There’s a knack to telling universal stories through specific characters. A knack to capturing a common set of emotions or perceptions within a concrete frame. If a writer missteps too far in the general direction the story is a bland re-treading of utterly familiar ground. Get too specific and the reader is shut out of the tale. Or worse yet — and commonly in indie comics — the reader is made a voyeur of the writer’s life. Mercury falls squarely in the sweet middle of those extremes — it’s a fable, a fairy tale, a myth of community and family and trust told in extremely specific times and places.
Spoilers for Hope Larson’s graphic novel, Mercury, follow.
Like all good fairy tales, Mercury begins in the reality of French Hill, Nova Scotia. I’ve never been to Nova Scotia, but I rather feel that I have after reading Mercury. The setting reminded me of living in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, here in the U.S. The U.P., for those who don’t know, is a place founded on the mining and logging industries. It’s full of birch and pine trees, full of deep snows and hot, muggy summers. The opening pages of Mercury, with the road through the woods over the past six hundred years, evoked such a place for me.
The setting is a character in the story. Without the land and the town, the twin stories of Josey Fraser in 1859 and Tara Fraser in 2009 would come out very differently. Tara’s circumstance, living with her relatives, has come about because of her mother’s need to get a job somewhere else — somewhere with jobs to be had. Josey’s introduction to the charming and persuasive drifter, Asa, is caused by the presence of gold on the Fraser farm.
The fantasy elements in Mercury snuck up on me. I wasn’t expecting Josey to see the ghostly death omens her mother did. Until Josey saw the ghosts, I thought her mother was mentally unbalanced, not psychic. After Josey saw the supernatural funeral procession I readjusted my understanding of the story — magic of a sort is real, here. Similarly, I wasn’t expecting the gold-dowsing properties of Asa’s mercury necklace to work for Tara in the modern day — I wasn’t sure that the supernatural extended into the present-day storyline. But there the mercury necklace was, dowsing for lost jewelry in the trash under the bleachers.
Mercury isn’t traditional high fantasy with elves and telepathic horses. And it’s not a traditional western fairy tale, where the goblins are up front and I know what I’m dealing with from the start. Reading Mercury reminded me of reading the short stories of Isabel Allende, of Magical Realism, of the paintings of Frida Kahlo — despite the fact that those things are rooted in Latin America and Mercury is born of maritime Canada. The magic, the supernatural in this story seeps in at the edges while you’re looking right at it. The dramatic crescendo of the story, as Tara serached for the gold and Josey searched for the truth about her father’s death, felt like watching Pan’s Labyrinth.
Both Josey and Tara accept that their lives have events that are both beyond their control and outside their ability to explain. What Larson does, skillfully, is weave the reality-based incomprehensible events with the magical ones. The lodestone effects of the mercury necklace are as mysterious as the alchemy of finding new friends. Josey and Tara are equally unable to mitigate either the concerns of their parents or the appearance of animal spirit guides. The world Mercury presents is not a bad world, but it’s not a cozy world, either. And both protagonists simply learn to navigate its tragedies and pleasures.
Fairy tales and fables traditionally offer the audience a series of morals or lessons. Mercury treads lightly on that front. The story doesn’t preach any particular lesson, except that life is stranger and more complicated than we think. Or, perhaps, that everyone you meet — your mother, your boyfriend, the kids at school — is the protagonist of his or her own story, with their own agendas and perspectives on events that you can’t imagine.
I like Mercury. It’s off the beaten path for a comic — not a mainstream superhero title, to be sure, yet also not a confessional-creator indie comic. Mercury is a story, a quiet tale of murder, ghosts, and buried gold in small-town Nova Scotia. It’s a good story, complex and well told. If that’s your idea of what comics can and should be, I strongly recommend Hope Larson’s Mercury
Email: sigrid @ fantasticfangirls.org