Comics Time: Mercury

Mercury

Hope Larson, writer/artist

Atheneum, 2010

240 pages

$9.99

Buy it from Amazon.com

Hmm.

Okay, first of all, can we talk about what a lovely package you’re getting for $9.99? That cover is a killer, and Larson’s luminous line does nothing if not radiate “look at how beautiful this comic you’re reading is!” with every glance. Her blacks shimmer and shine, and her characters’ eyes glow like Influence in an old Chester Gould Dick Tracy. Seeing her art employed in a tale of familial and romantic teen angst up North gives the impression of a Craig Thompson with control instead of ecstasy as the key ingredient. For a measly $9.99, a price point even many tankubon volumes appear to have abandoned by now, the tween and teen girls who are Mercury‘s target will be getting a lot of art-object bang for the buck.

As for the story, I’ll be honest: Going into this thing, I was ready to be at a loss coming out of it. I have zero experience with YA fiction for girls, and very little with YA fiction for boys, even when I was a YA myself; there’s a degree of critic-proofing that that genre and that demographic lacquers on to any project. I was prepared to come away saying “Well, I see what’s going on here, and I’m guess it will/won’t work for its audience, but ultimately it’s not for me.” The critical white flag in other words.

And sure enough, there’s some YA stuff that fell a little flat for this less-than-YA. The period setting and attendant slightly stiffened dialogue, for example, are an obstacle that the earlier of the book’s two parallel plotlines have to work hard to overcome. I’m just not a bonnet-book guy, and unless you’re in a village that could potentially get raided by orcs, I don’t want to hear about how you have to finish your chores before Father returns from the market. To be less fatuous about it, I often find myself wishing that period fiction could just lose the dated dialect and have the characters speak like people today would, eschewing anachronisms but otherwise talking normally. I suppose you could always be a David Milch-level genius and devise, y’know, the best period speech ever, but barring that I feel like more is lost than gained with the distancing effect of the more formal speech–though to be fair, that’s often part and parcel of the stricter social codes that end up playing a huge part in the story, so perhaps that’s unfair. Meanwhile, the high-school setting of the contemporary half of the book is strangely sexless for a relationship-focused narrative; it’s funny to think of these characters as being in the same age group as the gang from Black Hole. A librarian who’d run screaming from The Diary of a Teenage Girl is going to have no trouble putting Mercury on the shelf, and that’s a sensible decision–and one for which Larson compensates with lots of finely observed detail regarding how teenage emotion can imbue everything from sleepover movie-watching to a pizza lunch with strange melancholy power. But it’s also not really the high school experience I remember. In books that deal in emotional truths, that’s a shortcoming, no matter how justified the sanitization might be.

But! No white flag here, no shrug of the shoulders and mumbling of “Eh, not my thing, but I bet your niece will like it, maybe.” Taken on the same terms as any other comic, Mercury is still an idiosyncratic, ultimately gutsy read. The kicker is the period story, about an itinerant prospector who finds gold on a farmer’s property and makes time with his teenaged daughter Josey while he helps the dad mine it. After a long rollout that has you suspecting the potential for heartbreak but not necessarily expecting it, takes a sudden and viciously sharp turn for the tragic, even the horrific. Thinking about its denouement now, I’m suddenly reminded of a sequence in, of all things, Louis Riel, that’s how severe Larson is willing to get here. But what ruins the lives of the characters in the past sets up a much better life for the characters in the present, specifically Josey’s teenaged descendent Tara, left with her aunt and uncle and trying to find her way among the public-school kids her single mother took her away from for homeschooling when a nasty divorce screwed her up. I won’t get into exactly how, but Tara’s happy ending, thoughtfully only teased rather than spelled out, is a direct result of the terrible misfortune that befalls Josey. I suppose you could read some sort of pat “circle of life, sunrise sunset, strikes and gutters, ups and downs” kind of message into that, but I saw it as a tougher, more bracing idea: that actions have consequences that reverberate down the line for decades, even centuries, enough to change entire lives. For an age group that tends to see everything, except perhaps the SATs, as somehow both all-encompassing and utterly in-the-moment, confronting the idea of legacies, unexpected ones at that, is stinging stuff.

But riding shotgun is the notion that in a world that works like that, you should take your happiness where you can get it. That’s what Tara does over and over: she forces herself to overcome her jitters and befriend the cute boy she meets, she hunts for the things that will improve her life, and–she has no way of knowing this, but of course Larson definitely does–she doesn’t allow the tragic legacy of her forebears to prevent her happy ending. None of this is handed to you with neat parallels or telegraphed transitions, by the way: I’m still teasing it out, and I’m glad that’s what I have to do.

3 Responses to Comics Time: Mercury

  1. Kiel Phegley says:

    You know, Sean, while I see where you’re coming from with the “sanitized” take on teen relationships stuff, I also think you might be coming at this with just a different set of expectations for this kind of fiction more so than having the right kind of expectations. That sounds kind of dickish when I look at it typed out. Let’s try again.

    In other words, I don’t think that Black Hole levels of teen sex are “more real” than something like this as much as they’re “more real for a certain group of people who were more sexually experienced or experimental at that age.” While I certainly knew kids who had sex in high school, almost no one in my immediate peer group did and very few even had a lot of that awkward teenage handjob bullshit going on. So when I read a book like this, I don’t immediately assume that the characters are drawn out that way in terms of intentionally avoiding hot button topics. More so, I see a bunch of kids who work for their parents businesses after school and can’t drive yet, and their not spending all their spare time getting high and fucking feels extremely natural and relatable to me.

    Does that make sense?

  2. Are you saying I was a slut?

  3. Kiel Phegley says:

    I’m saying you hung out with sluts.