Jen Bartel hasn’t done a ton of interior work to date. It’s only been selectively and for the most part, the terrific artist only does covers. So the notion of a book done entirely by her? Incredibly, incredibly exciting. Bartel is absolutely one of the best artists in comics right now, able to effortlessly capture whatever subject she’s presenting with grace, power and charm in one singular image. From the rich colors to the stylish looks, her characters radiate with a magical glow. So it’s only fitting that if she were to do a book, it’s about magic.
And thus, her teaming with Sam Humphries, Triona Farrell, Jodi Wynne and Paul Reinwand gives us Image’s Blackbird. An urban fantasy series about a seemingly ordinary woman who may be more and more than anything in her life, craves to be more. Having always believed in magic, Nina Rodriguez aspires to be a Paragon, a sort of wizard or witch, capable of great magic. She’s a super fan and having spent ages on forums and comment sections, she’s learnt all there is to learn about Paragons and their culture. First, they use special Gems for a lot of their magic, each a spell, each different and unique in their effect. Second, they operate in cabals. There’s Iridium, Zon and Polaris, all who maintain their own territory and treaties, with a lot of shady politics involved.
Deeply depressed, full of baggage from a lifetime of mockery and disbelief she’s been subject to, Nina is a girl from a messy background. Her father, a drunkard and her mom the caretaker, constantly embroiled in fights, as her grandma sat with her and her sister, Marisa. Then her mother passed away, leading to a whole host of troubles, which she struggled through alone. Now an adult, she lives with her sister, but is directionless and lost, popping pills to try and feel better. Her passion for magic is all that really keeps her going, as she cannot even be bothered to apply to jobs and settle into a normal life or anything close. She yearns for something more, being defined by a key moment in her youth where in she witnessed a giant lion monster and a memory wipe spell. Since then, she’s been pursuing her dream, even while others dub her ‘crazy baby’ and scoff at her. It’s an obvious low point, but as you can image, she does find magic and she finds it’s all too real, as she touches upon the world of Paragons. That’s essentially the basic setup.
From there on we dive into a whole assortment of cabal politics and maneuvering, more world-building and a good number of twists and turns which make up the web of story. There’s a whole lot of anime and manga in the book, right out the gate, as it channels the magical girl genre elements and influences for its purposes as much as it does anything else. And there’s also a healthy mix of other elements one might be familiar with in the urban fantasy genre. Bartel’s design sensibilities and genius great play throughout the volume here, as she knocks it out of the park consistently.
Those expecting Bartel’s art to look precisely the way it does on her cover work should definitely adjust their expectations though, as interior sequential storytelling which is upto 20 pages requires a different skillset, approach and focus. And given Bartel hasn’t been doing it too long, Reinwand acts as the layout artist, helping break down the page and allowing her to focus more on the storytelling within the panels themselves. Colored by herself and Nayoung Wilson, Bartel sets the basic palette and look for the comic, after which the series regular colorist Triona Farrell picks up the ball and brings her own spin to that established aesthetic and atmosphere. Jodi Wynne, who’s done impeccable work on a lot of Greg Rucka stories, particularly his latest Wonder Woman run, is the letterer and she’s a great addition to the team here. One of the most fun and inspired decisions in the book is her choice for the look of the lettering when magic occurs, as all black panels with color, almost in a Tron aesthetic, emphasize the magical beat and give the spells far more ‘weight’ in the presentation of the story.
The book does start a bit slow and takes a bit to get going, taking its time to unveil the story, so it may truly reveal what it’s all about in due time. But its biggest flaw might be its overreliance on first person narrative captions a lot of the times, which aren’t necessarily weak, but could be done with out at points. In moments like these it feels overwritten, as the art and colors alongside contextual clues express a lot of what needs to be and the moments might hit faster and harder without the need for those captions at all those points.
Blackbird is a solid start for Humphries and Bartel’s big new launch. The first arc seeds a lot of things to come and builds out a world and cast for the creatives to play with in the coming years. With elements of Buffy and the magical girl genre and a passion for urban fantasy, there’s a lot in here that’s going to appeal to a great many. This is a beautiful looking trade that you can hand to anyone to get them into a Jen Bartel-designed universe of magic and mayhem.