Blaise Larmee was a natural choice to edit the first issue of Mirror Mirror, the new flagship anthology from Minneapolis-based comics publisher 2dcloud. In addition to making experimental comics himself, Larmee is the founder of the Tumblr Altcomics, which has long advocated for a radical expansion of the term “comics.” Scrolling through the site’s mix of abstract drawings, zine pages, images of contemporary artworks, and screenshots, one gets the feeling that comics are a boundless horizon we’ve only just begun to explore. 2dcloud Publisher Raighne Hogan once described Altcomics as “a mood-board [that] grew into a movement.”
Unlike Altcomics, the pieces in Mirror Mirror 1 are not intended for quick digestion or easy reblogging — they are dense, complex visual essays that demand sustained attention from the reader. The anthology does, however, embrace the expanded definition of comics that Altcomics has done so much to pioneer. For instance, Leslie Weibeler contributes a selection of poetry with scribbled notations on it. Tracy Auch considers the gender-bending practice of adopting a pseudonym in an essay accompanied by grainy stills from old tampon commercials.
One of the most striking features of Mirror Mirror 1 is the amount of empty space in its 192 pages. Each comic is bookended by blank pages, and white space is used liberally throughout (Connor Willumsen’s contribution could have been compressed into half the space, but each page stands alone, facing a blank opposite). Reading the book, I couldn’t help comparing it to another comics publisher’s flagship anthology, Nobrow Magazine by the English press Nobrow. The two anthologies couldn’t be farther apart, stylistically or conceptually. Whereas Nobrow has influenced the industry with lush, printmaking-influenced comics that are tightly packed onto every page, 2dcloud takes its inspiration from the loose, in-progress aesthetic of some conceptual artists.
For readers coming from an art background, the sparsely occupied pages of Mirror Mirror 1 may be reminiscent of a white-walled gallery. 2dcloud has described the anthology as an “exhibition,” and like many galleries, the book offers no interpretation of the works contained therein. They are simply there, relying on the reader to find meaning in them or not. This purposeful abstruseness has been jarring to the US comics community and not always welcome (see the clamor in response to Larmee’s reluctant interview on the comics podcast Inkstuds).
Several of the contributions, including Connor Willumsen’s, are scanned images of sketches or scraps of paper. Willumsen’s work features terse poetry (“view of sight / anticipation of image / front desire … ”) accompanied by figurative drawings. The text, typed in TextEdit windows, appears to be screenshotted, printed, and then covered with drawings. Each step of the work’s progression, from RTF file to screenshot to printout to sketch and then back to a scanner, is visible in the final image, and I read Mirror Mirror 1 as a PDF on my computer, adding another layer to the transition. At their best, Willumsen’s text phrases open up new understandings of the sketches, but at times the sheer quantity of buzzwords, and the fact that some feel like tropes (“manufactured lens,” “facade the facade”), can make the work ponderous.
Katherine Poe’s portraits are based on archetypal manga heroines, but she applies the style unevenly, creating a gap between expectation and effect. In one image, reflective eyes are the only defined feature of a face, the rest composed of shaky lines that resemble a mountainous landscape. Below the image is a cursive script that reads, “Protect my life from fear & influence.” Poe’s images clearly draw on the world of comics, specifically manga, but operate in the free-form mode of a sketchbook.
Among the most obtuse works in the anthology is Nicholas Verstraeten’s contribution, which appears to be completely abstract. Abstract comics are not entirely new, but often they emphasize their affiliation to more traditional comics through bounded panels or other recognizable signifers; Verstraeten’s are simply abstract drawings. His twisting linework falls on the page like hair shed by some unnamed wildlife. He mixes these improvisational scribbles with catalogues of abstract symbols and clumps of black lines that hover on the edge of figuration without committing to it. Each page of doodles is distinct, but there’s nothing to indicate a temporal progression to them. This can be frustrating. Lacking any connection to a subject or plot, Verstraeten’s drawings don’t seem to say anything about the world we live in. I might feel differently if there were some hints about the process or thinking that led to them, but the anthology offers none.
Every time the label “comics” is appended to something so radically different than what we have known as comics, the question arises: What exactly are comics? Or, more importantly, what makes a good one? As practitioners of the medium begin to adopt some of the mercurial standards of contemporary art, works like Verstraeten’s risk falling into an in-between space, becoming neither good comics nor interesting works of art.
Nou’s 16-page, free-form contribution is one of the standout works of the anthology. It uses fragments of text and image to create a moody, deconstructed story about an unraveling sexual relationship. Appearing in various styles and orientations, the text captures the pleading passive-aggressiveness of a lovers’ fight. There’s no way to distinguish the two speakers, and at times their quotes run together (“WHAT IVE DONE FOR YOU NO YOU SAID WE COULD JUST SLEEP I DONT KNOW WHAT YOU WANT”), making it impossible to discern any established viewpoints. Abstract enough to leave questions unanswered but supported by a clear progression, Nou’s work models how some of the specific qualities of comics (page-based compositions, figurative drawing, narrative) can assume the unbounded, probing qualities of contemporary art.