“You’re dead. And the dead never speak.”
What happens when a voice is silenced? The war has begun. Issues #1 and #2 were a fight, maybe even a battle, but Little Bird #3 is very much the beginning of a war. Voices cry out from all sides as gunshots echo back, spilling blood in return. It’s disorienting and dissonant trying to sort out allegiances and truth among the noise. It is all intentional, however, as one voice rings loud and clear: The voice of Darcy Van Poelgeest, Ian Bertram, Matt Hollingsworth, Aditya Bidikar, and Ben Didier working as one to deliver a war story unlike any other.
The issue opens very differently from the previous two. We’re underground and in a new environment featuring earthy, rustic tones and stability not featured in the more flexible outposts of Tantoo’s people or the chaotic streets of the New Vatican. Word balloons bleed into the gutter, and the horizontal panels get narrower and narrower as the window of opportunity closes for Little Bird and the Axe to make their move. The panel manipulation and more geometric architecture immediately create an extremely claustrophobic environment for the reader. Meanwhile, the more frequent use of butting helps each word loom over every panel. Every phrase drips with importance as each reflection, instruction, and emotion carries a weight. There is a sense of immediacy which proves that the creative team has not only mastered their control over space and perspective but over time as well.
There are plenty of other changes which set this issue apart as well. The following scene pans to the clear blue calm of the Northern Guard. It is easy, clear, safe, and mirrors the underground resistance in a lot of different ways. Both locations have very layered habitats. The underground resistance is more rustic and naturalistic with an accent of older, almost industrial era technology. The Northern Guard, however, is man-made and filled with technology within a natural landscape. The way pipes extrude from the ceiling and shoot off in every direction is reminiscent of an experiment jury-rigged in a mad scientist’s lab. These locations could not be more different nor could they house populations that are less alike, but they complement each other marvelously.
This book is the most wholly collaborative issue yet for the entire team, and no page is a greater example of that than the one below. The page opens with a wider panel showing the prisoner on her knees trying to convince Little Bird to hear her story and understand the impact of her actions. She’s not like the rest of the soldiers because she couldn’t kill. Didn’t saving Little Bird’s life mean anything? This all takes place on the edges of what appears to be a lush, dense forest. It’s colored with a very natural green that is unlike almost every other color we’ve seen in this book so far. It shows the careful design work that goes into each new and unique location. None of them feel the same, no matter where they are or who controls them. The forest almost signals that there may be hope for the planet after all, but that is quickly quashed by the rest of the panel. While appearing healthy and full from a distance in earlier panels, the forest now appears riddled with fallen and crooked trees as lush green now mixes with the gloomy, blue-gray sky. The prisoner claim’s she’s lost everything, but Little Bird knows better. Despite her young age, Little Bird is cold and unforgiving as she matter-of-factly states “Not yet, you haven’t,” before a dramatic “SLIT” cuts the panel. This SLIT represents one of the most important and impactful choices of the issue. It cuts into the panel with its narrow and angular letters. It’s as though the panel is bleeding as the cut slowly reaches beyond the panel and into the white space below. The gutter between this panel and the next two is extra wide as though to usher a pause that leaves the reader thinking, “Did she do it? Did she kill the person that saved her life?” What follows are the extremely powerful words, You’re dead. And the dead never speak.” There is an important emphasis on the finality of the words “dead” and “never” by using bold as both carry permanence. The use of bold is extremely particular in this series, only being used on words that carry a significant weight instead of simply providing normal emphasis in a sentence. The reader can and will feel ever strike made by the bold lettering.
Only now does the reader realize that the “SLIT” was not to kill, but rather to set the prisoner free. After all, she did save Little Bird’s life. This scene is not only telegraphed within the panels but also within the characters’ eyes. Each character’s eyes are the windows to the soul of this book, and that can be seen here. In the first panel, both Little Bird and the prisoner’s eyes are narrowed, focused, untrusting, and pointed at each other. As the “SLIT” occurs, Little Bird’s eyes remain unwavering as the prisoner’s shift to abject terror. A more silent fear then washes over her as she believes she may only have seconds left. Once she realizes she’s been set free, the prisoner’s eyes show relief and gratitude. Then both characters turn their backs to the reader as the prisoner flees, hiding their reactions, perhaps because neither are sure that their choices are the right ones. The page is only five panels, and yet it contains so much meaning conveyed by all five members of the creative team working as one. It is truly a marvel to behold.
The reader must also behold the new biome and character designs this issue offers. The New Badlands of Alberta are striking. They house a scene reminiscence of a secret exchange in the Gulf War. Dirty yellow light reflects off the mounds of snow and the high winds great the effect of sandstorms. The scene carries a worn and weathered feel throughout, and Alberta looks much more like the desert than a tundra. As negotiations break down later in the issue and conflict erupts, the sky turns a mustard gas yellow. The panels in this scene and in the issue are not as connected as in the previous two. Instead, the pace feels much more like that of a guerrilla war with quiet, cautious movement interrupted by short but incredibly loud bursts of conflict. The location and atmosphere suck the reader further into the issue, but not as much as the character of Sarge.
From the very first panel in which Sarge appears, it is obvious that he has experienced this unfamiliar world more complete and holistically than anyone we’ve met so far. He wheres the ragged and torn clothes, the scars, and the worn face of a resistance fighter, but appears infected or corrupted by the body modifications associated with living in the United Nations of America. He is soaked with purple wine that almost appears to mix the red blood shed by the resistance and the blue-gray hue of the New Vatican. He is the tired, old middleman broker we’ve seen in other properties, and we never know which side they’re on. It appears as though he once has belief and convictions but was worn out by the Northern Guard and had to do what he could to survive. He was infected with cynicism and submission and now only lives to indulge which is really no life at all.
The remainder of the issue erupts into violence as the war reaches its climax and apparent resolution. Panels become angles and slanted as word and weapons alike begin to cut deeper. In the Axe’s negotiations, things turn south with, “Too bad we’re all grown up and no one gives a s--t what Santa says”, while in Little Bird’s guerrilla-style resistance scene in the middle of the forest, the paths of the bullet fly so precisely and with so much definition that their paths literally cut the panel. This is no longer a fight for hope, this is a fight for everything, and it grows increasingly brutal. The resistance’s violence is committed largely by blade. They stab their enemies in the eyes with knives, decapitate them with axes, or impale them with spears in ways that seem personal and direct. The violence of the New Vatican is cold and impersonal. Neon Purple lasers cut soldiers in half and a firing squad annihilates enemy soldiers. The brutality on the New Vatican side is led by Reverend, Bishops personal lackey. Like the disgusting and cruel right hand henchman everyone hates in any franchise, Reverend prefers not to get his own hands dirty, wields one-liners such as, “Save it sinner,” and takes a sick pleasure in the death and bloodshed he has the power to inflict on others, but he’s not the only one. A brutal massacre by firing squad at Reverend’s hand is brilliantly juxtaposed next to a field of mutilated soldiers with only Little Bird standing. It’s work that can only be done by someone who derives some form of pleasure from killing, even if she’s so young.
The end of the issue is where Bertram’s work shines as especially exceptional. His line-work is unlike any other artist working today and his ability to manipulate the texture of the page is unbelievable, particularly in a fade-to-black sequence of small panels that feel as though you are getting choked out along with the character in the issue. Additionally, as a large missile flies by to blow up the resistance ship, Bertram lays out the only panel overlap in the entire issue to create a slow-motion effect that one can only feel when watching an IMAX movie. It’s the kind of effect where you know what is going to happen and that you are powerless to stop it. It is the only overlapping panel in the entire issue, and it’s that kind of panel by panel care and attention that makes this entire creative team so special. Hollingsworth and Bidikar add a ton of effects to Bertram’s textures so that even though the texture Bertram uses for mountains of snow, dirt, and grass may all look similar, the colors and lettering surrounding that texture makes each location look like completely different terrain. This book only works because of this true collaboration between all five members of the creative team, and that is rare to see.
The finale of Little Bird #3 hits hard and fast with kinetic energy unlike any other scene in the issue. There is a scene of hyper-brutality so powerful, cold, and shocking, that reader will have to read it twice before being brought to tears by the rawness left on the page, followed by a chase scene that evokes the thrill of a superhero novel. This book demands attention and introspection as readers will be consistently caught off guard with the way they are made to feel from scene to scene. Every element of every panel hits hard with its intentions and execution and that’s what keeps readers coming to this book. The final page contains a picture of triumph, brutality, and annihilation perfectly portrayed in three panels. The positioning, colors, lighting, and eye contact are so perfectly executed that a numbness washes over the reader as the marvel at the beauty before the emotions associated with the brutality wash over them in a wave of hurt. All forty pages of Little Bird contain unparalleled levels of control over space, time, and emotion. This is a universe and a series where the readers don’t want anything other than to read the next issue. What they need and crave are the feelings and impacts associated with the actions of the series. Despite being longer than your standard comic, there is no setup or filler. All forty pages are a fight, a crusade, and a complete story thanks to Poelgeest, Bertram, Hollingsworth, Bidikar, and Didier. If Little Bird #1 was the fight for hope, and Little Bird #2 was the fight for identity than Little Bird #3 was just the fight. It was a war story from beginning to end complete with every aspect of conflict, tragedy, death, and brutality.