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Little Bird #1 review: A theocracy oppresses; a child resists

Soar with Little Bird as we reexamine elements from our past, present, and future in an action-packed comic sure to inspire shock and awe.

Darcy Van Poelgeest and Ian Bertram
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The dogma may change but the consequences of justified oppression remain the same.

“Sometimes it becomes more about fighting than what you’re fighting for.”

These days, we often think of ourselves as evolved. Society is too civilized for the barbaric imperialism that ran rampant less than a century ago. “Us vs. them” is a term so casually thrown around that we’ve forgotten the magnitude the narrative often carries. They say, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” In the future, the colonial theocratic regimes of the past wield the necessary tools to enforce their tenets.

Little Bird is a child of such ignorance and nonchalance. Born from Darcy Van Poelgeest, Ian Bertram, Matt Hollingsworth, and Aditya Bidikar, this sci-fi tale of resistance may seem hyper-violent and surreal, but its all too relevant in today’s climate.

The issue largely takes place in the Canadian Rockies, on land that remains ancestral and traditional in the hands of the Musqueam people, during a time when America has become an oppressive theocracy in the name of Jesus Christ. Ruled from the New Vatican by Bishop, a self-proclaiming Vicar of Christ himself, society no longer strives for science or knowledge, only for God. The bleak state of the resistance is made immediately clear as the indigenous stronghold reminiscent of an 18th century village is obliterated in three days. The stylish, expansive village seamlessly integrated with the lush, natural landscape in which it resides is reduced to glowing rubble and ash. A girl rises from the bunker her mother placed her in before the attack, and it is unclear if the red glow comes from the embers of destruction or the blood that was lost. She returns to the village on scorching red ground past leveled trees and remains emotionless behind her bird-like mask. As the girl stares at her village in ruins, a narrated reflection describes her story as being, “about the all-consuming nature of fire. And the dreams we make of ash.” The girls eyes stare back as if to say that this is only a fragment of the destruction this world is capable of.

The girl’s name is Little Bird, and while Little Bird #1 follows her story, the destruction it recounts is on a much larger scale. Much in the vein of Frank’s Herbert’s Dune, Little Bird grotesquely reflects the worst of our past to tell a prescient tale for the possible future. Society has once again fallen back on religion and order as a crux to lean upon. Anything to weird or out of the norm is locked away in penitentiaries. It’s easy to think, “This is horrible and would never happen,” but society is remarkably complacent. The population stares back, indifferent to Bishop’s sermon on their destiny under God. The prison guard is bitter about his life and job, never once mentioning a higher power, but has remained subservient for twenty years.

And Little Bird? She’s only twelve and is a linchpin of the resistance movement. Her mother Tantoo led the resistance in her village and preached the fight for the land, the children and the dream. This oppression, struggle, hardship, and fight is all Little Bird has ever known. She doesn’t know why, only that she must fight. Her mission is to find The Axe and tell him that hope exists. She doesn’t know why, only that she must. Little Bird is given this mission and is sent to hide in a bunker for three days. When she emerges, everything she once new is destroyed. Violence. Destruction. That’s Little Bird’s story.

As Little Bird wanders through her village searching for her mother, she discovers a transmission in the helmet of a mutilated soldier. She peers inside to see a video feed streaming Bishop’s victory speech. He appears bloodied in front of the American flag where a cross replaces the 50 stars. Bishop proclaims that the murders were righteous under Jesus Christ, urges that this is only the beginning, and preaches the name of the Holy Empire and that God is good. Little Bird reacts with pain and violence but sees the clock her mother gave her and quickly calms down, remembering her mission, a mantra — “Free the axe. Save the people. Free the north. Save the world.”

Bishop’s story is one of image. He bathes in a bathtub of blood, his tentacle body modifications free for all to see. He justifies vanity as long as it serves the Lord. After all, soldiers and servants fight with weapons, leaders and divine messengers fight with words. Science has taken a dark turn and mankind is equal parts natural and manufactured. Such modifications are now illegal under divine law, except in the most dire of circumstances. Tantoo is captured for a Resurrection Gene she is thought to possess. Bishop preaches servitude under God, condemning financial and scientific institutions in front of the populous, but benefits from science behind closed doors.

Little Bird’s story is one of action. As she carries out her mission, she traverses the Rocky Mountains and skins a wolf, leaning on the dream
— “A home to distant stories and forgotten memories” — for strength. Whatever must be done to complete the mission is done. The quietest scenes are the most impactful. “I am a wolf,” Little Bird says as she sneaks into the penitentiary wearing the wolf’s skin, leaving a pile of intestines and bones behind her. It is a transformative moment when a little bird becomes a cunning wolf.

As she enters the facility, the book heightens. Little Bird and her traditional, ancestral upbringing is thrust into the future as the natural colors of the Canadian landscape morph into the neon shades of modern technology. We hold our breath as we watch a 12-year old drag an oversized battle axe past a room of individuals with powers, horrific body modifications, and so many tentacles. She reaches the holding cells where the Axe resides and ambushes the guard, but gets overpowered. That is, until old man Axe sees Little Bird in distress and breaks out of his cell with two punches. The two then have fight their way out of the facility past the Army of Twelve.

In the meantime, we see Bishop face Tantoo who is held prisoner somewhere inside New Vatican. The two clearly have a history, and Bishop still has feelings, but nothing beyond that is revealed. Poelgeest, Bertram, Hollingsworth, and Bidikar craft a grotesque and horrifying world rule by fear, oppression, and theocratic dogma. You can only watch, horrified by the normalization and justification of intense violence but powerless to do anything in this world. Little Bird exists in a world vaguely reminiscent of John Wagner or Alan Grant’s creations over the years while still holding onto a unique core identity. Despite containing systematic destruction and gratuitous violence, Little Bird contains a remarkable level of beauty as it uses theocratic and colonialist themes from our past to warn of a possible future.

Poelgeest and Bertram are both very unconventional storytellers — their true, back-and-forth collaboration bring life to this book. Little Bird’s sincere and reflective narrative from a traditional yet malleable culture seamlessly mixes with rigid, unchanging principles of a theocratic regime to form a beautiful and unsettling comic. Poelgeest’s words speak softly, but carry a big stick. The book has its share of vulgarities and loud, religious speeches, but the words that carry the most impact come from Little Bird’s thoughtful reflections or her grounded conversation with the Axe. Little Bird’s world is the focal point of this issue, but Poelgeest’s commentary hints at something more. It is Bertram, however, who truly brings this story to life through it’s stunning visuals that can only be described as Riley Rossmo meets Wesley Craig. He masterfully portrays an expansive range of scenes and emotions, from desolate and beautiful landscapes to powerful displays of authority, to a bloodbath so violent that panels are literally cut in the carnage, and blood and gore spill outside of the panels. He stitches the natural beauty and the surreal brutality into an elegant and continuous tapestry depicting a three-dimensional dystopia.

Little Bird displays meaningful character work and dynamic world building that bring the reader into this dystopia. The hardship and loss that Little Bird had to endure is near unfathomable, but there is a sense of warmth within her that radiates from the pages due to her drive and respect for her mission and world around her. Bishop, however, claims to embrace God, a source of divine warmth, but embraces technological body modifications that suck the warmth out of the reader. We are but flies on a wall in this dystopian world where violence and struggle invoke only disgust and fear. This effect is largely achieved by Bertram’s visuals which capture the essence of shock and awe perfectly.

Hollingsworth and Bidikar are the ones that add an extra dimension to this issue and its important to highlight that. They turn this world into a full experience for the reader. Hollingsworth adds an extremely intricate and intentional color palette that contains a delicate balance of loud, synthetic colors to softer, subtle hues that bring the book for the next level. whether it be the blood-soaked, red hue of Tantoos prison, the synthetic neon holding facility, or the melancholy blue-gray hue of the wilderness, Hollingsworth brings the vision to life.

Bidikar’s lettering is just as essential here. His use of lower-case lettering in Little Bird’s diary is pivotal in reminding the reader that our protagonist is but 12-years old despite her maturity. Nature vs technology is a core theme of this book, and Bidikar helps emphasize that for the reader. The pages of Little Bird’s journal trail off in the direction of the wind with varying intensity. The synthetic onomatopoeia in the holding facility bring a bit of humor into a serious scene and brilliantly portray the distinctions between cracking and shattering glass, machine-gun fire, and axe-swinging. Great lettering can reach the reader’s senses beyond just sight, and Bidikar is able to do just that.

Despite the issue being largely surreal, there is a sense of foreboding that feels like we aren’t too far off from this reality. With more modern nations preaching Christian values and us vs them narratives being casually thrown around and accepted, it might only take one inciting incident or individual. The age of theocracy and colonialism may be over, but the ideologies are still ever-present in our society and it’s terrifying to think that a similar world may not be impossible, despite the exaggerated body modifications. We all have to acknowledge our complacency and compare our reality with the past and ask ourselves, are we okay with this future?

Little Bird is an outstanding debut comic from Poelgeest, Bertram, Hollingsworth, and Bidikar that combines the real and surreal to form a Dalian interpretation of our future in only the first issue. Soar with Little Bird as we reexamine elements from our past, present, and future in an action-packed comic sure to inspire shock and awe.

Little Bird #1
Is it good?
Careful and intentional worldbuilding that seamlessly mixes naturalism and syntheticism.
An excellent combination of elements from our past, present, and future.
Stunning visuals that juxtapose hyper-violent bloodbaths with grounded conversation for maximum impact.
The issue almost feels too complete. It's so fleshed out that it doesn't leave the reader craving more.
9.5
Great
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