Cartoonist Grim Wilkins talks the inspirations behind his experimental fantasy adventure series, serialized works versus binge reading, the value of character development, and the challenge of telling a story without words.
Cartoonist Grim Wilkins (Prophet: Earth War) has spent the last several years publishing a serialized version of an experimental fantasy adventure series titled Mirenda. Described as a “mostly silent comic about a jungle woman who gets a demon stuck in her leg, and her adventure trying to get it out,” the book is a thrilling and emotionally impactful tale about exploration, friendship, magic, nature, and the power of action. After originally using Kickstarter to fund the book, Mirenda is being released in full via Image Comics on November 7th.
Recently, AiPT! touched base with Wilkins to talk about the book, his influences, the larger themes and narrative devices, and the challenges of telling a story without words.
AiPT!: As a writer, I obviously love words. As such, I was struck by how expertly you use the few words/phrases/pictographs in the book. Was there a greater purpose for moving away from traditional narrative and dialogue structures? Some kind of commentary, or an exploration of language? Or just a commitment to great visuals?
Wilkins: I’ve always been a little obsessed with making sequential art that goes beyond the traditional boxes and word balloons, but I also do my best to make work that’s as accessible as possible. With Mirenda, I’m always trying to make things as visually interesting as possible without getting so wacky that I lose the reader. On top of that, I really like the idea of telling a story that anyone can read, regardless of what languages they speak. About 50 words made their way into Mirenda, but you can still follow the story right until the end without reading a single one.
AiPT!: There’s something about the book that feels very reminiscent of books like Tintin — which is to say, it all feels very big and sweeping but also very quaint and approachable. What sort of texts did you pull from when putting the story together?
Wilkins: For the last few years I’ve been thinking about The Walking Man by Jiro Taniguchi quite a bit. There’s a chapter where the walking man is walking his dog and sees a toy plane fly into a tree, so he climbs up to retrieve it and then just hangs out in the tree to admire the view. In some way I’m trying to channel that into Mirenda — the characters have existed in the Mirenda fantasy world for their entire lives, but even they are often stunned by the beauty all around.
AiPT!: The story basically aligns the core characters into three groups: the two female heroes, the adventurer and his animal companion, and the random trio. How much planning went into these dynamics, and do their respective interactions speak of some larger emotional or contextual thread in the book?
Wilkins: For the most part, while I was creating the characters for Mirenda I didn’t write much (if any) backstory for them, nor did I do any character designs. I wrote out the things that they would be doing in each chapter and when it came time to draw them they more or less figured themselves out. At some point in the creation process, the characters reveal their personalities and I take them into the next chapter. One goal from the beginning was to avoid painting an obvious villain; instead, I wanted to show each group having their own adventures and see where they take them.
AiPT!: In my reading, I was really exhilarated by the sense of freedom that was to be found without all the text. Do you feel like the structure and visuals help the reader place their own ideas and values into the story? Were you concerned with the details or just providing the bare-bones for readers to latch onto?
Wilkins: In making a comic without words it’s inevitable that people are going to interpret things differently. The main character might make a weird face at a situation and one person thinks she’s disgusted while another reader thinks she is confused, and I think that’s cool. Of course, I’d be happy if most people find the story I intended to tell.
AiPT!: The story was first serialized in Island, and is now being collected. Is there anything gained or lost from this change in how readers will consume Mirenda? I feel like it’s a story meant to be binged all at once.
Wilkins: I really think Mirenda is best read in the collected format. As you read the book there are a lot of callbacks to previous chapters, and it’s not easy to flip back through three issues of Island to find that one little drawing that is being referenced. The book also changes colors and scenery a lot and I think being able to see it all at once will be much more satisfying.
AiPT!: There are several moments where a new page begins and it seemingly presents a different color scheme or a fresh perspective or unrelated/new scene entirely. Were you trying to keep people on their toes, or help show new angles/elements to the story?
Wilkins: I like using the abrupt color changes for a few reasons. They help to establish a point of reference, either for a specific place or even time of day. Like if it’s morning on the beach and the overall palette is pink and purple, then later a character can mention a scene with those specific colors and we will know where/when they are talking about.
Also, I wanted to impress that each group of characters is somewhere completely different. The pair of female heroes could be in a jungle at night while the trio is adventuring at sea at daybreak, and hopefully the difference in colors helps say that.
AiPT!: The book ends with something of a big reveal regarding the titular character. It struck me as a huge moment, but because it felt like an emotional payoff and not some twist. What’s the value of the ending to you? Were you more concerned with the journey over the destination?
Wilkins: Mirenda is certainly more about the journey over the destination. Over the course of the book some characters even reach their destination and their quest continues. I like to think that the ending tells us that there was much more to their adventure than even they were aware of.
AiPT!: Going back to the wordlessness of the book for a moment, was it harder to plot without the structure provided by dialogue and exposition? Or was there something freeing about it? Did it help with planning the story or how you went about actually creating the art?
Wilkins: Plotting out Mirenda stories is really, really fun. Maybe it’s because I’ve been working on this wordless comic for a few years, but I rarely get to a point in the story where I think I need to insert any words. So far, drawing the dialogue as pictures in the word balloons has said just about everything I needed to say.