Jon Vermilyea's expertise has always been mixing the grotesque and the mundane. Anthropomorphic slices of pizza drip cheese in a menacing and disturbing fashion, while anthropomorphic breakfast foods get into brutal fights.In Fata Morgana (presented in glorious color by Koyama Press), Vermilyea endeavors to create the sort of story that wouldn't be out of place with Toon Books or a generally adventurous children's book publisher. Maurice Sendak seems to be a clear influence here in this wordless story of a boy who gets out of bed, goes outside and sees his friend waiting for him--a little stone robot man. A forest full of trees with bulging eyes and heaps of goo inside of them await them, and each two-page spread reveals yet another adventure the two get mixed up in. Along the way, they pick up a number of companions, followers and fellow adventurers. At this point, the comic becomes a kind of game not unlike Highlights magazine's "Hidden Pictures" feature.
A "fata morgana" is a superior mirage, one that seems incredibly detailed and complex yet far-off. The book begins with him asleep and waking up to go out and ends with a mirror image of that original sequence, walking up to his house and waving to his friends and going to sleep. Is the book a Winsor McCay examination of dreams, or is a waking examination of one boy's imagination. The garden hose and mailbox are drawn with the same level of solidity as the anthropomorphic roast ham or pumpkin. Vermilyea gives no indication as to which world is real, and which world is the mirage but makes it clear that the events of the story are quite real to the boy. Each two-page spread opens up an epic's worth of storytelling possibilities: dodging a forest of gushing goo; escaping two gigantic monsters battling over a bridge; attending a big puppy's birthday party; riding the seas on a many-tentacled creature, etc. Along the way, there are even visual depictions of hurt feelings and fractured friendships, like one orange-and-purple adventure where the boy is having a great time but his stone friend is off sulking by himself. That's the sort of story where one would expect a moral at the end, only Vermilyea simply shuffles the reader off to yet another stunning two-page.
The boy may be in constant danger, but he's also very much in control of his own fate. It's hinted that he's clever and resourceful, and his ability to make weird friends helps him make the best of many dangerous situations. Life becomes a series of thrills that are made all the more wonderful because of his friends coming along with him. In that sense, the story is very sad, because it's about a boy who may not have any other siblings or friends of his own. In his fantasies, his toys come alive and become his friends--or perhaps a magical forest provides him with the friends he needs. However, this isn't a kid alone with his anger, like Max in Where The Wild Things Are. This isn't a kid who gets stuck in his blankets and falls off the bed, like Little Nemo. This is a kid whose imagination is such that it can only be sated by a series of adventures, each more bright and weird than the next, before he can rest. Visually, each two-page spread is an example of the illustration/cartooning hybrid that marks some children's literature. He invites the reader to carefully study each page in order to find each character and what they happen to be doing in each scenario, and also invites them to figure out who's new. Then there are some spreads, like one in which a group of starfish are engaged in an underground mining operation, where Vermilyea uses the page structure to depict dozens of mini-scenarios, as the reader flits from the "panels" created by the small caves in the mine. This is exquisite storytelling and becomes, in effect, a children's book aimed at adults. It may be too esoteric and complicated a book for children to follow; indeed, it requires leaps of logic and filling in narrative gaps in order to fully appreciate it. That said, it still manages to replicate the joys of reading this kind of story as a child without dumbing it down or drowning it in a sea of expository prose.