With her lyrical linework and imaginative middle grade storylines, cartoonist Hope Larson has spent the past few years carefully and successfully riding the growing, sometimes tumultuous connection between indie comics and big name book publishers. With her 2008 summer camp graphic novel "Chiggers" Larson earned critical praise for her entertaining, honest handling of teenage relationships, and on April 6, the artist unveils her latest and most ambitious graphic novel yet, "Mercury," published by Simon & Schuster's Atheneum Books For Young Readers imprint.
"Mercury" spins parallel stories of two teenage girls whose lives are undeniably different yet inexplicably linked – Tara, a modern teen in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia who's struggling to reenter high school after a fire destroyed her home, and Josey, a girl whose life in Nova Scotia circa 1859 is beset with equal parts farm work and family strife. "The big idea was that the two characters look exactly the same, except they have different hair and different clothes," Larson explained to CBR. "I was thinking what it would be like if you had the same person growing up in the 1850s and growing up right now – how would their lives be different, and how would they be different people as a result of the environmental factors?"
And the issues the girls deal with certainly fall far afield of one another. In the present, Tara preps herself to stand out at a school she hasn't attended in years while also impressing a boy from out of town. Meanwhile, in 1859, Josey struggles to keep herself together after a would-be beau who's passing through the family farm in search of gold draws the ire of her mother. But despite the divergent paths each story takes, striking similarities grow out of the character's lives. "I think as a teenager you're always going to have issues with their parents, you're always going to feel like you don't have a lot of control over your life, and that's the issue for both of these characters. They don't have any control," Larson said. "That is being a teenager, as far as I'm concerned. It's a little more extreme for Josey, who can't go out and get a job or anything because it wasn't acceptable for a girl in that time period. She didn't have any options at all, where somebody like Tara would. If push came to shove, she could emancipate herself. She has a choice of staying where she is or leaving, which is huge."
The other major difference and major challenge for Larson was telling the story of an 1850s teenager as compared to the modern without letting the former feel dated. "I wanted Josey to feel fresh, so I tried not to make her sound too old timey," the cartoonist explained. "When I was writing Josey, I used a couple of different journals from the 1800s I found from girls from that age. While they were both a higher class than Josey would be, one of them was living on a farm, so she'd be writing the stuff she did every day and say, 'I picked berries for four hours today.' And that's all in the book. Basically those girls lives were just work all the time, which is obviously so much different than life today where your job is just to go to school."
As the book progresses, "Mercury" twists and turns its parallel stories into a new shape with the introduction of ghost funerals, unsettling spirits and a necklace owned by both girls, which includes a drop of the eponymous liquid metal. However, mercury the element plays a role in the story more for its former uses than its reputation for poisoning people. "Mercury is one of the elements that was used to refine gold at the time. It was one of the only ways to get the extraneous junk out of your gold and purify it," Larson said. "I have this great book that talked about how you could use Mercury to locate gold, as well. I didn't really go for mercury poisoning, because I didn't find any evidence of people getting that in my research."
But the necklace and the supernatural elements that creep at the edges of "Mercury" don't necessarily mark the book as a work of fantasy. "I definitely think of it as being magical realism, and that stuff comes into my stories no matter what," the creator noted. "I don't set out to write the weirdest story ever or anything. Usually, I try and ground everything in the real world, because the fantasy elements aren't believable to me unless I have everything grounded in normalcy. Once I've established that we're in the real world, more or less, I feel like I can go off into left field more. It's important having the quiet stuff like going to school so I can bring in the folklore and things like that."
Additionally, the graphic novel serves to shine a light on the costal province often overlooked by both Americans and Canadians. "I wanted to do a story about Nova Scotia because we were living there, and there aren't really a lot of good stories about Nova Scotia," Larson said. "The movies are all about 'Gosh, it really sucks here. Let's make the best of it.' I wanted to do a story that said, 'Maybe the good things about the area mean there could be some adventures there.' There's so much history in the province, and no one really seems to tap into that.
"There aren't a lot of local resources. I did spend time at the library, but there wasn't a lot of documentation of any of the gold rushes in Nova Scotia. It was just a picture here or an interview with people involved there. Most of my information came from the local newsletter. They were just old stories of people reminiscing from when they were kids, and the gold rush had been a generation before that! So they were remembering their parents who had lived through the gold rush talking about that. It was really filtered, and I thought that it was so interesting."
The research, character building and finally the cartooning that brought "Mercury" to fruition came together over a year long process that brought its own unique set of challenges, considering Larson's place as a comic creator in a big publishing imprint whose primary focus is prose. "I wrote 'Mercury' before coming back to the U.S. That was over two years ago, and I was still with my original editor at the time – Ginee Seo. S&S was completely restructured while I was working on this book, but I'd drawn maybe two-thirds of the book at that point. I got a new editor, and it was kind of a mess. I really had to fight to keep the book what I originally wanted to write."
Though the artist admits that, thankfully, the creative challenges she had to face were mainly from a pure story standpoint. "I don't think it had anything to do with the fact that I was doing a comic. The second editor I worked with on 'Mercury' just had different ideas about what the story should be about. It's not because she wasn't comics savvy. It's just because she's a different person looking at the story a different way.
"The problems I've run into being a cartoonist in book publishing have usually been with things like swearing or anything that's kind of 'racy,'" she added. "They crack down way harder on that kind of stuff, because if you open the book and there's a naked breast – if a parent opens that up and sees it, you're automatically not selling the book to them. You have to be a lot more careful. It's the same thing with dialogue. If a parent opens a [comic] and there's 'Shit,' it can't hide behind those other words."
Ultimately, Larson saw her story come out the way she intended it in the most fundamental ways, and her creative pliability could lead to a bigger audience. "I don't feel like I've had to compromise or make changes I really didn't want to make in terms of content. I had to make changes to make sure my book got into school libraries and libraries in general, but my editors definitely let me know when something was going to be an issue. And most of the time, I figure it's less important for me to have 'Fuck' in my story than for the story to be in a library where kids can get at it. I've had way broader access to libraries in general, and teachers now know about my books. They're not as available in big book stores like Barnes & Noble and Borders as I'd like them to be, but it's definitely a far better situation that I would be in with someone like Oni Press where you're never going to find 'Gray Horses' in Barnes & Noble."
Larson will launch a mini signing tour to promote "Mercury" in April, starting with New York's MoCCA Festival on April 10 and 11, but the artist is already hard at work on two upcoming mystery projects including a proposed "magical girl" series to be drawn by a collaborator and "a really big project that I can't announce yet, which is frustrating. It's big. It's an adaptation that's going to be taking up the next year and a half of my life, and it's crazy high profile. For me especially, I think it's going to change everything about my career."
"Mercury" hits stores on April 6. To support the book, Larson will appear at the MoCCA Art Festival in New York City on April 10 & 11, Spellbound Children's Bookshop in Asheville, NC on April 17, the Stumptown Comics Fest in Portland, OR on April 24 & 25 and finally at Asheville's Fanaticon on May 15. For more info, go to www.hopelarson.com