Little Bird, the new comic from writer Darcy Van Poelgeest and artist Ian Bertram, offers the intoxicating, dystopian journey of a young girl rebelling against an oppressive theocracy.
Ian Bertram's art is unmistakable: designed chaos, swirling with marks and tendrils to mirror the inner turmoil of the narrative's characters. Following his transformative work on E Is For Extinction and House of Penance, the artist is uniting with filmmaker Darcy Van Poelgeest for an intoxicating new miniseries: Little Bird. The plot revolves around a young Canadian girl inciting a rebellion against an oppressive American theocracy. Violent and immersive, the narrative veers from moments of psychedelic meditation to confrontational barbs on cultural imperialism. In the following Q&A, Van Poelgeest and Bertram walk through the inception and inspiration of Little Bird.
A sample of this Q&A ran in the March issue of Previews.
How would you describe Little Bird?
Darcy Van Poelgeest: Little Bird is the story about a young girl caught up in a war she can’t fully understand and the struggle to find her own identity within that. If she’s not fighting against an evil, theocratic empire that wants her land and soul—then who is she? It touches on some pretty heavy stuff, but it’s also a lot of fun. If you’re into science fiction, drama, and a touch of the weird, this book is for you!
Ian Bertram: A true passion project.
Van Poelgeest: I don’t tend to think about genre much in the process. My interest is in people and relationships, and that transcends genre, or at least it should. For me, it just starts with an idea, and eventually that idea evolves into a time and place where it wants to be told, and I guess it’s around that time that the genre starts to form as well. There’s still those meditative moments between all the action, so it didn’t really feel like a departure from my previous film work. Those quieter moments are really fulfilling for me, and I think some of Ian’s best work on the book comes through during those more intimate moments as well. Mostly, Little Bird is just something that Ian and I really wanted to read, and we’re hoping there’s a bunch of people out there who feel the same.
This also isn’t your first avian-themed project (Corvus). What keeps you coming back to birds?
Van Poelgeest: It does keep coming up, and I can’t really think of what it is other than I love birds. My grandparents and my mom were/are bird watchers and dedicated environmentalists, so I’ve absorbed some of that. I love spending time out in the natural world in general, and I think a lot of what I write comes back to a preoccupation with the freedom we find in the wilderness.
Little Bird references historical touchstones like the Inquisition and Manifest Destiny in its depiction of the villainous Bishop and The United Nations of America. What inspired the development of an imperial theocracy? How topical would you say this project is?
Van Poelgeest: This is very much in our minds today. There’s a legacy of abuse, a long history of church and government working together to assimilate other cultures and people around the world into a Eurocentric culture and convert them into good little Christians, destroying families and cultural practices and identity in process. And it continues today where indigenous people are not being respected in terms of their rights and their connection to the land. I’m inspired by the survivors of cultural genocide and those who continue to resist that dark legacy.
Bertram: One of the things Darcy and I have spent many hours talking about is the trouble with dogma. It’s always a mistake. This comic centers around the use of fear to justify oppression, and the violence that arises in response. This comic is not a political diatribe; it’s an exploration of the problems with an us-vs-them narrative.
What made comics the best medium for this story?
Van Poelgeest: Comics have always been a big part of my life, and this is something I’ve been waiting to do for a long time. When the idea for Little Bird first developed, it was the obvious choice. Only comics allow you to explore something this big completely on your own creative terms. I would love to see Little Bird on screen someday, but it could never have started that way, nor would I have wanted it to.
Plus, missing the opportunity to collaborate with Ian, [colorist] Matt [Hollingsworth], and [letterer] Aditya [Bidikar]—as well as our editor, Olivier at Glènat. And now Image Comics! I mean, seriously, the whole thing has been a great joy in my life.
Bertram: With something like Little Bird, we have settings that would take people and money to create in another medium. But with a passion project comic like this, there’s no real budget limit for the visuals. If we can think it, I can draw, Matt can color it, and Aditya can letter it—that’s all we need. Massive rolling dream sequences and epic sci-fi battles at our fingertips. It's just great to have that freedom.
Little Bird has a unique look, like a cross between a 1700s period piece and a fever dream. How did you both develop the book's style?
Van Poelgeest: We spoke a lot about how Little Bird and the other rebels are living completely off the grid and how they have essentially all been driven back in time by having to hide out in the natural world. But it’s this connection to the land and their independence that places them at odds with Bishop and his vision for the Holy Empire. Bishop, on the other hand, embraces all of the tech this future offers him but surrounds himself with an old-world aesthetic—it’s a reflection of his own hypocrisy.
Ian takes all these ideas and shapes them into this incredibly unique world. I don’t really know how he does it, but I’m convinced there’s magic involved.
Bertram: Fever dream is a perfect description. We put zero regulations on ourselves if it made the story better. If I wanted to draw something extra crazy, Darcy always had my back. Specifically, the New Vatican city is built out of these giant stone blocks. Rigid but stable, and unable to adapt or change. The village and the rebels are more chaotic. They are constantly adapting, and incorporating new ideas, and their homes and style reflect that.
Also tentacles! There will be plenty of tentacles.
This comic spans decades, Darcy, and certainly isn’t linear. How did you approach plotting this?
Van Poelgeest: I don’t write linearly, so perhaps that has something to do with it. I spend a lot of time just thinking about how the characters got to this point in the story before working on the script. Ian and I would throw ideas back and forth as well, and what we end up with is far bigger than what makes it into the book. This sort of deep exploration of character was particularly important for Little Bird because we’re playing with time and looking at how the choices we make have a lasting impact on those around us. It’s the way all these events become entangled with each other that I find so fascinating.
Are there more stories to explore in this tapestry?
Bertram: Without getting ahead of ourselves or giving too much away, Darcy and I have things planned for the Little Bird universe. There is a velocity to it that we want to keep exploring.
Van Poelgeest: Little Bird is actually one of several connected stories. Obviously, we won’t get into that too much right now, but I’m really excited about what comes next.
How did the both of you first cross paths? What sensibilities did you share/admire to fuel this collaboration?
Van Poelgeest: There’s a lot of creative overlap between Ian and myself. I think we both have an intense passion for avoiding the straight narrative and prefer working towards something that walks a sort of shadow line between what people want and the little truths that make us uncomfortable. We’ll spend hours discussing a character or a scene, and some of my favorite moments in Little Bird have come out of this. It’s really a true collaboration in that sense—a collaboration that has grown into a great friendship.
Bertram: I think one thing that made Little Bird so appealing to me is Darcy’s cinematic take on the medium. We both got to bring our talents from two seemingly different worlds and create something that feels new. At least to me. Ha, and hopefully to everyone else.
The other main interest we have is untold stories. How to show the “soul” of a character, in their missteps, or the person they once were. Darcy does it effortlessly with the way he sets up each character and their dialogue. Each character has their own way of speaking, and each hints at the unspoken, the hidden, and the unresolved.
Ian, can we talk about your character design? You have this penchant for viscera and tentacles, which we’ve seen in previous works like House of Penance. I know you’re a fan of Akira, but it also hints at this constant chaos and escalating tension throughout your pages, with mundane shapes breaking into these sprawling, unruly root systems. Is that an apt parallel?
Bertram: I’m obsessed with the subconscious and its manifestations. The tentacles are a physical representation of that. They can rise up and overwhelm, lead characters down different paths, or show them hard truths that were hidden. I like to think that they connect through the story. Under and through the pages. They are always there, pushing and pulling, but we only see them at moments crisis. And like a tree's roots, from the surface there is no telling how far down they go and what they might connect to at the bottom.
I also noticed something interesting. The more passion, the more hardship a character goes through, the more detail they have inscribed—scars, crease lines, wrinkles. Whereas characters like Bishop—who the character Tantoo notes “You’ve never known a worry in your entire privileged life”—are more simplistic. What’s your approach funneling the metaphysical aspects of these characters?
Bertram: I love this question. I try to have my take on the characters feel like a meditation on the life they have lived. Both the “tick” mark pen-work and the scars on the characters are supposed to represent their personalities. A character like Bishop is clean and lacks “tick” marks, but when he becomes enraged, his face and body explode with them. They mark all of the pain and fear boiling under the surface. Other characters wear their scars on the outside. And we tend to respect that. We look at a character like that, and we think of them as proud and honest. Nothing to hide if everything is on the surface. But under everything is its opposite, and we are always in our own blind-spot.
You offer some truly inspiring layouts in the second issue. Did you have any specific design goals/challenges for this project that differed from previous books?
Bertram: Thanks! As far as the general design sense, I really wanted to play with a dreamlike quality throughout. As the chapters progress, the physical mechanics of the world start to shift a bit. Characters start to “float” a bit. The air around them has particles swirling through it, and they trail behind people as they move. Nothing you can put your finger on, just a sense of otherworldliness ramping up.
Little Bird #1 releases on March 13, 2019.
The other main interest we have is untold stories. How to show the “soul” of a character, in their missteps, or the person they once were.