Emma Rios and Hwei Lim Reflect on Their Collaboration for ‘Mirror’ at Image [Interview]
A few weeks saw the release of Mirror, a new miniseries from the creative team of Emma Rios and Hwei Lim. A standalone narrative within the Brandon Graham-curated shared sci-fi/fantasy collective 8house, Mirror sees the duo collaborating in new and leftfield ways to tell a story that stands apart from anything else on the shelf. Rios, best known as the artist on Pretty Deadly, here writes for Lim, with Lim bringing her unique and wonderful style to the mad characters and world of the story.
That collaboration is key to the series, and the pair keep the readers surprised with each new turn of the page. They even switch out at certain points, with Lim writing while Rios provides pencils. Mirror is an incredibly crafted and intricate series that elevates both of its creators, and may change the way you look at Image. Along with Island and the rest of 8house, Mirror represents a shift into new and experimental waters. ComicsAlliance was lucky enough to get to speak to both Rios and Lim about their collaboration.
ComicsAlliance: When did you first have the idea for Mirror? Was this something you’ve wanted to do for a while?
Emma Rios: Right after we started to collaborate together on Island, Brandon asked me to be part of 8house as well. At that moment I already had Pretty Deadly and ‘I.D.’ —the story I prepared on my own for the magazine [Island] in progress, and as it is technically impossible for me to draw more than one thing at a time, we talked straight up about writing it instead of facing the whole thing alone.
To be honest, being an artist myself [and] only thinking about writing for somebody else feels definitely scary. I was going to need someone I could trust that would understand my solo work really well, and, even worse, like it.
I immediately thought of Hwei because we are really close friends and, despite what it may seem at first sight, we have a lot of points in common in terms of style and priorities. Honestly, she was my only choice, and Mirror would have never existed without her.
We both were invited to a workshop in Japan in 2008 called Lingua Comica. We were paired to do a comic together there and that’s how we started to know each other and become best friends, through trying to figure out each other through pages.
We’ve been looking for a chance to work together again for years, and Mirror cast the magic necessary to make this happen.
Hwei Lim: I remember we were always talking about collaborating again, after that Lingua Comica workshop where we met and worked together on a short comic. Then, one day, just as I was thinking about how busy Emma must be with Pretty Deadly, she emailed me to ask if I was free to go on a new adventure...
ER: I actually didn´t accept being part of 8house until she got onboard. And it was then when I started to figure out a story I think she would like to become a part of.
So, basically, Hwei came first, then Mirror.
CA: What appealed to you about Mirror as a story? Aside from the chance to work with Emma, what do you like about the story of Mirror?
HL: Way back, before even a first script, we talked about the story and characters a lot, and I really really liked the picture Emma painted, her vision for the story: a narrative that would be romantic and sweeping and epic (space opera style!) and yet relatable and endearing. (We've grown very attached to the characters, over the course of a couple years and a million emails.)
CA: Was this always planned to be part of the 8House concept?
ER: Yep. But each one of the 8house books were thought as stand alone stories — starting as mini series — and not to build the same one. There have never been guides to follow, neither much back and forth between the teams involved beyond sharing the finished PDFs.
But despite not having to share the same timeline, or even the same universe, they definitely feel linked. I think that perhaps, somehow, all the books were able to retro feed from a few hazy ideas and concepts at the very beginning, but with each book developing its own interpretation.
CA: As the series is called Mirror, is it fair to say this is a story about identity? What themes did you want to address within the comic?
ER: Hm… We always talk about it being a story about freedom of choice and acceptance, as pretentious as it may sound. It’s always difficult to talk about these subjects without sounding a bit pompous.
HL: It's a story about what it means to be human, sentient, self-aware.. I think one of the definitions of sentience was the ability to recognize one's reflection in a mirror. And one of the horrors of sentience I guess is having other sentient beings challenge or reject your sentience.
ER: I try to figure out fictional stories — specially sci-fi — through mirroring questions I care about in the real world. I try to face them myself by understanding different perspectives, and by not always looking for a straight answer.
CA: It feels as though the architecture seen in the comic was very important to you — you used to work as an architect, after all. Did you have a specific look you wanted for the colony?
ER: When I started thinking about Mirror, I remember that one of the first things I did was drawing the section of the tower lab-starship that appears in the back matter, and also started to define the colony as growing around it as if it were a cathedral.
People move around a lot in Mirror, and I needed to try to figure out myself how people would be living there, to have a better perspective of the social structure and the whole idea of the colony before sending any notes to Hwei. So, yep, architecture was pretty important.
The final appearance — the facade and the style — as well as the brilliant use of its structure as gutters in the layouts are all Hwei’s decisions. She’s truly amazing with defining spaces, lighting and developing different moods herself, whether it is architecture or nature.
CA: Would you describe this as a romantically-styled comic? Would you call yourself a romantic writer and artist?
ER: It depends a lot on what you mean by romantic.
If by that we’re talking about love and relationships — even considering the story behind Ivan and Sena in Mirror — I think that’s not a matter I’m very interested in, or at least it’s not my priority. But if we talk about Romanticism, or the Romantic Era from the 19th century, which focus on emphasizing emotions, epic individualism, science and/or versus nature — well, I have to admit I dig those tragic heroes quite a lot.
I’m truly in love with a lot of people connected with that artistic movement like William Blake, Odilon Redon, Baudelaire, J.M.W. Turner and even Goya.
CA: And Hwei, how do you approach a page as artist? When you read the script, where do you start?
HL: I read the whole script through, work out the pacing, what we're trying to do with each page, and then go back to page one and start working on layouts page by page. I like to put the dialogue down on the page to help figure out composition and flow.
CA: The relationship between humans and animals appears throughout your career — what is it about that connection that you find so interesting?
HL: I like animals, I think it's amazing and humbling that we'll never ever truly understand what they're thinking or feeling, why they do what they do, or even if we do understand it might not make sense to us... In that light, though, I guess I like the fantasy of humans being able to understand animals, because it makes me feel more hopeful about humans being able to understand other human!
CA: Do you work digitally or by hand? The coloring, in particular, is spectacular in issue #1
HL: I draw and paint in Photoshop, with a Wacom tablet.
CA: How have you found the collaborative process together?
HL: Emma is incredibly open to all my crazy suggestions, and extremely forgiving of my countless silly questions and backtracking and forgetfulness!
ER: Beyond the obvious beauty of her lines and colors, Hwei’s brilliant narrative, and her ability to make characters feel, have always stood out from anything I’ve ever seen. She turns everything into twice as nuanced with very little, a glance, a wink, a joke… in a way that looks almost effortless and natural. If you don´t draw it’s hard to imagine how difficult that is but, literally, it’s bringing life to the pages.
Analyzing how she is building Mirror, and comparing the result with what I would have done myself is mind-blowing for me as an artist. If I were the one drawing the book, this story would have looked grittier and more disgusting, because I’m rather visceral and sometimes I just can’t restrain myself when drawing violence and similar stuff. But this light she brings ... has transformed the story even since before I started writing a single line. It allows us to work on another level, with cuteness and humor, and is taking the tragedy to a whole new level of pain, haha…
The eyes she draws are the saddest eyes, and if they belong to a caged animal, man… I don’t even know how I can even deal with it. Actually I’m always apologizing to her each time I send her stuff that is twisted with a, “Sorry, I’m a horrible person” but she seems to enjoy it.
CA: What is your design process like, Hwei? How do you create characters like Ivan and Sena?
HL: Emma sent me some really brief, rough character and story outlines and notes and we talked about them further, but I think basically we just created characters we would like to see, that hopefully also project some of the spirit of that character (awkward loner magician, fierce and vengeful freedom fighter).
CA: And Emma, as an artist yourself, what is your writing process like? Do you describe each panel/page in detail, or do you leave things for Hwei to experiment with?
ER: The most important thing for writing Mirror is the structure, I think. Deciding what should be shown, what should be hidden… What scenes from the lives of these characters would be more interesting to make them three-dimensional, to explain the world and to make the plot move forward, or even backwards… The characters are the only ones in charge of the exposition, and the idea is having the reader follow them and figuring out the story at the same time. For better or worse, this is how I see this book moving on.
There is a lot of previous work using diagrams, Post-Its… and similar stuff to figure out the whole before facing each issue alone. Then I write the script prose-like and send it to Hwei — with a lot of notes — so we can go back and forth through emails. Then I revise the original and re-write it as a proper script by doing my own thumbnails to be sure I would be able to handle all I’m setting up myself if I were the one to draw it. So yeah, the script looks like a regular one, divided on pages and panels.
Then I send Hwei the “final” script — never the thumbnails — so she can make it her own. She transforms it by adapting the pace to her own style, and by adding and removing anything she finds necessary. Then she prepares rough layouts with dialogues and we both work hard on these before moving on with the final art. When it’s done, we can´t help reworking the dialogues together once more as a whole, alongside with the back matter, to be sure we’re both happy with everything before sending it off to print.
The process for Mirror is very collaborative and we edit each other quite a lot, not holding back and being very sincere to each other.
CA: And you swap roles at points in the comic, is that right? What’s that experience been like?
HL: Very very fun and very eye-opening. I remember the backstory for the first issue, when we hadn't really thought much about [a particular secondary character] yet, but when I got the pencils and then coloured pages back from Emma, I fell helplessly in love with this calm and cool and handsome person she had drawn... I think swapping roles does give us both a chance to view things in a new light, and hopefully that helps us shape the story better in the end.
ER: I think that was one of our best decisions in terms of building Mirror together. Hwei is a wonderful writer in her own right, and I really wanted her to work on these characters I was making up to feel more comfortable with them. I also wanted to show how they were coming to life in my mind artistically, to try to explain myself better through their body language, acting and behavior, because I’m an artist myself and I find images extremely powerful to explain things beyond words.
Swapping roles made our brains even more connected, it was the perfect way to communicate each one’s vision to the other and be immediately on the same page.
CA: You’ve said that you’d like to do a sequel to the comic if all goes well — how big is the world you’ve created here?
HL: Yes! Yes? Yes????!! I don't know how much we should let on yet but we talk about the world behind Mirror's beginning and ending a lot…
ER: It’s true that Mirror was going to start as a mini-series connected to the rest of the 8house collection, but as we already wanted to continue beyond, we finally decided to re-solicit and start directly as an ongoing series because everybody thought the book would work better that way. We have the first two arcs already planned, and they will be released regularly during this year. That’s already a lot of work prepared in advance that we have to attend to, so we’ll be slowly figuring out how we feel about the rest while moving on.
In terms of story, We’ve been working quite a lot on worldbuilding. We start in this isolated colony of Irzah, but there’s a whole System of Planets beyond called The Synchronia with its own politics and society happening there. Kazbek and Elena are trying to build this little utopia on the asteroid, but their duty towards others structures of power is difficult to forget, and even more difficult to deal with. Everything feels very epic at this point, and we are incredibly excited.