In a couple of recent reviews, I have complained about the tendency of comics to leave the reader in the dark in a way that is manipulative and predictable. Unless they are handled with extreme care, mysteries in stories can feel like thinly veiled macguffins designed to keep readers hooked. Mirror #1 by Emma Rios and Hwei Lim serves as an excellent example of how to avoid these pitfalls by making a confusing, potentially alienating concept into an emotionally satisfying story. At the then end of Mirror's first issue, I was not sure I understood all of what I had read, but I was nonetheless emotionally invested and anxious to read more. I suppose in some ways that should serve as a warning as well as a recommendation: Mirror will confuse you, but it will be worth it. Originally conceived as part of Brandon Graham's 8House (and still set in that universe though it stands alone), Mirror sets up a fantasy world with a distinctly modern twist. In a magical land referred to only as 'the Irzah colony', a human noble is attempting to create intelligent human animal hybrids in hopes of capturing something (it is not clear what) from the ancient animal guardians. This plot is unspooled bit by bit over the issue and I would not be surprised if I got some parts of it wrong, but the conceit is that whole new species are being created and do not hold the rights and privileges of humans.
We are introduced to this world through the story of Ivan and Sena, a magician boy in training and his girl/dog friend. After being forcibly separated, Ivan grows to become a master mage while never forgetting the friendship he had with Sena. He extends an uncharacteristic kindness to Zun, a mouse-girl while refusing to bow the wishes of his lord Kazbek. As Kazbek and Ivan butt heads over the treatment of animals, Zun struggles to take care of an increasingly decrepit bear and a suitably grumpy sphinx.
While this dense plot could come off as dry and over-dense, Rios wisely keeps the script light, choosing to emphasize characters emotions and body language to tell their story instead of relying too heavily on exposition. We glean from Ivan's stooped but calm demeanor just how far he's come from the cheerful boy and his dog. We see by Zun's wide eyed looks that despite a life of servitude, she takes joy in the everyday excursions he is allowed to take. Even Kazbek, the closest thing the book seems to have to a villain, is fleshed out by his aversion to cruelty and the gentle mannerisms. The characters feel real, and vibrant often because they deviate from the archetypes so common to this sort of story.
Hwei Lim proves a worthy collaborator to Rios as she makes an original, imaginative world come alive while never losing the emotional thread of carefully paced story. Each character is well-designed with special mention going to Zun whose round head and gigantic eyes immediately evoke a mouse without losing the emotional range of a human face. The complex page layouts are reminiscent of Rios own work (I suspect she provides thumbnails in fact), but Lim's art has a softer less cluttered effect, making them easy to read. Playful touches like Zun sitting on a panel border stood out to me as subtle reminders of the fantastic nature of the story. As a final beautiful touch, the colors look like watercolors applied in largely pastels to Lim's loose, rounded line work.
If there is one downside to all of this, it would be that despite feeling like complete emotional story some moments are a bit too confusing. At one or two point, I was unsure if what was depicted was flashback, imagination, or some other plot device. I believe the intent was for certain scenes to have a dreamlike quality, but in a story with so much unexplained going on it became confusing and pulled me out of the story. In the long run this is a minor quibble and offset more than a little by the ambitious nature of the story.
Mirror #1 is one of the most hugely enjoyable opening issues in recent memory, and I will be very excited to explore the world Rios and Lim have set up. I have barely scratched the surface of what is contained in the issue, and I highly recommend you get a copy yourself.
Mirror #1 Author: Emma Rios Artist: Hwei Lim Publisher: Image Comics Price: $2.99 Release Date: 2/3/16 Format: Ongoing; Print/Digital