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Darcy Van Poelgeest unearths the strange magic of 'Precious Metal'

Comic Books

Darcy Van Poelgeest unearths the strange magic of ‘Precious Metal’

The “prequel” to the beguiling ‘Little Bird’ is a meditation on memory, morality, and a second chance at first impressions.

When Little Bird debuted in spring 2019, it was clear that something truly special had manifested onto shelves. Co-creators Darcy Van Poelgeest and Ian Bertram had developed a novel slice of post-apocalyptic fiction, tracing a young girls’ journey through a bizarre but beautiful Christo-fascist hellscape in the name of something better (vengeance but also maybe change).

For Van Poelgeest, it was an especially personal book.

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“I think that when I spend that much time with anything, a lot of different parts of myself work their way into it,” he said during a recent Zoom chat. “It becomes less about hammering out a story that I have in mind and more about exploring ideas.”

It’s a process that proves similar but wholly complicated with Precious Metal, a forthcoming prequel series out this week (June 5) from Image Comics.

“I really don’t like prequels,” he said. “So that was the real stress around me — why am I making a prequel?”

But, as Van Poelgeest was quick to remind both the audience and himself, that’s “not actually what we’re doing.” Rather, Precious Metal follows Max “Sarge” Weaver some 35 years before the events of Little Bird. Finding himself “saddled with an unpredictable mod who may be the key to unlocking his missing memories,” the bounty hunter must risk it all if he wants to know the truth.

Darcy Van Poelgeest unearths the strange magic of 'Precious Metal'

Courtesy of Image Comics.

So while it may not be a prequel in the traditional sense, Van Poelgeest still believes that it connects to the larger ideas and energies surrounding Little Bird.

“I wanted to go back and explore a character that we introduced in the third issue of Little Bird, Sarge, and as well as the roots of the war that we’re seeing,” he said. “And so that was a very easy way to get into a new story, and hopefully an interesting one. But at the same time, it’s whatever catches my eye and happens to be what I’m ruminating on at that time. I have some pretty deep connections to things that I’m maybe just trying to figure out, not just in the story, but in my whole life, since I was a kid.”

A core idea surrounds the memory-based issues that plague Max/Sarge.

“You’re definitely introduced to that in the first issue, but it becomes a bigger part of it,” said Van Poelgeest. “There’s a connection between Max and the kid. And that kid is bringing up memories from Max’s past, which is his initial need for holding on to the kid and that breaks him out of his pattern. Some memories just slip by us — they come and go and they don’t mean anything. Others solidify themselves as these real barriers or walls that we just can’t seem to move around. And in a sense, none of them are real after they’ve happened.”

He added, “I think that’s a really interesting thread that I’ve played around with in that first book, and Precious Metal is very much the same. It’s a meditation on those same ideas. It’s not just what we’re exploring through the story, it’s actually the process, too. I do very much get stuck on certain ideas. Some of them are story-driven, some of them are characters, some of them are just things — there’s just a few visual cues in the book that I kept coming back to and kept re-inserting into the script. Even sometimes when Ian and I would talk about it, I’d be like, ‘I can’t quite explain it. I know that this is what feels right. So I’m going to make the case for going with what feels right as opposed to what ‘thinks’ right.’ Often at the end of it, it becomes clear to both of us. It’s like, ‘Oh yeah, we were obviously moving toward this the whole time.'”

Darcy Van Poelgeest unearths the strange magic of 'Precious Metal'

Courtesy of Image Comics.

For Van Poelgeest, this deep connection to his characters is especially important in the writing process.

“The way I write characters, or I like to, is that there’s a lot happening off the page with them,” he said. “And they quite often come with a lot of baggage, even if they’re only in a scene. And [Sarge] was one of those guys; he was carrying so much baggage. So I had an idea very early on of how he connected to the story in a bigger way and was just so excited to get back to that.”

He added, “I have to partner with my characters along the way, too, because they start making decisions. I become less and less in control of the story as the time goes on. Like this one character, Selena Chen. I knew she was important by the time we finished the first issue. There’s one panel where she’s looking right at you. I can’t remember what she says, but she’s like, ‘We don’t know what we’re doing, but we know how we feel.’ And sometimes that’s what’s important. There was this moment when I saw that art come back and I was just like, ‘Oh, f**k, she’s going to make this whole thing about her,’ and sure enough, she kind of did in a way.”

This level of connection is obviously found in Little Bird, and it’s one of the key reasons that Van Poelgeest and Bertram wanted to avoid the route of a “traditional” prequel.

“Ian and myself didn’t really want to do a traditional prequel,” he said. “Like, ‘Oh, let’s just roll back the clock and see how Tantoo first got involved and when Little Bird was born and all this stuff.’ That’s not interesting because so much of Little Bird is actually about that. That book itself takes place in the present, past, and future of those characters involved.”

And there’s also something about Max and his development that made him an especially clear focus. Even when it seemed like Little Bird had at least one larger-than-life figure practically begging to land his own spin-off.

Darcy Van Poelgeest unearths the strange magic of 'Precious Metal'

Courtesy of Image Comics.

“As far as The Axe, he’s kind of a villain in a lot of ways, you know,” he said. “Sarge was just so intriguing and fresh and intrinsically tied into how this stuff began. There’s a conversation between Axe and him that it’s clear that there was some bad blood there and they had been through some stuff. And it was just like, ‘This is so much more fun.’ This is a story that we can tell 35 years before Little Bird that isn’t really about Little Bird.”

But don’t for one second mistake Van Poelgeest’s interest in Max/Sarge as some kind of validation of the character.

“Max Weaver/Sarge, he’s a despicable human,” he said. “So much of the story is really about how awful he really is. I don’t agree with the things he says, but we all have some Max Weaver in us. It’s just more interesting to try and tease out a character that is just so awful on the page. I guess it’s easy to build empathy for a character like Little Bird. It’s much more difficult to build empathy for a character like Max. I wanted that challenge. I wanted to take a shot at it.”

At the same time, though, Van Poelgeest still feels a powerful connection to these characters — empathy, it seems, is a more compelling and complicated beast in and of itself.

“I do like [Sarge] and I do feel connected to him,” he said. “I feel connected to all our characters, no matter how despicable they are. Like, I think Bishop is the one character that we really sort of intentionally made one-dimensional. But I still kind of feel for the guy. And I think maybe that will be confusing for people.”

If any of that really is confusing, it’s perhaps because, as Van Poelgeest explained it, we’ve collectively lost some ability to engage with others in a more meaningful and often complicated manner.

“I think it’s a great time to explore characters like that because it feels like maybe we’re increasingly giving less and less space for people to make mistakes,” he said. “And so it’s interesting to me to work on a character that is the most flawed version of ourselves and then see if I can push him uphill to a place where we can still connect with him. I have people in my own life that you see them progress and you see them fall down again. It’s the simplified version of a good person pulls through to be bad, and a bad person pulls through to be good.”

Darcy Van Poelgeest unearths the strange magic of 'Precious Metal'

Courtesy of Image Comics.

Van Poelgeest added, “I’m definitely getting into spoiler territory if I try and talk through that. But I can say that you know [Max’s] outcome in Little Bird. There was never a time working on the character where I wasn’t thinking about him in Little Bird and how he ends up there. So it’s all very intentional in that way.”

Despite the parallels and connections between Little Bird and Precious Metal, Van Poelgeest emphasizes that they’re still wholly different experiences.

“It’s totally standalone,” said Van Poelgeest. “In fact, it’s only on the back cover where it says this is 35 years before Little Bird. Again, though, that was intentional. We could have put a page at the beginning that brought you up to speed or something, but it’s just not needed.”

Because for both Van Poelgeest, it was all about one world that was filtered and processed very differently between Max and Little Bird.

“It’s one world through the eyes of two completely different people,” said Van Poelgeest. “That’s what it is. To me, it is a very different story, but how can it not be? One is through this young child soldier on the other side of the continent. And one is through this, you know, a 35-year-old bounty hunter. So we are going to experience the world very differently because we are experiencing it through Max’s eyes. And that’s how I made that and that’s how that is delineated into the world.”

A lot of that may have been to respect the characters’ clear differences. Even still, Van Poelgeest and Bertram tried to create vital connections between Little Bird and Precious Metal.

“We are in a different kind of world,” he said. “We are in a different kind of story. It is, in some ways, starting fresh.”

He added, “It’s easier in the sense that the world exists. So much of the work of creator-owned books is every time you do one, you start from scratch. You’re trying to build in these layers and create a complex world that these characters exist in. And quite honestly, it’s f**king exhausting to have to just do that. I haven’t even done that many books. I knew where it took place. I knew what it looked like at that time. Then the task becomes how to stay original and fresh within an existing world.”

Precious Metal

Courtesy of Image Comics.

Luckily, that rather major task becomes that much easier thanks to Bertram’s efforts — the man just knows how to spark proper magic.

“And, thankfully, Ian makes that part of it so much easier because he just does such an incredible job with this amazing, amazing world,” said Van Poelgeest. “Every corner of every page is just brimming with imagination and these characters. He makes that part easy. I feel like he’s one of those artists where his work is so good, who cares about the story? I’m just going to stare at panel three for the rest of my life. He definitely takes the edge off that, but the pressure is still there.”

Van Poelgeest explained that he and Bertram align on so much of the book. For instance, their mutual affinity for Max/Sarge clearly set the stage, and from there Bertram helped things with his own portrayals and depictions.

“Ian and I just fell in love with that character,” he said. “Largely because Ian’s so good at that stuff, too. Like, he just makes that person feel so real on the page and such. He creates such a sense of empathy in their eyes and stuff that you just can’t help but want to write about all of them forever, you know?”

Ultimately, the end result are two very different books, but depending upon how you enter into both, you’ll have an entirely compelling experience.

“If you have read Little Bird, particularly if you’ve read it recently, you are going to pick up on things; there are layers there for the Little Bird reader and vice versa,” said Van Poelgeest. “If your introduction to this world is reading Precious Metal, and then you pick up Little Bird, you’re going to see things in Little Bird that other people might not have without reading Precious Metal.”

He added, “It’s helpful to re-read the issue before as you go into it because we’re layering a lot into it. You start to see pieces click together that maybe you didn’t the first time around. It’s part of the fun. I look at stories as puzzles. That’s kind of my way into it besides the characters; that’s the most interesting part for me. It’s not for everybody, but the people that like it seem to like it.”

Precious Metal

Courtesy of Image Comics.

If there’s one clear but les overt distinction between Little Bird and Precious Metal, it’s their visual feel and larger aesthetic. I told Van Poelgeest that Little Bird felt a bit more joyous and fantastical, whereas Precious Metal felt like some lost story from a William Gibson cyberpunk novel.

His response? “We’re being introduced to a character who has already been through the shit. And so we are feeling that. And I’d like to say it gets easier for him, but it does not. So it does have that sort of edge to it, for sure.”

That discussion quickly led us to another recent book from Van Poelgeest (and artist Caio Filipe), Lotus Land, in which Detective Bennie Strikman (operating in a kind of cyberpunk-ian Vancouver) cracks a case involving, among other things, memory, human connection, and how we manage a world that’s left us behind. Sound familiar enough?

“I was writing both at the same time,” said Van Poelgeest. “So maybe I was just going through a noir phase or something. But, yeah, there is sort of a connection there. I mean, they’re very different stories and very different worlds. I was just exploring that at the time. It’s in there for both a little bit, which is funny because the other stuff I’m working on couldn’t be more different.”

That includes an as-yet-unannounced, non-Little Bird-related project with Bertram. But Van Poelgeest hopes that this won’t be the end for the universe he and Bertram have concocted. While it’s hard to do bigger works every time — “not everything we do can be a 300-page opus,” said Van Poelgeest — he’d still love to do one-shots or maybe invite in other creators.

“Peach Momoko does a variant for the second issue,” he said. “And she’s not exactly looking for work, but I would love to just hand her a character for 30 pages and just let her do her thing.”

Regardless of those plans, Van Poelgeest won’t stop trying to tell this core story. It’s too big not to — for faithful readers, yeah, but also Van Poelgeest himself.

“I can say that there exists a Little Bird book No. 2 in my mind and has since the very beginning,” he said. “Little Bird one, Precious Metal, and Little Bird two is the complete story that I’ve always wanted to tell. I’d be really, really f**king excited to tell that story one day.”

Issue #1 of Precious Metal arrives Wednesday, June 5.

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