Creator/s: Emelie Friberg, Mattias Thorelli
Schedule: About three pages a week
Website: It's a relatively distinct layout for a ComicPress site, although the site's vertical nature seems unnecessary. The comic pages are much smaller than normal at only 463 pixels wide, and this makes some of the details harder to see as well as making the smaller font in the earlier pages harder to read. Meanwhile, the additional space gained from having small pages is only used to show pictures of the characters and the comic's creators. I actually found this somewhat distracting, as these images showed up prominently the entire time I was reading through the comic's archives. The site would also benefit from page-click and/or above-the-page navigation, as the fast-paced storytelling style is slowed down somewhat by forcing the reader to scroll down after reading each page.
There are a decent amount of special features, most notably being the handwritten character biographies. Each character has their own handwriting, and the bios are partially written by the other characters, which is neat. The archives page is also pretty easy to navigate, with each page getting its own hyperlink. Some of the site needs to be updated, though, as the fan art thumbnails don't show up in several browsers I viewed the site with, and the comic's Blogger and LiveJournal pages haven't had new content in several years. Also, the comic's Project Wonderful ad only shows up on the home page, meaning that a significant amount of the site's page views aren't being counted.
Writing: All of the fantasy webcomics I've reviewed so far have involved heroes going on an epic quest, much in the style of games like Dungeons & Dragons and World of Warcraft, so What Birds Know caught me by surprise with its focus on character development and dramatic tension. A lot of the story's spent in flashbacks that explore each of the three main characters' childhoods, meaning that only a small portion of the comic takes place in the hidden fantasy world. Compared to popular fantasy series like The Chronicles of Narnia and Harry Potter, the mundane medieval setting presents more realistic situations, and the college-age protagonists and "14-and-up" rating indicate that the story's meant for more mature audiences.
The three female protagonists are initially unremarkable, and their "quest" that kicks off the events of the plot is merely a school assignment to collect mushrooms, which they quickly lose interest in. What makes each of them fascinating by the time the story gets to its fifth chapter is the gradual unveiling of their tragic childhoods and the personal "quests" they're pursuing as a result. Vandi, for instance, had to raise her twin brothers and take care of the household after her mom fell into a coma, leaving her yearning for the playful childhood she never got to experience. And Dores, a talented artist, is desperate for her mom's approval, destroying all of her own artwork on two separate occasions when her mom only viewed the creations as a waste of time. The most interesting of the three, though, is probably Elia, who, growing up in a broken home, is determined to provide a healthy environment for her own future children. What makes her somewhat more complex than the others is that the man she obsesses over is a known womanizer who's barely interested in her, making her perception of him as an ideal husband seem delusional. Each of the three women are extremely well-developed and have elaborate backstories.
Another way that What Birds Know differs from a typical fantasy webcomic is that it's female-oriented. Aside from the main characters being women, the flashbacks mainly focus on their relationships with their moms and the way their moms raised them, which places an emphasis on domestic environments much more than what a reader would expect in an action-oriented story. Sexuality comes up frequently as well, as several women are shown being sexually exploited, and the scene where Vandi discovers her breasts, and, therefore, reaches the end of her childhood, is one of the comic's most poignant moments. Finally, the eggs in the fantasy world are used to bring the characters' attitudes regarding maternity to the surface, as Vandi's shown to dread motherhood while Elia welcomes it, fantasizing that she'd like to "have, like, fifteen" children. This feminine perspective combines with the strange and mysterious fantasy elements to create a story unlike any I've read before.
And on the subject of the "strange and mysterious," the comic can get downright bizarre at times. There are several scenes that I'd call "WTF moments," such as when Vandi vomits an egg in Chapter 1, and the comic only gets more surrealistic and surprising as the story progresses. The women also behave erratically while in the fantasy world, with Elia giggling hysterically and Dores becoming more and more violent. Interestingly, Vandi doesn't seem to be affected by the fantasy world, and that combined with her ability to open the door in the tower and her dad's interest in obscure history suggests that she has a family secret that hasn't been revealed in the story yet. And while the comic's finally starting to explain the history of the tower in its fifth chapter, the magical elements are still left fairly vague at point, such as how the oracles were born with their powers for no apparent reason. And I'm left wondering if it's more than just an odd coincidence that both the protagonists and the oracles are a group of three young women. The suspense inherent in the characters encountering a weird and dangerous world they don't understand is one of the webcomic's main draws, and it also gives the creators an opportunity to let their imaginations run wild.
The comic can sometimes get a little implausible for the sake of dramatic effect, though. While the women set off on a five-day journey into the woods with no weapons, I don't recall a single page where any of them expressed concern for their safety, even after they've started seeing some really freaky stuff. They also repeatedly split up and wander in separate directions for insignificant reasons, which seems to always have unfortunate results. I guess that the fantasy world might have a magical effect on the women that makes them behave more recklessly, but I don't see that as being an effective plot device as much as just a way to shove the characters into dangerous situations. In addition, when the adults consider entering the forest to search for the women, they're afraid to go because they consider it to be too dangerous. Elia's mom even suggests that having a weapon, shield, and helmet's necessary to go looking after them. So, it doesn't really make sense that the families are fine with their children exploring the woods during the first three chapters, and then are suddenly terrified of the woods in Chapter 4.
Finally, the dialogue's so natural-sounding that readers might be surprised to learn that the creators are Swedish. An unusually high amount of pages have minimal or no text, though, which allows the creators to focus on visual storytelling and refine the dialogue that feel is necessary to include. Another major benefit of the textless pages is that it lets the creators include lengthy flashback scenes without slowing down the story's pacing much, making the webcomic a relatively quick read even though it's been updating regularly for almost eight years.
Art: As someone who complains fairly often about backgrounds in my reviews, I was pleasantly surprised at the almost excessive level of detail in the story. Throughout the entire 700-plus-page story, I don't recall seeing a single page that wasn't highly detailed. Outdoor scenes always have tons of flora around, and all of the town shots have buildings, background characters, and miscellaneous details, as well as the surrounding fields and mountains. The creators also use bird's-eye and top-down shots a lot, placing a heavy emphasis on showing off the environment and making it seem as if the characters are being watched by the birds that show up frequently throughout the comic. For instance, when the women first enter the fantasy world, the gnarled-looking trees there are shown prominently, which serves as the first indication of the place's sinister nature. Water's also given special attention, creating some spectacular landscapes. Occasionally, solid white backgrounds are used, but they're reserved for moments when a character feels depressed and isolated, making them dramatically appropriate.
The main characters are drawn in an unusually realistic and unflattering way, which is a major departure from the typical fantasy heroine. Each of the three has their own facial structure and body type, which is a nice touch, but even more noteworthy is how competently the creators are able to show the characters at different stages of their childhood and teenage years. The women are also all made to look similar to their moms, which leads readers to compare the two and wonder how much the characters will be alike with their moms in terms of personality. For instance, the moms aren't close with each other, which raises the question as to whether the young women have an expiration date on their friendship as they get older. Are their quarrels just benign misunderstandings, or are they the inevitable result of a transition towards adulthood? In any case, people of all ages are drawn expertly in this webcomic, with the sole flaw being that women's arms and hands are consistently drawn too large.
Lastly, the webcomic's bright coloring's somewhat jarring at first. Aside from there being a lot of bright-green leaves everywhere, the comic has neon-purple skies and neon-red candlelit rooms, and the interdimensional space is colored neon-blue. However, this coloring style grew on me over time, and it fits in well with the comic's surrealistic nature. These bold choices also give the comic a distinct look that helps it stand out.
Overall: What Birds Know is clearly one of the best fantasy webcomics around. What really makes it stand out, though, is that its focus on character development, dramatic tension, realistic dialogue, and visual storytelling gives it a broader appeal than a normal swords-'n'-sorcery tale would have. As such, I highly recommend it for any webcomic reader.