Tuesday, June 14, 2011

What Birds Know

Quick Overview:
Title: What Birds Know
Authors/Artists: Emelie Friberg and Mattias Thorelli
Website: fribergthorelli.com/wbk
Started: October 2005
Ended: -
Pros: Shocking plot twists; great character development
Cons: Reeeeeally slow start; generic setting

This comic sat around in my "To Read" bookmark folder for a long time before I finally committed to it. I would open it up, read a few pages, lose interest, mark my new place, and stuff it back into Bookmark Purgatory for a couple of weeks. Not surprisingly, I made very slow headway. But gradually, imperceptibly, I became completely hooked. Things don't really start to pick up until around page 70 or so... but if you can make it to the end of Chapter 1, I just dare you to stop reading.

The story: Three girls, best friends since childhood, venture out from their town of Ev-la Nin to collect mushrooms for a school assignment. It would have been a simple weekend task, but the girls happen across a mysterious tower in the forest. Passing through the tower takes them into a strange parallel world that both mirrors and distorts their own. To avoid spoilers, I'll just say that unusual things start to happen, and the story makes an abrupt turn from charming coming-of-age to nail-biting surreal horror. It really becomes quite dark, and grips you right in the gut. This is a seriously scary story!

The setting: The setting is very vague. The characters talk and behave like modern small-town Americans, but they live in a strangely Medieval-looking wattle-and-daub village that you'd expect to have a name like "Brookhaven" or "Fernvale." It's a rural, fantasy-type town, and the whole story takes place there or in the surrounding wilderness, so this one settlement makes the entire setting. The characters just have such a modern, real-world feel to them that the generic fantasy village with the inn and the cobblestone roads and the open-air market and the brothel feels a bit discordant. After a while, though, you just accept it.

The characters: Here is where the comic really impressed me. Through great dialogue, telling interactions, and artful flashback sequences, the characters are developed very thoroughly. Vandi, Dores, and Elia, the three main characters, have very distinct dispositions and deep, complicated relationships. Generous flashback scenes illuminate their current personalities and expose relevant background information. Many of the secondary characters — parents, siblings, and other townsfolk — are also developed with surprising depth. The complex characters balance and match the gripping plot.

The art: If I understand correctly, Thorelli does the layouts and sketching, and Friberg does the inking and coloring. Whatever their process, they've been producing perfectly consistent artwork throughout the comic. The cel-shaded art is clean and simple. Details are minimal, and they often appear in a hyper-stylized, decorative way. The pictures almost look carved rather than drawn — heavy, solid, stiff, deliberate. This quality transfers over to the characters, occasionally making their motions seem wooden and awkward. The characters have cartoony, simplified faces, and even the old people look strangely youthful and doughy. However, emotion and expression are always conveyed well.

The writing: I believe Friberg is responsible for most of the actual script writing, although both creators come up with ideas for the story. I realize now that the story is very complex, but it certainly didn't seem that way at first. As I mentioned, the first 70 pages are so are not the most attention-grabbing. It mostly involves the three girls walking through the countryside, gossiping, complaining, and joking. While it's a cute, lightweight introduction to the characters' personalities, the delaying of any interesting plot developments makes it a bit of a chore to get through. But take my word for it — I've forged on ahead, and you have got to see what's up here.

The bottom line: The slow-paced beginning might scare you off, but if you stick with it, What Birds Know will reward you with a suspenseful, scary, and mysterious story brimming with surreal imagery and solid character development. Oh, and what do birds have to do with it? I bet you'd just love to know. (I certainly would.)

Rating: Four stars

>> Read What Birds Know here! <<

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