God Save the Queen by Mike Carey and John Bolton

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God Save the Queen
By Mike Carey and John Bolton

God Save the Queen Mike Carey and John Bolton’s graphic novel God Save the Queen has nothing to do with Queen Elizabeth (either one)–or even Helen Mirren. The title refers, instead, to both Queen Titania of Fairy and the Sex Pistols track that gives the book its rock-and-roll attitude. This compelling urban fantasy fuses the glamour and horror inherent in both punk rock and fairy tales, and the result is something disturbingly lovely. God Save the Queen isn’t quite a masterpiece (it’s too short, for one thing) but it’s still a solid piece of work from two major talents.

Faithful Vertigo readers will be pleased at Carey’s take on Neil Gaiman’s Sandman treatment of Shakespeare’s rendering of traditional fairie characters like Titania, Mab, and Oberon. Carey’s respectful of and refers to Gaiman’s work, but not to the point that you need to dig through Vertigo’s back catalog to understand what’s going on. If your prior only exposure to the Fairy courts is reading Midsummer Night’s Dream in school, you’ll be fine. If you’ve never read the play, I don’t know what to tell you, other than that you probably should.

The heroine of God Save the Queen is Linda, a teenaged Londoner on the edge—one who doesn’t, however, remain on the edge for long. In the book’s first scene, troubled by a depressed, hard-drinking mother and a mysteriously absent father, she abandons her homework assignment (she’s supposed to be writing an essay on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, of course) for an ill-fated night in the London scene.

During that night, Carey shoehorns in his reference to the Sex Pistols’ venerable God Save the Queen as one of Linda’s missing dad’s favorite songs feels a bit clunky and forced-for-the-sake-of-a-cool-title-ish. I would have gotten it without him having to hit me over the head, personally. It pushed me out of the story far enough to consider that, at nearly 50, Carey was Linda’s age when God Save the Queen was new. For me, this put his authority on the subject of modern teen punk girls in question, all for the sake of a medium-cool title. Despite this, however, Carey gets the energy and abandon of the eternally renewed “scene” just right, with its raw energy, alienation and self-destructive urges. Anyone who’s ever been a part of that kind of world has probably heard some variation of the line Linda gives her straight-man friend Jeff as she explains the rules for their night out: “We run fast, we dance like animals, and we say yes to anything.” With that sort of attitude, she unsurprisingly falls off the edge quite quickly, and by the end of the night, she’s been picked up by some (literally) otherworldly fringe-dwellers looking to ride the Red Horse; that is, shoot up a mix of heroin and blood—Linda’s blood—which we’re told is a rare treat for fairies.

Linda’s friends not only have perverse (and dangerous) tastes, of course; they’re also of the Fair Folk, a people no longer quite so fair, given that evil Queen Mab has recently overthrown Queen Titania and instituted a reign of unseelie terror. The story cuts between Linda’s scenes, told in the first person via her hand-written journals and scenes from Fairy that fill the reader in on some (but not all) of what’s going on behind the scenes.

Giving away much more of the plot would probably be a disservice to those willing to shell out 20 bucks for this slim (at a mere 96 pages) hardcover. Suffice it to say that shooting up smack (and blood) isn’t without consequence (though, disturbingly, there’s not even a mention of HIV in the book); Titania doesn’t take the coup lying down; Mab plays dirty; and there’s a reason why, of all London’s messed-up kids, Linda’s the chosen to be a Red Horse “drip.” The story’s solid and competently told, if not particularly groundbreaking to urban-fantasy habitués. Anyone who’s ever read Charles de Lint’s Newford novels or stories will pretty quickly guess more or less where God Save the Queen is going. Still, Carey’s juxtaposition of archetypal fantasy bits and junkie culture gives the story a fresh feel all its own.

Visually, the book is exquisite. Bolton’s in rare form in God Save the Queen, and the combination of his photorealistic painting style and some truly nightmarish imagery makes for a visually arresting book. Bolton’s known as much for his horror illustrations as he is for his comic-book art, and his love of horror is amply evident here. From the opening panels of Mab’s hideous bat-winged-ferret drawn chariot soaring through the skies of Fairy, it’s clear this is the kind of book Bolton was born to paint. He’s equally at home, however, with the more wholesome pixies and sprites as he is with the Rawhead and Bloodybones types. Bolton’s Fairy is a mix of the appealing and the repugnant; he understands that each emphasizes and serves as contrast to the other.

Best of all Bolton gives Linda’s “real” world the same sort of terrible appeal as Fairy. Linda herself is most definitely not a shadowy, pierced and eyelinered goth; she’s a peaches-and-cream beauty along the lines of Anne Hathaway or Natalie Portman; it’s the world around her that’s grim and dark. The first time we see the glowingly healthy Linda shooting up, her bowed head half in the shadow, half in the light as she watches the needle drawing out blood to cook with the Red Horse, one shiny new Doc Marten in the foreground, it’s an image that is lovely, twisted, and heartbreaking–and typical of the book as a whole.

The main problem with this book is that it’s too damned short. Carey and Bolton squeeze a surprising amount of storytelling into the pages they have, but in places the plot feels sketchy and the pacing rushed. Worse, few supporting characters get any development, so you don’t really care much what happens to them. Overall, the book feels like a novel-length story told in a novella worth of pages. It’s not that the result isn’t satisfying, it’s just that you’re left feeling that it could have been something more, bigger, and richer.

Still, even though the book doesn’t live up to its potential, it’s still a good read. Between them Carey and Bolton have cooked up a tale that manages by turns to be both disturbing and beautiful. Anyone who appreciates the urban fantasy genre will not only appreciate God Save the Queen, but also probably return to it many times.

—Sean Carroll