Reviews: enchantment, wonder & loss – The Little Mermaid
Metaphrog (adapted from Hans Christian Andersen),
Glasgow duo Metaphrog have been favourite creators of mine for many years now; each of their fascinating Louis books seemed add new layers and new craft in both art and storytelling approach, and then the first of their books for Papercutz, a spellbinding adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Red Shoes cast an enchantment (review here). When I heard they were following this up with another Andersen tale for Papercutz (again in a very handsome small hardback edition with cloth spine, a quite lovely object in its own right), this time The Little Mermaid I was looking forward to it, and delighted when a copy arrived recently (also pleased to see Creative Scotland giving them some assistance to let them create it). And right from the first page I was in love with this book; it’s simply beautiful.
“Far out in the ocean, where the water is the deepest blue, and the earth the finest sand, there lived the Little Mermaid and her sisters, daughters of the sea king.”
I thought Sandra’s art for Louis: Night Salad (reviewed here) was some of the best she had done, then again for The Red Shoes, but here she’s surpassed herself once more. I mean that opening page of the mermaid’s palace (see above), it’s just wonderful fantasy art, just look at it, allow yourself the simple pleasure of wallowing in delicious artwork. The colour palette for the underwater sequences drawn on vibrant shades of blues and greens, other colours dropped in for contrast in the passing fish or decorations the mermaid sisters wear, and contrasts with different palettes for the world above the waves – a glorious sunset, seen by the Little Mermaid for the very first time, is copper melting in honey, a glimpse through the porthole into a ship of dancing humans is all warm tones of life, blended with those sea colours as the Little Mermaid peers longingly into this new world, apart from it but so desperate to be a part of it, and the colours as much as the positioning of the characters and ship reinforce this feeling.
Similarly in layout there is a strong sense of deliberation on just how to place each panel for effect. Three panels show the Little Mermaid yearning to be of the age – fifteen – when she will be allowed to swim to the surface and see the world above; in each frame as the “camera” angle moves in from behind and around to the front and on her face and body are slightly higher, so the cumulative effect of each panel, reading left to right, leads the reader’s eye inexorably to the glow of distant moonlight coming from the surface far above, the Little Mermaid’s gaze following the line of her adolescent desire. There are quite a few examples like this, fine examples of creators at the height of their powers, using every element of word and picture and juxtaposition and framing and pacing to create just the right effect. I’m sure there are others I didn’t even realise, consciously, but that’s alright, the trick with this high level of storytelling is that most of the time readers will only be aware of these clever methods of craft on a subliminal level, enhancing their understanding of the story, the emotions, the flow of narrative (especially the young readers).
The story, oft-told across generations, retains its power and magic – here enhanced by some of the storytelling methods I mentioned to craft a compelling and immersive fantasy. As with so many of the best fairy tales it is as much a cautionary tale as it is one of enchantment – yes, there are wonders out there, oh so many wonders to see and experience! But with each wonder there is also dangerous and with each joy there is the shadow of sadness, each contrasting one another, and how we learn that lesson as we grow older, from those simple yearnings like the Little Mermaid, like almost any young boy or girl, so eager to see it all at once, feel it all at once, not quite believing that they have a lifetime ahead of them to experience, because when we’re young time passes too slowly, it seems that magical world is a lifetime away and we are bursting to be a part of it, no matter what (and conversely when older it seems to fly by far, far too fast, such is human life).
And there is a price for those things we are so sure we want to experience, and part of that price is finding out, sometimes the hard way that, no matter how hard we may wish upon a star, we simply will never have what we have convinced ourselves is our heart’s most burning desire (and if we did get it, would it really be as it was in our dreams? The price of gaining that object of your dreams is losing the dream itself, the ephemeral but warmly immortal image that can warm you forever). And here those contrasting desires and duties and connections to family, love, our own longing and the consequences of them are laid out, albeit in a wondrous, gorgeous fashion, but in a way that will still, as the original did, enchant the younger reader but also teach them caution, that magic and dreams are not free and sometimes best not coming true. In that respect the story remains a good cautionary tale for both young girls and boys, about the perils of desire, of wanting to grow up too quickly, of the pitfalls life will put in your way (but at same time acknowledging we need those dreams, they’re part of what makes human being tick).
Years ago I watched the historian Michael Wood’s In The Footsteps of Alexander the Great. In one scene, following Alexander’s route his party made camp for the night in the deserts of the Middle East, and as people have done for millennia, one of them told a story by the flickering camp fire. He told the story of Alexander, passed down for generations, all those present knew it well, but it was in the way the storyteller spun the tale that the enjoyment lay. Why do I bring that up? Because I was reminded of it reading this gorgeous adaptation/interpretation of an old, much loved tale; we know this story, we know it from childhood, and we revisit it as adults and we share it in turn with new generations of children who also fall under its spells and will in their turn pass it on.
Some stories will always need to be told and retold, they speak of something fundamentally human that we connect with, and each time, although we know the story, it is in the telling that we find the real pleasure, and in Metaphrog’s Little Mermaid we have a glorious, beautiful, touching, warm, sad and yet inspiring version. I envy the younger reader for whom this will be their first experience of this much-loved tale; this is pure comics enchantment for both young and for the adult (especially those who try to keep at least a little of their soul from ever fully growing up, the better to still enjoy wonders). Buy it for your children, your nephews and nieces, read it with them, then after they go to sleep, read it again yourself, because it is too lovely for just the kids.