September 9, 2014

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SPX Spotlight 2014: Joey Weiser and the Mermin Series

Welcome to another entry in the 2014 SPX Spotlight series!  For the next month, Panel Patter will be highlighting creators and publishers who will be at one of the best conventions, the Small Press ExpoYou can check out all of Panel Patter's spotlights for SPX from both this year and prior years here.

One of the best parts of following a creator for a long time is watching how their career has advanced. That's definitely the case with Joey Weiser, who I first read way back in SPX 2008, devouring The Ride Home the same night I purchased it.

I've watched Joey as he created new characters, a webcomic, and launched a Kickstarter for what is now the Mermin series of books from Oni Press. He also works on the Spongebob Squarepants comic, too, which is an amazing book that also includes James Kochalka and many other indie creators.

I'm going to focus on the Mermin series here, as the third book, "Deep Dive" will be available at SPX this year, along with copies of the first two volumes as well.

For those unfamiliar, Mermin is a sea creature who comes to land to escape something at home in the land of Mer. Instead of starting with why Mermin has left, we only get subtle hints in the first book as Mermin tries to establish a life on land, blending in with other kids, and trying to disguise his powers. But when there's a threat involved, Mermin saves the day, leading to questions as to why the folks under the water won't just leave him alone.

In the second book, Mermin becomes the target of a different set of hunters. A pair of inept investigators are convinced that Mermin is an alien, and try to capture him, endangering the other kids in the process, as their attempts get more elaborate. Meanwhile, hints are leaking out as to Mermin's true role in the Kingdom of Mer, much as he tries to avoid them. By the end of the second volume, it's clear that what readers have been waiting for is about to occur--we're headed to Mer.

Exploring Mer and learning more about Mermin's family is the theme of the third book. Despite his misgivings, Mermin agrees to return--briefly--taking the kids along for the trip. They discover an amazing world--that's also at odds with Atlantis, where undersea humans live. Because the kids looks like Atlanteans, there's immediate friction, which only gets worse when a scheme is put in motion to steal the children and sell them back to Atlantis.

While Mermin struggles against his royal heritage, bringing up the theme of independence vs family needs, the kids get to see more of his home life, including the introduction of Merma, his sister. She's outspoken and aggressive, compared to Mermin's more reserved personality. It's a great contrast, one that I think will have more impact as the story goes on. By the end of the third book, Mermin must fight to free his friends (a common theme), but this time, it doesn't go as he planned, and things don't look good for Mermin, the fragile peace between Mer and Atlantis, or the children.

When I first started reading Mermin, I always liked that Joey had laced the fun story with hints that things were not as they seemed. In the third book, we start to see those seeds take root. Mermin is to carry on the royal name, and he doesn't want to. We now get to see why his association with humans is so strange to those from the sea, too. There's still a lot of mystery to be resolved, but it's nice to see Joey start to work these things in.

I also like the fact that despite making things just a bit darker every book, Joey isn't taking things down a path that strays too far from the sheer level of joy that came across in the pages of the original mini-comics. There's still a sense of fun, whether it's the comical depictions of the alien hunters in the second book or bully-turned-reluctant-companion Randy saying, "You're uni-sex!!!" when there's a question about the gender of his mersuit. Part of what makes Weiser so much fun as a creator is that no matter his subject, he always gives it a sense of wit and whimsy, and we still get that in Mermin, even as things start to look bad.

Another thing that's a lot of fun is to watch Joey's maturation as an artist. Though it's not like he was ever bad as an artist, there's a lot more background work in the most recent two volumes, and their complexity is increasing. While Mermin's action scenes in the first book felt tentative, by the time Mermin comes to rescue the kids, he's extremely comfortable having Mermin take on the bad guys, using speed lines, panels that depict the most active moment in a swing or a kick, and choreography that shows the action cleanly and crisply, both in close-ups and overview panels.

While Weiser will always be at his best when having characters banter and including small jokes or puns, it's only by adding the ability to draw conflict clearly that he's graduated to being someone who joins the ranks of other all-ages notables, like Jeff Smith. Watching that maturation take place across the various chapters of Mermin is something that probably isn't noticeable to the primary readers, but those of us reading as adults can watch and appreciate.

In terms of his general style, Joey likes to work in big panels, where he can give the characters lots of room to express their emotions. His love of Japanese monsters really helps him, especially in book three, where he creates all sorts of creatures, whether it's a giant, distorted version of Mermin, a long-necked creature that looks a bit like Uncle Deadly from the Muppet Show,* and of course the rounded Benni. He's got some great backgrounds in these books, too, whether it's an entire dock complete with boats or showing off undersea architecture.

There's a lot to love about the Mermin series, except for the fact that we have to wait for Book 4 to see what happens next!

You can sample Mermin for yourself at SPX, where Joey will have the first three books, along with some of his other comics, depending on supply. If you enjoy all-ages books or are a parent, make sure you talk to Joey at SPX. You'll be glad you did.

Can't make SPX? You can find Joey Weiser online here.


*Oh yeah, I'm going that deep with references. Deal with it!