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9th Dec 2014, 2:34 PM


Mirror as a myth

Over the course of planning, writing, and executing Mirror, a lot of big ideas and themes were developed. It was difficult trying to fit all of these major concepts into a short comic spanning less than fifty pages, and now that it is complete, I’m not sure I can objectively determine how successfully I did so. This blog discussed a lot of the background thought processes, but some of the things I discussed--such as the collective shadow’s fear of death and the conceptual role of the spirit queen--were not made very obvious in the narrative. I do not, however, view that as a limitation. In fact, I believe that some of the power in narrative is to create understanding without blatantly stating exactly what is meant to be gained. I approached Mirror as an exercise in using the hero’s journey to create something akin to a myth, and as such one of my goals was to try to encode the major themes and ideas in subtle ways.

Before this post, I had a lot of discussions of archetypes in regards to the hero’s journey as outlined by Vogler in The Writer’s Journey, who in turn gained many of his ideas from Joseph Campbell, who studied, among many things, myths. I also talked about Carl Jung and archetypal symbolism in regards to the shadow. Although all of these authors and resources laid out their ideas clearly, the concept of archetypal symbolism and the monomyth rose out of the study of mythology, and myths were not created with these things in mind. Rather, they seem to have arisen from some sort of universal humanity, and they share many qualities without intentionally meaning to do so.

What, then, are myths? How do archetypes arise? In my post about the spirit world, I referred to some theories about how the concept of a spirit world could appear independently across so many different cultures. That discussion came from a book called When They Severed Earth From Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth by Elizabeth and Paul Barber. I read this book in preparation for Mirror with the intention of understanding how myths encode information, and it turned out to be a very interesting book. It is also brimming with information, so to summarize some of the big ideas, myths are used to condense relevant material so that it can be passed down orally through many generations, and over the course of time, the stories are stripped down to their most interesting or relevant basic elements. Furthermore, it is common for cultures to personify or give will and agency to non-living things, to not state things that are assumed to be true within a culture (such as manners or customs that everyone is familiar with), and to blur the line between appearance and reality.

What this means is that myths often originate from a purpose or event that may seem nothing like the resulting story. The Barbers frequently use myths related to volcanoes to illustrate this, given that volcanoes don’t move, exist for a very long time, and sometimes have regular or historically traceable eruption events. For a group of people living near a volcano, the threat of eruption becomes an important piece of information to pass down. The form it might take, however, may be of a great battle with the gods, and lava may be like streams of blood or long red hair or any number of other things. The Barbers spent an entire chapter discussing the myth of Prometheus, chained to a mountain to have his liver pecked out by day by a huge eagle only to have it regrow blood-red over the course of the night. From the point of of view of someone living near a volcano, however, where the tremors of an eruption can shake the earth like a struggling giant, and a huge plume of smoke can be like a giant bird over the peak of the mountain, this story does not seem so far-fetched.

When writing Mirror, I had this process in mind. I took the major themes I was playing with, namely balance and the importance of viewing oneself honestly, and attempted to encode them into the narrative in such a way that the essence of the idea was understood. I believe that a concept is strongest when it can be demonstrated effectively. A character is strong not because they are stated to be so, but because they can actively display their strength; an act of goodwill is moving not when the audience is told they should be moved, but when the act speaks for itself. This can be hard to accomplish when creating a story, especially with the author has a message they want to pass on.

How well I accomplished this is another matter, and I don’t think I have the tools or objective perspective necessary to make a case for that. I am pleased with the final result of the comic, and at this point, the only major change I would make would be to have a little more time to flesh out the character of the spirit queen. Otherwise, how well the story carries itself is the only gauge I have. All-in-all, though, I am glad to have finished, and I feel like I can be proud of how the story came out.

9th Dec 2014, 2:31 PM



Nour, as the hero of our story, has the most complicated character progression. Although the initial parameters of her character were not that difficult to work out, her development over the course of the story took some time to finalize. I used a few tools to help symbolize her development, including her hood and the lantern, mirror, and hilt. Additionally, her interaction with her own shadow is another metaphor for personal growth, and her ability to face the darkness within herself sets her apart from the other characters. Nour’s journey is as much about her own development and identity as it is about the external world she seeks to save.

At the beginning of the story, Nour was passive. She was quiet, self-contained, and self-conscious, but also hard-working and humble. While she didn’t actively question authority or her own position, she didn’t feel a strong commitment to it either--an identity status known as diffusion as defined by psychologist James Marcia. That is to say, Nour had never challenged nor thought critically about who she was or what her personal values were, which is a common state of identity in adolescence and early adulthood. She didn’t feel any sense of crisis, but she also didn’t feel confident or especially capable. The call to adventure forced this to change.

        Nour sought help from the Elders, but instead of fixing the problem, they told her that she must fix it herself. There was something about her that she did not yet realize, and she had great potential to tackle even the biggest of problems. They gave her two items, hint at the relevance of one she already had, and then sent her on her way. At this point, she entered an identity state called moratorium, which involves an active reevaluation of oneself. She was in an identity crisis, which is not resolved until she met and accepted her own shadow. Until that point, she remained confused, unsure of herself, and at some points even fearful.

The confrontation with the shadow was difficult to execute. For starters, it was a lot of dialogue to fit into relatively few pages. I had to spend a good deal of time carefully working through the ideas in order to condense them as much as possible. To further complicate things, the relationship between Nour and her shadow was, by necessity, complex; the shadow needed to portray Nour’s rejected qualities, and as such had to be different, but not unrelated, to her current self. In other words, those qualities weren’t just a generic “dark side,” but aspects specific to what she found undesirable in herself. Her shadow sought to take control and gain its freedom, and the achieve this, it criticized her according to the things she was self-conscious about, such as the fear that she was unremarkable or useless. The shadow failed, however, because Nour did not travel to the spirit world to benefit herself, and the shadow’s temptations did not trump her desire to help those she loved. Her adherence to her values had purpose beyond a social script that she blindly followed, and this conviction allowed her not only to stand up to her shadow, but to accept it as part of her.

        In more concrete terms, Nour recognized patterns of negative thinking and addressed them honestly. In her process of questioning her identity and what she believed, she separated herself from an external code of how one “should” or “should not” be, and she discovered that the morality of “good versus evil” is neither useful nor realistic. She knew that she could not move forward without her shadow, and in order to have the ability to do good for those she cared about, she had to accept her human flaws without being overcome by them. This process of self-acceptance matches many real-life narratives, as similar internal conflicts can occur when individuals confront personal prejudices, self-deprecating patterns of thinking, and other cycles of guilt and blame that arise when their perception of themselves don’t match with the rigid mold of a “good” person. Resolving these issues involves critically examining the less-desirable parts of oneself, as well as learning to recognize that negative qualities are an unavoidable and necessary part of being human. In the actual comic, a lot of this was not explicitly stated, but rather demonstrated through the conversation and Nour’s willingness to look past the undesirable words and nature of the shadow to recognize its importance. Her shadow became part of her, and her status changed from identity moratorium to identity achievement. From then on, Nour had the confidence and ability she needed to move forward and confront the real problem without the baggage of excessive self-doubt.

Another method I used to show Nour’s development was to change how she wore her hood. Early in the comic, it was established that keeping the hood up was not necessarily a cultural norm. In fact, Nour’s mother scolded her for it on the second page, claiming that she would never get married if she wore it up all the time. Instead of listening to her mother, however, Nour pulled the hood further over her face on the next page. All of this established that the hood was something Nour hid behind, a sort of “security blanket” to keep attention off of herself. After she incorporated her shadow, that changed. The change blew the hood off, and instead of correcting it, Nour showed her face openly. She no longer felt the need to hide, and even if she did not have the answers for a situation, she did not hesitate to face them head-on. In this way, the hood was one of the more subtle but powerful visual demonstrations of her confidence after the transformation.

The final major tools I used in aiding and staging Nour’s development were the lantern, the mirror, and the hilt. Aside from being important to the literal events in the plot, these tools were chosen for their metaphoric relevance. The hilt was something Nour possessed early on and made its debut by the second page when her mother was cleaning the house. The lantern and the mirror were both given to her by the high priestess before she started her journey. The purpose and meaning of these of these items correspond with a step of Nour’s development.

The first item she used, the lantern, was meant to “light her path,” but it took her some time to use it wisely. While she did light her path, it was not until the raven reminded her to think for herself that she raised it high enough to see the steps into the spirit world. The illumination of the lantern represented insight, knowledge, and personal inquiry. At that point, Nour had been passively responding to the external demands of her; using the lantern to actively seek answers represented an internal shift and a necessary step towards her goal.

The second item she used was the mirror. The high priestess instructed her to “deflect shadows,” and when she was faced with her own shadow, she attempted to do that--and failed. When Nour noticed that the shadow was connected to her own feet, she turned the mirror on herself, and saw the image of her shadow self in the reflection. It became clear following this that the shadow was not just an enemy that she had to face, but a part of who she was. The mirror represented self-reflection and viewing oneself honestly. After the active seeking of the lantern, the next necessary step was to gain insight to oneself, and the mirror symbolized that step of Nour’s growth.

The final tool that Nour used was the hilt. By itself, a hilt without a sword is rather useless, and when the high priestess referred to it as a “sword,” Nour responded with skepticism (and the audience might have started doubting the credibility of the old woman). Indeed, through most of the story, the hilt was more or less dead weight, and that didn’t change until Nour incorporated her shadow. Once Nour gained the strength of her shadow self, she also gained the ability to use the hilt through the form of a shadow sword. The hilt was a vehicle through which she could use her own self-assurance and insight to affect change on her environment. The hilt was a symbol of potential, something Nour had all along but could not use until she was honest with herself and dispelled the fears and ignorance that grew out of her passivity. Once she thought critically about her purpose and herself, she had the power to recognize and take action against the tyranny created by the terror of the collective shadow. It is through internal strength that she gained the ability to fight against external issues.

A lot of thought went into Nour’s development, and in some ways the external plot of Mirror is a metaphor for her internal journey. Her growth was necessary in order to bring balance to her world, just as the world gave her no choice but to grow or become overcome. Developing her story was a challenge, but it also gave me a lot of opportunities to think of creative visual and narrative solutions, which made it one of my favorite parts of the development process. 

26th Nov 2014, 10:55 PM


The Spirit Queen

I mentioned a little about the spirit queen in the last blog post, and I’d like to take a little time to discuss her design and character. The spirit queen was the second character conceptualized after Nour, but the last to have a finalized design. I knew that I wanted her to serve as the spirit of both life and death, many reasons for which I detailed in my last post about the collective shadow. Overall, it made sense to me that the entity who grants life would also hold the power of taking it away.

The choice to make her female arose in part from this foundation. Life is brought into the world through women, and the idea of a life-giver prompted imagery of a Mother Nature figure. Additionally, a long time ago I read a story wherein death, a female character who has a burning candle for each human life, becomes the godmother of a mortal man, and that stuck with me; in most iterations, death appears as a male, and it never before struck me to consider the grim reaper’s iconic skeleton as female. To make the spirit of life a woman was a quick decision after these seeds of inspiration. 

Actually designing her was another hurdle. Her character took the longest to set up a finalized design, in part because of the effects I wanted to have. From the start, I imagined that she would pass from birth to death every day. I wanted her to reflect natural cycles, like how the sun rises in the east and sets in the west or how the seasons pass from the liveliness of summer to the quiet, still winter. To do this, I started with her as a full-figured young woman, fertile and strong, but as she passes out of the gates, she gets steadily older, until finally she appears weathered and frail.

Some of her other design decisions were a little hard to work out. She is meant to be simultaneous attractive and repellent, and many people mentioned in comments that she seemed creepy or untrustworthy. The looming threat of death does not provoke a feeling of warmth. Once she is freed and can progress through the cycles necessary, however, she is meant to become a more sympathetic character, and even when she is almost skeletal, she seems warmer than when she was trapped in youth. Her color scheme helps with this; the brown of her skin was chosen in part to connect her to earth, and the greens and blues that accent her hair to be hints of sea, sky, and flora. While the other characters’ physical appearances are restricted to black and white (with the exception of clothing), she is vibrant. Bound within the cavern, however, her colors are muted and desaturated. It is not until the vibrancy of balance returns to spirit world that she gets brighter colors and seems more approachable because of it. 

The spirit of life is a very important part of Mirror, even if she doesn’t say much. Her character personifies a lot of the major themes that I was focusing on, and getting her right was tough. The only character more important is Nour herself. Nour required a lot of tweaking and thought, and in the next blog post, I’ll go over her character growth over the course of the story. 

19th Nov 2014, 9:28 PM


Collective Shadow

As the previous post discussed, the shadow is the negative parts of ourselves that we suppress and try to keep out of consciousness. In addition to the individual shadow, there is a collective shadow, also discussed in Meeting the Shadow, edited by Connie Zweig and Jeremiah Abrams. The collective shadow includes the negative aspects of a culture or all of mankind; a penchant for violence and oppression, the common fear or distaste for certain things or behaviors, and the tendencies of groups to scapegoat each other can all be attributed to it. The main conflict in Mirror is heavily influenced by the idea of the collective shadow, and these shadows are meant to act as a commentary on the real world.

After she embraces her own individual shadow, Nour confronts the collective shadow within the throne room in order to free the spirit queen. Although implied more than stated in the comic, the spirit queen is responsible for both life and death (I’ll write a post detailing her character a little later). The collective shadow is the mass that holds her hostage for fear of death, aging, and the other negative connotations related to those unavoidable phenomena; however, due to their fear, she is unable to regulate the balance between life and death, and by extension the spirit world and the material world. This is what allows the shadows to come and plague Nour’s homeland and family.

When first planning Mirror, the conflict between death and the shadows was one that I considered early on. Mirror is a story about balance and finding an equilibrium between extremes, and I became attracted to the idea of the balance of life and death, especially because of the way American culture tends to view death and aging (or, more accurately, not view it unless it absolutely has to). Our culture is obsessively fixated on the notion of youth--we have endless commercials on anti-aging products, celebrities are glorified for looking young and beautiful, and topics of aging are rarely addressed and honored. It’s common to be confronted with newer and better ways to live longer, to avoid death, and the topic of mortality continues to be an uncomfortable one for many people. When something as inevitable as aging and death is treated with stigma, it can limit the productive ways people can deal with the insecurities of their own mortality. We don’t have a lot of rituals or traditions to honor the elderly or provide people with some comfort or familiarity with death. In fact, it seems more like we just place our elderly in nursing homes, out of sight and out of mind, and in the case of a death, quietly avoid the subject, setting aside enough time for somber funerals before returning to the daily grind.

This is, of course, a personal interpretation. Regardless of my opinions on the matter, however, the fear of death is a powerful one. In fact, there are psychological theories, such as Terror Management Theory, which propose that the fear of death is not only an emotional drive, but a foundational aspect of self-esteem and even culture. Whether or not that’s the case, it’s an undeniably potent aspect of life that every person has to face. Avoidance of a feared topic only serves to maintain the fear of it, but the nature of the death means that sooner or later, everyone will have to succumb to it.

In Mirror, the fear of death prevents the natural flow of things to occur. Because death is kept at bay, so must life also suffer. This point comes from the idea of ecological balance--when death is a natural part of the cycle, then populations and ecosystems thrive. There are only so many resources available on to all life on earth, but there is enough, so long as the natural balance isn’t thrown too far off. If, however, the many billions of people on the planet continue to live increasingly longer lives in order to stave off the inevitable, the question of distribution of resources and the health of ecosystems is no longer easily answered. The results of this potential imbalance are not limited just individuals or families or even societies--all things in the world are affected.

Which is to say, a lot of consideration went into what may seem like a relatively simple conflict. The relationship between mankind and topics of death and aging is a complex one, and it has many potentially far-reaching consequences. Stashed away and seen as evil or dark, the fear of death becomes part of our collective shadow--and as shadow, unconfronted, it wreaks havoc. Nour is able to challenge this fear because she has seen and accepted her own dark side and is thus not overcome by the emotional, mob-like fear of the collective shadow. It is through understanding the things we’re afraid of that we are able to conquer them, and that theme, coupled with the importance of balance, is the essence of the conflict of Mirror

16th Nov 2014, 8:22 PM


The Shadow

The use of shadows in stories is not new. In fact, there is an entire subsection devoted to the shadow archetype in The Writer’s Journey by Vogler. While they can appear as literal cast-from-light shadows, the shadow archetype can also manifest as the dark side of a person or humanity as a whole. In story, they are the Mr. Hyde to Dr. Jekyll, the monster under the bed, or the devil himself. The concept of the shadow goes even beyond its implication for narrative; it is an important archetype for psychoanalytic theory and interpretations, following the ideas of prominent theorists Carl Jung. The concept of the shadow and mankind’s relationship with it from both a dramatic and psychological point of view is one of the central ideas that gave rise to Mirror.

To start off with some context, I was first introduced to the concept of the shadow in a literature class I had during my last year of high school. I mentioned this class as my introduction to the monomyth in an earlier post; it was an excellent course in which the students analyzed many different stories based on a psychoanalytic viewpoint, and concepts of archetypes came up frequently. With that discussion, we connected archetypes with theories of how they channel aspects of human nature. Needless to say, the concepts were fascinating to me, and the shadow seemed particularly potent.

One of the books we read was Meeting the Shadow: The Hidden Power of the Dark Side of Human Nature edited by Connie Zweig and Jeremiah Abrams. I dug up my own copy for the sake of this comic; it features many articles about the nature of the shadow, its manifestation, how it appears in art, and how it can be channeled effectively. The main idea of the shadow self is this: when we are children, there are certain traits that are chastised or rejected by our parents and figures of authority, and we learn to disown them. Over time, we add more traits, creating our shadows--the sides of ourselves that we wish didn’t exist, that are dark or dangerous or uncomfortable. We typically don’t acknowledge our shadow selves unless we’re forced to, or as Zweig and Abrams put it:

Because it is contrary to our chosen conscious attitude, the shadow personality is denied expression in life and coalesces into a relatively separate splinter personality in the unconscious, where it is isolated from exposure and discovery (4).

Some of the ways it is accessed is through dreams, projections (for example, thinking, “they’re so arrogant, but I’m not”), and humor (obscene or offensive jokes). Irrationally strong anger towards traits in others is said to be a sign that the shadow is at work, and lacking a sense of humor is said to be proof that the shadow is being strongly repressed.

The shadow is, however, not all negative. Regardless of how we feel about it, the shadow is still a part of our own unconscious mind; it is still part of who we are. Giving into the shadow’s desires could lead to debauchery and violence, but rigidly suppressing the shadow could also lead to lying to oneself and destroying potential for greater good. In his article “The Evolution of the Shadow” within Meeting the Shadow, Edward C. Whitmont remarks the following:

There is, in fact, no access to the unconscious and to our own reality but through the shadow. Only when we realize that part of ourselves which we have not hitherto seen or preferred not to see can we proceed to question and find the sources from which it feeds and the basis on which it rests (16).

If we have negative traits but do not confront them, they may manifest without our knowledge or awareness. In this sense, treating the shadow as something that should always be ignored and avoided can be as detrimental to the development of self as giving into it completely.

Nour’s journey is directly related to this concept. Her growth as a heroine is tied to her ability to not only confront the evils of the world, but also to confront those evils as they appear in herself. In fact, she is not able face the problem at hand until she takes control of her shadow self, accepting its existence but refusing to be tempted by it. I will write more about her maturation in a later post, but before we discuss that, I’m going to talk a little more about the shadow, or, more specifically, the collective shadow.