Wendy Pini did a Beauty and the Beast book? Wendy Pini did a Beauty and the Beast book. – Beauty and the Beast: Portrait of Love
Stumbling across this is one of those This really happened? moments that make the world of comic books such a never-ending treasure trove of delight. Yes, Wendy Pini, who along with husband Richard forged the seminal Elfquest mythology, a universe that spawned epic storylines and fanzines for rabid devotees, crafted a comic based on the old Beauty and the Beast TV show. The one with Ron Perlman under layers of lionish makeup. And Linda Hamilton, post-Terminator fluffy Sarah Connor and pre-Terminator 2 buff commando Sarah Connor. Seriously. IT’S LIKE A FEVER DREAM COME TO LIFE, PEOPLE.
For those unfamiliar with that 1987 iteration of the venerable Beauty and the Beast folk-tale — as part of the never-ending cycle of retread nostalgia, the CW has updated it in a new series (a CW series — synonymous with “Awful Beyond Words”) — it set the story in modern-day New York City. (Is 1987 still modern? Or is it now part of sepia-toned antiquity?) Perlman’s Vincent lived in “The World Below,” a rather pleasant network subterranean tunnels, along with “Father” (played by Roy Dotrice), the learned, gentle man who had cared for him since he was found abandoned as a baby. A number of other colorful societal castoffs rounded out the social circle in their never-ending labyrinth of Big Apple passageways — all in all, this world seemed a pretty damn nice place to live, especially considering rents above. (Come to think of it, where can I fill out an application?) Hamilton’s Catherine, an attorney, came into contact with these underground denizens when she was attacked and beaten and Vincent (who roamed around the surface world with a cloak hiding his deformity) came to her rescue. They — surprise! — fell in love, and the series followed their budding romance and their mutual interest in helping the weak and downtrodden.
I remember liking the show quite a bit as a kid — that Vincent would savagely attack evildoers on a regular basis was more than enough to overcome pre-pubescent aversions to icky mushy stuff. The romance, however, tripped any number of alarm klaxons in my head. I seem to recall asking my mother why Vincent looked like a big ugly cat, and her answering in her typical I’ll give you an answer because I have to but I really have no idea way: “Maybe his father was a lion or something (now leave me alone so I can finish balancing the checkbook).” Even single-digit me understood this meant BESTIALITY. And this was (and is) kind of gross and disturbing, and became all the more so when Vincent and Catherine went the distance and eventually had a kid, and didn’t stick to the sanitized dancing/saccharine Angela Lansbury songs/kissing like the Disney film a few years later. I mean, I’m all for looking at the person inside, but there are limits, you know? This Beast was a Beast for good. No spells. No curses to be lifted. I understand intellectually that the character was really just a guy with a hell of a deformity, but I still have it in my head that Vincent was half-lion (thanks, mother dear), which totally ruins Hamilton’s whole hot “badass chick who shoots guys in kneecaps” thing from the first Terminator sequel. Vincent’s big cat stank is still all over her.
Alas. And I digress.
Bestiality allusions aside, the show had very ardent fans, and, though it got the ax after three seasons (Hamilton left the show at the start of the third, a death blow for OBVIOUS reasons), it remains on the fringes of the pop consciousness. (In a couple of genre asides, Perlman’s experience acting under heavy makeup couldn’t have hurt when they were casting Hellboy, and Game of Thrones uber-lord George R.R. Martin worked as a producer on the show. Impress your friends with useless knowledge!) I don’t know if there was enough of a groundswell as the show was airing to justify an ongoing comic book series, but there was certainly enough to back a couple of Why not? issues — which is what First Comics delivered with the two Beauty and the Beast comics they produced. That Wendy Pini, coming in with her established fantasy romance bona fides, was running the creative show was either good planning, coincidence or kismet. Perhaps all.
Portrait of Love, the first of the two original stories (published in 1989), is an interesting melding of the show’s cast and the Elfquest aesthetic. Pini’s style, like it or not, is certainly distinct, and it’s so closely associated with certain short, pointy-eared warriors, you half expect them to turn up in every panel. Sometimes you look at a character and your first thought is SKYWISE, THAT’S SKYWISE RIGHT THERE — and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The art is therefore what you would expect (i.e. good), though I’m always a bit disappointed to see Pini’s work in color. It seems so much better in stark black and white, and washed out when color comes into play. I stubbornly prefer reading the old Elfquest books in the original color-free presentation, and this concern carries over while reading Portrait. This is a personal complaint, though, and the color certainly adds a fireside warmth to the artwork here. Take for instance this shot of the (unbelievably cozy-looking) World Below:
THIS PAD IS SO MUCH BETTER THAN THE DUMP I LIVE IN, IT’S NOT EVEN FUNNY.
For any uninitiates not satisfied with my brief series summary, here’s some more detail from Pini on the senses-shattering first meeting of Vincent and Catherine:
Portrait follows Vincent as he struggles to commemorate his love for Catherine in a painting, a frustrating process that has several fits and starts. He eventually hides himself away, abstains from food, drink of sleep, and pours his soul onto the canvas, and produces a portrait that’s proclaimed a masterpiece by all who see it (except us, as the audience never gets a glimpse). The drama comes when the painting is stolen by Paracelsus, a recurring villain from the show who had partnered with Father to found the underground society, but had been exiled when he got a tad too power-hungry. He uses the portrait as a lure to trap Vincent (he’s also jealous that he can never have or feel a love like the one behind the painting), and thus brings him to his own cavernous lair:
Pages like that tempt me to retract my qualms about color, I admit.
The story’s a bit mawkish, with wheelbarrows full of yearning, gnashing of teeth and rosy speechifying, though, in fairness, the series itself, with its swelling strings and pining for a love that should not be, could also descend into glurge-ville. The comic is ever-so faithful in that regard, I suppose. But Pini’s art is a treat, make no mistake. It always is, but it’s especially nice seeing it bring a cult-show to life in the two-dimensional realm. What she does with the characters is nice, and the atmospherics she creates with the backgrounds sell this odd world. (The only roughly contemporaneous TV adaptation that I’ve covered here was the fake-Spider-Man-infused Sledge-Hammer. This is miles more successful than that. For what it’s worth.)
Speaking of odd… In a strange coda, the best part of this whole thing might be the one page of Beauty and the Beast merchandising in the back, where you could choose between a Vincent shirt and a giant Vincent poster:
I’m really curious about what the target demographic of this merch was. It’s one thing to read a BatB novelization or comic book, but it’s a whole new ballgame to wear Vincent on your chest or broadcast your devotion with a poster. Really, who would hang that thing up? No sane adult. No self-respecting boy. Maybe a young girl? And what deranged land-whale would ever strut around in an extra-large Vincent t-shirt?
What I’m saying is that this order form
rarely — probably never — looked like this:
Finding and reading this book was like reaching into the pocket of a coat that you haven’t worn in a while and finding a crisp twenty-dollar bill folded inside. It’s not a huge thing, but it kind of makes your day — just so long as you don’t blow it on a Vincent shirt. (If anyone reading this owned Vincent stuff, I’m just kidding around. Kind of.)