Between the subtly printed opening pages and the carefully mirrored closing ones which bookend Fata Morgana, you’ll find what seems at first blush to be a standard children’s story. A boy embarks on a nighttime adventure, traversing a fantasy world, in which may very well be a dream. There’s hardly a safer sphere to which you could invite a reader, and Vermilyea does so gently, in a way that’s up-front, confessing even with the title to the story as mirage, or fiction. And yet what separates Fata Morgana from a century of stories a bit like it—Little Nemo and much of Sendak, and more recently Matt Furie’s lovely Night Riders—is that it seems less aimed at those readers still in the midst of childhood than at those remembering it.
The second cue to this, after the title, might be that we’re not asked so much to identify with the protagonist as to get lost with him. We don’t find him until a few pages in, sleeping calmly, adrift in space. Vermilyea plants him far to the right of a spread light on information—all that’s beside him is a softly glowing network of multi-colored stars; the constellations and possibilities they may hint at are only briefly left unclear.
From there we’re plunged into a series of much more aggressive, crowded pages—most immediately a toxic world of indigo and green—waiting right outside the poor kid’s doorstep. From there, both palette and the world’s contents shift erratically with each page turn, actually making the lead character quite difficult to follow. The entire book from here on is structured, like many picture books, into spreads of double pages. The design is seemingly for you to get lost in them, with color as the clearest compass for both eye and mood. Within this structure there’s a strain, too, made on comics’ tendency towards narrative fragmentation and significant leaps, less asking the reader to follow one path or connect the events of each set of pages than to realize how there could be infinitely more scenarios like these, take them as they come, as gestured at through those initial spreads of stars.
The book’s world is filled with monsters, anthropomorphic trees, and creatures made of fruits and cheeses—a world not so light on cartoon gore, either—and rich, too, in small hints towards meaning. On most every spread the characters traipse against the path of our vision, from right page moving into left. This trajectory is averse to our natural one, forcing the reader through the fixtures of the world before we consider their situation.
This makes quite a few choices seem at first to be arbitrary—what leaves the characters at some times chipper and at others frightened can only be guessed at, as many of the book’s more benign creatures could easily hold the place of the crueler ones. Which is to say there are no particular stakes here, unless you choose to take on the position of a worried parent, struggling to track both child and story through a brightly-colored tangle of new sights and sounds, desperately foraging for some concrete means of orientation, or other scattered hints of meaning. But that would be, as Vermilyea implies, to be groping at a mirage, a prospect far less rewarding for this adult reader than just letting go, as in dreaming, with wonder as the only end in mind.