January 30, 2019

Deconstructing a Descent into Hell: Philippe Leblanc reviews SATANIA by Kerascoet and Fabien Vehlmann

The work of Kerascoet and Fabien Vehlmann concerns itself with deconstruction. Beautiful Darkness deconstructs the myth surrounding fairy tales, presenting in its place a bleak portrayal of what happens when the tale ends. Beauty deconstructed another fairy tale, the fairy granting a wish to a woman that eventually turns into a curse. Miss Don’t Touch Me played on the idea of a person seeking justice, or revenge, and how far she went to get what she wanted. Satania, their latest collaboration deconstructs nothing less than the conception of Heaven and Hell. Satania concerns itself with the struggle between theology, science, and the act of living. It’s about the different forces that drive humans to move forward, their goals and their expectation of what life is, or what it should be. Satania presents itself as a literal “descent into Hell”, but it’s overly simplistic to describe it this way. Characters are forced to proceed to deep introspection of themselves, their beliefs, their choices, their ideas, while they explore the bottoms of the Earth. 

The collaborative work of the team of Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascöet is some of the most impressive European comics of the decade. Their work is challenging, meticulously illustrated, tackling difficult themes, splendidly colored and layered with a degree of expertise rarely seen elsewhere. Their previous projects, Beautiful Darkness, Miss Don't Touch Me, and Beauty (one of my all-time favorite series) were awe-inspiring. Satania is equally delightful to read and examine, and NBM brought in the entire series in one convenient book. One of the big strengths of their work can be attributed how they layer information in their image. There’s usually something happening in the foreground and background in addition to the characters or action we follow. There’s a lot of depth and textures to their background, with enough details to make it look complex, but not overly so. There’s also a fluidity of movement to the characters which makes them very dynamic. Those elements are usually working in concert with the story to showcase that there are deeper elements at play than just the story. Their watercolor is also another thing of beauty and one of the main appeals of Satania.
Satania tells the tale of Charlotte (mostly referred to as Charlie), as she sets out on an expedition to go find her brother, missing for several weeks after a spelunking expedition gone awry. Her brother theorized that there may be a common lore to the way we depicted demons and Hell throughout history. He set out to prove that what we conceptualize as Hell is simply an underground world where our ancestors have evolved differently, only he has yet to return.  Charlie's crew is exploring depths that have never been seen before and are forced to push deeper after a heavy rainfall propels them further than they anticipated. Their rescue mission is much different than they expected and some aren’t quite ready to face what they might find hidden below. What follows is a tale that forces the reader to consider theology, evolution, family trauma, biology, spirituality, ambition, and mortality in a new light. As Vehlmann and Kerascoët’s explore the psyche of their character, deconstruction happens around the concept of Hell. Rather than being a hellish landscape of demons, pitchfork, and flames, Hell is instead the cavernous depth of Earth, filled with living animals and creatures that may have actually inspired the myths surrounding Hell.  

There’s an ongoing struggle between science and religion as is exemplified by the skeptic Father Monsore and the scientist Lavergne. They each represent two opposing ideas, the first being that evolution simply kept going underground or that humans grew horns to protect their heads from the cavernous ceilings, while the second is that the dark underground and its shifting walls are a ploy of the devil himself to make the explorers mad. These two figures are front and center throughout the whole book, forced to confront their beliefs and prejudice and to soften their positions once they realize neither of them is as right as they’d like to believe. The truth, in this universe at least, is much more nuanced than these characters care to admit. Life is complicated, so is science and so is our understanding of the universe. Perhaps science and what is unknown is more complex, bordering on the supernatural. Rationality itself is overrated since the world works in mysterious ways. Father Monsore, for his part, has to come to terms with the fact that there is a method to the madness of the underworld that goes beyond the divine. Mythology comes from somewhere that may be more real than he originally imagined.
The concept of a descent into hell is exemplified in many different ways throughout Satania. There’s the actual descent as our protagonists are forced to go ever deeper into the cave. This could be read as their actual death following the flooding of the cave as they proceed ever deeper into Hell itself shedding their decency and morals along the way until they vanish. One of the explorers cannot handle the reality of their situation and soon his moral compass breaks and he begins murdering as many people as he can. He’s in a much darker place internally than he is physically. There’s also Charlie’s brother, who’s spent so much time in there that his mind has also begun to unravel into hatred and anger. The darkness in the heart of men might be worse than the one in Hell -- or Hell is other people -- I’m not quite sure which is intended.

One of the recurring images in Satania is of Charlie’s mother and her red wool, knitting in the distance, constantly taunting Charlie with dark secrets and unavowed secrets and desires. This image appears early on to imply that the reasons she wishes to save her brother may be selfish, perhaps love or incest, or a latent desire for him. Her descent is more related to how her sexual awakening brings about uncomfortable truths about desire and lust. Her need to connect with someone, emotionally and physically, is exemplified with her relationship with the demon. This was perhaps one of the most befuddling elements of the book, the illustration of Charlie indicates she’s relatively young, and coupled with the many references to “Young Charlie” made for a very uncomfortable read.

I don’t often mention these things, but I was surprised by the obvious typos contained within this edition. Letters which should be there simply aren’t, forcing the reader to read such word as “nally” when it should be obviously read “finally”. Examples of this are numerous in the book and distract from the work. I thought it was only my copy that had issues, but it turns out multiple copies, possibly the entire first print run had this issue. It’s distracting more than anything else. NBM confirmed they fixed the issue for subsequent print runs though. Kudos to the publisher for fixing it moving forward.
Satania is not the excellent work I wanted it to be. Perhaps it’s because, near the end, Charlie’s brother is actually deconstructed as he falls into the literal abyss of Satania. It could also be because it ends up being coy about its themes. Beliefs are wrong, science will get you nowhere you need to be. The world is trash, the targets change place all the time. You’re never going to get anywhere. In the end, Charlie is trapped, even as tries to leave the tunnels, decades later, still trying to find a way out. It becomes more nihilistic than I could handle. Perhaps I wasn’t interested as much in the premise as I thought would be. It’s probably one of Kerascoët and Fabien Vehlmann’s weakest collaboration, but it remains an exceptional book. Is the worst work of a master any less than masterful? Satania deserves future reading, but I will re-read Beauty for the umpteenth time first.
Philippe Leblanc is a Canadian comics journalist. In his regular life, he improves Canadian medical education and is the co-host of the Ottawa Comic Book Club. He reads alternative, indie, and art comics at night and writes about them for The Comics Beat and Your Chicken Enemy.

No comments:

Post a Comment