Image Comics announced LITTLE BIRD #1 back in December 2018, interviewing both its writer, Darcy Van Poelgeest, and its artist, Ian Bertram. After reading their interview (and ComicsVerse’s own), it is clear that they inserted what they wanted into their debut issue. I’m just not sure that the story is for me.

At the meta-design level, LITTLE BIRD #1 is a meditation on the nature of violence. It is about the lack of choice we have in participating in our fate. The art — the characters, environments, and even layout designs — represents the conflict of chaos and order, of freedom and oppression in both the inner and outer worlds of characters. There is a richness to this story that can only be found in reading it. All of those aspects of design tell a strong message. It’s just that sometimes I felt the story was sacrificed in the process.

The World Building of LITTLE BIRD #1 Obscured the Plot

It took me three readings of LITTLE BIRD #1 to understand quite what I was reading, and I’ve wondered why. I think the primary issue came down to a very simple structural choice: the insertion of unrequested world building.

LITTLE BIRD #1 opens with one of the most somber character introductions I’ve ever read. After saying goodbye to her mother (who locks her in a bomb shelter), Little Bird — our protagonist — emerges to see her city in ashes. Ominous words are spoken. It’s a story I want to follow.

Image courtesy of Image Comics.

But immediately after that scene, we cross-cut to the villain, Bishop. As leader (I think) of the theocratic United Nations of America, we learn about the Canadian “terrorists” to which Little Bird and her mom belong. We learn Little Bird’s world comprises a fight between unrestrained freedom and dogmatically-certain religion that “rejects the alter (sic) of Wall Street or Darwinian obscurities.” Although the nature of evil is important to state, it happens at an inconvenient time.

One of these crosscuts to Bishop would be okay, but it happens once more, just as Little Bird’s life gets difficult. What this does for me, as a reader, is take me out of the present drama going on in Little Bird’s life. The information dumps between these high dramatic states took me out of the story.

Nevertheless the Characters of LITTLE BIRD #1 Serve Their Purposes Well

As stated, it was the cross-cut between Little Bird and Bishop that disrupted the comic for me. When you spend five years developing a story (according to Van Poelgeest), the tendency to over-explain is real. Thinking back on it, I’d say the extra information was unnecessary because the characters themselves reveal the setting just fine.

LITTLE BIRD #1 is a world of extremes, founded on polemics we can see in our present-day society: conform or rebel. Little Bird, the titular character, finds herself caught between these two. Her mother, Tantoo, represents rebellion. She seeks independence from the United Nations of America through violence and raises Little Bird to this standard. Bishop seeks control through obedience, using God for the masses and chains for those not easily swayed.

Image courtesy of Image Comics.

In this way, the characterization reveals much more about the world than anything the characters could outright state. Indeed, that quality of Van Poelgeest’s writing and Bertram’s art is best exemplified in Little Bird’s story. Watching her make her way from the bomb shelter of her ruined city to find The Axe shows more than she could ever tell. Seeing her abandon her childlike ways for violence reveals her initial inculcation that will certainly change. My favorite character is The Axe. His words and his demeanor contrast his actions, making him someone I want to follow. What kind of world led him to this behavior? The series will no doubt answer this question. I don’t need exposition to understand that. LITTLE BIRD #1 does characters well, both the ones who represent an ideal and those with transformative arcs who will grow to challenge them.

Ian Bertram’s Art and Matt Hollingsworth’s Colors Are the Most Memorable Aspect of the Comic

Despite the world building and characters, I do think the art of LITTLE BIRD #1 will be the most memorable aspect of the comic. Throughout the interviews, it is clear that Bertram is doing more than sequentially depicting a visual tale. From the building design to the way scars cover each character, everything is an active choice. The Canadian resistance lives in towering, organic buildings; New Vatican is built with identical blocks, stolid and resolute.

Yet what I loved especially is Bertram’s command of space for its emotional effect. There are numerous close-ups and landscapes in this comic. Close-ups come right before action, to show the intensity with which a scene unfolds. Landscapes reveal emotion, emphasizing loneliness, control, or even the scale of a character’s stakes. There are images I won’t forget from this comic, just like the one below:

Image courtesy of Image Comics.

Hollingsworth should also get credit for setting the mood. Much of LITTLE BIRD #1 takes place outside, in the snow. Yet the subtle addition of light from a fire, in certain scenes, both reflects the warmth of a fire and the isolation the characters face. The art would not be complete without the coloration.

Final Thoughts on LITTLE BIRD #1

I had a great intellectual reaction to this premiere issue, it’s just that for comics, I prefer an emotional one. This is because ideals are general and generic; it’s the cast of players that make us care. Fortunately, the second issue of LITTLE BIRD expands all of the characters in the story. It moves the series from an intellectual experience to an emotional one. That is reason enough for me to keep reading.

LITTLE BIRD #1 by Darcy Van Poelgeest (writer), Ian Bertram (art), and Matt Hollingsworth (colors)
LITTLE BIRD #1 is a comic full of ideas that innovates at both the character and setting level. Yet a major weakness of this first entry is ignoring the compelling story of the titular character by cross-cutting with exposition about the world. Ian Bertram’s art nevertheless brings character to both the players and the locales of this world not quite like our own, and the book ends with a set-up for what will likely become a paradigm-setting comic.
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