"Mera: Tidebreaker" review: visually striking with rich thematic depth
When writing for younger readers, a writer has a fine line to walk. Veer too far to one side and you run the risk of talking down to your readers, whereas going too far the other way can lead to subject matter that goes over the target audience’s head. It’s the difference between writing something that is “acceptable for younger readers” and writing something that is “only for younger readers.” You don’t have to sacrifice quality when crafting a story for a specific audience.
With Mera: Tidebreaker, writer Danielle Paige and artists Stephen Byrne, David Calderon, and Joshua Reed manage to walk that line pretty well. As part of DC Comics’ new DC Ink imprint-- which aims to deliver original content for the young adult readers market-- this original graphic novel casts familiar characters in a fairly new light and touches on themes that are applicable to anyone, young and old.
The story is quite simple: Mera, as a daughter of royalty, is expected to marry a chosen suitor so as to keep peace between kingdoms. What she wants and what is expected of her are in conflict, though, as she wants to make her own choices and prove her own worth. Knowing that whomever kills Arthur, the destined king of Atlantis, would be able to rule her home kingdom of Xebel, she sets off to assassinate the future king herself. She can’t go through with it, though, and not for lack of trying.
While the story doesn’t have many twists or developments that will take anyone by surprise, there’s an underlying message that I didn’t expect. The obvious theme is that Mera makes her own decisions for herself, demonstrating her agency in a world that expects her to be subservient to a man. She lost her mother years before, and wants to honor her memory by being strong and capable on her own. This is delivered with a decent amount of grace and restraint, in that it isn’t exactly subtle but still handled with a bit of deftness, and it’s the more obvious of the two main themes. It’s in her interactions with Arthur Curry, heir to the throne of Atlantis, that she demonstrates an equally valid message: let go of learned prejudices and know people for who they are.
I won’t ascribe intent where an author may not have meant it, but this theme resonated pretty deep with me. Thinking of the title “Tidebreaker,” it certainly fits with Mera’s arc: at first she goes where the waves will take her, until she changes course and causes ripples of change. While she may be a lone figure, her influence can reach others and, in time, they can change the course of the tides.
The romantic aspects of the story don’t quite pay off like they should, mainly because Arthur is a pretty blank slate, but his goodness makes Mera realize that Atlanteans aren’t hateful monsters like she’s always been told. In reading, I believed that, in the course of this story, her perception of Arthur and his people could change her character for the better. The pace moves quickly but organically, where Mera comes to see that the prejudices she had been taught from birth weren’t true. Arthur is good, so Atlanteans can be good. If Atlanteans can be good, then anybody can be good, despite what the rest of Xebel would have her believe.
Not to downplay the story and its underlying themes, as they’re strong enough to recommend the book, but what really impressed me here were the stylistic choices with the art. Stephen Byrne has a good grasp of anatomy, with some pretty memorable character designs, and the scenes underwater and the scenes on land have their own unique visual flair to them. There’s an Indiana Jones-style page where Mera floats above a map of the sea, with two dots connected by a line to indicate the start of her journey and her destination. It’s fun little flourishes like this that give the story an added sense of adventure, which I certainly appreciate.
The most notable choice, though, is David Calderon’s limited color palette, which is as striking as it is inspired. Most everything is colored in different shades of blue, green, and black, with some very washed out yellows and purples used sparingly. This makes the bright, fiery red of Mera’s hair pop out all the more, further demonstrating her individuality. It also ties her to her parents, both of whom share the same shade of red hair as their daughter. It’s a visual reminder that Mera never truly wants to divorce herself from her heritage, but instead seeks to move away from archaic beliefs and attitudes to become a better, more realized person.
Mera: Tidebreaker is aimed at a particular audience, but that doesn’t mean it can only be enjoyed by a specific demographic. It’s a quick, easy read that takes familiar characters and reimagines them in a believable way. The unique art style is worth reading the book alone, with limited colors being used to great effect. More than that, though, this is a story about making choices for yourself, with a call to put off preconceived notions about people and getting to know them for yourself. It’s a universal theme that we could all use a reminder of every now and then.