Girl From Mars is a story in a story, about a female comic book character who is brave and isolated, honest and ferocious, and about 50+ years old. Philomena Brown, or “Fil” for short, is the artist who has for a few years been drawing her comic idol, the Girl from Mars, as her job. Many people think that “Fil Brown” is a man, and are surprised and often dismissive of a female comic artist when they meet her.
Fil has blue hair, is very standoffish and socially awkward, is incredibly and impossibly talented, is a woman in a very male-dominated profession, and is a layered character of complexity and confusion – both in that she is often confused, and that she can confuse the reader, too. The blue-haired iconoclast is a bit like Lisbeth Salander, except that, if you insulted her, instead of hacking your computer and cutting you like a pig like Lisbeth would, Fil would retreat and later draw something horrifically violent and very satisfying happening to you. Frame by frame. Over multiple pages, so as to savor every scene.
Fil lives a very prescribed life: she has her friends, Digger, Stevo and Jim, and she has weekend marathons of The X-Files, plays Dungeons and Dragons regularly, and is part of the reigning champion team of Trivia at the local pub. Her life has a schedule and a very limited social order, and she’s very comfortable with that, because Fil is not comfortable with people she doesn’t know. Given her limited sphere, that means she’s not comfortable with most of humanity.
When she zones out during a staff meeting and misses her boss’s explanation of what changes are coming for Girl From Mars, she thinks she might have missed something important, but pushes aside the feeling and gets back to work. So she’s knocked flat on her ass by the arrival of Dan, an American writer who specializes in romantic comedies, and who is the grandson of Girl From Mars’ creator. She doesn’t like Dan, she doesn’t like his ideas, she doesn’t like what’s going to happen to her character, her idol, her secret best friend, this comic heroine, and she doesn’t like having to step out of her routine, the one where she doesn’t have to think or do any sticky interactions with other people who are pesky and confusing.
From about the midpoint of the book until the end, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of “COME ON ALREADY.” The plot was moving, but the heroine was going in circles, letting things happen to her, being afraid, making mistakes, not learning from them, and going in another circle again. She was doing the same things, so why was everything different? Why was everything changing?
One of her best friends harbors feelings for her that she doesn’t notice, or willfully disregards, and I couldn’t tell which. At one point she says she knew and at another she’s utterly mystified by the idea. The possibility that she never really knew about his feelings matches her general confusion with social interaction, social cues and dealings with people in general. The possibility that she knew and suppressed it makes me angry at her, and makes me think less of her character.
Fil wants to be like Girl from Mars. She identifies with the isolation of the character, and in a way her art, her talent and her absolutely overwhelming creative drive are her superpower. But Fil also isolates herself because, as she says repeatedly, if nothing changes, no one gets hurt. Of course, everything changes and you can’t stop that.
What frustrated me most with Fil, and the story is very much about Fil and a lesser extent about Dan, is how she doesn’t take steps for herself, doesn’t go after what she wants, and almost remains childlike in her insistence on the status quo being permanent. She’s insecure, easily confused, very vulnerable and tremendously talented and unique – and just about everyone in her life, except for Dan, takes care of her in one way or another. Her friends are her social routine and pseudo-parents. Her housemate knows that when she’s creating the art for the next comic that she’s in her own world. Her friend knows to make sure she gets some sort of vitamin when she’s in full-on creative mode… she’s cared for by her very tight circle of friends and doesn’t really have to grow up or grow forward.
So when she starts kissing Dan, she almost seemed too innocent to be doing even that. I read her as so much younger than she is because of all that developmental reluctance, and her strides forward toward the end of the story were so limited I didn’t know if she’d truly grown up or not.
I’m trying to think of an example that won’t give away crucial plot elements. Fil has a very rough relationship with her parents, for one thing, as her parents are both academics who seem to have little to no understanding of their daughter’s passion with comics and art, who spend all their time in their world of literary theory and debate. But suddenly, after a few awkward and stilted visits with them, Fil’s parents reveal that they do understand her, they do appreciate the narrative art she’s passionate about, and that they are proud of her—and Fil accepts this change of status and a reinvention of her entire perception of her parents without fuss. The ORLY owl has more shock and reaction than Fil.
One of the hallmarks of Girl From Mars (the comic book character) is that she routinely chooses everyone else over herself, puts the greater good and the balance of peace and happiness as a much higher priority than her own joy and completion. This is the stuff of endless sequels for heroic characters, but the stuff of frustration for heroines who are meant to be real and empathetic. Fil does that very thing, puts everyone else above herself for so long, for reasons of such deep insecurity, that when she finally learns to grab the steering wheel of her own life in her own hands, I don’t really know that she knows how to hold on and drive it. I half-fear that she’d pass the wheel to someone else, because it’s too big and scary to drive, and easier to let someone else chauffeur her some more.
I liked reading about a heroine SO different from the norm, who cultivates an iconoclastic image to camouflage her own confusion when dealing with humanity. If normal social interaction is like having brown hair, rather than pretend she knows how, Fil will dye her hair as far into the spectrum of isolation as she can. I was in awe of her talent and really enjoyed the scenes where she was creating, explaining the steps and process of writing a comic. I also adored the ways in which Fil explained to Dan the difference between film and comics, and narrative and comics, how telling a story one frame at a time means making choices of how much to reveal and how much to conceal – or give up entirely. Fil is an expert in her field, and amazingly good at creation in her chosen medium, and her exploration, creation, and explanation of comics was easily the best part of the book.
But her coming to terms with real relationships was not as satisfying. I rooted for her, but by the end of the book, my admiration for this individual was tempered with pity for how stubbornly she clung to her own insecurities and lack of self-esteem. My desire to cheer her own was also greatly diminished by the moments of, “Oh, honey, come on now. Get ahold of yourself and grow up already.” If Fil were a comic book heroine, there would be room for many, many more issues for her to slowly, frame-by-frame, work out more of her, well, issues.