By: Zack Smith (Writer), Rich Ellis (Artist)
The Review: I’m a sucker for an animal comic. Blacksad, Beasts of Burden, Mouse Guard, Pride of Baghdad…I’ve yet to read a comic featuring anthropomorphised creatures that I haven’t ended up falling in love with. Of course, mostly these kind of books feature animals we all regard as perennially adorable – there’s even something cute about We3’s bomb-pooping Bunny Rabbit – but Pigeons are something of a harder sell. It’s a further testament to the power of sequential art that the latest Monkeybrain Comics digital release, The Stars Below, manages to pull it off, weaving a charming fable out of one sky-rat’s quest to fly among the stars.
Things start out ordinarily enough. Out nameless hero/Pigeon is minding his own business, chowing down on a discarded Hot Dog bun on a bustling New York sidewalk, when a passer-by accidentally knocks him into a Planetarium. This opens up a mind-blowing world of stars and planets that amazes the plucky bird; why hasn’t he seen this before out in the City? He soon realises that the haze of pollution and ambient light (okay, I might giving the bird a bit too much credit there) is blotting out the night sky, but maybe, just maybe, if he can get to the top of the Empire State Building he might be able to break through the hazy atmosphere of the New York skyline and find what he’s looking for.
No quest is complete without an element of danger however, and this is provided by a passing Hawk who’s determined to make the Pigeon his catch of the day. A chase ensues in and around the skyscraper before the story reaches a pleasing though unexpected conclusion for our intrepid feathered friend. As fables go, it’s half-‘The grass is always greener’ and half-‘What we’re looking for is always close to home’, but I’m pleased to confirm that it’s completely delightful.
In large part this is down to Rich Ellis’ clean black-and-white artwork – especially as this is a dialogue-free book. Are bird comics a rarity because rigid beaks make capturing expressions or emotions on their faces awkward and difficult? Well, you wouldn’t guess that’s the case on this evidence. There’s a palpable sense of wonder on our hero’s face as he takes in the glittering firmament at the planetarium; scepticism on the faces of the other birds he tries to convince about what he saw; determination and anger on the face of the hawk pursuing his quarry. A terrific sense of motion is found in the aerial dogfight in the second half of the book, and even though it takes place over several floors and rooms it’s all very clear, well-directed action that writer Zack Smith seems to have scrupulously story-boarded. The ‘starry night’ is an effect worth highlighting too: a mottled impressionistic spray of illumination which lights up a retina display and proves itself worthy of our hero’s desires. As you can guess, I’m in its thrall – this is lovely, lovely work.
Conclusion: I’ve been a fan of Monkey Brain Comics digital-only releases since their major push into the market in July through the trusty Comixology app. While they release some enjoyable on-goings like Edison Rex and Masks and Mobsters, one-shots like Kurt Busiek and Steve Lieber’s Thoughts on a Winter Morning and now Smith and Ellis’ The Stars Below make for some exceptionally well-crafted tales that lie a little off the beaten path. At 99 cents (all profit from which goes to charity The Hero Initiative throughout the month of November) you really can’t go wrong. A beautifully illustrated fable that is sure to a spark a sense of wonder in children and adults alike, The Stars Below is a brief but worthy chapter in the annuls of Great Animal Comics and undoubtedly the first (maybe the last?) to make a hero out of a Pigeon.