When someone describes a story as a “modern day fairytale,” they almost are describing one of two things. They’re either describing a story that is a modern reinvention of a famous period tale or they describe something that reuses and reinvents the archetypes found in old fairytales—the giant slayers and lost princesses. Both of these descriptions, I feel, do a disservice to what make fairy tales and folk tales important. I think what makes these types of stories important are how they uproot our understanding of reality. A boy leaves his village to fight a giant or a young woman is led astray by an evil witch--they're about removing us from the familiar and leaving us and the characters to make sense of a new chaos. That is to say, a good fairytale is like getting lost in the woods—all these elements that seem familiar become twisted strange and we with the characters have to obtain a new understanding to come out the other side.
What should be a science fiction story is wrapped and presented to us through a dreamlike trance of fantasy. A far off space colony is pushed to its edge by an underground army of animal hybrid creatures of their own creating. At the center of this, however, is a boy and his dog. In secret, the heads of this colony performed an experiment where a boy and a dog-hybrid were allowed to grow together, love each other and be treated as equals. They allowed the experiment to last until they didn't and this relationship reverberates still twenty years later even defining the very fate of this colony on the brink of mutually assured destruction.
The art of this collected volume alone is worth the cost of entry. The line work is almost sketch-like underneath these impressionistic watercolors that make every single page in this comic a beautiful work of art. From the character design to the architecture, every aspect of the world calls to mind a memory of a children's book whether through its animal characters or the colors that leave impressions rather than details. Nearly every page is a brilliant experimentation in framing and sequential art where some pages might be organized to look almost like stained glass pictorials. Then, equally as often, the gutters between panels become represented by tree branches or the architecture of surrounding buildings.
The visuals here never serve as experimentation for the sake of experimentation, but instead, summon this naturalistic and dreamlike lyricism tone to the story and demonstrate character emotions more than words often can. One main character, Ivan, has his hospitality spurned and this moment is presented as a shatter porcelain teacup then on the next page that spilled tea on the floor reflects the past wherein Ivan, too, rejected help. A conversation in the laboratory experimenting on the animal spiritual leader has its panels bordered by the very bars that hold them within.
The Mirror is a comic book where the art presents a magical but personal reality—one so impressionistic that it feels natural to shift between times and spaces on the same page and where a birth can be equally mirrored by a dissection a few images apart.
This looseness with time, reality and presentation can be disorienting. The linear first chapter follows the twenty-year relationship between the two main characters Ivan, a mage, and Sena, his dog-hybrid friend. Yet the next chapter jumps to a flashback of a wartime interlude where Sena works with a rebellion only briefly mentioned prior. Then this chapter itself is revealed to be a story told by one character to another. Abstractly, this structure can be disorienting but the Mirror has a narrative rhythm with how it handles its storytelling beats—this unique lyrical relationship between the presentation of space and time—that once the reader understands and connects with the rhythm the book opens up.
This style of storytelling and the elaborate nature of a setting with spaceships, mages, hybrid experiments and animal spiritual leaders can feel almost antagonistic to the reader. After all, most stories so deeply embedded in the science fiction and fantasy genre go to great lengths to explain every facet and detail of their worlds.
Not here—most details about the setting, it’s people and history has to be discerned by the reader either through visual observation or brief references in the dialog. Almost never do characters in the Mirror resort to becoming expositional mouthpieces for the benefit of the readers. Comics being the visual medium that they are, can make this particular story frustrating. We can so quickly see there are things going on and things going unexplained that we want to understand. I argue, though, that this allows the writing to become so much more emotionally truthful when characters interact.
People talk about the events and the setting the same way we would to each other in everyday life. This means when the characters speak they’re presented firstly as people rather than archetypes and narrative devices. So when their lives play out and emotions put on the line, these moments cut deeper than they ever would have otherwise. All together this made the Mirror a comic that crushed me more than any comic of recent memory, not due to a planned narrative shock, but by the line of empathy cast between me and these characters.
All together this made the Mirror a comic that crushed me more often than any comic of recent memory. Never due to a narrative twists or shock but by the line of empathy cast between me and these characters.
A lab rat scared but desperate to do the right thing. A dog woman who is so torn between two worlds she belongs to neither. A sad magician haunted by regret and a political leader trying to understand the difference between ambition and survival. All these elements that build the Mirror into a story that’s grasping for an understanding of what it means to be human and how it is we attain self-awareness.
Where genre fiction might shape this theme into a bludgeon of obvious morality, the Mirror instead provides an array of more naturalistic answers. Answers that tie back into the very presentation of the comic. Lives don’t contain themselves to a neat narrative structure and our own perspectives dip in and out of daydreams and memory that it's logical we would create the absurdist underpinnings of fantasy and science fiction to make sense of our current realities.
This is, after all, why we created fairytales.
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The Mirror vol. 1 - The Mountain Writer: Emma Ríos Artist: Hwei Lim Publisher: Image Comics Price: $14.99 Print/ $11.99 Digital Format: TPB; Print/Digital