Authors: Brian Wood (Author), Ming Doyle (Illustrator)
Star Rating: * * * *
Genre: Graphic Novel, Sci-fi
NOTE: Review copy obtained via NetGalley
In the future, the world is embroiled in war. This inspires citizens of individual countries to become good patriots, and part of this shift takes the form of an obsession in sports. Children are tested and trained from extremely young ages to battle it out for their country in a jersey instead of army fatigues. One of the best and most beloved is Mara, an expert volleyball player. She’s beautiful, talented, and adored by all until strange things start happening to her. She’s faster, stronger, and a little less human every day, and it doesn’t take long for the world to turn against their former hero.
Mara was not at all what I expected, and my surprise was a good thing. The narrative is set up to answer the question of what would happen if Superman was a human woman instead of an alien man. How would the world respond to a person who becomes something so different? Is Mara even a human being anymore? Where is her place in the world? While these questions aren’t particularly novel, the author puts an interesting spin on them by having Mara’s world not filled with other mutants. She is the only one who changing in this manner. Unlike Superman who has his family of fellow superheroes, Mara is really, truly alone.
The greatest strengths of this book lie in the emotions that it invokes. Mara, despite the fact that she was extremely privileged with her fame and fortune, is a very unhappy character. Her life is largely scripted, and the sport that she is so good at she only does because she’s been told that it is her duty to her country to excel. When her body starts changing and everyone in her life abandons her, her isolation and dissatisfaction increases, and one has to ask the question of what exactly were all her sacrifices for if she was going to be cast aside so easily?
The art in this volume is fantastic. The characters, particularly Mara, are portrayed as strong and conventionally attractive in a realistic manner. They have the muscle definition that one would expect of elite athletes, and balloon breasts and hyper-tiny waists do not appear anywhere in this book. I also enjoyed the limited colour palette, and the strong line work from Doyle.
Mara is a racialised female protagonist. It is not particularly common for women to be the main characters in these types of sci-fi stories, let alone a racialised woman, so it is very exciting see Mara breach so many of the norms for this genre. Additionally, her identity as a person of colour is not her central or only feature, and it is refreshing to have a character just be her complete self without an author having to justify why he chose to make her a woman of colour rather than a white dude.
Another little thing that pleased me about this book was that it featured a lesbian couple, and this wasn’t portrayed as a big, epic, we-must-fuss-over-it type of relationship. Instead, Mara and Ingrid’s partnership was fairly normalised, even though it was also interracial. Admittedly, the relationship crashed and burned, but at least in the context of Mara losing all of her human relationships. Her queer romantic one wasn’t singled out.
There are two central and very legitimate critiques of Mara. The first is that the ending is rather weak. Mara has developed far beyond the capacities of normal human beings, and she’s been living in the vacuum of space. However, when a shuttle takes off from Earth on a deep-space mission, she feels compelled to follow it and listen in on the thoughts of the pilot as he comes to grips with the sacrifices that he has made in order to explore the solar system. His hopes and beliefs in the possibilities of humankind prompt Mara to reconsider whether or not she ever will reconnect with humanity in the future when she feels less damaged, and when/if people are less terrible. This scene was meant to leave readers with an ambiguous message of hope, but it is unsatisfying as there was no real resolution. I would have preferred to see Mara either head into deep space with the pilot (admittedly, a stereotypical ending that I just happen to like more), or have the book end before the scenes with the pilot even though this would mean that the story finished on a much darker and less hopeful note.
Additionally, I really wish the book had addressed the terrible things that were done to Mara more directly. Her choices were influenced by the fact that her humanity was denied, and the book ended with her contemplating a return to Earth in the future without this problem ever being addressed. The pilot represented a desire to improve oneself and push boundaries, but his virtues did nothing to counteract the systemic social problem of treating some human beings as throwaway people.
The other issue with Mara is that some may find that it tackles very big ideas and philosophical concepts in too short a space. The story touches on themes of war, excessive consumerism, and what makes us all human. Mara is born into a world where people are tools to be used, and children are taken from their families at early ages to become objects to be consumed and used as propaganda. When these children are no longer useful, they are rejected by the system. For example, Mara was one of the most popular athletes until she started developing her powers. Then she was dropped by her team without a second thought, and the military stepped in to use her.
Unfortunately, being that this volume is short, the narrative didn’t get to delve into these ideas and concepts all that deeply. Further, since the book was from Mara’s perspective, readers have no idea whether the world is really as bad as her experiences would lead us to believe. On the other hand, I did not mind the fact that the philosophical conversations brought up by this piece were truncated. Instead, I saw this story as more of an emotional journey than a work that was designed to provide answers and in-depth dialogues about complicated subjects.
Despite its flaws, I really enjoyed Mara. It is a short, self-contained story that harkens back to the more traditional days of sci-fi, except instead of the main character being an isolated man, we get to see these experiences through the eyes of a woman of colour. The power of this story is in the emotions that it invokes, and I really felt for Mara as her life was completely obliterated in the wake of all of her changes. While it may not have addressed every issue that it brought up, the story leaves readers with ideas to ponder, and a melancholy hope for Mara.