"Alabaster: Grimmer Tales" Graphic Novel Review
Written by James Ferguson
Published by Dark Horse Comics
Written by Caitlin R. Kiernan
Illustrated by Steve Lieber
2013, 120 Pages
Graphic Novel released on April 30th, 2014
Life isn't easy when you're Dancy Flammarion. At first, the albino girl was roaming through the American South slaying monsters, guided by a fierce angel with a mighty blade that only she could see. Then the two parted ways after she destroyed a book filled with evil. Now she's somewhat aimless, but the monsters haven't stopped coming. Armed with her trusty kitchen knife, Dancy carries on in Alabaster: Grimmer Tales, the second graphic novel in the series from Caitlin R. Kiernan.
This batch of stories, originally published in the anthology series Dark Horse Presents, is told from the point of view of the blackbird that's often following Dancy. He's traveling in a boxcar with a small group of hobo monsters and he's weaving tales to avoid being eaten. There are three main arcs included in Grimmer Tales.
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The first, The Mermaid of Black Hammock, shows a very un-Disney look at the underwater creature. Dancy is wandering a bit, wondering what to do next, when she comes to this small town under the control of a brutal mermaid. The beast is beautiful on the surface, but there are tentacles lurking just below the skin. This tale is a reminder of how stubborn Dancy can be when it comes to monsters. They're evil and they have to die. There's no grey area. She is given a way out as well. She could be on her way and not have to deal with a town filled with brainwashed civilians ready to burn her at the stake, but that's not her style.
Things like this cement Dancy as a strong female lead on par with the likes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. She's up against enormous odds with a monster that could sit back and watch her get torn limb from limb but she's not going to let that stop her from tearing this beast's throat out. Plus, all she has to defend herself is a kitchen knife. That's it! That's what she uses to kill all these creatures.
There's also a real vulnerability to Dancy. She's albino, so she has a tough time in the sun, which is certainly something I can relate to. She's basically alone in the world, joined only by the aforementioned blackbird and the ghost of a werewolf she killed some time ago. After the falling out with the angel, she has a sense of loss that she's not sure how to deal with. The book she destroyed left her with the voices of old gods lurking in her head, which complicates matters further. Is this definitive proof that her faith in God and the Bible has been misguided? If you relied on a specific way of life for years and then found out that everything you believed in was wrong, how would you react? The third chapter, White as Snow, deals with those voices a bit. Dancy fights them and comes to terms with them. They're her terms though. She sets the rules and she's stronger because of it.
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All of these stories are beautifully illustrated by Steve Lieber. His art matches up with Kiernan's words and characters perfectly. From Dancy's slight frame to the mischievous glint in the eye of Maisie, the werewolf ghost, so much can be said with the images in Grimmer Tales. You can practically feel that harsh Southern sunlight beating down on them as they make their way through Black Hammock. For the most part, this is a serious book, but there are brief moments of humor such as an elderly woman sitting on – and through – Maisie when they're on a bus.
The characters themselves are not all that attractive, but they're not supposed to be. Dancy is a young woman that has been living on the streets, dedicating her time to killing monsters. She's going to be a little rough around the edges. The creatures in the train with the blackbird are an odd assortment of anthropomorphic foxes and rats. They're ugly and not something you'd ever want to encounter, but not necessarily scary.
That isn't to say that Alabaster doesn't have its frightening moments. There's a great confrontation between Dancy and the mermaid in which the beast shows what she is really capable of by tricking Dancy into eating something. The result is a series of tentacles violently bursting from the girl's mouth. It's unsettling and instantly throws away any preconceptions you had about mermaids.
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Additionally, the second chapter Blackbird takes Dancy into a sci-fi setting. Kiernan slowly pulls back the curtain to reveal how this fits into the overall story (and it works brilliantly). Lieber showcases a wide range of talents, going from the small town of Black Hammock to a huge space freighter with alien squids and massive computer cores.
It should also be noted that Greg Ruth delivered one helluva cover for this collection, showing Dancy fighting the mermaid as she struggles to keep her head above water. The creature is wrapped around the girl, ready to pull her down into the darkness. It's a terrifying image that is gorgeous to look at.
Alabaster: Grimmer Tales adds a bit more to the mythology of Dancy Flammarion but it makes me want more from this monster hunter. She's had a rough time as of late and she's lost in the world. Caitlin R. Kiernan has created a strong female character that can rival the greats in the industry. Dancy is easier to relate to for a girl than Wonder Woman has been in the past few decades, not that I'm speaking from experience of being a girl...well, this got awkward.