The Webcomic Overlook #14: What Birds Know



Birds are fascinating creatures. They do not study college-level things like the Bernoulli Principle, yet they know to save energy by flying in a V-formation. They have a built-in instinct that tells them when to migrate from the Northern Hemisphere to the Southern Hemisphere. And there is a pretty good chance that they once dominated the earth 65 million years ago and were known as dinosaurs.

(I mean, c’mon … they were warm-blooded, they’re a chance they had feathers, and some of them honked and had duck bills. How long is it going to be before paleontologists finally admit that the world may have been dominated by giant chickens? I know it won’t help move those cool scaly dino toys, but for pete’s sake… it took astronomers, like, a month to decide that Pluto was no longer a planet, and that couldn’t have helped model solar systems sales.)

Yup, them birds sure know a lot of stuff. But what if birds possessed the knowledge of something else? Something … sinister? Enter Emelie Friberg and Mattias Thorelli’s webcomic: What Birds Know.



Emelie Friberg is a young Swedish comic artist. She is mainly self-taught, but she has also taken a year of classes at the Comic School of Malmo. Outside of What Birds Know, she has little professional experience. Her major accomplishment it to have six comic strips published in the newspaper Sydsvenskan. Mattias Thorelli is also a webcomic artist and Emelie’s soulmate. There’s a interview with the two at the ComixTalk site, and it’s a pleasant tete-a-tete with two nice people.

The duo and the webcomic itself first gained exposure through an event known as Webcomic Idol. It was one of the Outstanding Newcomer Finalists for the 2007 Web Cartoonists’ Choice Awards, but lost out to the furry-themed “Lackadaisy.”

What Birds Know is set intially in a rustic community. Upon first glance, the story seems to be set in a Tolkienesque fantasy world. The small farm towns
are surrounded by towering trees, and everyone’s dressed in Renaissance Faire clothing. Yet, I suppose it can be reasonably assumed that the story make take place in any reasonably pre-Industrial setting. So it’s just as likely that King Arthur may be convening with his knights around the Round Table as Heidi may be frolicking in the Swiss Alps.

The webcomic stars a trio of young female characters. Vandi is the red-headed girl; she is generally the most sensible of the three and the one who looks a lot like Link. Elia, the blonde with the pigtails, is bubbly and a little bit of an airhead. Dores is the chunky brunette who always acts like she’s got a major bug up her butt.

It took me a while, by the way, to figure out which name goes to which character. The webcomic is low on dialogue, and there are long stretches where nothing is written at all. Emelie and Mattias’ artwork is clean and attractive. They seem to love playing around with perspective and composition.

They also seem confident enough to let their artwork tell the story, which centers on strange events that occur when the girls go on an excursion to gather mushrooms. They climb a mysterious stone tower, and the birds are driven into the frenzy. What do the birds know? (Aha! I knew I could work the title into the review.) After they cross the other side, weird things start to happen. Elia starts to laugh uncontrollably, like she was high on nitrous oxide. Vandi begins to see mysterious mud men and begins barfing eggs. Dores starts to act like a total bunghole … no, wait, I’m pretty sure that’s her natural state. But she does get covered in eggs while she sleeps.

In these scenes, Emelie and Mattias are highly effective. They do a good job of conveying the unsettling eerieness, and they do a better than average job of conveying the characters’ emotions. (The characters, though, did react with the “deer in the headlights” look far too many times for my taste.)

It’s too bad that it takes forever to get the story started.

In the ComixTalk interview, one of the questions asked was what sort of feedback the comic was getting. Emelie was more upbeat, mentioning that most reviews were “positive to very positive,” and that the only negative review was that “the comic is not my cup of tea.” Mattias was a little more critical, saying that “some people have told us that it’s too slow,” yet wasn’t too worried because they “like the pace.” That’s rather gentle for the environment of the internet, where nastiness is like currency. I suspect that a lot of negativity is deflected by the writers themselves; even without reading any articles or profiles, one does get a sense that Emelie and Mattias are nice people.

So I take no pleasure in writing this. Those guys who said the story moved too slowly? They were right.

The heaviest indictment I can level is that absolutely nothing happens in the first 60 or so pages. Sure, we’re slowly introduced to the girls, we meet some villagers who seem like they will factor into the story later, like a gray-haired father figure and the town hunk. Yet it’s drawn out the the point where it feels like padding. The story, in fact, could have actually started at around page 65 without missing a beat.

What Birds Know almost feels like one of those stories I wrote when I was younger, I had a fabulous high concept idea for a novel, yet I had no idea how to get there from the starting point, where you know zero characters. So you make the amateur mistake of introducing characters over a slow and boring amount of time, which includes rather forced and cliche dilemmas that are meant to round out a character before we get to the story proper.

And then there’s the scene where everyone just sits around smoking the pipeweed. This scene is probably here because an interlude where the main characters just sit around in an open glen has been in every fantasy work since Tolkien. The difference here is that in Lord of the Rings, it actually moved the plot forward. At this point, I felt like pounding my head against the wall… not because the story was maddeningly going nowhere, but because I’d made the same mistakes whenever I tried to write a story.

Another issue that irked me: how modern sensibilites seemed to get shoehorned into the pre-Industrial setting. The most glaring is how modern the girls act. They traipse about in trousers and complain about how their parents won’t treat them adults eventhough they’re, like, totally nineteen years old, guh! In the pre-Industrial world, though, women generally got married as early as 13 and had no problem getting adults to treat them as equals (at least among adults of the same sex, anyway).

Later, we are treated to a poignant scene where Vandi mourns over her lost childhood (this link is Not Safe For Work; nothing too explicit, but don’t blame me if you get a visit from the FBI). This is probably one of my favorite scenes; who can’t relate to the feeling that the best years of your life were robbed from you, and you can’t ever go back to doing it right the second time? It was probably worse in the olden days since kids had to grow up so darned fast. Yet it sorta ruined by an earlier scene that shows Vandi’s childhood was all about training to be some sort of track and field star. Pardon me if I’m wrong, but … recreational sports is a really recent occurance.

Finally, I get irked by the close-cropped hair and goatee on Vandi’s dad. Nevermind that the look belongs on a club-hoppin’ hipster in the 1990’s. It also looks really expensive. What’s a peasant farmer doing with a $50 haircut like that? It’s a trivial complaint, to be sure, but it’s yet another discrepancy that prevents my brain from believing that the world of What Birds Know could possibly exist.

“Relax,” you might say, “this is fantasy. Anything goes.” That may be true, but I find the world unconvincing. This is the kind of carefree world where everyone seems to revel in free time and leisure. It’s a world where young men who should be apprenticed to a trade are instead hawking jewelry to peasant girls. Fields are illustrated and they look really pretty, but are they ever plowed?

That’s too bad, because, as I mentioned earlier, the story does introduce some interesting twists once the girls get into the tower. What Birds Know becomes suspenseful and interesting with new mysterious twists and turns.

That is, until we return to the villiage.

Originally, I was going to rate this 2 stars only. The art is fine and often beautiful, but the story moves at a turtle’s pace and did not do enough make me care about the characters or capture my interest. However, I do get the feeling that Emelie and Mattias have a good idea of where this story is going, and there’s a good chance that they’ll tie together the multiple themes of regal golems, lost cities, and hyperactive birds in a tidy, satisfying conclusion. Thus, I’m awarding What Birds Know one extra star.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

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2 thoughts on “The Webcomic Overlook #14: What Birds Know

  1. “Pardon me if I’m wrong, but … recreational sports is a really recent occurance.”

    Well, if I don’t misunderstand the use of “recreational sports” here, you are wrong.

    In fact, apparently at the first Olympics the only event was a foot-race.

    In any case, the Olympic Games were popular enough for challengers AND spectators to come from all over Greece.

    Then there’s the Roman Circuses and The Mesoamerican Ballgames, just off the top of my head.

    Spectator sports have been around for a long damn time, and it’s perfectly reasonable that a young child in a pre-industrial society would aspire to become an athlete, and spend her free time training for it.

    A great number of things we associate with modern times are actually quite old, old enough to plausibly appear in your typical pre-industrial fantasy setting.

    A while ago, I was looking for webcomics review sites, and I came across this one, which contains the sentence,

    “In fact, it’s difficult to pinpoint the state of technology. There’s no motorized travel, but one character wears eyeglasses…”

    This makes no sense, as eyeglasses were invented no later then the 14th century.

    Admittedly, modern looking eyeglasses with ear-pieces were invented much later, but still before the invention of motorized travel.

    And really, ear pieces are an elegant and simple solution that could plausibly have been invented at any time.

    Actually, this is something I’ve been thinking about lately; it sometimes seems to me that fantasy has become constrained by a limited view of what features a pre-industrial society could have.

    I’ve been thinking especially in terms of the widespread use of Monarchical societies. How many good kings are there in fantasy? How many stories are there about the good guy trying to reclaim his “rightful” place as king?

    There’s no reason to have your good guy fantasy kingdom governed by a hereditary monarchy; Various systems of election and non-hereditary rulership have existed all over the world, all throughout history.

    but it seems like it doesn’t occur to people, because we think of democracy as modern and monarchy as pre-modern.

    Wow, I do go on.

    I really like these Webcomic Overlooks; it’s the only webcomics review series I’ve come across that isn’t unbearably pretentious.

  2. Thanks for enjoying these reviews!

    And you do makes some good points about recreational sports, especially with regard to the Olympics.

    I had actually thought about the Olympic events — and for that matter, the Roman chariot races and the jousting events of the Middle Ages — some time after I’d written the review. And you are right: there is a precedent for such things to exist in a fantasy setting. Thus, Emelie and Mattias are fine with putting such a scenario in “What Birds Know.”

    However, it was still a jarring scene. The obstacle course looked too much like what modern high schoolers would be placed in, rather than something from which pre-Industrial era “What Birds Know” is set in.

    I guess here’s the point that I tried to come across but didn’t do so in the review: if the world of “What Birds Know” feels a lot like a modern day society, why not go ahead and set it in the modern day? I don’t think it would have lost much and may have been more effective in conveying the uneasiness with the past world that the three girls eventually encounter.

    And you do make a valid point about how most fantasy stories seem to be hampered by the monarchial setting. For that, I blame Tolkien, whose influences — both good and bad — have been mimicked in fantasy novels since. I think one fantasy writer once said that when he was young, all he wanted to do was write Tolkien, and when he was older, he only wanted to write anything that wasn’t Tolkien. But still, no matter when, Tolkien was still the focal point.

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