Fairy tales adapted for older audiences are a modern ubiquity. TV, movies, comics, and video games have been tapping into the timeless impact and universal familiarity of children’s stories for almost as long as I can remember. Most often, it’s the mark of a lazy writer; instead of needing to come up with something original and make it convincing, one can simply take the instantly recognizable characters and plots and alter them to make them more “edgy”, creating a contrast with the perceived innocence of the source material that some people, I guess, like, consider interesting for some reason?
Fairy tales can be aged-up without totally sucking, but it requires that the writer have a respect for the tales. Successful adapters seek to draw out and expand upon the elements that are relevant to adults, not simply inject child-inappropriate content for a cheap shock. Take one of my favorite novels, Ash. Malinda Lo takes the story of Cinderella, makes all the characters Asian again, and has the story focus on the romance between two girls. The essential themes from the folklore are intact, but portrayed in a way that deepens the lore and makes them relatable to queer readers.
Megan Lavey-Heaton and Isabelle Melançon’s Namesake does the same thing, but for like, fifty frickin fairy tales.
Emma Crewe thinks she’s an average Torontonian until she accidentally opens a portal and sends herself to Oz while picking her sister up from the library. Turns out she’s something called a Namesake, people whose names connect them to alternate worlds where our fairy tales and myths are historical facts. Ever since Dorothy Gale, Oz has been visited by a succession of Namesakes named Dorothy – girls from our world with the ability to travel between the two. And the latest Dorothy is… Emma?
Something isn’t right here.
Despite not being a Dorothy and apparently being there by mistake, Emma immediately gets knee-deep in the role, helping Ozites, rescuing the Scarecrow, and travelling the yellow brick road to the Emerald City to try to find a way home. But much has changed in the years since Dorothy Gale’s Oz, and there’s a new contingent of wicked witches to deal with – siblings Warrick and Selva – not to mention the nefarious poppies that have overrun the palace, trapping Oz’s princess and protector, Ozma, in a death-like sleep. Emma’s going to need a lot of courage, brains, and heart to fix the mess she’s fallen into.
Meanwhile, on Earth, her little sister Elaine is getting acquainted with Calliope, the secretive organization that recruits and protects Namesakes after they’ve finished their journeys and returned home. It also keeps track of Writers, those with the alarming power to dictate events and the actions of others, and whose job it is to record a particular Namesake’s story. As it turns out, Elaine is one.
There’s clearly a lot going on here, but there’s even more running under the surface. The villainous Rippers are Namesakes who have sold their names, and they seem to dog the steps of Calliope’s agents – Alice, Jack, and Wendy – as they try to unravel the mystery of Emma’s true nature. What do the Rippers know about Emma, and what are they planning? What are Calliope’s plans, for that matter? Even if Emma manages to return from Oz, what will she be coming home to?
The plot is thick, convoluted, and frankly a bit confusing at times, but the comic is carried by the characters, as depicted by vibrant linework and captivating dialogue that Meg and Isa churn out. I have a lot of lingering questions, especially about what the deal with Writers is, and I’ve even noticed a plot hole or two, but in a story with so many moving parts, you’re probably gonna grind gears every now and then. The important thing is that everything keeps moving forward, and it does.
God there’s a lot of moving parts. Namesake has one of the biggest casts of any comic I read, and when I try to tell people about it they tend to just start repeating “Who? Who?” until their eyes glaze over. Between the Ozites, Calliope, the Rippers, the flashbacks to historical Writers and Namesakes, the Crewes and Co, and other miscellaneous characters, it can be hard to keep them all straight.
Apparently the authors feel the same way (wink nudge see what I did there). So far Emma and Warrick seem to be on a path to endgame hetrom, but a huge portion of the supporting cast (though… mostly just the girls, when I think about it) is just gay as hell. Alice and her exes, Ozma and the Dorothies, Renge and Anlise, Selva and- hmm, no, I’d better let you see for yourself. But if you’re looking for cute yuri fluff, look elsewhere: these relationships are complicated, strained, and frequently quite painful.
All the relationships are like that, not just the romantic ones. Nothing is simple, and everyone feels multiple ways about everyone else. Isa and Meg do an incredible job of implying the nature of the various relationships simply by subtle changes in characters’ tone and demeanor when they speak to or about each other. Hell, I don’t even mind reading a hetero main love story, because it’s so well written and the characters contrast and complement each other so well.
But the best thing about Namesake is how it respects its source material. Oz’s story, for instance, builds off where L. Frank Baum’s books left off (he’s a Writer in the Namesake universe, btw), and does so in a way that’s realistic and mostly on-tone for the stories – except for the parts where interference from Earth is changing Oz. If you’re thinking that this makes Namesake “kid stuff”, well, you’re right and you’re wrong. The perceived innocence of stories for children is a modern invention; fairy tales, including newer ones like The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, and Peter Pan, all contain some pretty grim stuff. All Namesake does is play those elements straight, not downplaying them like Disney or exaggerating them for shock value.
If you’ve ever revisited a kids’ book as an adult and thought “wow, I forgot how dark this was”, Namesake is the comic equivalent of that, and captures that exact feeling exceptionally well. And if you’ve done that and thought “I forgot how much I loved these characters”, well, Namesake’s got you covered there too.
Final verdict: If you can ignore how confused you are by what’s going on and focus on the intricate emotional subplots between characters, you’ll get a lot out of this comic. If you’re someone who’s easily frustrated by such things, I’d say give it a second shot.