The title of Caroline (pen name Coco) Picard’s comics collection, The Chronicles of Fortune, seems to suggest a tale of travels to faraway lands. But Picard’s hero Edith-May doesn’t go on many exotic adventures. Her journeys are more local and personal: She dons her superhero costume in secret, becoming her avatar Fortuna to get through daily tasks like making dinner. “Edith-May only ever cooked in secret,” the narration explains, “Everyone she knew thought she couldn’t. But they didn’t know about Fortuna either.” Edith-May resides in a magical-realist world where it’s commonplace for crocodiles to become stranded on the roof and a mountain (who can communicate) to grow in the living room and become her best friend. Fortuna is not for the magical part of Edith-May’s life; she’s for the mundane part.
Edith-May faces a range of relatable struggles: making friends in her neighborhood, attending social gatherings where she doesn’t fit in, dealing with bug infestations, facing her unrewarding job in customer service. But unlike the rest of us, she has Fortuna to help her manage them. Throughout the book, the Fortuna costume shifts between being a force of strength and a disguise that allows her to escape. After discovering that a moth infestation has destroyed one of her beloved childhood possessions, Edith-May quickly changes into her costume. The mountain asks, “Are you O.K.? You put on your costume & it isn’t even noon.”
“YES” she quickly replies, “BECAUSE I NEED TO BE BRAVER.”
What are the things we do in secret to keep us going? Picard’s stories interrogate how we find bravery and resilience in the face of adversity, questioning whether, if we could be superheroes, it would help us to be stronger or happier.
Haunting Picard’s stories, among the daily trials, is the ultimate adversity: death. In “From the Memory Theatre,” while sitting at home drinking coffee, Edith-May is suddenly struck by a realization: “What happened before returns like an unwanted guest that stays too long,” the narration explains, “Like the funeral for instance.” The book opens with the death of Edith-May’s mother, which is what created Fortuna in the first place. As Edith-May sorts through mourning and the logistics of death — funeral arrangements, material effects, and so on — “her spirit happened to split,” part of it taking the form of Fortuna, “the greatest superhero in the world,” who could have “killed death once and for all.” “From the Memory Theater” takes us through a series of Edith-May’s memories from that time, including small talk at the funeral, the preparation of the body, and sorting through her mother’s effects.
In another story, she learns that her grandfather has died and travels to California for the funeral, but when she arrives, the funeral has been canceled. “Edith-May didn’t want to admit that she had no money. She already had a reputation.” Because she can’t afford a place to stay or to change her flight, she visits Alcatraz. Once there, she stows away on the island, puts on her costume, and meets an American Indian ghost. Edith-May tells the ghost, “My grandfather died too. That’s why I’m here. He was my mom’s dad. She died a few months ago.”
“What about your dad?” asks the ghost, whose family is still alive but has long since left the island.
“He’s dead too.”
“Ha! It’s like we are the same but opposite,” the ghost laughs. “You’re the only one who’s alive & I’m the only one who’s dead.”
Fortuna’s run-in with the Alcatraz ghost, which is presented comically but reveals real tragedy in her life, isn’t her only afterlife encounter. At one point, in order to cash her mother’s traveler’s checks, Edith-May, as Fortuna, dresses up as her mother. While in disguise, “The ghost of Fortuna’s mother came down & possessed her daughter.” Behind this fantastical narrative of possession, Picard offers a poignant and astute assessment of loss. “Fortuna didn’t even believe in ghosts, not really,” the narration explains. “That is to say, she believed in ghosts as intellectual absences — pangs of emptiness that persisted indefinitely — not as active spirits.” Just like her earlier description of the pain of unwanted memories returning, Picard uses these fantastical situations to give real shape to loss and mourning, emphasizing that what’s hardest after experiencing a death is completing daily tasks while managing the unpredictably of grief. The ghost of death is emptiness. What’s heroic is facing it every day.
This is made literal near the end of the collection, in “Beyond the Valley of the Hoo-Haa.” Here, Fortuna faces death in a battle, which takes place in the belly of her friend, the mountain. Death takes the shape of a human-sized ghost form, with squiggly lines for a face and tall antennae/reindeer horns. Death speaks in a language that is unintelligible to humans but is translated for Fortuna by a moth. “Death says for you to kill it,” the moth tells her. A battle ensues, and Fortuna stuffs death in a stove, ready to the light the match and kill it once and for all. But ultimately, she lets death go. “If I turn on the stove, I’ll become just like it,” she says. “And then what? It would live inside of me forever.” In true hero fashion, rather than become a killer by enacting her vengeance, she frees death despite the pain it’s caused her.
In the guise of a fantastical hero comedy, The Chronicles of Fortune is a story about succumbing to and triumphing over loss and grief in all its forms, and learning how to grapple with the role of death in life.
The Chronicles of Fortune is now available from Radiator Comics.