Brea Grant (recognisable from her role as Daphne Millbrook from Heroes) is a storyteller who wears many hats, all of which she dons with great style, accomplishment and a generous sense of humour. From writer to actor to director to producer, she is a renaissance woman who works in her own Brea-shaped niche, boldly doing her own thing, whether it’s expected of a girl or not. She is also most comfortable when telling stories in the horror genre.
If such a description recalls another famous woman storyteller, that is no coincidence. Brea Grant is an admirer of Mary Shelley and has accordingly honoured her legacy in a new and refreshing manner: a YA graphic novel that tells the tale of Shelley’s female descendants, specifically focused on the adventures of her great-great-great-great-great-granddaughter and namesake. It is appropriately titled Mary: The Adventures of Mary Shelley’s Great-Great-Great-Great-Great-Granddaughter.
“One of the first things that really intrigued me about her [Mary Shelley] was how young she was when she wrote Frankenstein,” says Brea. “All of the tragedies that she had experienced by that time, and her own lineage too. She came from two very scholarly parents and her mother was a huge feminist thinker.”
“I don’t know if this is true but it always stuck with me that she was trying to live up to not only what her parents had set up for her when they educated her and then also what they’d done themselves, but also this thing that she wrote very early in her life,” Brea continues. “Now, it [Frankenstein] wasn’t as popular as it is now but still it felt like a person who peaked in high school, you know. She continued to write but nothing ever took off for her during her lifetime. So I think her, as a figure, that always seemed a little tragic to me. And, in writing the comic book, I just used some of that… and then basically made up the rest (she laughs).”
For the sullen and stubborn teenage Mary of Brea’s graphic novel, there appears to be no career alternative than to become a writer (after all, her mother, aunt and grandmother are all successful writers too) but Mary simply does not feel the calling, and bearing the name of her famous great-great-great-great-great-grandmother does not make things any easier. And then, she unexpectedly undergoes a magical awakening and, as her new talents reveal themselves, Mary realises she could have powers that are even mightier than the pen.
Without divulging spoilers, there are monsters involved in Mary’s adventures. Naturally. It would be simply unethical for Brea Grant to write a story about the descendants of Mary Shelley and not tap into the rich vein that the original Mary opened when she conceived her literary gift that keeps on giving. Brea readily admits to having a soft spot for the monster sub-genre* and she cites an inspiration for Mary that seems likely to have received Shelley’s approval: Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
“Buffy‘s been such an influence on my life,” Brea admits. “I love the Monster of the Week idea. I love the way that it’s written and designed. I mean, in some ways this character [Mary] is very Buffy-like because Buffy discovers that she is a vampire – she is the Slayer. I think a lot of the stuff I write is similar to Buffy and it’s just because it was such an influential piece of art to me that I really don’t know how not to write Buffy.”
“I also think the book itself is very Joseph Campbell,” she continues. “She [Mary] gets this calling and then she decides, ‘No, I’m not going to do this’. And she keeps turning. I think that’s a little Buffy as well. Buffy always struggled against it and would have moments where she was ‘Maybe I don’t want to be the Slayer?’ And that is a little bit of Mary.”
When taking on the creation of Mary, Brea was already a dab hand in comics and graphic novels. In 2010, she wrote her first comic book mini-series, We Will Bury You, with her brother, Zane Grant, which is an alternate history of the Great Depression with a zombie attack. She then continued the comic writing trajectory with Let’s Play God and SuicideGirls. While the storytelling of Mary fits snugly within the comic book format, Brea admits to originally having different plans for the project, which make the Buffy the Vampire Slayer parallels even more pronounced.
“I originally had written this as a television pilot idea,” says Brea. “I wanted to explore unfulfilled potential. A lot of my work has to do with unfulfilled potential. I don’t want to get into the psychoanalytic reasons for that (she laughs)!”
“I wanted to think about a woman in this situation because I feel we see a lot of these stories where it’s this young man who has such great potential and he’s not living up to what he should be. But we don’t often see it with women. So, I wanted to play with that idea of this girl who was feeling like a failure because she wasn’t doing what she had been told she was supposed to do her entire life. Then she finds out that maybe the reason that wasn’t working out for her was because that wasn’t actually her life. It’s not her life’s goal. She has other options for her life.”
“I think this theme is something we can all relate to a little bit, especially those of us in the arts or those of us who’ve made interesting career choices that are hard for our parents to understand and hard for our friends to understand. I think, for me, it was just working through that in some ways for myself.”
However, switching gears from conceiving a television series to graphic novel ultimately proved advantageous for the Mary project. As Brea says, “I love working in the graphic novel space because there are so many less limitations.”
“Just story-wise, I can say, ‘Oh, I want to present a woman with half a face coming out of the shadows and end with a giant Loch Ness monster sequence.’ And no one is going to say, ‘That’s too expensive to shoot’ because it’s all on paper. I get to go as big or as huge as I want. That is really exciting to me as a person who has mostly worked in the independent space as far as filmmaking goes where there are just so many limitations financially on what you can do.”
“It just requires less people to do a graphic novel. You know, it’s really at the end of the day just me, Yishan, Bethany my editor and then a couple of publishers who gave me really great notes and comment with ideas. It [creating a graphic novel] requires less resources but I still get to do what I like doing, which is storytelling, and exploring interesting story ideas, and things I might not be able to do in filmmaking.”
The ‘Yishan’ Brea mentions is UK/Chinese manga artist Yishan Li who was responsible for breathing graphic life into Brea’s graphic novel (and, not surprisingly, she lists Dark Horse’s Buffy comic series in her CV). Yishan’s illustrations are such a hand-in-glove fit with the Mary storyline that it is hard to believe the two creators were not in cahoots from the onset of the idea.
“I had written the graphic novel and had been working on it for maybe a year or so,” Brea clarifies. “My editor sent me a list of illustrators to look at and I saw Yishan’s work and thought it was just amazing. Because Mary Shelley herself is so gothic – Frankenstein is very gothic – and, when I think of her, I think of this very specific era and this very specific look. So I wanted someone who could capture that spirit. Yishan has a manga-gothic look to her work. It just felt so unique and interesting and something that I thought young people would respond to.”
When asked about the ‘magic transitions’ that occur thoughout the book, Brea says, “[Yishan and I] talked about that a lot. What is really happening with her powers? How do you visually represent a feeling? Which is so tough. I wanted it to feel a little abstract and a little comic booky and very… sort of like the 1920s, 1930s… old school. I wanted it to feel like electricity running through her body. And I think Yishan captured it really well. We changed that up quite a bit as we went along. It took a long time for us to really decide what it looked like.”
Another famous female horror writer makes an appearance in Mary: Shirley Jackson. But not in the human guise you may expect. The Shirley Jackson of Brea’s imagination is a stuffed toy rabbit that speaks.
“I wanted there to be a ghost who could give advice,” says Brea. “I host a podcast every week called Reading Glasses with Mallory O’Meara who is also a monster writer. She wrote a book called The Lady from the Black Lagoon about Milicent Patrick, the creator of the Creature from the Black Lagoon. I asked her [Mallory], ‘What horror author who’s dead should be a ghost in this book?’ And she said, ‘Shirley Jackson, hands-down.’ I wanted her to be a woman with opinions, essentially. And I think that Shirley Jackson is the exact woman I needed for that.”
The major buzz around Brea Grant in 2020 has justifiably been for her feature release as writer-director, 12 Hour Shift, starring Angela Bettis and David Arquette. However, it’s fair to say this graphic novel sits very close to Brea’s heart and is considered of equal importance to her.
“Success for me would be people reading it,” she concludes. “I’d like people to maybe take the time to think about Mary Shelley a little bit because there’s some interesting things about her that, maybe, get overlooked in the horror community. But success for me would also be helping young people – or any people, actually – if they’re struggling with life decisions to realise that maybe they need to think outside of the box a little bit.”
Mary: The Adventures of Mary Shelley’s Great-Great-Great-Great-Great-Granddaughter is currently available for pre-order online. Publication date: 22nd October 2020.
*Notably, in the 2019 film After Midnight, she shared the screen with a colourful and prickly ‘man in suit’ monster whose reveal is stunningly timed with a rendition of Lisa Loeb’s ‘Stay (I missed you)’.