The High Cost of Happily Ever After
Writer & Story: Jim Krueger
Artist: Zach Brunner
Letterer & Design: Dave Lanphear
Cover: Erik Buckham & Noah Smith
Sideshow Comics / $19.99 / 112 pages
My familiarity with Jim Krueger’s work extends primarily to his collaborations with Alex Ross on such books as Earth X and Avengers/Invaders for Marvel, and Justice for DC. These are books firmly rooted in the mythology of their respective superhero universes, and come with a particular tone and a set of tropes that we all expect from a large-scale superhero series. The High Cost Of Unhappily Ever After, which Krueger is writing solo with art by newcomer Zach Brunner, does not fit this mold, and is actually quite a radical departure from what I, for one, have come to expect from Krueger.
Krueger has apparently been working on the story for quite some time, dating back to the months before he started work on Justice, which debuted in 2005. The tale tells the story of Constance, the archetypal fairy tale princess who has found her Prince Charming and believes that with him will come “Happily Ever After”– though naturally, things don’t quite turn out that way. War falls upon their happy little kingdom, and Constance is taken prisoner by the enemy. What follows is a very strange exploration of Constance’s psyche, seemingly taken from the pages of V For Vendetta, or at least the scenes where Evey is held captive by V.
Like Evey, Constance is subjected by her captors to ruthless psychological torture. However, the resolution of the story doesn’t exactly make it clear what their goal with this was; were they trying to elicit some statement they could use for propaganda purposes? Did they hope to demoralize her husband, who serves as “Captain of the Guard”? Constance herself wonders these things while in captivity, but the story’s dreamlike quality and Constance’s own ramblings (which, frankly, she is prone to even before she’s taken prisoner) make it difficult to determine what we can take at face value and what may simply be the product of the mind of a deeply disturbed woman.
Zach Brunner’s art is effective in certain scenes here, but not across the board. When the story is in traditional fairy tale mode, Brunner’s gaunt, almost skeletal figures don’t fit a world that is presumably meant to portray happiness and contentment. There’s something off-putting about his faces, and his coloring has a washed-out, faded quality that certainly doesn’t reflect a couple in the vibrancy of wedded bliss. Then again, Krueger’s dialogue for Constance in those early scenes suggests someone who is trying little too hard to convince themselves of the rightness of their situation, so perhaps that unsettling quality in Brunner’s art is what Krueger was striving for.
Where Brunner really shines, however, is once Constance has been stripped of her fairy tale trappings and undergoes a psychological transformation at the hands of her captors, which is reflected in her physical appearance. We slip into full-blown horror at this point, and while up to this point Constance may not have looked quite like the lovely and vibrant fairy tale princesses we’re used to, her metamorphosis here is truly horrifying to behold. But again, it’s unclear how much of it is real and how much is in her mind.
Krueger’s afterword explains that he intended this to be a story upholding the romantic notions of love, stemming from feelings he was working out in the wake of his first marriage ending. I don’t know if it works on that level; yes, there is a happy ending of sorts, but the conflict here isn’t very clearly defined. In one sense, it could be the story of a woman who has naïve notions of what love truly is, and has them tested through torturous means, before finding a deeper meaning. But if that’s so, then what are the terms of the test? It’s not as though there are any real options for her during her imprisonment, and she does ultimately suffer a mental collapse, so she doesn’t really get to prove her strength through it. Krueger does delve into her fear that her prince won’t love her anymore because of the deterioration of her physical appearance, but that would seem to be more of a test for the prince than her. So ultimately, the story’s resolution comes without a solid emotional bottom. We may feel relief, but we haven’t really learned anything.
I applaud Krueger for trying to tell a story with themes that we don’t often see in comics; originality and exploration of new territory is always a worthy goal, and he’s certainly achieved that here. But I think more thought needs to be given as to what message he is trying to communicate with this story, and how best to get it across.
Story: 3 / Art: 2 / Overall: 2.5
(Out of 5 Stars)