“I had traveled all this way but gotten nowhere at all.”
Little Bird is a book that challenges and respects the reader. It asks the reader to absorb and feel everything the book is trying to say. Beyond the panels or the words is a story being told by four creators working with complete freedom. It challenges the very notion of storytelling in comics and beyond, transcending numerous possible influences and comparisons to become something decidedly its own. With an unbelievable creative lineup consisting of Darcy Van Poelgeest, Ian Bertram, Matt Hollingsworth, and Aditya Bidikar, Little Bird #2 is a fresh perspective on destiny, and how the past and our environment can shape our future, but not define it.
The issue opens with a beautiful double-page spread, something not really found in the first issue. We are treated to a grotesque and twisted landscape with contorted trees sitting atop blood red, tubular islands both intricate and reminiscent of artists like Phillip Guston or Edward Gorey. Tantoo stands proud atop a nest of roots above her daughter, whose body is partially the same blood red. The imagery is enough to horrify, but here it’s especially calming thanks to numerous tiny panels containing a lonely leaf floating across the page. It’s an amazing effect that emphasizes the detail in the massive landscape before us. It reminds the reader how much there will be to unpack as they continue and to look closely at every panel, as each has its own story to tell. It does not, however, feel detached, distant, or separate thanks largely to Bidikar’s lettering. The only words on the first spread come from Little Bird in a style reminiscent of a child’s journal or diary, intentionally stylized to reflect writing on birch bark which reveals the book’s intense connection to nature. Perhaps it is misplaced, but it evokes the image of Anne Frank’s diary, containing thoughts from another young girl born into a society she could not control and forced to react to its consequences.
The rest of the dreamscape shows how attentive the reader must be. The following few pages alone show a transcendent, surreal beauty that the reader could stare at for hours and still not grasp the full meaning. The infinite, cyclical bridge of feather winding around and back to key events in Tantoo and Little Bird’s lives and the all-seeing eye of The Owl that peers at them and us, the readers, are both very thought out elements that draw the reader in and make them think about their own destinies, lives, and pasts. Little Bird may be dead in this opening, but the entire scene exudes life thanks to Hollingsworth’s magnificent coloring. The red hues laying over the blue-gray undertones convey a similar feeling to the book as one might feel when looking at arteries and veins. Hollingsworth’s colors are the heart of the book beating life into every panel and page and inspired by great artists like Enki Bilal, Moebius, and Bernard Hislaire. Bidikar’s lettering is the nervous system, convey feeling throughout every corner of the issue through texture and subtlety. Bertram’s art is the muscular system which provides strength, power, and motion to the issue through panel structure, perspective, and spectacular line-work. Finally, Poelgeest’s writing is the skeletal system that provides structure, support, and connection to the issue through deliberate framing and powerful dialogue. All of these phenomenal contributors could be singled out for their work on this book, but a pile of bones, a collection of muscles, a bundle of nerves, or a pool of blood mean nothing on their own. This book is a true and total collaboration from all four members that forms a complete, human body; the body of Little Bird.
There are numerous possible influences each contributor may have had when making decisions regarding the final product of Little Bird #2. Each choice is a deliberate one that contributes toward the overall cinematic feel to the issue. The reader is watching the issue in the cinema surrounded by sound and feeling, but more than that, they are standing inside the story surrounded by Little Bird’s world and life. It’s why, regardless of each contributor’s or decision’s possible influences, this book transcends all that. It is so unique and so decidedly its own that it should already be recognized an inspiration for future comic creators, and as a book that honors its predecessors whenever comparisons are made whether they regard color choices, art style, lettering or any other decision in the book.
Visceral. A state referring and relating to deep inward feelings rather than intellect. Little Bird #2 is able to touch those deep inward emotions without sacrificing its need for intellect through its metacognitive nature. It requires the reader to think about what they are feeling and thinking as they move through the issue, and one way it does that is through Bertram’s thin, horizontal panels. Most of the time, they show as much as they hide, only giving us a small portion of the full image but normally containing a pair of eyes or an explosive moment in nature, two of the most powerful elements in the issue. In the beginning, through a character’s eyes, whether it be Bishop or Tantoo, you can see the fear and the determination as they recognize the threat in front of them. On the other hand, the thin panels conveying powerful elements of nature, whether it be leaves falling or an eruption of fire, reveal a mystery for the reader to solve. They paradoxically convey movement within a static moment in time while giving no hints as to their causes or effects. There is only the single moment. Bidikar’s lettering choices compound these effects, either through the complete absence of lettering from the panel or the careful placement of a single, concise yet powerful phrase off to one side. Such powerful words are written as, “And together we grew,” or “And that path became yours as well.” They are phrases that contain deep meaning but are still placed on the edge of the panel to prioritize the message conveyed through its visual beauty.
All of the choices regarding placement and perspective reflect panels that are handcrafted with care and intricately pieced together to reflect the cinematic style of the story and the dichotomous nature of the world in which we’ve become immersed. There’s an incredible amount of calm juxtaposed with intense action, and this juxtaposition is often used to fill in gaps we didn’t even know existed. One such gap was filled by fleshing out Bishop’s character in great detail. Bishop ultimately serves as the gatekeeper and messenger to God which carries an immense amount of power. The faith, belief and devotion of the people may be directed towards God, but the message being spread is ultimately the words of Bishop himself. Despite reflecting the Christian faith and ruling over a colonialist regime, Bishop’s character is in many ways reminiscent of Montezuma, who weaponized religion into military might to build a vast empire and served as the only mode of communication with the Gods. Ultimately, only time will tell as to whether or not Bishop’s will share the same fate at the end of these five issues.
Standing opposed to Bishop is Tantoo, whose journey fleeing from Bishop himself is fleshed out further in Little Bird #2 using some very unique paneling styles to convey her journey has a faceless traveler from the New Vatican to rural Canada. Once such panel shows Tantoo traveling through tunnels along with other citizens whose differences, body modifications, make them unwelcome under Bishop’s rule. Their expression and beliefs are buried and that is displayed through Bertram’s choice to show the feet of the accepted citizens unknowingly walking over the tunnels. The visible contrast is so stark that it almost looks like a thin, separate panel. That is how different the lives of those who are attacked and shunned by a totalitarian government are from those who fit right in. The second collection of panels shows Tantoo moving through thick, black briers struggling to continue through the darkness. As she draws hope from Little Bird, however, the darkness begins to get smaller as the panels get thinner until they disappear into virtually nothing and a large image of light and kindness emerges. It’s a brilliant sequence that illustrates how connected each panel is to those that lie above, below, or on either side. Each panel is connected to those around it in some way. It could be a physical element such as a tree, stairs, or a tentacle that leaves one panel and continues to the next. It could be through Hollingsworth’s color choices as he displays a gradient within a panel while keeping a color flat across and between panels in order to convey a continuous image. It could be through Bidakar’s clever arrangement of word balloons that begin dialogue in one panel and seamlessly move it to another as the characters themselves move through time. After all, Bidikar brings an art to lettering that few in the industry can match.
Such subtle artistic talent can be seen in the way that Bidikar letters Gabriel’s dialogue. Gabriel is one of the more fascinating elements introduced in Little Bird #2. Little Bird is the daughter of Tantoo and a daughter of the resistance, born to fight a battle she does not understand. Similarly, Gabriel is the son of Bishop and a son of the regime, born to carry a message and impose a rule he does not understand and may not agree with. Gabriel’s balloons have shaky outlines, conveying weakness either due to his disease or lack of conviction. His dialogue is written with a heavy use of ellipses which conveys a cautious and hesitant attitude for the same reasons. Each time Gabriel speaks, it feels heavy, as though the balloon is going to fall apart due to how weak Gabriel is at the moment. Will he embrace the destiny he has been given? Only time will tell. The most remarkable element of Gabriel’s character in Little Bird #2, however, is Gabriel’s eyes. Bertram’s use of eyes and the power they contain is a sight to behold throughout the issue. Gabriel’s eyes throughout the scene are open to God, looking and eager to learn, yet they see nothing. It’s what adds power to Gabriel’s hesitation and potential lack of belief powerfully conveyed as he stutters, “God… ..forgive me.” The eyes of Little Bird, Tantoo and the other members of the resistance, however, are often narrow and impervious to the toxic messages spread by the New Vatican. Rather they stare fiercely and intently at their focus or destination, whatever it may be.
Another example of the artistic nature of lettering can be seen through Little Bird’s second death to the mechanical drone. The scene is complete obliteration of any calm we knew before. It is simultaneously loud and quiet over a chaotic array of violence that fades seamlessly in and out. This is accomplished primarily through Bidikar’s lettering as he contrasts loud, boisterous sound effects with the soft, quiet words of Little Bird before she dies for a second time. Violence is not included in Little Bird for the sake of violence. It all has a purpose. The scene marks a seamless transition through two remarkably different styles of hyperviolent action. The first is flashy, kinetic, excessive violence for the sake of conveying movement and danger, while the second is a heavy, powerful, and conscious violence that carries true meaning, loss, and sacrifice. Additional themes are brought to light beyond this violent battle. The idea of destiny versus will, the malleability of humanity, and hope versus absolution, but most importantly, the idea of rebirth and resurrection. Each time Little Bird dies and is resurrected, she further develops as an individual beyond simply a servant of the resistant and becomes more distant from the symbol Tantoo wants her to be, similar to the coyote in Grant Morrison’s Animal Man, a known inspiration for Van Poelgeest. Each time the coyote dies in “Coyote Gospel” he becomes more distant from what the writer intended him to be and that reflects Animal Man’s journey as well. These themes shine through, largely through visuals and expressions instead of dialogue or narration.
Van Poelgeest said, “I’m trying not to let words get in the way of writing,” and that sentiment comes through loud and clear in Little Bird #2. It’s as though the entire issue was written without words and then words were added only where they were absolutely necessary. Each word carries weight and emotion because each word is necessary. There are no frivolous monologues or long, drawn out conversations. Each word makes an impact. Whether it be elements large and center stage or small and on the fringes, Little Bird #2 is a full and complete issue that seamlessly hybridizes numerous characters, themes, and visual styles into one powerful narrative. Having extra pages allows each issue of Little Bird to be a full story. Most single issues are missing something causing the reader to need the next issue. They need to know what happens next. They need to know how a character feels. They need to learn how it all fits together. Little Bird’s unique structure ensures that readers don’t need any of that. They simply want the next issue with all of their heart without the matter being forced. It’s the most powerful message a reader can give, and it’s all thanks to Darcy Van Poelgeest, Ian Bertram, Matt Hollingsworth, and Aditya Bidikar.