Comics review: Blackbird

(cover image Image Comics)

What do you do if your life, both the one you’ve actually lived and the one you have always imagined yourself living turn out to be fabrications of the real thing?

And how should you react when everything you have always thought was true, turns out to be exactly that but is a thousand times different (read: worse) than you had always imagined them to be?

That would be a helluva lot to deal with wouldn’t?

Nina Rodriguez, the protagonist in Blackbird by Sam Humphries and Jen Bartel knows just how much of an existential dilemma you would have on your hands with the early twenties L.A. resident grappling with a host of life-changing issues pretty much all simultaneously.

Having lost her mother in a fiery car accident years previously following a disastrous earthquake which her family miraculously survived, Nina feels like a great big failure, addicted to prescription drugs and living on the goodwill of older sister Marisa who is growing increasingly frustrated with her sister’s lack of drive, ambition and purpose.

What she doesn’t realise, or doesn’t want to acknowledge is that Nina does have drive – just not the kind that Marisa acknowledges as valid and worth pursuing.

Nina believes that there is a magical underworld in L.A., one populated by Paragons or wizards whose exotic lives the malcontented young woman has romanticised are the complete, salvational opposite of her own.

She is determined to not only prove the existence of these magical beings but to join their hallowed ranks, convinced that they alone can rescue her sad and sorry life.

You can pretty guess what happens next can’t you?

Nina’s firmly held beliefs are vindicated as she always thought they would be but not even remotely in the way she imagines.

For one thing, her sister is kidnapped by a large demonically blue cat-like beast setting in play a wildly improbable chain of events and she finds out that the stalker-y though handsome guy who’s been spending his nights in the bar where she works is a whole more supernatural than he’s ever let on.

In certain ways, Blackbird is much like any other origin story where someone decidedly ordinary – though in reality Nina is far from that – finds out they have a destiny far removed from the one they had accepted was their lot but in many others, it’s entirely refreshingly different.

Nina is, for instance, aware of something altogether different about who she is and where she lives than your average hero plucked from obscurity.

By the time we rejoin her in early adulthood, she has almost lost the faith, convinced she will never amount to much and certainly not what she thought she would be back in the early-to-mid teens.

But her belief has never really gone away, it’s just been buried and when the aforementioned series of events change her life forever, her willingness to believe with Mulder-like fervour is rekindled in an instant.

(image Image Comics)

What happens after that is testament both to the power of belief to propel us forward but the way belief can warp and twist our perception of the world around us so fundamentally that dealing with things as they actually are can become an ordeal by fire.

With artwork so vividly colourful and alive that it leaps off the page, reflecting the amazing transformation that Nina’s life undergoes but also the surface glanmour and glitz of the magical world into which she is unceremoniously and at times emotionally cruelly initiated, Blackbird is an arresting piece of work on the strength of its visuals alone.

The brilliance of the world of the paragons is contrasted with vivacity against the dullness of the ordinary world in which Nina believes she is stuck, but also later on with the true nature of this magical realm where what Nina imagined is not necessarily what is actually true.

This glaring chasm between perception and reality is a continuing theme of Blackbird which doesn’t pretend that just because something isn’t our drudgy day-to-day existence that it is unblemished, pure and true.

Quite what it is is best left to the reading of this wholly remarkable, exquisitely well-expressed body of work but suffice to say, if there’s a happily ever after to be had, and honestly that looks doubtful, getting there is going to be one hell of a ride (and not in the good way).

Nina differs from our archetypal hero by being stubbornly, brutally real at all times.

That kind of hardcore determination has been bred by years of disappointment and neglect but also by the sheer power and strength of her belief and it doesn’t yield easily or just anybody.

Not even when pretty much everything that Nina believed turns out true – in broad brushstrokes anyway; the devil, as always, is in the detail – and the young lady has to work out what she’s going to do with this information and the new world it ushers her into.

Humphries gifts with a protagonist who is as complicated as the world she finds, someone who won’t take anything on face value and won’t just embrace what she sees unquestioningly, giving the narrative a hard-edged feel that works with every twist and turn of the story.

As a result, Blackbird is gritty, real and edge-of-your-seat storytelling, a tale of one young woman’s coming of age that ducks and weaves around around cliches in much the way same that Nina can mysteriously, if haphazardly use magic and which mesmerises at every turn thanks to tight storytelling, finely-wrought, palpably real characterisation and the kind of world-building for which graphic novels are made.

Can all our dreams or at least Nina’s come true? Maybe, maybe not but one thing is for sure – realising them is going to be a million miles from what was envisaged ensuring that that story yet to come, and indeed the story in the utterly bewitching first volume, will be one to watch for the magical ages.

(image Image Comics)

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