In the 1980s, Malcom McLaren and Alan Moore combined forces to write a movie script about a gay cross-dresser, which was deemed “unfilmable”. The concept was one of marrying “the strange and isolated life” of Christian Dior with the Beauty and the Beast fable, set in a dystopian future. Almost thirty years after the screenplay was written, the story has been brought back to life by Antony Johnston, of Wasteland fame, who has gained a name for himself by adapting Alan Moore’s prose work into comic book form and Facundo Percio whose most notable work was on Anna Mercury with Warren Ellis.
The story takes place in a dystopian future in which fashion houses and garment businesses seem to rule the city. We begin in just such a garment factory, a “beautiful lace garden” which is looked over by a hideous fashion designer and run by Madame D and Madame S, a pair of heavily painted geisha-esque women who enjoy torturing their employees. Little is known so far about the patron of this establishment, one Jean Claude Celestine, other than his grizzled appearance; but the tarot cards he lays out suggest that he plays a pivotal role in a society which bases itself on fashion. The comic is laid out like a film, fading out from the lit-up Celestine building which rises from the centre of the sprawling city-scape before moving into the dilapidated rooming house which holds our protagonists, showing us through each fragmented window the lives of the people within.
A young man, dressing to a news story warning of nuclear winter; a pair of men shaving and grooming themselves into army best; a young woman – or possibly man – listening to the radio; and our protagonist Doll Seguin, a coat-check assistant, transforming from man to woman with the aid of a white dress and blonde wig. An undercurrent of rhythm runs along these panels, creating a cacophony of written sound beneath these everyday rituals where the dressing of men and women is interspersed with the laying of the cards and the howling of a dog chained outside. One young man watches the news which seems full of bleak predictions of a nuclear winter, job losses from the closure of a garment factory, and warnings of promiscuity and sexual perversions. Each character looks at the reflections of themselves and we flash back to the staring eye of Jean Claude Celestine as the television screen announces his auditions for “mannequins” happening this very night; it’s clear that appearance and beauty are central to the characters and their stories. They each leave the house and the noise of their preparations dies down as they head toward The Catwalk.
The last to leave is Doll, who predictably receives snide comments from prostitutes and the military couple from her own rooming house regarding her imitation of femininity. She walks past them with her head held high, and the moment she opens her mouth we get a distinct impression of her catty nature and her ability to let insults wash over her like water. As customers file in and hand their coats over to Doll, she lets loose a running commentary on their clothing which is largely critical – the tomboy from her rooming house takes exception to this and tries to put down Doll, who is thoroughly unfazed. When the club is full, Doll ascends the stairs before her and begins dancing for the crowds below, appropriately to McLaren’s own “Deep in Vogue” and the club go wild cheering for her. But her smug descent is shattered by the sight of the young tomboy tearing tags from the coats Doll has been charged with protecting.
Percio’s drawing style is detailed and grim – every line on the haggard faces of this city’s people can be seen, every stain on their perfectly designed future-punk clothing. The rough, rat-infested streets are lined with anarchy symbols and mohawks are prolific – it’s wonderful to see that Malcom McLaren’s punk influence has permeated this world of fashion, horror and gender-bending. Doll is an incredibly endearing character, bitchy and feminine but also vulnerable as we see at the end as she looks up with saddened eyes and pleads “You can’t possibly hold me responsible for this” – in just one issue Johnston has created a beautifully complex and flawed character and I for one can’t wait to see more of her. Gender identity will be a clear theme through this collection which seems appropriate coming from Moore, a man who has never shied away from erotic and homosexual themes, from the pornographic Lost Girls to the compendium of same-sex history that is The Mirror of Love. Of course, Moore has thoroughly supported the adaptation and taken an active role in its development, seen most obviously in the cinematic feel of the work. Before his death McLaren approved of the project’s resurrection and although he did not live to see the books published they are dedicated to his memory.
Fashion Beast will have a ten-issue run from Avatar, with each issue released in four variant covers.
This article was written on behalf of Travelling Man and the original can be found at travellingman.wordpress.com where I will regularly post comic book reviews.