In 2022, my dear friend, and the publisher of SOLRAD, wrote a micro-review about Sas Milledge’s MAMO, a five-issue miniseries published by BOOM! Comics under their BOOM! Box imprint. The series ran in serialized form in 2021 and was collected in April 2022. In the series, hedge witch Orla O’Reilly returns home to the coastal town of Haresden after the death of her grandmother, Mamo. There, she meets Jo Manalo, a curious and determined young woman who needs Orla’s help to fix various magical mishaps in Haresden since Mamo passed away. When she was younger, Orla escaped from Mamo’s tutelage and into the wider world. Now she is drawn back to fix the problems that started with her grandmother. Jo and Orla grow close as they discover the truth of what is happening in Haresden.
Daniel found the book to be neither good nor bad – just a tired and threadbare sort of story for a specific sort of audience. Competent, earnest, and middling. I don’t think I need to refute Daniel’s review, but I find myself much further away from Daniel’s position than I expected after I read the book. Despite previous coverage, he’s agreed to let me take a crack at it.
First, let me discuss one of the biggest draws to MAMO, and that is Milledge’s fantastic art. Milledge has an eye for detail, a thin, expressive line, and a great eye for color. I’m not much of a periodical reader, but this is one of those comics that I might have collected issue by issue, just because of how beautiful it is. It’s a book that makes you want to stop and study the page. There’s a lot of hard work in this debut, and it makes me excited to see what Milledge is going to do next.
I also appreciate Milledge’s worldbuilding, which will be familiar to anyone who has spent time with English, Irish, and Scottish fairytales. Milledge’s worldbuilding digs deeply into the history of these fairytales and folk magic, but what she presents ultimately becomes something new during the telling. MAMO starts with Orla and Jo discussing a fairy ring – a specific trap that the faefolk use to capture unsuspecting people in order to either cause mischief or bind them to a magical contract. Inside the trap is a lure – something that looks beautiful or essential to the hapless target, but is of no use to the person creating the trap. This initial interaction has a specific resonance, and will eventually lead us to the climax of the book. Let’s put a pin in this point, and come back to it.
The backdrop of MAMO is one of a lack of understanding. Jo, the unaware protagonist who searches for a witch to heal her mother, has very little understanding of what magic is or what it can do. Orla’s experience emphasizes that basic point. Mamo was an isolated person, who hoarded magic power. Her relationship with her granddaughter was seemingly fraught – Orla consistently tells us that “Mamo never understood me or my magic.” But now that Mamo is dead, all of the magical things near Haresden have started to go haywire, and none of the locals know how to deal with it. They’ve never been taught, and they don’t understand. Ignorance and mistrust are the keys here, because they are the root of the anger and fear that has grown out of Orla’s relationship with Haresden. Mamo, by denying the people of Haresden the knowledge of magic and the fae, has taught them mistrust via ignorance.
There are connections between Mamo and Orla that are easy to catch, but I think it’s worth digging into them to build on the larger themes that Milledge is exploring. MAMO is a book that is largely about connections; the connection between family, between a person and their hometown. The focal point of the fantasy of this book, its witchcraft, is a power made for sharing. The plot launches into its stride when Orla shares a specific magical talisman. Magic is passed down, like a gift, and sharing that power ultimately means increasing it.
But what happens when you aren’t the person that your family and community expect you to be? More to the point – what happens if the difference in you is so intrinsic, that to ignore it would be to tear yourself apart? This is both the literal and sub-text of MAMO. In the literal text, it is Orla fighting against Mamo’s will to bind her to Haresden. But the subtext is a strongly queer one, one that explores the emotional conflicts of coming out as LGBTQ+.
Orla, prior to coming back to Haresden, was able, in a small way, to live as her true and authentic self. She is liberated. She is out. She drives around and sleeps in the back of her car, she does what she wants. But when she comes back to Haresden, she becomes “the hedgewitch’s granddaughter,” connected to an old identity that is both painful and no longer connected to her self-image. The act of coming out itself can be an anxious, sometimes dangerous experience. Orla already understands this intensely. When a person comes out, will they be met with acceptance, or will they be met with hostility and rejection? Will they be able to maintain their relationships with loved ones, or will they lose them forever? The uncertainty can be overwhelming.
In the extended metaphor that is MAMO, Jo Manalo is the answer to uncertainty. In her faltering way, Jo tries to understand Orla, tries to connect with her, and the two eventually do connect. Jo helps Orla reconcile herself to herself, and literally helps her bury the fear and shame that she left Haresden with. In Orla’s relationship with Jo, there is a specific form of victory that supersedes all of the failures that have happened in the past. She is able to work with Jo, and through her connection with Jo, reconnect with her personal history. (This makes Jo’s surname Manalo feel a little on the nose, but hey, I love “hidden in plain sight” symbolism as much as the next guy).
Because you see, as much as Jo is the victory through which Orla obtains her freedom, she is also the bait in Mamo’s fairy ring. Orla is queer, and Jo is apparently her type. Mamo uses Orla’s nature against her, trying to trap her and tie her down to Haresden. “You can’t be ‘out’ of here,” the specter of Mamo tells Orla. “This is where you have to be. This is where you need to be.” Mamo’s denial of Orla’s need to be herself will probably feel very familiar to anyone who is LGBTQ+ and has come out to a loved one, only to be told “that’s not who you are.”
But as much as Mamo tries to force Orla to live in a way that’s not true to herself, it can’t ever stick. It’s destined for failure. The bait in the trap has become the key to its release. Mamo’s relationship with Orla is one of jealousy, anger, and even sadness. There is love there, but it is twisted up and broken. Jo shows Orla an alternative path. The relationship between Jo and her family shows the alternative to loneliness and bitterness – Jo shows Orla what it is like to be accepted and loved. In that same vein, Jo takes Orla’s place in Haresden by accepting Orla for who she is, and by shouldering some of her responsibility. Jo welcomes Orla, and invites her into a loving community, and it’s because of that connection to Jo that Orla can continue to “be out.” The emphasized queer relationship that springs up between Jo and Orla is a clear overgrowth of the subtext directly into the text.
In that human way, connections are just as much about coming as they are going, and to me, that speaks to the essence of Milledge’s story. It’s not an original theme, by any measure, but her exploration and entwining of that theme with beautiful art and character writing are notable, and, frankly, make for a pleasurable read. That old saying, “You can’t ever go home again.” is a salient way to summarize the book, and it gets at the connections between person, people, and space that are so central to the book, but perhaps too, MAMO says that we always go home, and sometimes, we stay.