Review time! with ‘Mistaken Identity’

“I think it’s coming on the wind and I’m gonna let it”

A few years ago, Gordon Harris sent me his graphic novel Pedestrian, which was pretty good. Then he sent me the first issue of The Secret Origin of the Dust Elves, which was also pretty good. He’s been creating his “dust elves” mythology for some years now, and now he sent me Mistaken Identity, which is a story about the dust elves, but focusing just as much on two young girls who see them one night. You don’t really have to know anything about the mythology that Harris has created to read the book – it’s a bit disconcerting when the dust elves first show up, because the girls know what they are and we don’t, but Harris gets to their function and what’s going on with them soon enough. The book is 84 pages long and costs $12.95, and it’s a very nice package for being completely DIY.

Harris repurposed some of the pages from The Secret Origin of the Dust Elves (this book is a collection of the four issues, but I don’t know how different it is from those comics), using the same art while changing the story just a bit, which is interesting and shows how long he’s been toiling on this. I’m not sure why he did it, but it works. It’s also pretty fascinating because this is essentially a plotless comic, as Harris is far more interested in asking philosophical questions than getting through a plot. If that sounds dire to you, well, that’s too bad, because Harris is good enough to make these questions compelling, even as he doesn’t even try to answer them (the important thing, as we all know, is asking the questions). So you’re in for a comic that is light on “stuff happening” but which will linger with you a bit longer than a fully-stuffed plot, if you let it.

The book begins with a long prologue, in which nine-year-old twin sisters, Daisy and Clover (Daisy is the narrator), lose their grandfather. Daisy compares it to the death of her gerbil, Duke, the year before, and Harris takes this odd juxtaposition and runs with it, as Daisy was much more upset by Duke’s death than her grandfather’s, as she admits she didn’t really know her grandfather that well. The night after the funeral, Daisy brushes Clover’s hair and throws the excess onto the floor (come on, Daisy, throw it in the trash!), whence springs a Dust Elf. He leaves a note for Clover but puts it on Daisy’s bed, and when one of the girls wakes up and sees him, he runs for it. Dust Elves use dust to travel between worlds, so the Elf simply finds a dust bunny and disappears. So we have two stories – that of Daisy and Clover, and that of the Elf and his friends, back in his world.

The Elf, whose name is Raynard, made a mistake. He addressed the note to Clover, but left it on Daisy’s bed, whom he wanted to address it to. Daisy is the more creative of the two, and Raynard was leaving her an encouraging note to keep at it (to comfort her after her grandfather’s death). Obviously, twins are an easy way to create confusion, but it’s a bit more than that, because they are somewhat different, so Daisy’s frustration with being mistaken for her sister is palpable. At school, another girl punishes her because she thinks she’s Clover, which frustrates her, but she persists. Meanwhile, the Elves – Slim, Jimms (yes, really) and Raynard – write their own origins because one of the girls – we’re not even sure which one it is, although it’s probably Daisy – asks where they come from, and their rule means they have to tell (they don’t actually tell the girls, though, which is strange). They each tell a different story, though, and they all claim they’re not true. Which is part of the point.

Harris does a nice job showing how we invent ourselves and how we move from one section of our lives to another. He also casts a critical eye on the things that others think are important and want us to believe are important, even if we don’t feel that way. That’s why the funeral section, as strange as it seems, fits in with the rest of the book. Daisy feels far more strongly about Duke than her grandfather, but her grandfather’s death is treated with gravitas by others, while Duke’s wasn’t. Harris shows us that they had a funeral for Duke, and he implies that it was a far better way to send off a loved one – with almost a celebration of a gerbil’s life and death – than the gray way the man is mourned. The story she tells herself about the funerals is at odds with the ones others will tell, because of her attachment to Duke and distance from her grandfather. Of course, it leads into Raynard leaving her the encouraging note, but it fits nicely with the themes of identity. Daisy is carving out her own, separate from her twin and separate from what others want for her (even though we never hear her parents in the book, but it’s implied that they want her to fit into a certain mold), and the Dust Elves are doing the same thing. They’re kind of nerdy, so in their stories they become heroes (in one case, literally, as Jimms turns his origin story into the Fantastic Four’s) who don’t live the boring lives they appear to be living. Only Raynard, the level-headed Elf, gives us a somewhat bland origin story, but even he writes it as if he’s creating a new identity for himself. Harris has a nice sense of humor, too, so even though he’s writing about serious topics, he knows that the Elves are a bit strange, so their stories are humorous as well as adventurous. It’s another good touch, because their current lives (and jobs) seem boring, so they re-invent their pasts to make them more interesting and fun. Even in the humor, there’s a sadness that this is not exactly how they wanted their lives to work out. It’s a good contrast to Daisy, who is young and full of passion, so she is creating a life that, they and we hope, will not need a revised origin story when she is older.

Harris isn’t the greatest artist, but he doesn’t need to be, as he’s good with human figures and with facial expressions, so the fact that his work is a bit stiff and his perspective is off at some points isn’t that big a deal. There’s not a lot of action in the book, so Harris doesn’t need to be too fluid, but he does some good work with the more “posed” scenes of action – an Elf leaping on a unicorn, for instance – where the action doesn’t have to flow too much. He has an excellent eye for detail, so Duke’s funeral is a beautifully precise affair, and the Elves’ headquarters is an odd mixture of coziness and mechanization. The Elves’ stories work partly because of Harris’s details – Raynard’s job wouldn’t be quite so terrifyingly banal if Harris wasn’t able to convey it through his pictures – while he makes Daisy and Clover’s world, like ours, a good mixture of the mundane and the beautiful. He uses color very well, too. The grandfather’s funeral is gray with pink undertones (implying a cloying, flowery sweetness covering up the death), while Duke’s is colored vividly, showing Daisy’s attitude toward both events. The Dust Elves, contrary to what we might have in our heads when we think of “elves,” live in a dimly-lit home, the better to make their stories come alive. Slim’s two stories are foundationally pink, giving them a cheery, almost mischievous vibe, while Jimms’s two stories are shot through with bright lightning, making them crackle figuratively with electricity. Harris uses a lot of prose in the book, so he leaves large areas between panels and on pages, but occasionally he doesn’t fill them with words, and it almost makes the characters – especially Daisy, with whom he does it the most – more isolated. I’m not entirely sure how intentional it was, but it’s still clever.

It’s a nice comic because when writers bring in conceits like “Dust Elves,” we might think of grand fantasy, but while Harris includes some of those elements, the book is much more intimate and humanistic. Harris is writing about themes that everyone can relate to, and he does a good job with those themes. It’s a smart book that upends expectations, and it will be interesting to see where Harris goes in this world. You can find the book on Amazon (see the link below, and remember, if you go through that link to buy absolutely anything, we get a small piece of it!), or you can go to his web site and poke around. It’s worth your time!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆

4 Comments

  1. Simon

    Was mildly interested, but…

    – “The book is 84 pages long and costs $12.95″

    It’s $18, and only via Amazon. (No Ingram or B&T for a bookstore.) Sorry, that’s just unsustainably expensive. (Why, just recently, HOW TO SURVIVE IN THE NORTH SC is $16 for 190 story pages (196 with endnotes), 7×10”, full-color, with a 12-panel grid of solid storytelling, thick opaque paper, sewn binding, no corners cut.)

    – “the book is much more intimate and humanistic”

    In such not-actually-fantasy style, you may like Kerry Callen’s excellent HALO & SPROCKET.

    1. Greg Burgas

      Simon: Yeah, I saw that when the Amazon link went up, which is weird. On the back it’s clearly labeled $12.95. I agree that that’s expensive, and I wonder why. I don’t worry too much about prices, but that’s a weird disparity.

      Thanks for the recommendation. I’ve heard of Halo & Sprocket but never read it. Just something else to think about! 🙂

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