As has become common practice for public events in many parts of Canada, writer Darcy Van Poelgeest begins the debut issue of Image Comics’ “Little Bird” with a land acknowledgment, stating that cities like Vancouver are built on indigenous land. On the first page of the comic, italicized text states that the series “was written on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territory of the Musqueam people.” As a piece of anti-imperialist speculative fiction — and a well-told, well-crafted one at that — the acknowledgment is as necessary as it is fitting.
The series centers around the conflict between a band of Canadian resistance fighters and an American Empire, a religious extremist government headquartered at the New Vatican of the United Nations of America. The titular Little Bird begins her story with orders from her mother, the resistance leader Tantoo, to free an imprisoned warrior called the Axe. Together, they aim to restore hope and find “the dreams we make of ash.”
While the debut issue of “Little Bird” is a fine read, the series’ efficacy hinges on its success as a thinly veiled story about indigenous people (a community which, it should be noted, I exist outside of) and their fight against empire. At best, “Little Bird” would be a reimagination of historical stakes, and at worst, it would be an act of narrative theft, à la “Avatar.” In the present, it’s unclear if “Little Bird” intends to be an apology for Canadian settler colonialism or something entirely different and hopefully more insightful. Only time will tell if, over the course of the series, Van Poelgeest fulfills the remedying promise of his opening land acknowledgment.
But what is certain, is that “Little Bird” bursts with instantly distinctive character designs, and a richly rendered aesthetic that verges on the playful and the grotesque all at once. At the issue’s tail end, artist Ian Bertram embellishes gore with a glee that’s stomach-churning and indicative of the worldbuilding at play — a world where hyperbolized nonsecular nationalism commands an army of technologized zealots is as horrifying as it sounds.
In such a diegesis of course, guts spill beyond their panels. The fact that colorist Matt Hollingsworth — perhaps best known for working on “Wytches” and “Hawkeye” — fills the pages of “Little Bird” with ironic soft pastels that only sharpens the bite of the series’ bloody conflict. Make no mistake, “Little Bird” earns its mature rating.
And while “Little Bird” brims with excellent artwork, certain pages lack clarity in their sequence of images, and may require a reread. Such a quibble, however, is more or less inconsequential, as most of “Little Bird” is cleverly arranged with small rectangular panels providing narrative details that would otherwise go unnoticed — for a story that leans into the minutiae of its worldbuilding, “Little Bird” succeeds at conveying it all.
As a result, “Little Bird” is worth seeking out. And while the quality of the series has yet to be determined, its debut is quite the success. It should be noted that for any prospective readers, the series will only be available as single issues — its creative team has no immediate plans for a trade paperback collection. Although judging by the binding of the first issue and its promising story, such a volume would be very welcome.
Harrison Tunggal covers comic books. Contact him at [email protected].