If you’re familiar at all with comics beyond the Big Two, you’ve likely come across Little Bird. Its arrival on the creator-owned comic scene has been almost as explosive and dynamic as the pages within the comic itself. It’s first issue has recently been rushed back for a fourth printing, and there’s a lot of talk that this could be the comic of the year.
For those unaware, Little Bird follows a 12-year-old girl and a member of the last of the Canadian resistance as she tries to fight back against an imperialist and theocratic American Empire while searching for her own identity. Each issue has been a harrowing and epic journey with multiple stand-out moments. Today, we delve back into the series’ many high points with writer Darcy Van Poelgeest.
Warning: Spoilers below!
After brief introductions, writer Darcy Van Poelgeest and I jumped right in with Little Bird #1. Talking to a creator about your favorite parts of their work can be incredibly nerve-wracking. There’s always a worry about getting it right, but Van Poelgeest was really encouraging, asking me to share first.
I chose this page of Little Bird getting shot for a number of reasons. If you look at the composition, you can see that this page has four wide panels of varying sizes. In many ways, it shows the same brief moments in four very different emotional settings. The first panel catches you extremely off-guard. For context, Little Bird and The Axe were just catching their breath and talking after brutally ripping apart a New Vatican compound and everyone in it. You get to see these pages of bright, eye-popping colors and brutal, visceral imagery followed by this moment of calm reprieve as Little Bird tries to get the Axe on board with the mission. You’re near the end of the issue, you think you’ll finally get a chance to rest after such intense pages of non-stop action. Then, bang — that’s all it takes.
Bidikar’s lettering is almost cartoonish here with the font he chooses and the exclamation mark in the middle of her face. You almost have to ask yourself, “Did that really just happen?” The next panel of just the watch falling to the ground answers that by saying, “Yep, time’s up.” It’s understandable that the reader would have the same react the Axe does in this moment, shouting to the sky in fury, rage, confusion, and pain. It makes you realize that there is no time for rest in this world. The moment you rest is the moment they win, and this sudden moment demonstrates that. How could this happen? She was the protagonist. This is the first issue and all of that attachment you developed toward Little Bird over the past 30-ish pages is suddenly ripped away. The final panel helps you move past the realization and the anger, allowing you to pause and feel the sadness of the moment as Little Bird clutches the map and calls for her mother with a dying breath. Shock. Loss. Anger. Sadness. All in one beautiful moment.
Van Poelgeest adds,
“Yea, very true. I picked the same part for similar reasons, but also because in the same moment that she gets shot and the bullet penetrates her, we reveal a larger part of the story in just a small bit. If I was to narrow it down even more, it would just be that moment of Axe seeing a piece of his own past, which is sort of the first piece of a puzzle of how these lives are connected. This war is not simply an external conflict in this sci-fi world. This is a story about family and how family is, even with the best intentions prone to betray each other. We don’t dive into it, but I love how there’s this sort of build and crescendo. I think about a lot of things in terms of music, not that I know music or how to play music, but I think about it in terms of dancing; it’s musical to me. So there’s that crescendo and this moment of silence before we reveal a deeper piece that becomes more and more significant as the story goes on.”
This deeper piece is especially true for Axe, who really gets involved in the story after this moment. Before, as sad as it is, Axe has gotten used to life in that cell and thinks that the fight must be over by now and that he’s got no part in what’s left, but seeing that watch and realizing in that one moment that it’s still going on and never ends really comes through. Van Poelgeest continues, “These are all things that are revisited in the final chapter which comes out later this month.”
Since we picked the same scene as our favorite part, we decided to move onto issue #2.
For Little Bird #2, I chose the scene where Gabriel sacrifices Tantoo. It addresses a lot of themes all in the matter of a few pages including death, the relationship between father and son, and the relationship between man and religion. We see Gabriel as a boy whose been raised by faith. He has grown up on the word of God and is now being coerced into something he doesn’t think God would approve of by Bishop, a proclaimed divine messenger and his own father. Where Gabriel still realize on his own faith and what he’s learned himself, Bishop has become a man of conviction rather than God. You can almost wonder whether Bishop’s still acting out of faith or if he’s taken the initial cause to such an extreme that he can no longer stop.
Gabriel knows this is wrong, but as the panels become narrower, the pressure gets more intense. Who is he to defy the leader of the church? If he’s learned one thing, it’s that the word of Bishop has been the word of God. All it takes is one final push as Bishop yells, “CHOOSE GOD!” and the deed is done. Gabriel instantly knows it was the wrong choice and asks God for forgiveness while the column of fire is forever burned into his memory. He’s been a really fascinating character throughout this series. If that isn’t enough, the heavy word from Little Bird’s journal let us know that this is only the beginning. Gabriel must now walk the path he was placed upon, “And the choices… The choices were never really yours to make in the first place.”
Van Poelgeest adds,
“Yea, It’s almost impossible to talk about that scene without talking about chapter four, because chapter four is really all about that in a lot of ways. It’s about how do we live up to the expectations of our parents. Chapter two touches on choice, what are choices, and where is free will. I have to say, for the whole book that was the most challenging part to write in all of Little Bird. I found the relationship between Bishop and Gabriel incredibly hard to write. It’s heartbreaking.”
It is heartbreaking and very subtle, which is one of Van Poelgeest’s greatest strengths throughout the series. Gabriel never feels that he can be direct with his father, so it all comes out in how he acts and what he says apart from when he’s with Bishop. This scene especially is one of the first scenes where we see heavy attention paid to the characters’ eyes and the difference between looking and really seeing what’s happening around you.
Van Poelgeest credits artist Ian Bertram on these elements, saying,
“That’s kind of his style you know? It’s not really something that I put into the book, rather that’s Ian’s. There’s an intensity to Ian’s work in general, and we make good partners in that sense. The way I write about a lot of these things is a subtler approach, and Ian injects this intensity into it that changes it and makes it more interesting. Like you said, it gets lost in the mix of our work. There’s definitely thing that a writer brings to a project and definitely things that an artist brings to a project, but I think that a really good collaboration, which I believe Ian and I have, those things get difficult to peel away from each other. I think we’re certainly there. There’s certainly characteristics of mine that are in the script and characteristics of Ian that are in the work, but there’s a large percentage of it that’s almost like a third voice in the book that’s ours in unison. Throughout Little Bird there’s these snapshots or, as I’d call it, cutaways of leaves blowing or subtler moments drawn attention to like the opening of chapter two where there’s a double-page spread of just leaf floating down. That’s very much something that I’d put in my film work and that Ian is attracted two aesthetically in his own ways. It’s those type of scenes that are perfect examples of when we’re really working in sync together.
I think it works better if it’s a dialogue and you’re working in the artist’s ideas through discussion. Ian I would often discuss character motivations, what happened to them in the past, and subtler things like that. Those kind of things, if you start putting them all in a script, it gets so unwieldy and uninteresting. It’s my impression that as an artist, you get that and you’re trying to figure out how to illustrate a scene, and if you weigh down that visual information with what that 50-year old character may or may not have done in their youth, for me that would just get annoying. I find if you do it through conversation, it just becomes back-matter for the artist as opposed to something they have to think about portraying on a page.”
That’s certainly a signifier of a Gillen-McKelvie style of collaboration if there ever was one. It definitely shows the very collaborative nature of the medium. Writing something on a page and handing it off to the artist is enough to create an image, but it’s discussion and dialogue that allow an entire story to flourish as one despite being born from two different minds.
Van Poelgeest chose a different scene this time, choosing Tantoo’s journey when she was young saying,
“One of the things I find most interesting, I do it in Little Bird and I hope to continue doing it, is intersecting moments in time and finding a meeting place between things visually. At the end of the flashback sequence of Tantoo’s past where she runs into the woods and gives birth to Little Bird and it turns out Gabriel as well. Having Little Bird visually on the page being born for the first time and being reborn at the same time was just something really fun. Occasionally you come up with things for the artist to do and you just can’t wait to see how they do it because it’s challenging. I was just excited because it worked out well. Ian, Matt, and Aditya too, they just get it.”
With that we move onto Little Bird #3. It’s my personal favorite issue so far for a number of reasons, and it was too hard to pick a favorite moment, so I chose the character of Sarge as a whole. He’s always been extremely interesting because he’s this person who’s found a way of surviving by being an intersection between two worlds. You look at half of his character and you see the appearance of a weathered resistance fighter in Little Bird’s community, but the other half are these tentacles that belong with the body modifications in the New Vatican. He’s this person playing both sides because he sees that as his way of survival. We see him go back and forth throughout the issue. It really makes you wonder about the design and backstory to the character.
Van Poelgeest is able to answer that by saying,
“Well the design is all Ian, because he’s such a cool looking character. We spent a long time on him thinking about all of those factors. That was the idea as this character who’s hovering between these two worlds, and you get the sense that it was never by choice. He’s was sort of forced into that role in the world, and he quite possible started it out as someone different. He’s just a really great flawed character. We’ll learn a bit more about him in the future so I really don’t want to say too much more about it, but he’s a cool character and he was a favorite of Ian and I’s immediately.”
The character is definitely something special by playing both sides in a world where everyone has chosen their allegiance. He hasn’t and has managed to survive by doing so. Van Poelgeest adds, “Even in his best he’s still kind of a greaseball. They’re running back to the ship, and he’s already betrayed them, he’s f----d, and he’s still like, ‘just bring the gold anyways I might have been wrong about that fake thing.’ As soon as you think he’s chosen a side, he’s like well… He plays a slightly bigger role than we get to see there, but he’s a favorite.”
Van Poelgeest initially thought of Sarge as well for a stand-out moment in Little Bird #3, but since the character can’t really be contained to one moment, ended up choosing Axe’s death.
Van Poelgeest says,
“It was very satisfying as a storyteller because it basically closes the door on a storyline that starts in chapter one. He’s not exactly around for very long, but there’s a sense in chapter one that this is who this book’s going to be about, at least in part. At the end of chapter three, we close the door on that and in a sense, he’s failed Little Bird, and Tantoo has as well. In that brief time, it goes from them having a real shot at this to Axe being dead, and… it’s over. If anything good is going to come out of this, it’s going to be Little Bird who’s currently impaled on Bishop’s sword. It’s that ‘all is lost’ kind of moment in storytelling, and I love the way it comes together. In his last bit of dialogue there, we’re still a that point chipping away at Axe’s story a bit, and we don’t get the full sense until the last issue. I just enjoyed killing him basically.”
In many ways, that scene follows up on the mission from chapter one: “Free the Axe. Save the people. Free the North. Save the World.” It was a mission that inspired hope and determination, and with Axe’s death, you can feel it crumbling around you. It’s really fallen apart there and rings out as empty after that scene. Little Bird then talks about being haunted by the things we say and do which really calls back to chapter one.
With that we moved onto Little Bird #4, where Van Poelgeest elected to go first:
“We’ve already touched upon it, but it’s really the confrontation between Gabriel and Bishop, his father. There’s not a lot I have to say about it really. It’s a just a moment I’d always known was coming and was looking forward to it. There’s a few people early on who kind of criticized the book as another action book demonizing religion in a very one-dimensional sort of way, but this moment sort of upturns that in the sense that I get to finally show the character addressing that. There’s just a small moment of truth between Gabriel and his father, their understanding, interpretations, and the way that they’ve chosen to live. Specifically, where Gabriel drops the knife and is like, “I will stop you, but not that way,” because he has the knife and his father’s like “Go ahead, if you think I’m so bad, then do it.” All it would take was one little motion, and Gabriel refuses to stop Bishop in the way that he would. He does it in his own way.”
Gabriel doesn’t denounce God, but rather turns to God more than Bishop and uses God as a source of strength. We both agreed that it’s Gabriel who has a real relationship with God, and you can see that. I chose the final moments between Gabriel and Little Bird as Gabriel’s coming to say farewell. At this point, all of the words are coming from Little Bird’s journal, and we get to see Gabriel’s childhood and this entire in a very personal and heartfelt way. In just a few images, the emotional weight of Gabriel’s entire life rushes into you at once, and it’s a profound feeling. Gabriel and Little Bird haven’t known each other long and are existing on opposing sides, but there’s a closeness between them that doesn’t exist between any other two characters in the book. We see how they’re similar and different at the same time and the bond that they share.
Van Poelgeest agreed adding,
“That’s probably my favorite scene now that you mention it. It’s the kind of thing where every new issue becomes my favorite. I get deeper into the story, and It’s more exciting for me. I love chapter four. It was the hardest chapter to do, but also the most rewarding in a story sense. Every scene in that chapter I find interesting, and I love it for some reason. That scene was difficult, and I think the more you can find bits of yourself to put in your work, the more honest it is, and the more honest it is, the more people will connect. Gabriel’s life is not my life, or Little Bird’s, or any of the people, but I do try and put bits of myself into it. Definitely with that issue, it’s quite raw. That scene, it’s a tough one.”
Talking about all four issues as a whole, Poelgeest adds,
“They’re each their own chapter. Each one focuses a little bit more on different characters, and in a subtler way. they all sort of explore different aspects of genre. The first one is very much like an adventure, the second one feels more experimental and psychedelic, the third one is very much sci-fi action, the fourth one delves into horror a bit, and I won’t say anything about the fifth one. It’s not like we set out to do that, but I just found myself doing that.”
The design especially has been a great way of illustrating this, as Didier’s design work is really able to wrap up the story into this concise message conveyed through symbols, a quote and a color. That presentation is a really cool encapsulation of the themes and imagery in the issue.
Van Poelgeest adds,
“It always comes back to story, and it doesn’t matter who is working on it. Ian and I obviously work on large parts, but Matt is quite focused on story too in a lot of the way he approached coloring scenes. When I work with Ben [Didier], the designer, we’re still talking about story. It’s not good enough to just do cool designs. What’s the story we’re telling here? Certainly Aditya too. I feel really lucky to work with these guys. Sometimes you’re on a project, and it could be a comic, a film, or a contemporary dance, and a few of you click and maybe a couple don’t. Then maybe you sort of refine the team, but with us, the next project is all five of us together again because it was such a great experience, so why not do it again!”
That’s definitely what you want to hear when you’re looking at a story and what went into it. It’s always great to see everyone on board thinking about story, and it’s really encouraging. I look forward to whatever’s coming next.
That concludes a closer look at the first four issues of Little Bird already out now. Little Bird #5 will mark an end of a journey not only for us readers, but for the creative team of writer Darcy Van Poelgeest, artist Ian Bertram, colorist Matt Hollingsworth, Letterer Aditya Bidikar, and designer Ben Didier. When asked what it was like coming to the end of such a long creative and collaborative endeavor, Van Poelgeest responded,
“Exciting… and a little sad. I’m kind of in disbelief that it is actually ending, because we’ve worked on it for so long. Compared to how long we’ve worked on it; we’ve went through it pretty quickly. You work on it for a couple years and then in five months it’s kind of over, so I’m still getting used to that idea, but I find that it takes up a lot of time. I’m excited to focus on new work and the next thing that we’re doing.”
Van Poelgeest has also completed numerous award-winning short films as well. When asked how that process compared to finishing Little Bird, he replied,
“There are some similarities. I’d compare to making a really intimate film with anywhere from ten up to hundreds I guess. When you’re making a comic it’s really only four people, so it’s a much more intimate process and I love that about it. Everyone involved has intimately more control over what the end product looks like. When you’re making a film, it’s just chaos because anything can change at any moment. Even someone you don’t consider to be a key creative member, like a production assistant can crash the camera van and then your camera’s five hours late, so now you have to shoot something different. There’s just so many moving parts.”
Little Bird #5 comes out Wednesday, July 17. After that, Van Poelgeest has teased a 2020 project, with more info coming soon. He’s also working on an original graphic novel for some time next year as well. Next year’s definitely looking up for Van Poelgeest, and I’d like to thank him for being a part of this amazing deep dive.