Mermaid Project Volume 1
Leo & Fred Simon & Corine Jamar, Europe Comics, izneo.com
IZNEO HAS PROVIDED WWAC WITH A VIP ACCESS PASS.
Mermaid Project tracks a young woman trying to prove herself as a detective in the Paris of the near future. She becomes unexpectedly linked to an international, industrial scandal and is sent to America to follow leads that are apparently only available to her. She meets a new partner, her estranged brother, a potential lay, and… But that would be saying too much. Think Neuromancer, but not in the way you’d expect.
This is a book for white people: it’s a book quite specifically designed, I think, to ask white people in white-majority countries (or, to be more precise, in France) to consider the effects of racism. As far as Google can tell me, both scripters (Leo and Jamar) and the line artist (Simon) are also white; this explains why it feels to me, as a white reader though not a French person, like some sort of domestically delivered lesson as much as it does a low-key, cyberpunk/casual, dystopic mystery-adventure.
Mermaid Project feels like it carefully is modelling “how racism is bad, in micro thanks to macro.” It does this by positioning its main character, a white woman, in an ethnic and gendered minority both at work and at large. It’s the future! The economy has changed, those changes have changed society, and now “everyone” in power in France is black as today they are white.
Romane, our heroine, is used as a bitter pill for the white reader who won’t take their medicine elsewhere: she is the only white woman detective in a police office otherwise staffed by black men, and she feels the professional impact of gendered racial prejudice, the personal chafe of prejudiced assumption. She also addresses her niece’s confusion, upon being dumped for racial reasons, with historically grounded pragmatism. Well, she says, white people used to be in charge, and we sucked. We were cruel. Now it’s like this; this is where we got ourselves. That’s how institutional abuse tends to work. Romane is cast as an appealing underdog, and we see the stings of unfairness as they hit her, as well as how resigned to them she is and isn’t.
It does not entirely work for me, as a critic considering the book as a scattered shot, although I can remember a version of myself for whom this allegoric approach to current injustice would have felt edifying. I can picture it being a confidence builder for the weaker white ally. It might even be a functional wake-up call for the casual racist. I suspect it would fall far short of acceptable for a great many anglophonic black readers, although I can’t speak for the original French context.
The black presence of the police force Romane works for makes the initial scenes of apparent police corruption (or casual disinterest?) feel off, while I know they would not trouble me in a white-majority fictional police force, and at the beginning of the story the extremity of the phenotype illustration, once Romane arrives at work, is sudden and, as a choice, jarring.
The emphasis, by inclusion of heavy contrast between approaches taken to the features of our white heroine and those of her black boss, is cartooning that communicates something, but what exactly is hard to intuit when only four or five pages into an entirely new story. The most easily available comparison options for racialised French cartooning are the “challenging” cartoons of Charlie Hebdo. Though Mermaid Project does not feel like it encourages me to entertain disgust, disdain, or hate, which many Hebdo illustrations very immediately do, this and that both have a certain “n’est-ce pas?” observational aggression.
As the comic begins to introduce more of its black characters, I feel further compelled to respond to these design choices, but not sure of what I’m being asked. This is a comic that has mentioned in its blurb that Romane is “the only white woman in her station,” so discussions of race are surely on the card. Romane is a character design somewhere on a Hewlett-Knisley scale (below): short on gendered facial shorthand, but long on a sort of practical grace. No lips, no eyelashes, not much in the way of cheekbone. The definite cheeks and carefully delineated lips of her demanding black boss are visual vocabulary that also appears in extreme historic racism, which makes the first twenty pages or so an uneasy and disorienting read. Romane, as our visually underplayed, introductory character feels “unmarked,” and her superior feels “marked.” What is this trying to say? Where is it trying to go?
As Romane leaves France, and the racial meta-narrative widens to include non-black men of colour in primary support roles (as below), this uneasy tension fades. There is, at least for me, just too much awareness of art as a tool of targeted humiliation against black people for artwork that takes so much care with features which, excuse me, really feature in that history for Mermaid Project to read entirely well whilst black people are central to the narrative. I’m not sure if that’s my shortcoming, the book’s, or both. Once Romane leaves France to work with international allies El Malik and Molinos, non-black men of colour, there’s less art-historic racism to curdle the message, at least as far as I know. This may be specific to my reading experience. The book certainly becomes more engrossing at this point; as Mermaid Project moves away from the thought experiment, Romane is increasingly involved in a real mystery and no longer stymied by the depressing shortcomings of her regular day job.
Always ready to get stuck in, and DTF in the right circumstance, Romane recalls The Cute Girl Network‘s skater-protagonist Jane’s air-dried femininity. In target-printed t-shirts and thong necklaces, she’s not the usual sort of female police detective protagonist, and this also serves to make the reader pay attention to how she’s treated, opening them to the anti-racist message Mermaid Project intended (I believe) for delivery. She doesn’t “make sense” as a creation, because she’s an unfamiliar concoction in a familiar genre; she doesn’t allow the reader to take her for granted as a functional piece of the narrative whole. But she does “make sense” as a realistic person and as an aesthetic whole of her own. We want to see how this story will work around her, now that this notable, unusual component has been introduced.
And so we keep our eyes on everything, not just skimming over the catalytic aspects of the main character. And so we ask questions like, “Why would he assume she doesn’t know that?” or “Why isn’t she afraid in this situation?” We trick ourselves out of passive entertainment and into thinking about individual response to racial classification. Or we are tricked. These maneuvers are very impressive and very well crafted, as could be expected of a work co-created by a veteran, master cartoonist like Leo. This is not to say, I must repeat, that this is a flawless work of activism; it is an example to study.
The mystery Romane is drawn into is intriguing. A tip is sent to a bereaved couple: their daughter’s death on foreign soil was suspicious, and Romane, they’re told, has something to do with it. When it’s discovered through exhumation that their black daughter’s coffin contains a large white man, and that Romane’s brother works for the American company that returned that same coffin (sealed) to France, our heroine is sent to partner with an international agent for an American leg of industrial investigation.
Undermined by expectation, Romane has to prove herself again and again to this nice, decent, justice-inclined man, and to the American agent they meet to work with. Not showy, explosive proof; just the unspoken humiliation of the understudy on the open stage. The men she works with in America—that new professional partner, a Miami police contact—show appreciation for her and both value her observations, but there’s a membrane of assumption to push through that puts every exchange on an invisible edge. If a reader has trouble crediting the assertions of institutional racism by real-world people of colour, they may find them harder to deny from Romane’s point of view.
Like Neuromancer, Mermaid Project is interested in the sinister effects of capitalism: her brother, a valued employee of the company under Romane and partner El Malik’s subtle investigation, must speak to her through prison-visitation glass and their conversation is filmed as standard. He communicates “danger” through a convoluted conversational gambit and this is not suggested to be a result of one woman’s possible murder, but a symptom of the much larger-scale industrial corruption that allows individual murders to be symptomatic of the social order.
It’s made plain that capitalist excess victimises people, communities, nature. Everything is disrupted by the conjured necessity of output/income growth. This is not unrelated, I think, to the decision to make it clear that economic ebb and flow was responsible for racialised supremacy during the past and the present of this story. I’m not familiar with Corine Jamar‘s other works, which don’t appear to be available in English, but chasing dollars is bad for humanity, at large and individually is a theme quietly and persistently repeated throughout Leo’s superb space colony cycles.
Mermaid Project has only two volumes translated on izneo’s Europe Comics reader platform, though it spans five in original French. It also has a sequel series beginning in French this year. I’ve only read the first volume (the second was released during the period I spent writing this), and despite my stated misgivings, I’m interested in how the story and its diligently tracked themes develop. I feel that there are things here for me to consider and learn.