Writer: S. Zainab Williams
Illustrator: Robert Burrows
“Beatrice is Dead” is not your average graphic novel. It’s unique, both in good ways and bad as it experiments with a story-telling device that is unlike any other. It intertwines your typical comic book format (e.g. sequenced panels of art and dialogue) with a page or two of elaborate short stories. This method of storytelling creates such a comprehensive world out of the afterlife that at times it makes you forget you are reading a graphic novel. It is a rather interesting style used by Williams, but we’ll return to this a bit later.
The story follows 16-year old Beatrice (“Beat”) Robinson who, in an attempt to escape from the trauma and terrors of her life, commits suicide with the barrel of a gun. However, her demons don’t end there. Upon her arrival to the afterlife, Beat is immediately tossed into a seemingly abandoned city without much guidance except to choose her path. As ambiguous as that sounds, Beat treads on and comes across Josephine, who joins her journey for answers and resolution. Along the way, Beat must face the memories of her dark past that lurk around every corner and battle the dreadful souls of the dead who are already too far-gone. However, as she journeys further into the afterlife she begins to change. Who or what she is turning into becomes part of the mystery of volume one, but it makes up only half the charm.
In essence, “Beatrice is Dead” is a coming of age story. While the “afterlife” may imply a sense of finality, Williams explores the idea that life does not necessarily end the moment we die. Who we were and what problems we left unresolved while we were still alive have an immense effect on the life we have in death. This makes for a fascinating story because Beat’s life was cut too short by her own hands. To grow in death appears contradictory, but it opens a window of possibilities in terms of the afterlife. The story seems to suggest that death is never an easy, or appropriate way out. There is always a next step to either realize our sense of self, or completely lose it. For Beat, she has a choice. The afterlife is an opportunity for her to change, grow, and be someone better and stronger than she was before.
The groundwork laid out by Williams in “Beatrice is Dead” in this first volume has a lot of potential. Williams builds a world ripe with possibilities and introduces several characters that will play big roles in the upcoming volumes. However, it does have a slow start and the pacing is interrupted by a few problematic factors.
As mentioned earlier, the graphic novel combines the traditional comic book with short stories. These short stories are vignettes on a few of the characters that Beat meets along the way. We get an idea of who they were before they died and who they’ve become in death. I personally enjoyed these stories. They are powerfully vivid and appalling, and reflect how no character is essentially good or evil. I love how they all tie together or affect Beat in some way. Nevertheless, these short stories are also distracting and take away from the comic aspect of the graphic novel. It’s not a matter of removing them, but a matter of where to best place them in the overall story. For example, the first short story appears three pages in. I was unsure of whether I was supposed to read it in the order it appeared, or to read it at the end of a section as if it were a bonus section. I did the former and by the time I got back to the comic, I forgot what was happening in the main story. It interrupted the flow and I think it would be better left for the end of a plot point.
Another problematic factor concerns some of the art sequences. Illustrator Burrows has an amazing style, with each panel being hand-painted before being digitally edited. It’s aesthetically daring and gritty and he makes all the right color choices to paint the tone of a particular setting. I especially admire the cover art for each of the short stories. However, the transitions between panels are occasionally murky and it’s difficult to tell if we’re still looking at the same frame or a different one. Distinguishing between the present and flashbacks is troublesome too. Both may affect the fluidity of the story, but they’re also easy fixes as well.
Pacing factors aside, “Beatrice is Dead” takes on the afterlife in a refreshing way with bold illustrations that accentuates Beat’s journey. The beginning of volume one may have a slow start, but the ending is what will have you engrossed and invested. It’s a very good start to a remarkable story and I look forward to seeing what else is in store for our young protagonist in the next three volumes.
3.5 out of 5.0