“It’s about the all-consuming nature of fire. And the dreams we make of ash.”
Hope exists. After everything that’s happened, hope exists. No matter who comes and goes, reigns victorious or falls defeated, it only takes one person for hope to exist. People’s lives and their actions are finite, but their stories and impact can be limitless. There’s no feeling in the world quite like reading the final issue of a remarkable comic delivered by a consistently brilliant creative team. Darcy Van Poelgeest, Ian Bertram, Matt Hollingsworth, Aditya Bidikar and Ben Didier have formed a delightful mix of industry newbies and veterans to create nothing short of a five issue masterpiece. They have neatly tied together every important scene, plot point, and hard-hitting message into one 40-page issue that only closes a single chapter in a book of possibilities. It’s enough to leave us all speechless, the gears turning in our heads about the endless opportunities of the world beyond the panels.
So what now? If the book truly renders you speechless, is the above not enough? No, it isn’t, because a story is given more meaning and more impact the more we discuss it and make it a part of us. And so we dive in at neither the beginning nor the end.
We begin in a world undoubtedly shaped by humans. If the military jargon and futuristic technology aren’t enough to convince you, just look at Matt Hollingsworth’s colors or Aditya Bidikar’s word balloons. What was once a lush forest is now a bright yellow wasteland with bullets flying everywhere. Futuristic ships decorate the skies, and within them, a colorful myriad of switches, buttons, and levers controlled by a squadron of resistance fighters as they mount their final attack. The word balloons contain jagged protrusions representing radio chatter. You may recognize the lead soldier commanding the ship from previous issues, now fighting for the resistance as a quadruple agent. The panels appear more uniform in this opening scene because every moment has equal weight. This is it. It’s all on display right here.
This is an example of how crucial every member of the creative team is to telling this story, and how their work intertwines to form a final product none of them could have produced on their own. Bertram’s impeccable line work creates a detailed and weathered world beyond many of our imaginations. Hollingsworth’s colors fill it with life, meaning, and emotion while Bidikar’s captions, diary pages, and word balloons fill it with an intense and distinct personality. All of these features are worthy of praise on their own, but together, they form a paragon of story telling one cannot help but aspire to.
While the resistance is mounting their final attack, the New Vatican also resembles a wasteland. The once bustling, somewhat vibrant city is now a gray and barren pile of crosses. Only the Mother still thrives in her bright orange bubble as Bishop cries in turmoil. He doesn’t know! Just like us readers, Bishop is unsure who died in that column of fire at the end of Little Bird #4. He cries because he’s been abandoned and questions if anyone could understand his pain, but his words drip with irony. For it is he who abandoned his faith, his family, and his people all for the sake of power and immortality. It is here, on his knees that Bishop’s true, pathetic self surfaces. This angry, evil, and defeated Bishop takes on a more grotesque form than the righteous, dignified, and powerful version we saw in Little Bird #1. Now, he only cares about learning who died and who survived, and as he says, “There’s only those who stand at my side… and those who perish in the flames that consume me.” This is where the themes of destruction, rebirth, and resurrection begin to surface. Right now we are at a state between destruction and rebirth. The New Vatican is a mix of gray, black, and blue nothingness as it awaits resurrection.
There are a plethora of small techniques this team employs that enhance the already spectacular storytelling and characterization even further. For example, as Sarge charges toward the Northern Guard on his kamikaze mission, the increasing seismic activity of the Hog moving underground causes the panel outlines to become shakier and more jagged. Then, as Sarge says his final words, a giant, cartoonish, and characteristic exclamation mark appears above his head. At first, these exclamation marks appear silly. Why do we need something like that? But to see something so jarring, and even a little out of place, allows us to pause and feel the moment. It helps us ask, “did that just happen?” and come to terms with our own feelings once we realize it did. Almost every character gets a moment like this. A moment of death that isn’t just tragic, but also represents a moment of victory, no matter how small. For Sarge, the man playing the system as he carefully balances a life between two worlds, he finally chooses a side, and it turns out to be the right one. He redeems himself in the best way possible.
If that bittersweet moment wasn’t enough to tug at your heartstrings, we then move to one of the best pages of the issue, where we learn who truly died in that column of fire are a presented with a very serious question: Has Little Bird really saved anyone? Look at all of the death and destruction that has occurred so far. What has come of it? If this final crusade fails, it will have all been in vain, and Little Bird has nothing to lose. Everyone close to her is dead. This is all presented to us over a strange, beige background as she talks to the quadruple agent who advises Little Bird to save herself first. There are fewer wide, horizontal panels and more square closeup ones. It’s a panel structure that presents a more forward, open, and honest narrative than a cinematic one. Think of it as removing some of the effects and showing raw, unedited footage that’s shot in one take. That’s what it feels like.
As the last resistance squadron invades and the bloodbath ensues, Little Bird’s stealthy movements are as quick, dynamic, and sharp as we’ve ever seen. There is a great sequence showing Little Bird appearing out of darkness behind a soldier before killing them. She darts from soldier to soldier, silently killing them as a class of weak, beaten, and bloodied children are forced to learn in tears from a teacher who, amidst the chaos, ironically complains about the conditions as though things were better before. Even in the larger and wider panels, you can still see her as a small dot darting from enemy to enemy. It’s as fierce and violent as all the blood spilling around her. This whole time, she hasn’t said anything, only using her actions to speak for her as she murders those who have killed in God’s name and only now ask for God to spare their own lives as though they mean more. There is no facade anymore. Bishop is no longer a righteous Vicar of Christ, but rather a full on imperialist bad dude filled with anger and resentment. “We hide no longer… you and I.” And the battle begins.
It is at this point when every issue in this series begins to connect and intertwine more than it already has. Footprints march over the blood of the fallen just as they crushed the black weaver’s eggs in Little Bird #4. “We. Run. No. More.” Blood spills on both sides, but Little Bird’s blood isn’t just hers, rather the blood of the resistance that has been shed since the beginning. It’s only fitting that Bishop’s downfall is cause by a shard from the broken watch she gave Axe in Little Bird #1. It’s the symbol of a mission doomed to fail, that of a coward, being shattered, fragmented and reborn. She still gives hope, still survives, and still lives even in a broken state. She repeats the words from Little Bird #2: “I am more than just a child… This is more than just a dream.” The scene builds and builds and builds as Little Bird fights for all that she is and all that she represents, finally reaching a peak that cannot be described in words. This 12-year old girl experiencing more struggle, pain, conflict, and life itself in these moments than many of us will during our entire lives.
So what now? How do we come to terms with what happened? Is it really over? How do we move forward? That is up to the other children, and those that survived. They choose how to rebuild, not Little Bird. That is not her story. In the aftermath, as Little Bird comes face to face with the Eye of the Owl yet again, she returns to meet the monster and travels back to the beginning. Resurrection isn’t linear, but rather infinitely cyclical and intertwined as every story is connected. Little Bird is reborn across time ash she experiences stories that are connected to her own. The resurrection gene no longer engulfs her, rather she controls it as the inset panels of falling leaves occur yet again and everything is reflected as she witnesses her mother, “abandoned… on the doorsteps of hell.” There are calls back to all four issues here showing the power and timelessness of an individual story.
Years ago, author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie did a TED Talk about the dangers of a single story. The idea is that people and culture are defined by much more than just one story. If we allow our perceptions to be defined by a single individual, than we are not perceiving anything at all. Little Bird #5 recognizes this and builds further. Little Bird knows that she is not alone, and that the mission and the rebirth have occurred because, “Between everything we’re searching for and the things we find in their place there are a thousand stories waiting to be heard… And a thousand more waiting to listen.” There is equal importance to both parts here. Our stories and your story may be important, but you also have to be willing to listen. The book becomes about more than just Little Bird herself. It’s about people and the very nature of storytelling. Gabriel is forever immortalized with his mask in front of a bright gold cross as someone who died for his true and pure faith as Little Bird writes, “Some of them end before they should.” Tantoo remains an inspirational symbol of struggle, truth, and bravery as she is immortalize in a statue, stand proud while Little Bird writes, “Some we hear and never forget.” Sarge and Axe aren’t immortalized at all, but rather are used as historical examples of brave individuals who couldn’t overcome their personal missions and who couldn’t save themselves. It’s a classic example of what we can learn from history and a beautifully narration about the power of a story.
The birch bark captions that we’ve been reading? That’s a part of Little Bird’s story. Not all of it mind you, but the story so far. It contains elements from her mother, her father, her brother, and everyone that’s tried to kill her, but it is undoubtedly her own. So what’s the final piece? How does the power of a story connect to “the all consuming nature of fire, and the dreams we make of ash?” Just like fire, a story can become all-consuming. After all, Christianity could be considered to be one of the most powerful stories to ever exist. Fire absorbs everything in its path, just as Little Bird has learned to do. The dreams we make of ash are the new stories that begin as others end. The version of her standing there at the end has her father’s gloves, her mother’s staff and the Eye of the Owl by her side, Axe’s scars, and Gabriels truth, but she is undeniably herself as she utters the last line of Little Bird #5, the same as the first line of Little Bird #1: “It doesn’t end here. Not like this.”
Darcy Van Poelgeest, Ian Bertram, Matt Hollingsworth, Aditya Bidikar, and Ben Didier have crafted one of the finest comics out there. It respects struggle, honors truth, condemns ignorance, praises conviction, and champions the idea of a story. So whether you believe your story was cut short, remains unheard, was misinterpreted, misused, or simply forgotten, go ahead and tell it. Tell your story as you want it. Just remember you have a right to tell your story, and we will all listen with open ears and open hearts, but you too have a responsibility to listen, because this is neither the beginning nor the end. This is the middle of a great epoch of storytelling with limitless possibility. So whenever you’re feeling down or forgotten, just remember, “And yet… hope exists.”