Writer: Sam Humphries
Artist: Jen Bartel
Layouts: Paul Reinwand
Colors: Nayoung Wilson & Jen Bartel
Letters: Jodi Wynne
Cover artists: Bartel (regular)/Fiona Staples (variant)
Editor: Jim Gibbons
Publisher: Image Comics
Price: $3.99 US
Adolescence and early adulthood are trying experiences in the best of circumstances. Sure, a lot of us have debaucherous fun as we test our personal limits and society’s during that time, but it’s also a time of perpetual identity crisis. Now imagine going through that in the face of personal tragedy and family dysfunction; it would test even the most hardy of souls. Now imagine you’re attuned to something mysterious and magical, an unseen world of which you’ve caught only a glimpse, and rather than believe you, everyone around you thinks you’re crazy. Writer Sam Humphries explores the challenge of maturity and identity in the context of an urban fantasy world, and it’s brought to life beautifully by artist Jen Bartel. I didn’t know what to expect from this comic at all, and I was not only taken by surprise, but was completely captivated by the balance between grounded characterization and the wonder of the impossible.
Twenty-something Nina hates her life. She’s crashing on her sister’s couch, works a miserable job in a dive bar where men are hitting on her constantly, and has to take pills just to get through the day. As a teen, she briefly saw a better world hidden under our own, a world of wizards and magically imbued creatures, and she longs for a day when she can reconnect with it and rejoin it.
When I first saw Jen Bartel’s regular cover for this comic, I was immediately reminded of Jamie McKelvie’s art on The Wicked + the Divine (also from Image). And as I made my way through the first few pages, that comparison became even stronger. I’m not suggesting Bartel is emulating or ripping off W+D, but rather than her softer approach to character design, depiction and expressiveness is similar. At times, her linework looked a bit like a cross between the styles of McKelvie and Faith Erin Hicks or maybe Mike Norton, and as I scan through the art again, I also see a Colleen Doran influence at play. While Nina and other characters are undeniably lovely and attractive, Bartel never sexualizes them. The colorists employ a duller palette for the more mundane scenes, reinforcing the funk in which the heroine is immersed. But the magical effects really pop in comparison, and I loved the lovely and haunting glow that radiates from those visual elements.
The art isn’t the only aspect of the book that reminded me of The Wicked + the Divine. Humphries’ plot and the whole atmosphere of the story seem very much in line with writer Kieron Gillen’s W+D, and Phonogram, another collaboration between Gillen and McKelvie. I suspect Humphries is a fan of both titles, as there’s clearly a similar sensibility at play here.
There’s really only one aspect of this comic that didn’t work for me: the title. There’s nothing in the script or art in this debut issue that says “blackbird” to me. Feline imagery is prevalent here, but there’s nothing avian. I’m sure the title will make sense in the context of subsequent chapters, but it seems like a misstep of sorts to omit such meaning from the audience’s introduction.
As I noted earlier, this story captures that awful purgatory of one’s 20s, when you’re still trying to figure out how to be an adult at a time when you’re already expected to deal with adult pressures without the resources or experience for it. While the magical world of “paragons” is beautiful and imaginative, it’s this more grounded aspect of the book that really hooks the reader. It’s through this personal conflict that the audience connects with the protagonist and why I’m interested in the more fantastic journey on which she’s about to embark.
I have a confession to make: I really haven’t paid much attention to the comics writing of Sam Humphries, even though he’s produced a lot of storytelling in recent years. And in preparing to write this review, I discovered why. I’d been steering clear of his work because — and this is embarrassing — I confused him with another writer named Sam Johnson, who’s been quite active in his promotion of his oversexualized Geek-Girl comics on social media. The confusion has clearly cost me the enjoyment of some well-crafted comics, if Blackbird is any indication. I also happened to have read last week’s Harley Quinn #50, and juxtaposing those two works by Humphries makes it clear he’s a versatile writer, skilled at diverse genres and tones ranging from the sullen and dramatic to the silly and irreverent. 9/10
Note: This comic is slated for release Oct. 3.