Looking to follow-up from her extremely well-received self-published work Wolves, Becky Cloonan initially thought of turning a haiku she wrote about orcs into a fully realized story. But, as that idea began to fall away from her, she instead stumbled across the idea which would eventually form this book, The Mire. A follow-up only in the thematic sense, The Mire is another story of loss, told from the viewpoint of a narrator who knows more than he ever lets on to the reader.
Wolves saw a lead character wandering through a forest, pursued by enchantments and haunted by a series of mysterious elements in his life which had fatally conspired to destroy everything he loved. The Mire continues this theme, but from a different viewpoint, with a new set of characters and expanded use of dialogue. The very loose story sees a Knight called Sir Owain send his Steward to deliver a letter, of unknown purpose. The reader gets to read the contents of this letter via a series of narration boxes which appear in fragments as the story continues, and Cloonan carefully connects every line of the letter to the situations and battles the Steward faces on his mission through the mire.
The book has a similar tone to its predecessor, but it’s quickly clear that Cloonan is interested in experimenting with her storytelling style and pushing herself. There’s far more dialogue this time round, for a start, while the decision to separate the narrator and protagonist leads to a stronger grasp of theme than before. Much of Cloonan’s work is dependent on an established, firm theme, from which the characters can expand and the setting can grow into importance; and The Mire’s central idea is strong enough that Cloonan can play around with pacing however she wants.
While the story is again rather slight, on the surface, Cloonan manages to pack an incredible amount of expression into her characters, and her decision to write and draw the work pays off beautifully. This book couldn’t have worked with a different artist, as Cloonan visualizes her script in a fascinating, ornate fashion, with a vague sense of brooding gothic overlaid with elements of fantasy and medieval swordplay. The slow pace of the story helps, with long, drawn-out sequences without any dialogue whatsoever benefitting from her incredible sense of detail and perspective. Every tree in the forest is different and layered, creating a dense effect which makes the reader feel surrounded, just as the steward.
With such a slight story, Cloonan again chooses to have most of the story happen off-panel, without giving the reader much more than a bare glimpse of the narrative behind the events of the story. Much is left to our imagination here, which is where the tone and theme of the narrative play together to leave impressions on the reader. What the Steward finds at his final destination is up to our interpretation, as Cloonan leaves things impressionistic and vague. This could be a metaphorical finale, or it could be fantastical, or it could be real. Every page of the comic is filled with memorable images and suggestive ideas, leaving readers to work out what they want the story to be, and making the book receptive to multiple readings.
Cloonan’s art also experiments far more than previously, with one particular splash page opting to forego panel separations entirely — the images which make up a flashback are instead intertwined with one another, so a love story melts into itself and forms an ethereal idea of what happened to the two lovers. The man’s hair leads into a line of flowers across a balcony, which itself doubles as the sleeve of his armor, upon which a shadow is left which indicates the fate of the relationship. It’s a light, beautifully rendered page, and elsewhere Cloonan tries double-page layouts and uneven sequencing to suggest different moods throughout the story. She also continues to sketch in her own sound effects in a charming fashion, with each skritt of a quill or stomp of a hoof ringing out on the page.
Ideas of love and loss are a frequent sight in Cloonan’s output, but The Mire takes a different approach towards the themes, and the result is a richly rewarding, dense and compressed story which feels light, open and dreamlike. It’s a romantic story which plays like a gothic take on classic British folklore. It is, in short, a complete delight.
Steve Morris is the head and indeed only writer for Comics Vanguard, the internet’s 139th most-favorite comic-book website. You can find him on Twitter at @stevewmorris, which is mostly nonsensical gibberish you may enjoy or despise. His favorite Marvel character is Darkstar, while his favorite DC character is, also, Darkstar. He’s on Team X-Men, you guys.