When Stephen and Owen King’s Sleeping Beauties came out in 2017, it seemed prescient; released a month before the widespread exposure of Harvey Weinstein’s innumerable heinous acts and the proceeding boom of the #MeToo movement, a novel in which the world’s women are supernaturally and all-powerfully silenced, put to sleep, and shrouded had an allegorical charge behind it that felt vindicating (if, ultimately, underwhelming).
When the first issue of Rio Youers and Alison Sampson’s IDW adaptation of the novel dropped in June of last year, it felt less prescient and more reactive, dropping the allegory to address a world then four months isolated by quarantine. At the time we all felt supernaturally blindsided, adrift in a fresh wash on disbelief; humanity couldn’t have been caught any more off guard than the protagonists in either version of Sleeping Beauties, and while COVID-19 didn’t overtake the globe in the span of a day, like Aurora does in the fiction, it damn well felt as if it did.
The problem, of course, is that the novel is now cemented in its place in time, and will be read intertextually with its political time; the IDW version of Sleeping Beauties, as a serialized fiction, has to outlive a singular moment as each issue is released, as each collection hits shelves.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s the ineffable quality of cultural touchstones in a vacuum. Most of us cannot remember the events of last week, let alone what we read, watched, felt last June. This first collection hardcover, then, is a chance to glimpse back to that initial moment. The events of Sleeping Beauties presents a world of extreme escalations of the type fear-mongering media pundits predicted last March, when toilet paper was in short supply.
By the end of these five issues, as the women of world fall asleep and become encased in web cocoons, bands of murderous vandals, deemed Blowtorch Brigades, raid the countryside, burning their sleeping forms. Over-violent men weasel their way onto police forces. Power has incalculably shifted hands, and riots and marshal law are the norm. Society has, effectively, hung on to the brink of collapse, and the book ends with us standing on that precipice.
All of these things are, of course, blanketed with a sense of magic and the supernatural that the title and the source material implies that it must; a woman named Eve has arrived alongside the Aurora sickness, and she is the lone woman still awake (aside from a heavily-drugged side-character who has, as of yet, not done much). She speaks to animals, and animals speak among themselves. These first five issues place us at the crux of our central conflict — the world, attempting to intrude upon Eve (locked up, as it were, in a woman’s penitentiary for reasons) as she goes about some sort of cosmic judgement.
There are hitches in the book—while Youers translates the dense, King prose into silent, subtle panels, the narrative flow sometimes stutters, and readers might find themselves lost as to how events have progressed, how or why we’ve jumped to a new situation. This isn’t exactly helped by Sampson’s immaculate but florid artwork, which can occasionally be more ornamental than representative. Neither the art nor the writing is directly responsible for the stutters so much as a lack of cohesion between the two, primarily in moments of high action or violence, where the team tends toward conservative implication rather than gory detail.
None of this makes the book any less breathtaking — any flow issues get swallowed up in the indelible moments of silence, where we take Youer’s impressive adaptive restraint alongside Sampson’s jam-packed establishing panels. The team goes to lengths to provide the story as wholly separate from prose as they can, and it’s in this stepping away from the source material where the book is truly brilliant; in ensuring their own voice in the world of Sleeping Beauties out from under the weight of the Kings’ 700 pages, they’ve moved safely in the realm of magical realism rather than contemporary horror.
Will the book outlast its current events framework? Almost certainly.
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