COMIC REVIEW: La Belle Dame Sans Merci

LBDSMWith mainstream comics you can see the patterns right away, the story-lines etched in well-worn grooves as the years whirl round and around. Like any medium there are nigh infinite possibilities, but the money men crowd around the same old ideas like moths to a flame. Not so with the small press publishers.

As I strolled through Thought Bubble this year, I found the sheer breadth of independent comics available quite dizzying. This is where the market is most vibrant, where bold ideas are tested and new talents begin to flourish. I picked up a few of the ‘smaller’ books whilst I was there, and I’ll be giving you reviews of them as time goes on. The first one I want to tell you about is a strange and dangerous little oddity by Phillip Buchan and Karen Yumi Lusted, based on a poem by John Keats: La Belle Dame Sans Merci.


In its simplest form, Buchan’s story deals with temptation and the fruit of betrayal. In place of Keats’ wandering knight we have a young man in modern times, facing the birth of his second child with a hidden sense of horror. However much he loves his wife and son, he feels increasingly trapped and hopeless. Waiting in line at the Job Centre he spies a vision, a woman of startling beauty whose inviting glance seems to offer an alternative to his life. Impulsively he takes his chance and is led deep into the woods – both physically and metaphorically. It is a moment of madness that is hard to sympathise with, but this is just the start of an intense journey into darkness. The tale of seduction and betrayal has been captured by a multitude of artists a thousand times over. It resonates with us culturally from Arthurian legends to noir’s femme fatale, so its resurrection in modern comics shouldn’t be quite the surprise that it is.

I wasn’t familiar with the Keats poem before reading this, so I can reassure you that, whilst the theme is strong, it does not rely on any kind of pre-knowledge to work. The narrative and dialogue are modern, naturalistic and very engaging. What Buchan has done here which really impresses is to take the idea behind the story and explore it in greater depth, whilst shifting our perspective. Keats has La Belle Dame as a predator, the knight a pitiful victim. Buchan challenges our sense of morality by denying the ‘knight’ his innocence and exploring what actually drives this fatal woman. The second chapter of the comic takes us back two years to the events that shaped her current existence. It’s not pretty, but it is very engaging stuff.

The artwork took me a while to appreciate. The title and the cover art led me to expect something approaching the richness of Stardust, but the interior art is mainly line work. There are dramatic flourishes and some beautiful layouts, but something didn’t sit right with me. The style was not a natural fit to my mind but there is no doubting the skill of the artist. Karen’s figure-work is strong, full of movement and poise, whilst details like hair and clothing flow naturally. Her use (and occasional non-use) of the panels break up the pages in interesting and intuitive ways that never lead the eye astray. The woodland backgrounds give detail without distracting, and when backgrounds are eschewed altogether it feels less like an absence and more like a focusing in. As I look at the pages again and again it is the faces which keep throwing me. There is something of the manga to Lusted’s characters. It is a fiercely modern style, particularly when denied the subtler shadings of colour, and it keeps jolting me out of the dark realms of fairy, where the story belongs at heart.

It should be stated here that I have so far only seen the first two chapters (of four). It is a brave and exciting experiment which reads smoothly. The first segment is particularly memorable and shocking, whilst chapter two leaves the reader begging for more.

Of particular delight to me was the short essay at the end of the comic, entitled ‘Far From The Wrong Side Of The Tracks.’ Miranda Brennan writes a little about the history of La Belle Dame Sans Merci in its many forms over the centuries, shedding light on Phillip’s comic and the thought that went into it. This is the sort of extra that endears me to the creative team and encourages multiple readings. Whilst an argument can be made for work standing silently on its own, I have always liked peeking behind the curtain of creative processes. It has certainly enabled me to appreciate Phillip’s work in a new light, and I look forward to seeing how the story progresses. While the ‘knight’s’ tale is concluded, La Belle Dame’s has just begun, and who knows where that may lead? Good stuff.


Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Dion Winton-Polak

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