Vogelein: Clockwork Faerie
Vögelein is a clockwork fairy, built by a talented watchmaker centuries ago. When her latest Guardian passes away, she has to find someone to keep her wound up in order to keep her memories alive in Vogelein: Clockwork Faerie by Jane Irwin.
Her antagonist/counterpart is a dark fairy, the Duskie, who’s been reshaped by technology into looking like he’s made of skeletal twigs and wire. He collects microchips and other modern mechanical detritus, causing havoc as he breaks the machines he’s driven mad by. His form of revenge comments on the dark side of progress and mechanization, including humanity’s dependence on their creations.
The beautifully moody, painted greyscale art is well-suited to the subject matter. There’s a lack of typical comic tricks, such as sound effects or motion lines. The influences here are clearly books like Sandman and Watchmen: thoughtful, artistic comics with literary antecedents. The scope of the story is impressive, ranging from rustic scenes to cityscapes, capturing both the magic of flight and the down-to-earth life of a street person.
I’m impressed by how rapidly Irwin can establish character. While Vögelein is searching for possible new homes, she looks in on a variety of city-dwellers. We quickly get an idea of why she doesn’t find them suitable, just from the personalities demonstrated in one glimpse. Later in the story, various supporting people wander in and out of the tale, each fully conceived and portrayed, even if their roles are small.
The art is evocative and atmospheric, using fantasy figures to illustrate the human condition. Among other themes, the story deals with the nature of death, and more directly, the loss of self through the loss of memory. Whether or not Vögelein survives isn’t as important to her as her fear of losing her history. She’s learned a lot about emotion and people and motivation since her beginnings.
There’s a strong undercurrent of the toll that age can take on people. Vögelein took care of her aging keeper for a decade, watching him decay mentally, then physically. If she loses her memory, she’ll not only forget him, but she runs the risk of forgetting how to speak or fly. She has the melancholy of an immortal, living on and on as the people she cares for dies. She can’t even leave them behind, because she needs at least one of them to survive.
As she searches for her place in the world, she also faces the danger of inappropriate love. Caring for someone risks turning into trying to control them, which at its extreme means keeping them prisoner to keep them with you. Also, there’s the fear of that which is better than you are. Some people would rather not dream, and they want to destroy that which inspires them to think of a better life. They’ve adapted to something they don’t want to be, and they resent those that remind them of that choice.
By the conclusion, Vögelein’s goodness and abilities have won over the Darkie, although he must also remain true to his nature. Sometimes good things cause others pain even when we don’t intend to, just because it reminds them of what was and how that was better than today. She’s also found a compromise between love and dependence that works for her. The epilogue finishes the story of her creation and what happened to her creator.
Vögelein has a lot of heart and imagination. It’s thoughtful, well-crafted, and involving, with none of the pretension or cuteness that lesser fantasy stories get trapped in. At its core, it’s about our visions revealing what we are. At our best, we can envision and build beautiful creations that have a life of their own. At our worst, we twist and deform beings such that they become monsters.
The handsome collection has notes at the back, where the reader can find out things like what Vögelein means (German for “little bird”) or learn more about the artistic details and choices made. Irwin provides answers to questions I didn’t even think to ask, like the mechanics of how Vögelein might work or the details of 17th century watchmaking. There are pinups by Carla Speed McNeil (Finder), Tom Beland (True Story Swear to God), and others, plus notes on the models Irwin used for photo reference for her paintings.
Sample pages, character profiles, and more are available at the Vögelein website. The next story, Vögelein: Old Ghosts, will be a graphic novel about Vögelein adapting to her new life and dealing with old memories. She couldn’t keep a promise made to her first Guardian, a Romani named Alexi, and she wants to try to make amends with the aid of Mason, an itinerant musician.