“A Dagger Behind Her Words” – Little Bird Creators Darcy Van Poelgeest & Ian Bertram On Their New Series
by Hannah Means Shannon
Little Bird is a highly unusual comic. I’ve had a peek at the first two issues of the series to be published soon by Image Comics, and I felt like it defied exact genre categories and scene-by-scene defied expectations–which makes for ambitious and interesting storytelling.
Ostensibly set in a post-apocalyptic world, and specifically in Northern North America in a time when a religious organization has taken over (think The Handmaid’s Tale but more Catholic), and resistance groups seem to have elements of indigenous culture mixed in, we follow a central female character through her trials and tribulations, which veer into the dream-like. There’s violence. There’s internal narrative from writer Darcy Van Poelgeest (also a Director/Screenwriter), and there’s breathtakingly brutal and gentle art from Ian Bertram (Marvel, DC, Dark Horse) and colorist Matt Hollingsworth. Aditya Bidikar joins them on letters, and Bed Didier on designs.
I highly recommend checking out Little Bird for something very different in comics this Spring, and I have Darcy Van Poelgeest and Ian Bertram on site today to talk about their series.
Hannah Means-Shannon: One of the opening ideas of the comic is that people are fighting “For the Dream”. In this story, what are some possible meanings for that phrase? Is it about personal freedom? Autonomy? Religious freedom?
Darcy Van Poelgeest: The short answer is, yes. I’m fascinated by dreams and I’m interested in the connection between how we use dreams to describe hope, as an abstract destination and as a manifestation of our subconscious thoughts.
Ian Bertram: I love the Dream. The Dream is complicated. It means different things to each person. For the warrior mother, it’s a place and time when the forces set against her people are defeated. For the Grandfather, it’s a time before everything went to hell. And for the girl, it’s both of those and none. It’s maybe just a chance for her to find the time to dream.
HMS: It becomes pretty clear that the world of Little Bird may have some elements we recognize, but it’s not necessarily a world we know. What are some things readers will find familiar, and what might they be surprised by?
DVP: I think the world of Little Bird is more recognizable today than it was even five years ago when we first started working on this. We can see what’s happening in the world of Little Bird in small movements all across the world today; people standing up for the environment, their culture and history, all of which has been eroded by colonialism and Eurocentric ideas. But I think readers will also recognize some part of themselves in our hero, Little Bird. Her struggle to understand the world around her is something everyone can connect to.
HMS: You choose to use a narrator in the person of Little Bird from time to time, which definitely puts us inside her mind and experience. Why did you choose to do that instead of just using speech or actions to convey character?
DVP: I wanted to make this a very personal story so by allowing Little Bird to come in and narrate certain scenes readers get a window into her emotional journey – her inner conflict. Little Bird spends a lot of time alone, like when she’s travelling to free The Axe in Chapter One, and this gives us the opportunity to get inside her head, feel her anxieties, her fears, her understanding of how the world works and why.
HMS: When designing two of the characters, Little Bird, and Axe, what were some of the things you had in mind to convey about them visually? What do you think is the most expressive feature of each in conveying their moods or feelings?
IB: Darcy wrote them as such great foils for each other, it’s hard not to emphasize those features. Little Bird is ferocious, and hiding a secret part of herself that she needs to nurture and let grow. She wants so desperately to make things right, but we get the sense that maybe she doesn’t know why. I drew her with small features and huge eyes. She takes everything in, speaks little, and when she does, there’s a dagger behind her words. Her hair drapes over her face and she peeks out suspiciously at the world from behind it. Axe on the other hand is the classic broken hero. The great gunslinger called in for one last job. We see him full of regret and sadness, and abrupt bottled up mayhem. His character arc is so fascinating. I can’t wait for people to see how he develops throughout the book.
HMS: There are so many wild and futuristic settings we’re going to come across in this comic, including places like Vatican City and the Prison. What kind of “feel” were you going for in these environments? Did you draw on any elements from visual tradition that you knew you wanted to include?
IB: The inspiration for Vatican City was in the myths that its people might be telling each other. The New Vatican itself is built brick by identical brick. Rigid, solid, unbending. I assumed the people would be praising their culture steeped in a history of supplication and order. The structure ordained by God. A hierarchy of sin. And the worst sin is disorder.
Aaaand the Prison was the most fun. It’s based on the Panopticon idea by Jeremy Bentham. The basic idea is to erect a watchtower in the center of circular prison. No privacy and the guard in the tower can watch what all the inmates are doing simultaneously. And in theory, once the prisoners are conditioned to the sense of being watched, you can remove the guard and leave the tower. The prisoner will never be sure if they are being monitored or not. Its a chilling idea. Ha, the fun part though was getting to draw all of the modified human prisoners. It was a free for all. There’s a hero whose gone insane and is pasting up old newspaper clippings of himself all over his sell with his own shit. A giant Dick Cheney faced monster with an upside down cross (subtle), a very irate naked man with his head on backwards, and a reference to Darcy’s incredible short film, Corvus.
HMS: What are some things that you think are really essential to conveying a fight scene in a gripping way? How do the different kinds of weapons and environments come into play when there’s conflict in this story?
IB: There are some real masters of the fight scene out there. Ha, I’ll never be James Harren when it comes to motion and sheer velocity, but I can give it a shot. I think one thing Darcy and I play around with a lot in this book, is the idea of environments as a constraint for the fights. What ways can a character capitalize on their predicament? For the past few years I’ve been taking a mixture of Krav Maga and Muay Thai. My instructor is incredible and for some of the action scenes in the later chapters he walked me through how to have Little Bird break an arm, or fight multiple attackers with knives. Shout out to Tito Otero!
HMS: How important is the role of religion in the comic, whether in terms of concepts, symbols, or aesthetics? How did you decide on what key elements to include from religious tradition?
DVP: I think Ian might have a more interesting answer for this, but religion played a huge part in shaping the world and the characters, it’s woven into everything. We researched all levels of priesthood and design from the crusades, the redesign of the American flag as a symbol of one nation under God. It’s everywhere.
IB: That is a question with levels. I think if you are to include religion in your work, it’s important to give it a fair shake. Little Bird explores religious extremism. Not religion as a metaphor for living a good life in peace with others. It’s the degradation of a religion that we are wading through. Using any God as a justification for subjugation and hate. It’s about the tragedy of thinking that we can “return to purity” and all the violence you would need to accomplish that. And as far as what elements that we included…without giving too much away Crucifixion makes a real comeback in the later chapters.
HMS: To what extent is this a story about transformation through experience? We hear Little Bird already hinting at personal change in the first issue, but I get the sense that there will be visual elements suggesting change, too, for characters and for the world of Little Bird.
DVP: I think at the heart of every story, we’re talking about personal transformation and it’s certainly what this story is about – increasingly so as the story goes on.
IB: Well, at this point there’s been a good deal of dream like imagery from issue 2, circling around. Again, without saying too much, the story itself starts to transform. Ha, I realize I’m just parroting your question back to you. But I don’t know if I can say more at the moment.
HMS: Why do you think that conflict-driven fantasy stories are important, both to create and to encounter in various forms of media?
DVP: I think that conflict is how we grow and learn and that much of that happens through story. If we walk through life and never encounter an uncomfortable experience or someone who has a conflicting opinion, we’ll never grow. So conflict is at the heart of all stories in the same way it’s at the heart of life.
IB: Great question. I think it’s an invitation to delve into extremes. We won’t live in a world where Little Bird comes to pass. But the prospect should be terrifying. It hopefully makes people wonder what small things they are turning a blind eye to. Those things pile up. And sometimes they turn into an avalanche.
Thanks to Darcy and Ian for joining us today!
Look out for Little Bird #1 in shops from Image Comics on March 13th, 2019. Final Orders are due February 18th, 2019.