THE cover of Metaphrog’s new book Bluebeard couldn’t be any more explicit about its intentions. Above the title and an image of its titular character, it bears the legend A Feminist Fairy Tale.

It’s a statement of intent and a reclamation of sorts. The best-known version of the story is Charles Perrault’s from the 17th century, in which the title character gives his new wife a bunch of keys but forbids her from using them to go through one door. When she does, she learns to her horror her new husband’s terrible secret.

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Perrault’s version of the story is one that graphic novelists John Chalmers and Sandra Marrs have, it’s fair to say, problems with.

“The original is frankly quite appalling,” artist Marrs points out. “The moral basically says women should stay in their place and if they have any sort of curiosity, they will be punished for it.”

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Writer John Chalmers, her partner in life and work, continues: “A lot of people are puzzled by the subtitle A Feminist Fairy Tale. We wanted to use the word feminist in its proper definition, which just means equal. We weren’t trying to do anything

bizarre …”

“ Or aggressive,” adds Marrs.

“Years ago, we went to see Bartok’s opera Bluebeard’s Castle,” Chalmers recalls, “and we wrestled with the idea that women should be punished for their curiosity. That’s ridiculous. Openness is the key, kindness is the key, love is absolutely the key.”

And so, Chalmers and Marrs (who have long gone under the name Metaphrog for their work in comics) have come up with a magical realist take on the story, one that resonates with echoes of Angela Carter, Daphne du Maurier and even Bram Stoker. One, too, that is political, progressive and yet suitable for both children and adults thanks to the clarity of its storytelling and the almost tactile appeal of Marr’s artwork.

It’s the latest in a series of retellings of fairy tales that the pair have been working on in recent years, starting with The Red Shoes and then The Little Mermaid.

In some ways Bluebeard is their darkest yet, though it treads a line of restraint (there is no glorying in goriness here) to ensure that younger readers won’t be put off by the story’s darker threads.

Then again, that darkness is part of the appeal. “It gave us horripilation as kids,” Chalmers suggests of reading Bluebeard for the first time. “I was seven or eight in Gourock. I had an illustrated book that fascinated me. I found the story repulsive and compelling simultaneously. I kept on rereading it and I remember feeling terrified by the idea of the key. It’s all about getting caught.”

Marrs, who grew up in a village near Paris, first heard the story on a record when she was seven or eight. “It’s a fairy tale that we both loved as children and it kind of stayed with us ever since,” she says.

And that childhood love of fairy tales remains in both of them. The challenge, Marrs suggests, is to take their familiarity and make something new from it. “The basic story is just a springboard, adds Chalmers. “You want to make a strong story, but you want to make something that is literature, something that is art.”

Chalmers, 55, is the black coffee to Marrs’s cream. In conversation, he’s the more intense, though it’s offset with a sense of humour. Based in Glasgow’s south side, they have been working together since they met in their 20s. It is very much a collaboration. That requires, they admit, some back and forth.

“Making the forest an actual character … I was very uncertain about that at first because I wanted to avoid the overtly magical,” Chalmers admits. “But then I realised the whole story’s bloody magical, so I got over that.”

Perhaps the main thing to say about their take on Bluebeard is how lush it is. As a work of art (and as an artefact) it is a handsome thing. Marrs’s artwork provides the most seductive framework for Chalmers’ subversion.

And no one is a greater admirer of Marrs’ work than her partner. “The visual storytelling has brought a depth to the story that I didn’t imagine. She gave it more of a Du Maurier feel. We wanted to make allusions to Angela Carter and Du Maurier, but also Patricia Highsmith even.

“I resisted at first Sandra’s magical realism ideas. But I clicked with it and realised this is exactly the way to do it. Not only does it offset the darkness, it actually heightens it. There’s an element of magic in every story, in every myth. There’s an element in our believing in money, in patriarchal leaders. There’s an element of magic in all these things we take for granted.”

It’s fair to say that beneath the candy-coloured surface there are dark forces at work. This version has the patriarchy in its sights. And Bluebeard, with his history of uxoricide, is the ugly face of that. Although in this case, not literally.

“In the original he’s described as ugly,” Marrs points out, “and I didn’t want to make him ugly. First of all, because then it’s not enjoyable to draw. But, also, because I want him to be charming and attractive, almost in the tradition of a Hitchcock villain. Because then he’s more dangerous.”

“If you look at right-wing leaders,” Chalmers adds, “it’s the charming ones who are most dangerous.”

Perhaps Bluebeard is the ultimate fairy tale for these post #MeToo, post-Weinstein times. But the book’s feminism is not just to be found in the portrayal of Bluebeard. The story’s protagonist Eve has agency. “We were not going to have her saved by her brothers [as happens in the original version]. It doesn’t make sense and it’s not fair.”

Still, in the end, the key is turned, the door to the forbidden room is opened, Bluebeard’s secret is revealed.

“That was the most challenging part,” admits Marrs. “It is the key scene and it can’t be changed, and it can’t be softened, so we had to find a way to show the horror but without showing the horror. The use of colour became very handy. Red makes you think of blood, but you’re not actually showing the blood.”

It is a book that is emerging in a time of fear, a time of anxiety. That has hit Chalmers and Marrs too. So much work with schools and at festivals has been lost because of coronavirus. But then anxiety is not new.

In recent years, given Marrs’ French origins, the threat of Brexit has been hanging over the pair of them too. “I did acquire settled status in the meantime, so I’m a bit secure now,” Marrs says.

What has also changed in recent years is the status of the illustrated book and the graphic novel. They are no longer the pariahs of the literary world.

Not that they are totally accepted. “I think because comics are innately anarchic, they will never be taken as seriously as the other arts,” Chalmers suggests. “We take them seriously, but, yes, there is an idea of snobbery around literature.

“But I feel a good read is a good read and if a book is also visually beautiful then it comes back to encouraging people to read. And the new readers will be young readers, and they will be attracted to a graphic novel or a beautifully illustrated book.”

Bluebeard, by Metaphrog is published by Papercutz, £17.99