Among all the weird quirks in the world of comics publishing, one of the weirdest is the practice of crediting writers first on book covers and title pages. Why would you give top billing to wordsmiths in a medium that's defined by graphics? Not that writers aren't essential — of course they are. Usually, though, even the most innovative and evocative comics story stands or falls with its artwork.
On the other hand, lots of artists who set out to create graphic novels fail to realize they need the help of a skilled storyteller. The resulting books are lovely but inert: plenty of rich symbols and powerful set pieces, but little in the way of character development or narrative momentum. These comics also tend to be confusing, full of concepts and plot developments the creator either hasn't thought through or fails to explain clearly.
That's a problem in Little Bird: The Fight for Elder's Hope — which is odd, because it does have a storyteller. It was written by award-winning filmmaker Darcy Van Poelgeest, who wrote, directed and produced the short films The Orchard and Corvus and produced 2016's The Lockpicker. Poelgeest's experience in film has given him a strong feel for the way images can carry a story. Strangely enough, though, he actually relies too much on visuals, falling short in the same ways artists sometimes do when it comes to characterization, dialogue and plot. Fortunately, he's got fantastic artwork to pull him through. The virtuosic Ian Bertram, who draws like a reincarnated Moebius, crafts a stunning array of mythically evocative characters, way-out gizmos, visceral action sequences and intricate, arty compositions for this book. Little Bird winds up being a fantastic example of the artist's role in a comic's success.
That's kind of a shame, because Van Poelgeest's ideas are striking and beg to be developed in more detail. Little Bird tells of a future world dominated by religious fascism and warped by genetic modification. Nervily, Van Poelgeest has made the ruling organization the Catholic Church, not some fictionalized simulacrum. In this world, the Church has used genetic modification to distort humans in all sorts of grotesque ways, the profoundest being the implantation of a resurrection gene. One carrier of this gene is Little Bird, a member of a guerilla resistance movement in the Canadian hinterlands. When her mother is kidnapped by the Church, Little Bird sets out to find her. Periodically, she's thrown into a sort of collective unconscious or spirit realm, which offers clues into her own past. Meanwhile, a Catholic official known only as Father is hunting Little Bird with the help of genetically modified super-soldiers, AI-equipped drones and other high-tech terrors.
There are a lot of intriguing ideas here: organic imperatives and human ambition, the links between personal and societal trauma, the power of authentic myths vs. the lie of official ideology. The different characters' stories fit together artfully. But Poelgeest writes characters as types, not as people, and invokes the idea of evil without probing its motivations. It's Bertram whose complex and challenging images demand that the reader contemplate the book's themes: the aboriginally inflected character designs of Little Bird and her mother, the contrasting depictions of city and wilderness, the obscene sight of genetic modifications gone wrong.
Bertram's work is remarkable, but it's only fully realized thanks to the exceptional artistic team of colorist Matt Hollingsworth, letterer Aditya Bidikar and designer Ben Didier. Hollingsworth creates color associations to underscore the book's nature/technology split, using deep grays and reds in woodsy scenes and sugary, acidic pastels and neons in tech-riddled environments. This implants the book's key theme at a reflexive, visual level: As you turn the page from a prison sequence to one set in the wilderness, your eyeballs relax. Bidikar, too, creates a sense of the weight of overlapping narratives by varying the ways the story is told — with rough-edged main text, the floating scraps of Little Bird's inner monologue or the fat, blurting impacts of sound effects.
Little Bird is a feat of teamwork, just like a lot of comics are. Van Poelgeest says as much at the end of the book, noting that he didn't consider the script to be an "anchor" for the other collaborators. It clearly didn't weigh Bertram down. It's too bad he and Poelgeest couldn't somehow share top billing for a creation that couldn't exist without both of them.
Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Review of Books and The New York Times. She tweets at @EtelkaL.