Graphic Novel Review – Mercury
Mercury is a graphic novel released in 2010 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers. It was written and drawn by Hope Larson, who has six graphic novels to her name and is a 2007 Eisner Award winner in the Special Recognition category.
The story focuses on two distant relatives in separate time periods, but in the same location. The book takes place in French Hill, Nova Scotia, Canada. One story is centered on Tara, in present day, and the other features Josephine, her ancestor, in 1859. Josephine lives on the family farm and one day a stranger comes to town, named Asa, who is a gold prospector and mystic. He strikes a deal with the family to dig for gold on their land, and he also begins to seduce Josephine. In the present, the family farmhouse has burned down and Tara visits the location on occasion. Soon after starting public school again, she receives the same mystic pendant that was in Asa’s possession in 1859. Both stories run concurrently in the structure of the graphic novel, and every few pages the story will switch from one time line to the other.
The visual style is hard to praise on many of the levels that I normally criticize art on, but given the story that’s being told here, I have to remove some of my usual complaints. When it comes to distinguishing characters from each other, it’s a rather difficult task. Several of the characters look the exact same, and in many cases this is purposeful. The strong visual resemblance between family members Tara and Josephine is obvious from the start, but the uncanny sameness of other characters that are analogous to each other in either time is also strong. For example, Josephine and Tara’s sister and cousin respectively have the exact same look.
So the character designs can get confusing from time to time, considering that most characters have the same body type and what makes them unique are facial qualities, some of which are very subtle or absent, causing many characters to look the same even if they aren’t meant to be analogous to one another. But I will say that they are endearing in ways that many of the other graphic novels that I’ve been reading lately haven’t been. I think I have to accept that if I’m not engaged with the story at all, then the character design is going to fall flat with me, and there will have to be some exceptional artwork to convince me otherwise.
The structure of the story and the familiar quality that it has for me given my own literary history is what allowed me to really enjoy the book, even though I found the visual qualities to have flaws. The story with Josephine harkens back to qualities that are typical of American Southern Gothic literature (think Flannery O’ Conner) and I found it funny that this kind of story takes place in the great white north, rather than the deep dirty south. The story also has touches of mysticism that are mostly left up to reader interpretation, and some of them are brought up without any pay off, which adds some flavor to the mystery of it all. I must also say that it takes a great deal of knowledge of plot structure and literary sophistication to pull off a book where two stories are running at the same time in the manner that it does in this novel, and I can praise that to death.
This book was a mixed bag for me, but oddly enough I couldn’t give it a middle of the road rating. Larson goes big with her narrative delivery and scope, and she weaves a subtle magical realism into it, which I wasn’t expecting. For it’s imagination, economy of statement, and reproducing a style of literature that comes from around the location where Hope Larson grew up, I’m giving it a Highly Suggested rating.