Fashion Beast

My credentials as a fashionista are a bit sketchy:

nor am I all that well-versed in queer theory, if it's still even called that. It was when I studied it briefly as part of an Intro to Literary Study II course at Rhode Island College in 2002, when the above pic was taken. (I'd love to tell you this was everyday wear, but it was for a Halloween party. I went as "Captain Communism.")

So while I might not be the best person to review those two aspects of Fashion Beast, the recently-wrapped 10-issue series from Avatar Press by Alan Moore, Malcolm McLaren, Antony Johnston, and Facundo Percio, I was fascinated and greatly entertained by this series, and I should say up front that you don't have to be a queer theorist or someone who knows all the ins and outs of haute couture to enjoy it. You might have to be predisposed to like Alan Moore to enjoy it, but then again, you might not. On that score, I wouldn't know; Moore's been in my top pantheon of writers since the late 1980s and I'm an avid consumer of his work.

I've tried to get a little better at understanding fashion over the years. Sites like this, which deconstruct the costume design of Mad Men to compellingly illuminate the subtext have been very eye-opening, as have things like this. Evaluating the costume design is an important part of cinematic appraisal, and I appreciate reading such in-depth analyses, as for me it's been a weak point.

Okay, so maybe not everything yields such productive results when examined closely.
But on a personal level (beyond the rather lazy and clueless way I dress myself) fashion has always struck me as - and here I'm just being honest not casting aspersions - rather silly. Or, to use the scientific description, gloriously up its own aperture.

I used to see this walking to and from the train everyday. No further comment is necessary; fashion people - like all artists, perhaps, but maybe even moreso - are a bit loopy.
Yet in issue 6 of Fashion Beast (I think) Celestine delivers a very Moore-ian monologue about how fashion is the cornerstone of what makes humanity human, what separates us from the beasts, and for me, it was a bit of a revelation. Good Lord, I thought, is this what I've been missing all these years? Could all these ridiculous fashion magazines and reality shows actually be important

The face of genius?
I doubt it will revolutionize my wardrobe, but it definitely made me approach the topic in a wholly new way. Moore is so good at that. More than many writers, reading him almost always transforms and deepens my appreciation of something, be it Tarot, Kabbalah, Masonic Architecture, Superheroes and Fascism, Lovecraft, or the CIA.

Before we continue, maybe I should tell you the plot. Fashion Beast takes place in a dystopian future, one in the throes of nuclear winter. Society is somewhat inexplicably dominated by a fashion house, run by the enigmatic and isolated Celestine. Doll and Jonni, two gender-bending aspiring models/ designers, rise through the ranks, leading to a truly bizarre conclusion that I did not see coming in the slightest. 

Moore wrote this as a screenplay back in 1985 after being solicited to do so by Malcolm McLaren. Yes, the Malcolm McLaren, one-time manager of the Sex Pistols and entrepreneur of London's famed SEX boutique. I was familiar with McClaren before reading this but often via negative impressions such as Johnny Rotten's memoir or posthumous reports of his estate. I knew he was into the Situationists, as am I, but beyond that, I didn't know much about the guy. (I'd always assumed he was gay, for one - shows what I know.) The story was McLaren's, based on re-imagining Beauty and the Beast and aspects of his own life, (which aspects those were, I don't know) but the execution/ dialogue/ structure/ ease-with-symbolic-word-and-visual-play is unmistakably Moore's.

The movie never happened (which is a shame - it seems like it would have fit in perfectly as a product of 1980s London; hell if it was recreated as a "very special season of America's Next Top Model" here in 2013, it'd still be pretty wild) but McLaren and Antony Johnston agreed to adapt it as a comic book about 10 years ago, eventually being released in 2012/2013. Facundo Percio, an artist with whom I was unfamiliar until reading this, brought it to life.

Moore is well-known for writing scripts dense with detail and "camera" angles. As mentioned in ComicVine's review:

"Under Antony Johnson’s sequential editing, Percio approaches scenes with a director’s eye. Often (the perspective is) stationary and lets the active contents of the environment shift around as the scenes play out. This is a cinematic practice and has a way of anchoring you in that world. Where many comics are more Michael-Bay-on-meth frantic, this one takes its time shifting to different perspectives (...) Other times, when called for, the points of view are more intimate, and the emotion of those moments are amplified by sad and sensual imagery. The art style is perfect for the vaguely steam punk, pre-apocalyptic veneer of the setting, where horses and carriages are the way to get around."

I assume horse-and-carriage is meant figuratively, as the lack of horses is self-evident from pages like this. (And wouldn't it be post-apocalyptic rather than "pre?" Perhaps ongoing-apocalyptic? Shrugs.)
The art is definitely amazing. Highest possible praise to Percio and the gang. Avatar is known for its abundance of "variant covers," something which kind of annoys me. I got out of serious collecting when comicdom went nuts for variant covers in the early 1990s, strip-mining its audience in the name of profit, but in this instance, the variant covers all add dimensionality that would otherwise be missing. It's worth reproducing them all here - enlarge for a better view, you won't be disappointed.

Issue #1
Issue #2
Issue #3
Issue #4
Issue #5
Issue #6
Issue #7
Issue #8
Issue #9
Issue #10
The Tarot ones by Paul Duffield are particularly interesting as they (as does Celestine’s Tarot-reading throughout) foreshadow or give an interesting spin on unfolding events.

The variant covers also rather cheekily embody an ethic of the fashionista world: rather than choosing between Ready-To-Wear, Cruise and Haute Couture collections, readers can choose the cover that best fits their lifestyle from Regular, Wraparound, Haute Couture and Tarot. 

As mentioned above, this all takes place against an Orwellian backdrop. We see policemen/ soldiers forcibly stripping people of their clothes and burning them, as wearing the same thing for too long spreads radiation. (Or something.) 

Electricity is intermittent. Poverty, crime and violence are all too prevalent. Yet amidst it all, "the new fall collection" remains an ongoing preoccupation and organizing principle of society. "Conscription," "Army," and the far-off war are all advertised next to or in the same manner as new designs. It sounds absurd, but it works. 

From the Comicsbeat review:

"What’s clothing got to do with all this? It’s obvious that it’s a meaningful metaphor for something, and occasionally dialogue breaks through, often from Jonni, to provide a frame of reference, as well as from Celestine. For Celestine, clothing is about separateness and enclosing the individual, almost an armor forged to hold back the changing, and increasingly dark world outside. It’s cool and remote. For Doll, clothing is about building an outer identity to match an inner sense of self, and her Marilyn Monroe look of the first issue dominates the world she moves in despite her stumbles. She thinks she knows who she is. Jonni’s clothes set up an intentional bind of gender, a challenge to expectations, racy." 

It's worth noting two things here. One, Jonni's style (miniskirts and more sexual bravado) is not ascendant until the bound sophistication/ Victorian repression of Celestine’s era has consumed itself. And two, Celestine (itself a word that is both masculine and feminine) has grown up in sexual and psychological isolation. The designs with which he's bewitched his little world are the result of endlessly sketching his mother - who instilled with him a deep religious insecurity and belief in his own ugliness, despite his looking like some scruffy goth-rock god - over and over, in various dresses. Some broad strokes, perhaps, but well worth considering vis-a-vis our own evolution.

As Jonni says of him in one issue: “It’s not sex he finds erotic… it’s the buttons and stays that get in the way of sex. His clothes don’t allow any sexual access, reducing people to a lot of furtive groping under layers of gown for something they’re not even allowed to see.” 

Gender Bender

This series is very much about gender ambiguity. It's unclear at least to this reader whether Doll is a transvestite, a hermaphrodite, or a woman. This confusion is deliberate. The constructed nature of these "gendered" terms is very much at the heart of the questions Fashion Beast asks, so not only did I not mind not being told explicitly, I feel it added another layer (or layers) to things.

In reading reviews of the series, though, (such as here) I quickly gave up trying to figure it out, as everyone seems to have a different opinion. At times it seemed very much to me that Doll was a boy who considered herself a girl, and at other times I wasn't sure if she was bisexual, or a boy who dressed as a lady but was still heterosexual, or something else. The narrative is deliberately misleading on this point, as are the visuals:

These last two panels employ the sort of transition most often associated with Alan Moore.
This scene is particularly interesting as Celestine has been so isolated as to not even know what a woman's body looks like unclothed, so he is the prototype unreliable-narrator.
She seems almost wholly transformed by her tenure as Celestine's Top Model... does she become a girl at the end, literally? Or is that merely the result of taking on the dress and mannerism of a girl? i.e. constructing her gender? I love that it's designed to be read or interpreted in multiple ways. The fashion-accessory-of-your-choice that goes with everything.

I think it's open-ended enough by design, but others disagree. The blog linked to above takes issue with the ending as a betrayal of the set-up, privileging a hetero-normative finish. It certainly seemed to me that both Jonni and Doll were gender-ambiguous and that having sex with one another wouldn't even knock on the door of "hetero-normative privilege" or what not. But again, I'm likely not the person to ask.

Celestine’s matrons are ghoulish, even in their more human moments. 

They are drawn to resemble the walking dead and in between keeping Celestine in his prison and all beneath them in their place, they rule over a world of decay, surrounded by armless mannequins.

The End

After Celestine is out of the picture, Doll agrees to let the matrons remove Jonni (whom he has named his heir) and continue business as usual. Once Doll realizes Jonni was taken to the front lines, she puts in a call to HQ and lets the army know he's a homosexual. They declare him unfit for combat and send him back to the fashion house, where he assumes control and launches a fashion show with his radical re-designs. The crowd that gathers (including several swipes at those vapid celebs who line either side of the runway for their SWAG and "to be seen") is at first turned on by Jonni's more provocative designs, but when Doll appears in a blood-stained wedding dress

they turn violent. One reporter / critic screams "THAT'S PORNOGRAPHY!" over and over until forcibly removed. Jonni swoops Doll up in a variation of the fairy tale ending and takes her away to have sex. As Doll gets naked and stretches out in anticipation, Jonni preens and regards himself in the mirror, whereupon he sees "the beast" in his reflected image in the vanity mirror:

Now that's an ending! 

Comicsbeat again with an especially-relevant-to-these-days take on it:

"Fashion Beast leaves you with the unsettling sense that people, even the most free-thinking can be the product of reaction, and in doing so, like Jonni, become part of what they loathe. Or, in a lighter interpretation, compromises are inherent in power attained, a corruption hidden in power, part of the Faustian bargain. Some of the biggest questions left for the reader concern how much people are self-determining in their identities, and how much a product they are of their heroes or mentors, taking the good with the bad."

I can't argue with that interpretation, but I was left with an entirely different association. I grew up in the 70s and 80s and watched the gender-bending fashions of the glam rock era transform into cock rock. Cock rock kept the visual motifs of glam rock (the high heels, the ladies dress, the make-up) but lest anyone get any damn ideas, the bands who fall under its umbrella went to amusing lengths to proclaim their hyper-heterosexuality:

From Britny Fox's "Girlschool" video. They totally missed the boat by not writing "We've Got a Serious Case of the Not-Gays."
As a result, cock rock is rather hilarious to deconstruct, as Chuck Klosterman did so well in Fargo Rock City and elsewhere. But these last couple of panels really made me think of those days. The 80s (the decade from which Fashion Beast originates) started off with New Wave and Frankie Goes to Hollywood and ended with bands who looked more or less the same but angrily insisted all they wanted to do was bang as many chicks as possible in a totally non-gay ROCK AND ROW-OHOHO-WHOLL!!

I don't for a moment suggest this was on anyone's mind while designing this series, but the appearance of the beast in the mirror/ self-deception/ the lengths we go to outwardly define ourselves / what we become when we put on the mask/ costume, etc. put it in my mind, at least.

Highly recommended and well worth your consideration.


  1. I read it issue by issue, and I'm not sure that was the best way to tackle it; I suspect that living in that world for more than twenty pages at a time might give a different perspective on it all.

    In any case, I was occasionally befuddled by them, but I enjoyed every issue, and my guess is that it's going to benefit from rereading.

    Great review! I hadn't considered that the screenplay was written more or less at the dawn of cock-rock, but yeah, that certainly adds another dimension to it.

    1. Thanks! Happy you enjoyed.

      I read the first five issues as they came out and then saved the last five until I could read the whole thing start-to-finish. I was intermittently befuddled just the same (particularly on the issue of Doll's gender, tho as I hope I made clear in my review, I both enjoyed this confusion and think it really added something.) The big plot-twist at the end of issue 6 or 7 or whenever it was through the very last panel was high octane stuff, I felt. It's really too bad this was never made into a movie, as I think it'd work pretty well.

      (Bryant wrote issue-by-issue reviews of Fashion Beast for those of you interested, the first of which is here: http://thetruthinsidethelie.blogspot.com/2012/09/bryant-has-issues-17.html - definitely worth your time.)