Zainab Akhtar at ShortBox is really the acme of independent comics editors: she just gets it. Everything she puts out is gorgeous. Some books in quite a low-key way, and others, like Beneath the Dead Oak Tree by Emily Carroll, in an overt and sumptuous way. It’s a brief fable about anthropomorphic foxes (or possibly wolves—their tails don’t have white tips, and they are a variety of colours), which explores violence, desire, gender and sexuality.
Its symbols are well-handled—which is to say that they are neither so vague that the narrative dissolves into generalisation, nor so concrete that its movement as a fable gets snagged on the specifics of the story. It seems to take place in the same imaginary eighteenth- or nineteenth-century European society as the Brothers Grimm’s folk-tale retellings, but it comes to us through an aesthetic rooted in mid-twentieth-century illustration styles. In its cursive text panels, its muted colour palette, and the extended lines of its exquisitely elegant drawing, it resembles an illustrated book for older children from the 1960s, or a 1930s fashion magazine.
It is also luridly gory, in which it owes a debt to the proliferation of horror as an aesthetic in popular culture, but given its fabulous, fairytale character, I found myself more inclined to think of Angela Carter than Sam Raimi. And when limbs and gobbets of flesh go flying, they do so with such finesse that brutal, ugly words like ‘violence’ or ‘dismemberment’ seem inappropriate.
The layouts are sometimes open and unbounded, exactly like the pages in an illustrated book, but when Carroll wants to build tension and bring us into the blow-by-blow sequence of her storytelling she beats out the steady rhythm of a rectilinear grid of panels. She uses this most ubiquitous of comics layout techniques so sparingly as to reinvigorate it, to highlight the specific qualities of something we are so used to reading that it’s hard to remember that it is a formal device.
Such a short book is easy to break with an ill-advised spoiler, so I’ve said as little about the story as possible. It is formally as lovely as you could hope for a one-shot comic to be, and it evinces a good deal of deep thought about the medium, especially in terms of layout, and the way that layout, aesthetic and narrative interact. But it is not an exercise in formalism: Beneath the Dead Oak Tree is an allegory that will bear the weight of an inquisitive and adventurous reader. It has meaning. It offers truths. And it is in that, rather than in its breathtaking art, that it is most beautiful.