I read the first issue of Blackbird after I met Jen Bartel at New York City Comic Con in October of 2018. I have a good friend who loves her artwork and turned me onto her cover work for IDWs Jem and the Holograms sometime ago and I wanted to bring her back a comic signed by Jen. When I met Jen at NYCC, she was very kind and radiated such good energy. Because of that experience, I was pumped to check out her first creator owned comic, Blackbird. I read the first issue when I got back from New York and I fell in love with the story and Jen’s art.
Set in Los Angeles, Blackbird is about Nina Rodriguez, a girl who feels like there is something different about her from a young age but is told that she’s just imagining it – that she is crazy. Eventually, Nina finds out that she was right and that she has the ability to do magic. Moreover, the magic society that she’s been hunting down on the dark corners of the internet is real and her role in it is more complicated than she suspected. Searching for her missing sister, Nina comes to find herself in the middle of a magic gang turf war.
The execution of this story both in writing and in the art is what makes Blackbird stand out. Some of the strong points of the writing in this comic are the characters. Readers get to know them quite well over the course of the first six issues. Each character felt complex rather than being a simple archetype, and the villains weren’t all bad and the good guys weren’t all good, which made for more interesting and complex characters.
My only constructive criticism for the Blackbird team is that there were a few panels where I felt like there was a skip in the action at the bottom of one page to the top of the next (bouncer scene). I found myself thinking, “Wait, what? How did we get here?” It didn’t happen often but it did take me out of the world once or twice. With that piece of constructive criticism out of the way, I can talk about what I loved about this book, which is A LOT.
My two favorite characters in Blackbird are Nina, the main character, and her cat, Sharpie. Nina, is a smart, strong-willed, tenacious girl with a sharp wit. Everyone in her family calls her “crazy baby” because she believes in magic and trolls internet forums searching for any information about it that she can get her hands on. Nina becomes depressed and uses drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism to handle trauma. She works as a bartender but it’s also shown through flashbacks that she has worked several jobs to survive over the years. Even though she’s fallen on hard times, Nina has a strong support system in her older sister and is determined to prove that magic is real. I appreciated Sam Humphries’ work to make Nina a real character with whom we can relate. We are given glimpses into her childhood through flashbacks of events like a family Christmas that feel very real and show us what events have shaped Nina and her family.Nina’s character arc in the first book reminded me of Julia from Lev Grossman’s hit series, The Magicians. Like Nina, Julia also saw glimpses of magic and had to fight her way into the magical world, learning magic underground. However, Julia’s story is mostly focused on breaking into the magical world, while in Blackbird we get to dive deeper into Nina’s family history and daily life. The effect is that Nina feels like a well-rounded and relatable character. Regardless of whether Humphries was inspired at all by The Magicians, it’s nice to see another strong female of color take the lead in a story about trusting yourself. While her sister’s abduction is the action that jump starts Nina’s “hero’s journey,” there are big questions that need answering along the way like why has she been able to perceive magic and why magical entities are trying to keep her out of their world?
As Nina moves deeper into the magical world she learns that she was never a “crazy baby” but a blackbird. Without giving away exactly what that term means within the world of this comic, I can say that in our world blackbirds are often thought of as symbols of intelligence, magic, power, and intuition. In Blackbird we follow Nina on a journey of self-discovery where she learns to have faith in herself and her inner power.Every hero needs their cat, and Sharpie makes for a fun cat sidekick reminiscent of other famous comic book cats of late like Lying Cat (Saga) or Master Ren (Monstress). What makes Sharpie unique is that he is more than what he seems (Flerken anyone?). He’s got a third eye and seems to only speak in a way that is almost impossible to understand. There is a reason why he speaks this way, but you will have to read Blackbird to find out.
While we are treated to a few reveals in Blackbird, there’s still enough information that is withheld to keep readers coming back for more. We learn a little bit how magic works in the world of Blackbird but by the end it still feels like there’s a ton more to learn about magic’s origin in this world. Also, the book barely scratches the surface with the rival magical gangs and what they really want and why. Humphries and Bartel have successfully introduced us to the players but have yet to reveal the rules of the game.
Jen Bartel is at the top of her game in Blackbird. While Bartel is known for her vibrant use of color and smooth line work on comic covers, she really takes her talent to the next level in her interior work in Blackbird. Her style is so versatile – she can create backgrounds that feel straight out of a Riverdale episode and characters that seamlessly blend American and Japanese drawing styles. Bartel’s art oozes with a lush ominousness that is simultaneously dark and pulsing with life.
Bartel also draws the most fashionable characters I’ve ever seen. The pains Bartel has taken to make her characters unique in their facial expressions, hair, clothes, etc, really makes this comic a joy to read. I couldn’t help looking at characters who had fades and think, “Damn, I should ask my barber for that fade!” There were also some very awesome cameos like a Nina riding a Chocobo (Final Fantasy) and a character in the club that looks very much like Miley Cyrus. The variety styles used to draw things from fashionable youths to mystical beasts roaming around Griffith Observatory are impressive and speak to Bartel’s talent. She really flexes her artistic ability in Blackbird and the result is a comic glows neon on the shelf. I give this first book an 8.8 out of 10. Pour yourself a glass and float into the world of Blackbird.
P.S. If you enjoy Jen Bartel’s art, I recommend you check out the videos she posts of herself making art @heyjenbartel. They are very relaxing to watch.