Snow, Glass, Apples original hardcover graphic novel
Writer: Neil Gaiman
Artist/Cover artist: Colleen Doran
Editor: Daniel Chabon
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Price: $17.99 US/$23.99 CAN
I first discovered Neil Gaiman’s writing almost three decades ago when a copy of The Sandman: The Doll’s House in my hands, and I’ve sought out his writing ever since. Of course, he’s been so prolific, I haven’t been able to keep up with all of his works in various media, and some of his projects have managed to slip by me. This one was almost among them, but I happened to catch a reference to it online a couple of weeks ago, leading me to ask about it at my local comic shop when it was released. I’m pleased I did, as the writer turns a classic children’s story on its ear, approaching it from the perspective of a character typically viewed as the villain. It makes for a fresh take on the Snow White tale, but honestly, what’s most engaging about this book is Colleen Doran’s smooth, soothing yet haunting artwork. She brings a mythic and antiquated look to the work that makes it clear why she’s had such a steady presence in the industry over the years and such a stellar reputation.
Once an impoverished denizen of the kingdom, a young woman rises to the station of queen after catching the eye of the king, but her fairy tale life is marred by the presence of the king’s unsettling daughter. With raven-black hair alabaster skin, something monstrous lurks within the girl’s slender frame, leading to her royal father’s death. The queen takes steps to rid the realm of the threat, but it continues to linger, making the forest land around the kingdom a dark and dangerous domain.
Though Doran clearly draws inspiration from classic illustrated literature and others (notably an 20th century Irish artist specifically cited in the credits as an influence), I couldn’t help but be reminded of the artwork of Charles Vess here. Though Doran’s linework is much more precise and clean, the fairy-tale quality of the subject matter and visuals made for an easy comparison (especially since Vess has collaborated with Gaiman repeatedly as well over the years). All of the key players in the drama are shockingly beautiful, but the artist nevertheless manages to convey an air of menace to many of them as well. Doran manages to imbue Snow, the Queen and even the Prince with elements of the innocent and the sinister.
At first glance, the colors seem bright and vibrant, but Doran and her flatter actually have employed tones that bring an appropriate darkness to the story. Even Snow White’s seemingly perfect skin boasts hints of grey, subtly conveying the corruption and danger that she represents. A lettering style is employed here that’s meant to replicate hand-crafted calligraphy, but the digital font is so precise and consistent, it misses that mark. I realize that paying to have the book lettered by hand, traditionally, would have been more expensive, but the tiny imperfections in that process would have enhanced the overall look of this graphic novel.
Sexuality is most definitely a key element to this book. But sex is depicted as a weapon, as a means to other, selfish ends. While a key motif here, it feels a little overused and depicted more overtly than is necessary. Other aspects of the story are subtly explored, but not when it comes to the sex. It teeters on the edge of being gratuitous. As for the other subtle aspects of the plot, there was a moment of confusion, as the initial exile of Snow White lacks clarity. Doran depicts what the Queen’s wishes she’d done to the girl, but the script only hints at what was actually done… at least for a bit. It made for a few befuddling pages, but the story fortunately does recover.
Gaiman reshapes the Snow White story to transform the iconic princess into a monster and her supposedly wicked stepmother into the heroine, and that alone is intriguing. But the story is made all the more engrossing with Gaiman’s move to instill an insidious and guarded tone in the Queen’s narration. She does endeavor to protect the citizens of the kingdom and to make the forest a safe place through which to travel, but there’s never a sense of selflessness to her character. While she’s the protagonist here, she doesn’t come off as heroic either. Even the Prince who arrives in the third act is far from virtuous. Though he falls victim to another one of the characters, he’s portrayed as somewhat twisted himself, demonstrating a rather distasteful sexual preference that makes him the ideal tool over resurrection and revenge for the antagonist. 8/10