy tale and folklore - it may be worth looking up an overview of the series and characters as they are given new stories via Fairest, just to see what these writers are doing with "the ladies of fairy tale land". It's rarely what you might expect but there's often something that resonates through it all, keeping the fairy tale alive and well in it's own unique way.
Fairest Covers Issues #8- 14 (covering the Rapunzel story & a single issue story, expanding a tree nymph cameo I believe is  contained in the Rapunzel epic)
*There are "odes" to Japanese cinema as well - Rapunzel being a lover of theaters - one of the places she can go sit for a while, knowing no one will see her hair growing. The panel shown directly above is one of those, in which Rapunzel views her situation as if she were the heroine of her own movie.

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