By Courtney Ryan
Fantasy has long been recognized as the genre of escapists, featuring realms overflowing with far-off lands, magic welders, and exotic beasts. But under that euphoric veneer often lies far more relatable struggle; J.R.R. Tolkien’s iconic Lord of the Rings propped magical rings, dwarves, and elves on the tragedy of World War I, and even J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter ennealolgy delved into racism and segregation politics. For the creative team behind Blackbird, this tension is what inspires great storytelling.
Writer Sam Humphries (Citizen Jack, Harley Quinn) acknowledges that tragedy is at least part of what brought him to co-create Blackbird with artist Jen Bartel (Mighty Thor: At the Gates of Valhallal, Crystal Fighters).
“I’ve had a lot of deaths in my family the past 10 years, and I’ve definitely been afraid of incorporating all that into my work,” Humphries says. “All of that kind of stuff is so powerful and emotional, but in Blackbird, I’ve dealt with it head-on way more than I have in any of my past work.”
Though Blackbird does take a frank approach to tragedy, it’s not all heartache. Both Bartel and Humphries emphasize that as much as it’s about death and grief, it’s equally about gorgeous people making out.
“Jen told me about all the things she wanted to draw, and I thought, ‘This comic sounds tight,’” Humphries explains. “We both wanted to tell a coming-of-age story, we both wanted family dynamics, but we also wanted beautiful people, spectacular magic, and magnificent demons.”
And that is exactly what Blackbird is: a coming-of-age tale buoyed by otherworldly, sensual imagery. The comic, whose first issue releases October 3rd, revolves around Nina Rodriguez, a young woman carrying the weight of abandonment and loss from her teenage years. She soon navigates an unknown magical world to find her lost sister, Marisa. The debut issue paints an intricate picture of their relationship—Nina dealing with supernatural abilities in adolescence and her sister supporting her into adulthood as Nina struggles with a dead-end job and looming addiction... and chance encounters with majestic, towering sea lions and talking cats.
Its authors describe the ongoing as “Harry Potter meets Riverdale,” though Bartel also notes that Nina is inspired by Chihiro Ogino from Spirited Away, Studio Ghibli’s story of a young girl who similarly finds herself trapped in a perilous, magical realm. “[Chihiro] was so relatable and went through so much growth—we definitely wanted to channel some of that with Nina.”
Blackbird is also Bartel’s first advance into interior art after years of working as an illustrator and cover artist. It’s not the first time she’s considered working on sequential art, but it’s the first time the timing felt completely right. “I had been approached by several writers to do something creator-owned, but Sam was the first person who I felt really wanted to play to my strengths and do something truly collaborative,” she says. “It made me feel like we’d be good creative partners.”
After discussing their ideas for the kind of comic they wanted to create, both Bartel and Humphries felt aligned enough to move forward with Blackbird, establishing the story in a decidedly non-traditional setting for magic and mayhem: Los Angeles. Unlike the spectral-filled manors of Victorian-era horror, or the enchanted towers of classic D&D adventures, LA’s sunny shorelines and palm tree-dotted boulevards aren’t immediately associated with dark sorcery. But that unconventional setting lead Bartel to an aesthetic that can only be described as neon-drenched magical realism, a look completely original and striking for the fantasy genre—or any other. Bartel uses her home city to bottle the metropolis’ allure and mystery, establishing a chilling ambience.
“I wanted to be able to set at least part of the story in an actual place so that I could pull reference and not have to worry about worldbuilding on top of character/prop design,” Bartel explains. “But what started off as a utilitarian decision quickly became a hugely important story element. I was born in LA, and Sam has lived there for most of his adult life, so we’re both familiar with the city, and it very much serves as one of the characters in Blackbird. Also, just from an aesthetic standpoint, I wanted to capture everything from LA’s beautiful people to its neon lights and Art Deco architecture. There’s a lot of amazing material to pull from.”
Beyond creating a playground for cool design and a chance to explore character development, the book’s magical core drew from personal experience, especially for Humphries.
“I had 30 or so intensely psychedelic experiences before I turned 10 years old,” he explains. “Turns out I was epileptic and I was having seizures, but at the time, I didn’t know what that was. I was just in the thrall of these hallucinogenic attacks—LSD trips cannot compare. It felt like being yanked into a magic world. Also, I saw a ghost once and it was dope.”
By grounding Blackbird’s reality on psychedelic hallucinations (and a fun ghost encounter), LA’s neon sheen, and California’s dicey perch on the San Andreas Fault, Humphries and Bartel construct a magical world that shares many of the same threats and apparitions known to this world. “I think magic is just science we don’t understand yet, but that doesn’t make it any less of a valid experience for some folks,” Bartel says. She adds that believing in magic has the upside of bringing comfort and peace to many people.
As Nina’s journey into the unknown moves forward, Humphries teases that it will become increasingly difficult for Blackbird’s protagonist to recognize the difference between mysterious beings and regular folks. As Bartel summarizes, Blackbird is ultimately about “growing up, finding your footing in life, gaining the kind of quiet confidence that only comes with life experience… and hot people kissing!”
Blackbird #1 releases in comic shops on October 3, 2018.