When discussing Mirror, the most common word repeated, whether it be interview or review, is “collaboration.” From its release, Emma Rios and Hwei Lim’s 12 issue long science fantasy maxiseries was recognized as a joint effort, with frequent comments about the fluid nature of their artistic process. Mirror is a branch of a larger proposed project called 8House, yet stands completed and exists independently. However collaboration seems like an insufficient word for what the reader is witness to throughout the series and in this issue in particular. Examining Mirror further points towards a need within comics culture for more sophisticated language to describe this kind of work.
Mirror is a dense creation, with a cast of characters who are so specific that their intentions are hard to hold in your mind as the dreamlike science fantasy unfolds. In issue 6, the audience encounters a kind of unexpected short story in the midst of a longer narrative. Thus far the readers have been following a collection of animals, altered by the properties of an asteroid, and forced to seek a new home. Akin to Ursula K. LeGuin’s short story, “Semley’s Necklace” (which functions as a short story and a chapter of the novel Rocannon’s World), this issue cuts away from the main action to tell what seems to be a smaller story.
In it, a stonecarver takes an apprentice named Ninua who breaks taboo in the realm of the space gods, cursing herself to a life in the gods’ domain. It’s a fairy tale about creative transgression, sandwiched within a larger epic about searching for home. Issues later we’ll see how Ninua as a grown woman factors into the world to come – but at this moment for the reader she seems an anomaly in a narrative of anomalies.
Throughout the series thus far, Lim’s panelwork has been noticeably restrained in comparison to the fluidity of the figures and backgrounds within. She’d established a claustrophobic tone that set these characters on a certain path with the geometry of their surroundings. Rios steps in this issue, acting as more than a supplemental artist and handling a majority of the page count after her contributions seemed limited to backmatter material and vignettes highlighting the overall series’ narrative. Rios uses watercolor as her medium, asserting through this work that she was capable of pages that weren’t dripping with expressionistic black ink. This style, which seems an homage to Lim’s fluid linework, is deployed throughout the later half of Mirror for other major flashbacks.
While reading this issues and its concluding pages by Hwei Lim, the reader realizes the intertwined nature of these creators. In a promotional interview conducted by their publisher Image Comics, Emma Rios stated, “I build the plot, the setting, and the structure so I can send Hwei notes that look almost like roleplaying books.” This creative relationship seems so deeply interconnected – leading to my bristling at the word collaboration, with its inherent ties to “labor.” The western comics market fundamentally serves to transmute artistic expression into commodities, but this comic seems to be something special. In truth, the process of its creation seems more akin to play than labor.
The tradition of this kind of child-like, group produced paracosm has precedent. Stan Lee attempted to invoke it while working with the “Marvel Bullpen,” although the artifice of community was at odds with the individualist natures of creatives like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. It’s easier to find in Robert Lynn Asprin and Lynn Abbey’s Thieve’s World series of anthologies, which produces tales set in the same crime ridden fantasy city.
Similarly, George RR Martin continuously angers Game of Thrones fans by editing the more regularly released Wild Cards anthologies with Melinda M. Snodgrass. Both of these works come out of the Dungeons and Dragons generation, their creators clearly delighted by collaborative gaming. Having discovered the joy of shared storytelling they adapted this spirit into new forms. This has led in the present day to the popularity of roleplaying game podcasts, which have crossed the threshold into comics with The Adventure Zone graphic novels and various Critical Role releases.
Applying the genre of games and play to Mirror, it’s useful to use the definitions of game theory. Roger Caillois, a French philosopher who defined many principles in game theory, argued that games have fundamental aspects in Man, Play, and Games. They are free, separate, uncertain, unproductive, governed by rules, and make believe. Callois also argued for various manifestations of gameplay, the closest in this scenario, being simulation or mimicry of reality. Subsequent academics have attempted to refine Callois’ frameworks, but it is useful nonetheless for initial analysis. Applying this criteria to Mirror, we can see that a “Calvin Ball” like process resulted in the issue we’re reading.
There is a freedom to this work that can be difficult to hold on to. The narrative shifts in time frequently, as if some new revelation came to the author. Its separateness lies in the clear creative control over the enterprise, which is frequently the reason creators will take a project to Image Comics over another publisher. The rules of this make believe world are continuously being defined and redefined, as is the nature of the collaboration. Rios and Lim exchange roles as leader, dictating an aspect of the world that the other would document. The uncertainty of whether an Image Comic series will conclude is also a challenge to be faced. To this day, there’s a fan base who would sacrifice Alan Moore to the sewer mutants of Northampton to see the completion of his 1963 project.
So how can we define the product of their creative play? If collaboration is inadequate, perhaps we need a new word for transcribed play of this nature, born of unbridled creativity between its players. Other inadequate terms like Frank Santoro’s “fusion comics” spring to mind regarding genre play and broad range of influences, yet do little to engage a project that seems more of a documentation of a process than a polished narrative. Seeing no other clear answer, the concept of “play comics” emerges, describing a genre of process and motivation rather than content.
More and more examples of play comics have emerged in recent years. EnterVoid and other “original character tournaments” have populated amateur comics spaces for years and have served as a kind of spawning ground for inexperienced and experienced worldbuilders. Within recent memory, a major collaborative worldbuilding event called War for Rayuba emerged on Discord, featuring original characters within a shared fantasy setting operating in a largely non-commercial context, further exemplifying this shared storytelling.The vastness of this seemingly spontaneous project exemplifies the motivating factor of play over the easy generation and consumption of capital.
Yet looking at Mirror as a sole accomplishment, we find nothing but potential for what the medium could look like if motivated by play over capitalistic concerns. I look forward to a future of play comics like Mirror and the messy, confusing, and beautiful worlds we may come to witness. Like Ninua in this story, we may be getting into more trouble than we bargained for.
By Emma Rios and Hwei Lim
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