Sketched out by Karen Yumi Lusted and written by P. M. Buchan, the first instalment of La Belle Dame sans Merci is centred on a family man who follows a mysterious and (you guessed it) beautiful girl into the woods, only to be seduced and sacrificed to Hell. Details of our femme fatale’s tragic past are also revealed, but I’ll let you find those out for yourself (you can run your way through this comic in almost no time at all, even if you do also read the excellent three-page essay excerpt at the end, written by Miranda Brennan). Let’s talk about why this text is interesting.
The title and the cover artwork might make Sympathy for Lady Vengeance spring instantly to mind, but this text is based on a John Keats poem of the same name. In turn, Keats himself took the title from an Alain Chartier poem. What Buchan has done here is taken the femme fatale of a 19th-century poet and used her in a contemporary and completely different framework. It’s reminiscent of how John Milius used Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to write the script for his dark and disturbing Vietnam War fable, Apocalypse Now. Heart of Darkness, however, was a novella and Keats’ La Belle Dame sans Merci is only a 12-stanza ballad. How does this change circumstances? It means the author of La Belle Dame sans Merci is interested in developing a central character rather than addressing the wider themes and questions that concern Conrad and Milius.
By reading this first chapter alone, you can tell how tightly Lusted and Buchan want their femme fatale to reflect Keats’. As her victim is being dragged to Hell, La Belle explains to him: “You lived a good life, but I didn’t. I died. I died and went to Hell. Words can’t describe how I suffered. I’m never going back there. This blood sacrifice will throw them off my scent, for now at least.” The victim’s fate is consistent with the dream of the knight in Keats’ original poem after he encounters La Belle: “I saw pale kings and princes too, / Pale warriors, death pale were they all; / They cried — ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci / Hath thee in thrall!’” This, however, is where the author ends her allegiance to Keats and makes things more interesting.
In the excerpt essay, Brennan writes: “I know La Belle will finally answer some of her own questions. I’m still waiting to see what she says. However monstrous her voice may turn out in this story, I want to follow her into the woods, so I can hear her speak at last.” From chapter two onwards, I’m sure we will see Buchan give Keats’ femme fatale her own voice and story. In Keats’ original poem the knight is the narrator; in Lusted and Buchan’s adaptation the ‘faerie girl’ will get the lead role as narrator and vengeful antagonist. Like Apocalypse Now, this means Buchan and Lusted will take their source material far beyond a simple adaptation and transform it into something much more personal and complex.
Perhaps the only complaint is the dialogue, which seems thin and at times clichéd — in contrast the excerpt essay is incredibly well-written — although exceptional dialogue is incredibly hard to nail down in such a stripped-down medium. Only a few authors in the genre, most notably Alan Moore, have that special something. This is still, however, a read with huge amounts of intrigue. The author is seduced by the numerous ‘enigmas’ in Keats’ poem and part one of La Belle Dame sans Merci successfully seduces the reader in the same way. There are enough unanswered questions to leave the reader looking forward to part two. I’ve got a good feeling P. M. Buchan is laying down the bones for something wonderfully intriguing.
La Belle Dame sans Merci is available now