"Fairest" #9, written by Lauren Beukes and drawn by Inaki Miranda, is like a party for Japanese culture, with past and present both vying for attention. Like the issue's setting, Tokyo, the issue is varied, beautiful and noisy -- for better and worse. The text is rich in allusion, and the characters and actions fill the issue, yet reading "Fairest" #9 feels like a tourist's visit, or a night out among a cast of hundreds, where connections feel shallow even if the sights are dazzling.
Once again, Beukes packs this second chapter of "The Hidden Kingdom" with her knowledge of Japanese folklore and mythology. The well-known kappa and kitsune appear, as well as lesser-known myths, like the Funa Yurei, the spirits of the drowned. In the background of a scene, Jack Horner chats up a Rokurokubi (a long-necked woman Yōkai). Beukes has also immersed herself in the Japanese language, and I enjoyed learning about the phrase "Koi No Yokan" and another meaning for the word "going." In the shift between Rapunzel's past and present, a kitsune/fox's tails have grown in number, signaling her increase in power and age, and details like this add wonderful texture and verisimilitude to Beukes' Hidden Kingdom.
Despite this cramming of detail and resulting textural depth, the narrative doesn't feel wide or resonant, because the action and the characters don't match the depth of the culture and the setting. In "The Hidden Kingdom," there is a discrepancy between the kind of story Beukes promises -- one big on mystery, history, and broken relationships, what she called "the dead dog" of the past -- and the one the reader gets, which is always loud and bright and cool, filled with characters and events, but often also marked by a superficiality of interaction and feeling. Peel away the lovely skin and bright lights, and the bones of the story are common fictional tropes -- court in intrigue, a toxic advisor, a present-day struggle for power.
Over these bones, hazy specifics are laid -- Rapunzel's involvement in the court, how she left the Hidden Kingdom, how she betrayed her lover and the exact nature of her children -- but none of these things are clear at the end "Fairest" #9. This vagueness drags out the plot, and there are better ways for writers to draw out conflict if they must. A serial narrative can often get away with prolonging conflict, but there is little need for padding here and to effectively keep readers in the dark, a story keep its hooks in the reader with emotional impact. Here, too, "Fairest" #9 falters a little.
All the big emotions are hinted at -- passion, love, loss, grief -- but little is shown on-panel. Inaki Miranda works well with what he has in the script, however, and one scene in the past, where Rapunzel and Tomoko look at each other across softly falling snow, is charged with longing and sorrow.
Miranda's detailed backgrounds are admirably suited to the richness of folklore and cultural depth of "The Hidden Kingdom." He gives attention to fine details like an alarmed cat's slippery scramble on a wet floor, or a subtle come-hither arch in Rapunzel's eyebrows as she turns away from a balcony view. The way he draws and frames a certain sex scene convey the isolation of passion and lovers' wonder, coupled with Eva de la Cruz's coloring skill and delicate palette.
There is much that is impressive and well-done in "Fairest" #9, in particular Miranda and de la Cruz's imagery and Beukes' allusive world-building, but the narrative flaws in plotting, pacing and characterization keep it from being a comic I would recommend without reservation.