Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
Let’s review a comic that won’t even be out until January 2010. I love reviewing comics … from the future!!!!!!!
Mercury is the latest graphic novel by Hope Larson, who has brought us other stuff in the past. At San Diego she was giving out these “uncorrected proofs” for review purposes (there are a few typos that I hope get corrected before January), so I took one. What am I going to do, pass up free comics? This is published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon and Schuster Children’s Publishing Division and will cost 18 dollars when it arrives on bookshelves.
With all that, you might expect this to be geared completely toward children, or at least teenagers. Well, it’s certainly aimed at them, but like all good kids’ lit, it works fine for cynical old men, too. Larson populates her story with teenagers, mostly girls (this passes Alison Bechdel’s entertainment test, by the way), but she also tells two interesting stories, not necessarily “coming-of-age” tales, but stories in which two young women have to deal with problems in their lives.
The first story (chronologically) takes place in 1859 in French Hill, Nova Scotia (it made me exceptionally sad that Larson includes a map before the story begins explaining where Nova Scotia is), while the second story takes place 150 years later in the same place. In 1859, Josey Fraser and her family take in a stranger, Asa Curry, who seems nice enough but, perhaps not surprisingly, harbors some dark secrets. In the present day, Tara Fraser returns to school after some years away and begins to discover some things about her family’s past. Obviously, she’s Josey’s descendant, and the two stories slowly link up, as Tara doesn’t really find out what happened 150 years earlier, but at least uncovers some of those secrets Asa Curry was trying to hide.
Larson easily switches back and forth between the two stories every few pages, and we follow easily along. The story is told in a very straightforward manner, and both are pretty interesting. Josey’s has a bit more consequence, as Asa Curry takes a shine to her even as he’s discovering gold on her father’s property and going into business with him. Although he’s always very polite, Josey’s mother thinks there’s something off about him, and Larson does a good job keeping us guessing about him. Is he really a bad guy, or is Josey’s mother just paranoid? We don’t trust him, because we’re conditioned not to just from experience, but what’s nice about the story is that as we read along, we can’t say with certainty that he’s evil. We want to believe Josey’s mother, but she’s just a bit too crazy for us to go along with her completely. Asa doesn’t end up with Josey, I’ll tell you that much, but it’s a good move by Larson to keep us guessing. It’s Josey’s story, anyway, as she has to come to terms both with her mother’s disapproval of Asa Curry and her husband for hanging out with him, and then with the tragic events that transpire later in the book. Yes, there is tragedy. Again, I’m not going to ruin it for anyone.
Tara, meanwhile, is dealing with a different set of circumstances. Her house in French Hill burned down and her mother moved to Alberta to get a job, leaving Tara with an aunt. Tara is returning to school after two years of home schooling, and she doesn’t know how she’ll fit in, especially because she’s not feeling very “girly.” She has short black hair and small breasts, and this gets her mistaken for a boy at one point in the comic. But Tara, refreshingly, doesn’t wallow in self-pity, although she is embarrassed occasionally by the things she does. She’s a nice female character in that, while she does care what boys think of her, it doesn’t really define her, and her relationship with the boy for whom she was mistaken proceeds sweetly and organically (and largely innocently; remember, the target audience is young readers). Again, like Josey’s story (even moreso than Josey’s story), Tara’s story isn’t about her relationship with a man, but her relationship with her mother and what she can do to improve or escape it. She gets some jewelry from her aunt that used to belong to her mother, one piece of which has been passed down since Josey’s day (we see in the older story how it came into her possession). This draws her into the mystery of the “gold rush” (which apparently happened, although I can’t find how intense it was) and allows her to become more of her own person, much like it did with Josey. It’s interesting how Larson subtly links these two young ladies, through the necklace, through their dealings with their mothers and the men in their lives, and shows how much has changed in the world in 150 years. Tara has many more options than Josey does, of course, and Larson does a nice job showing this without being too obvious.
Larson’s art is excellent, with wonderful details and a real sense of place, both in the past and the present. Her characters are luminous without being classically beautiful, and she does a fine job with facial expressions and gestures to get across a whole range of emotions that the characters experience. Personally, I don’t love her style, but I love looking at the way she creates a scene or a panel, and I appreciate that her teenagers look like, you know, teenagers. She does a fine job getting across the way people lived back in 1859 and the way high school looks in 2009, and that’s harder than it sounds. At some points in the book, the “real” world slips away a bit, and Larson does a nice job blending the mundane with some of the more fantastic elements. Those elements aren’t in the book that much, but when they do show up, they don’t feel out of place even if the rest of the book is “realistic.”
Mercury is a very good comic for young people and it has plenty of intrigue for any audience. The mysteries aren’t that hard to figure out, but that’s not the point, really. Larson does a great job showing two young women dealing with unexpected obstacles and coming out stronger from their experiences. Keep your eye out for it!
Tomorrow at noon: Everyone loves this. Will I????
Comics Should Be Good accepts review copies. Anything sent to us will (for better or for worse) end up reviewed on the blog. See where to send the review copies.