Gaiman and Doran offer a reminder that there are all kinds of stories about princesses and queens. We tend to romanticize the safe ones, but it’s good to remember that some are dangerous with very sharp teeth.
The trend of scouring the public domain for beloved properties that could be reimagined and copyrighted in perpetuity roughly began with the publication of Gregory Maguire’s Wicked in 1995. Booming book and box offices sales proliferated the parasitic practice of taking a long dead creator’s richly imagined world and flaring it up for modern sensibilities. Typically, humanizing the villain became the main trope of these mediocre efforts. No witch, fairy, queen or monster is born evil. Deconstruction would have us believe that the difference between good and evil is just a matter of perspective.
Snow, Glass, Apples, artist Colleen Doran’s adaptation of the Neil Gaiman story, taps into this impulse to reimagine. The book teems with imagination, weirdness, eroticism and beauty, thereby embodying everything that similar efforts tend to lack. Gaiman and Doran use Snow White as their springboard to tell the story from the evil queen’s perspective. In this context, she is a young woman, widowed and wise beyond her time, with some talent for magic. She is forced to do battle with an undying predator she inherited through marriage. Yes, the evil queen is made sympathetic and fully human, but she has to be, because in the hands of Gaiman and Doran the princess is the monster. She doesn’t receive this designation for throwing tantrums but for the fangs and bloodlust.
The partnership between Gaiman and Doran is as old as The Sandman, Gaiman’s seminal comic book fantasy series that is the root of the author’s ongoing successes. Over the decades, his name has grown to define a multimedia brand so massive that it can preclude recognition of the artists he works with in his comic ventures. Despite her decades-long career, Doran rarely receives the deserved acclaim as one of the greats of her generation, a consideration more often reserved for male artists like Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld. Snow, Glass, Apples serves as a reminder of the wealth of Doran’s ability and talent. What she has created here is a book that looks like a book of magic. It is stained glass on paper, a centuries-old deck of Tarot cards.
From the opening pages, Doran employs a design strategy that eschews panels, using the smallest details to draw the eye where she intends. Snowflakes, roots, branches, fabrics and bodies create page flows so specific and tantalizing that the book could be devoid of Gaiman’s words and the storytelling would not suffer. The insights into character and motivation that those sentences offer act as adornments upon the lustrous illustrations. When Doran does use more traditional panel structures on a page, their appearance starkly emphasizes that portion of the story. Snow White’s deadly innocence and predatory nature are made clear in these sequences, and in some way the Queen always suffers.
Doran and her coloring assistant, Val Trullinger, use different palettes to differentiate between the Queen and Snow White, making them creatures of the spring and winter respectively. The blonde-haired Queen appears mostly in reds or in the pinkness of her skin. Even when the story lapses to winter, she radiates warmth. Snow White was born in the cold, and Doran makes it appear that a snowflake crown rests upon her infant head. She moves through the story in dark blues and blacks counterpointed by her bone-white skin. There is a subtle usurpation of color between the two characters as the story reaches its climax, involving the purloined heart familiar to the Snow White tale but used to different and bloody effect in this adaptation.
Doran offers a tour of her creative process in a production notes section at the end of the book. She explains the influence of early 20th century Irish artist Gary Clarke on her art as a whole, but especially for this book. Her use of intricate detailing to create page flow mirrors her inspiration, though Clarke’s capacity for fabrics, flower petals, ripples in water and flowing figures exceeds Doran’s, but one suspects she’d still be working on the book if she sought to precisely replicate the exacting style of her influence. Clarke also accentuated the eyes, making them overly large in what Doran describes as a predecessor to the Manga trope. In this context, it also works as an unstated comment on the style Disney has used on its princesses since Tangled. The eyes are the focus of expression for Rapunzel, Anna and Elsa and their stories are safe spaces where the endings are happy and the heroes are clear. It is impossible to discuss Snow White without invoking Disney. With Snow, Glass, Apples, Gaiman and Doran offer a reminder that there are all kinds of stories about princesses and queens. We tend to romanticize the safe ones, but it’s good to remember that some are dangerous with very sharp teeth.