Anne Szabla's Bird Boy is one of those webcomics that's simply knock-you-backwards beautiful. It's set in a brutal world in which bizarre and astonishing creatures threaten the human tribes that live along the rivers. But one small boy stumbles upon a legendary weapon that could turn the tide in favor of his tribe.
In the opening pages, Szabla tells us the legend of Mali Mani, a hero who defeated the Halfway Beast—a creature that hid all the light from the world—and then disappeared into the fearsome Liminal Wood. Some time later, men from the Nuru tribe our out on a hunt, though they fear that they have drawn too close to the Liminal Wood and the mysterious Rook Men who once protected the Halfway Beast.
The Nuru tribesmen are accompanied by Bali, a small boy who should, according the tribe's customs, be on the threshold of manhood. But Bali does not fit with the rest of the tribe, and when the hunters refuse to teach him how to through a spear, he wanders off on his own. True to his nature, he stumbles and crashes into a strange building, but manages to bumble his way into possessing Mali Mani's great sword. And perhaps, if he learns how to wield it, he can battle the beasts that plague the Nuru and become a man in the eyes of his tribe.
Szabla freely borrows visuals from a number of cultures, notably vikings and tribes of the Pacific Northwest, to build her world, and then adds in her own beautiful beasties. There are the Eshe, deer-like creatures with sticks for legs and masked faces; a demonic bear with curled claws and a body filled with stones; and colorful birds that could be Art Deco brooches. At every turn, there are remarkable visual surprises that transport us to Szabla's world and help us understand why the Nuru fear and respect the forest as they do.
In a similar vein, Bali is perfectly adorable, but his klutzy nature comes through clearly. We can understand why he may not be ready for the manhood rite, but also see the pain on his face when he's denied this sort of membership in the tribe.
My one criticism of Bird Boy is that it doesn't hold to a terribly regular update schedule. It's a webcomic that requires a great deal of patience between updates. But there's just so much to admire on each page that it's often worth the wait.