Picture a Los Angeles where magic is real, only the average person can’t see it. A Los Angeles with all the familiar street signs and overpasses that just happens to also include unexplained occurrences, magical beasts and a hidden side that only wizards can access.
This is the L.A. introduced in “Blackbird,” the upcoming comic book series created by writer Sam Humphries and artist Jen Bartel. A coming-of-age story they describe as “ ‘Harry Potter’ meets ‘Riverdale,’ ” “Blackbird” follows Nina Rodriguez, a young woman whose past experiences with tragedy and a brush with magic have kept her from fully engaging with life.
Nina’s fixation on the magic that nobody else believes exists may have kept her life stagnant, but she can’t be a passive participant forever.
The fantasy series touches on themes of family and loss and is told through a prism of Bartel’s distinct and vibrant art with a supernatural Los Angeles as its backdrop.
Both creators have ties to the city: Bartel was born here and Humphries has called L.A. home for close to 20 years.
“It’s a city that we both love and we both have strong connections to,” said Humphries. “We both felt pretty strongly right off the bat that we wanted to show a point of view of L.A. you might not normally see.”
Rather than the stereotypical glitz and sunny beaches that L.A. is often reduced to in pop entertainment, Humphries and Bartel are interested in presenting a perspective that is closer to the version residents actually experience.
The nuance mirrors Nina’s story as she discovers the magical side of L.A. that has always been there, unbeknownst to most. But the actual aesthetics and design elements also appealed to Bartel.
“From a visual perspective, L.A. is just so rich with material,” said Bartel. “Everything from the Art Deco-inspired architecture, to the softbox haze that you guys have that just makes everyone well-lit and pretty at all times.”
“I think Los Angeles visually is a city destined to be drawn by Jen,” added Humphries. “So much of what she does well are the same things that make Los Angeles visually distinct and beautiful and alluring.”
The first issue of “Blackbird” focuses on introducing Nina and her story, but readers can expect to see more of “the extremely beautiful and charming” Clint as well as Nina’s talking cat, Sharpie, (both introduced in issue No. 1) in subsequent installments.
Humphries and Bartel can trace the origins of “Blackbird” to 2016, when they first decided to collaborate on a book. The earliest conversations included Humphries asking Bartel what she wanted to draw.
“I’d given Sam basically a laundry list of everything from pretty people to mythological stuff — demons, monsters, that kind of thing,” said Bartel. “There were probably, like, 10 items or so on the list.”
After a period of “radio silence,” additional discussions about their influences and their favorite Asian media — including manga, Studio Ghibli films and even Final Fantasy games — helped coalesce a story that they continued to develop together.
“We just had a long phase where it was basically us just kicking around ideas together,” said Humphries.
“So much of it came directly out of conversations about what we wanted to see in comic shops as well,” added Bartel. “We talked a lot about areas we felt the western comics mainstream maybe had some holes in.”
The consensus? They both wanted to see “more comic books that have hot people kissing in them.”
This careful, collaborative approach to the project convinced Bartel that Humphries and “Blackbird” were the right fit for her to transition into interior art. Known mostly for her cover art work, “Blackbird” is Bartel’s first project drawing the interiors for full comics issues.
Because it involves drawing everything, Bartel describes comics as a “boot camp for artists,” and she is excited for people to see the evolution of her art from issue to issue.
“Historically, as mostly a cover artist, I’ve just had to draw people looking either stoically heroic or smizing,” said Bartel. “I never really had to draw characters actually acting.
“Sam has really pushed me to explore some of that. I’ve gotten to draw people crying and yelling, and there’s a lot of emotional areas of the book. Being able to flex that muscle has been really gratifying for me,” she said.
Humphries added: “ ‘Blackbird’ is going to be a lot of hot people looking hot and a lot of magic looking really cool and all that fun stuff. But it will also deal a lot with legacy and family obligations and siblings and parents and death and grief. That’s not something that you can always tackle to your own personal satisfaction in a work-for-hire book.”
“Blackbird” No. 1 is set for an Oct. 3 release. You can check out some more exclusive character art and pages from upcoming issues of the series below.