Of all the indie comics I have read, few have made an impact on me quite so much as Beatrice Is Dead. It is a disturbing, yet beautiful book that tells a unique story in an interesting way. After Beatrice - or Beat - becomes so severely distressed that she sees no option but to commit suicide, she is transported to a mysterious and terrifying world in which the personal demons she sought to escape continue to haunt her. Over the course of the book we see Beat trying to find her inner strength, while we are also provided with short self-contained prose stories that serve to detail the demise of the book's supporting characters. What I find so fascinating about this creative decision is that many of the characters detailed in these short stories have very little to do with the main plot involving Beatrice, and yet still they are able to become one of the book's strongest assets. It is in these prose stories that Williams truly finds her voice as a writer, with the dialogue of the graphic novel sections paling in comparison. That's not to say those sections are bad - far from it - but in terms of the writing they are not as impressive as the short stories, which manage to craft interesting and wholly developed characters in only a few short pages. While it is fair to say that the stories vary in quality, there is not one that is particularly weak. The six tales instead range from good to outstanding, with the less impressive stories still keeping me entertained for the duration. These short sections provide a break from the main plot surrounding Beatrice without creating any pacing issues, while the brief nature of the stories leaves plenty of space for these strong characters to be developed upon further in future instalments.
However as I said before, the graphic novel sections of this book are far from weak either. Making up the majority of the book, these sections are a wonderful showcase of the talent that artist Robert Burrows quite clearly has. His art-style reminded me slightly of Jeff Lemire's work in Sweet Tooth and, more recently, Trillium. While the styles themselves are not necessarily similar, with Burrows going for a far more gothic look, they do share the trait of being very unique and unconventional while still being beautiful to look at. Burrows' style is perfect for this kind of story, creating a dark atmosphere which is helped by the gloomy colour palette. Meanwhile, his character design of the many ghouls seen in this haunting world is truly brilliant. Sadly, there are a few panels where Burrows' work goes a little too far and it becomes difficult to figure out what is happening, but these moments are relatively infrequent and overall they detract little from the overall quality of the book.
It is also in these graphic novel sections that the main plot of the book, following Beatrice's journey through this world unfolds. The story starts off strongly as Beat is introduced to her mysterious surroundings by a man named Damien, soon being abandoned to roam around on her own before encountering another young woman called Josephine. The friendship that grows between the pair I feel could have been more deeply explored as it comes about very quickly. However faced with such an extreme setting,I suppose the two would be looking for a companion to cling to without asking too many questions.
The tale then continues, developing a creepy atmosphere for itself, all leading up to the introduction of Madame Dankles. From here the story becomes something of a mixed bag. Without divulging in any spoilers, I will say that Dankles is bad news for Beat and Josephine and is probably the biggest threat they face in this book. However, it is here that things begin to fall apart a little as while I feel that this part of the book may have meant to show how strong Beatrice is as a character, I think instead it served to make all of the supporting players look very weak. This resulted in me losing a lot of respect for them which I thought was a great shame. The story continues to be a little mixed up right up to its abrupt ending, which left a slightly sour taste in my mouth. Thankfully, the final pages are filled with the last short story which acts as a reminder of how good Beatrice Is Dead can be, while laying the groundwork for a potential second volume which I certainly hope we see in the not too distant future. Still, there are some people out there who may not be satisfied with how few of the questions that the book raises are actually answered in this first volume.
Ultimately, in spite of the flaws that the main storyline suffers from, I really enjoyed Beatrice Is Dead: City of Ash. The majority of the graphic novel is very compelling, and when it starts to falter towards the end, it is able to fall back on its strong short stories and artwork. Beatrice Is Dead is a strong debut for the creative team of S. Zainab Williams and Robert Burrows, which I hope to see more of in the future.