By PM Buchan and Karen Yumi Lusted, inspired by John Keats
John Keats’ simple ballad of The Beautiful Lady Without Mercy is a mere 48 lines in length but offers multiple interpretations that can send the reader off every which way, but essentially there’s a knight, there’s a woman, there’s a dream, there’s a lonely, cold end. Death? seduction? all a dream?
This comics adaptation delivers PM Buchan’s take, a different, inventive relocation, a dark and bloody affair, and most importantly La Belle Dame here is both seductress and victim, her bloodstained hands a defense against all manner of demons following her.
The whole thing is relocated to a modern setting, our knight a stressed dad out looking for work in mid recession, leaving his perfect little family at home, ready to fight to keep them together, out in a faceless drone world, modern misery depicted in modern style, a world of tech and gleaming, angular buildings.
But all it takes is one beguiling look, a spell cast, temptation so easy to give in to, forgetting your heart, escaping the grim reality of the now and being tempted somewhere different… metaphorically and literally, as La Belle Dame you see in that final panel above whisks him away to a forest world between worlds, where betrayal comes easy, his family forgotten post-passion, and in that instant he gives himself to her totally, not knowing what she needs to do.
And from that moment on we descend to horror, the woman needs blood to protect her, a sacrifice to throw whatever foul thing is following her off the trail, to keep her from whatever hell she found herself in. But even that horror is nothing compared to the horror that led to the woman’s fall, as we head back two years……
Although Buchan does flesh out and clarify Keats’ ballad far more than the 48-lines of the original ever did, there’s still a lot of ambiguity in here, and there’s a lot of grey in the characters. La Belle Dame is no innocent here, but neither is she a simple evil predator either, something that plays well into the fascinating essay at the end of this issue on Keats and feminism by Miranda Brennan.
The art is just that little bit too delicate for me, not really delivering the full horror of the situation when really needed. Having said that, the romantic lightness of Lusted’s style does suit the early seduction/temptation scenes extremely well, where writer and artist convey so much in a few lines, a few moments, such as this early scene of the transition between real world and other world, between steady family man knight and lost soul….
La Belle Dame Sans Merci is an intriguing comic, skillful, nuanced horror, starting as a mundane urban tale, switching to a dramatic betrayal and finally ending on a gut-wrenching twist that disturbs. Thus far it’s really only setting the tone, establishing the characters, although that already takes it beyond the confines of Keats’ original. It will be interesting to see where Buchan and Lusted take this next issue.