It seems that the pandemic is sticking around, isn’t it? I look out at the world and find it harder and harder to make sense of it. How does someone maintain the trappings of traditional narrative structure when all the stories that surround us eschew normality? Staying inside seems to help. But what does that do to our mental health? When you can’t leave your home, the only thing that wanders is your mind.
Like many cartoonists, Spencer Hicks took to his art in the early days of shelter-in-place orders. On March 15, 2020, California essentially went on lockdown and Hicks went into his head. For the following 71 days, he started to put together a page-a-day story that he would post on his Instagram page. He would eventually put these pages together as a new book titled Day of the Corvid.
Whether Hicks had any real plan for this story when he started is suspect, because its narrative unfolds in starts and stops, barely holding on to cohesiveness. Yet each page in and of itself is always fully formed, underpinned by fear, confusion, ennui, and weltschmerz. As a day-to-day act of creation, I imagine it served as a touchstone for Hicks, part of a schedule, something he could rely on and control. Reading it in its daily format as he was posting it, the comics appeared almost as fireflies in the evening, flashing briefly in one place, only to reappear again somewhere completely different.
As a collection, though, Day of the Corvid becomes seemingly cohesive in its incomprehensibility. While the narrative is slightly more united in this format, the hum of the emotional toll of those early days of the pandemic becomes unshakable, unmistakable, and its rhythm churns with anxiety.
Crows are a through-line in this story of mistaken identity, powerlessness, community, and fear. Early in the story, the main character is reading a book about these birds and comments, “I really think crows may be smarter than humans.” Day of the Corvid ends with a different character reading aloud from the same book, particularly the part that says, “Shown a series of seemingly incongruent images, these crows discerned overarching meanings over time. Complex emotional responses such as self-doubt, remorse, even spiritual despair proved…” leaving off, the sentence unfinished, allowing for the reader to finish the thought.
Here Hicks taunts his audience. He shows his hand while simultaneously holding his cards close to his chest. Throughout this book, crows prove they are smarter than the people operating out of their own self-interest. Crows take care of each other. They are also able to solve problems through pattern recognition, unlike the humans in this book who mistake inconsistencies for conspiracies. Like a Modernist, he is telling you that he has given you just enough for you to make your own meaning. What you do is on you. Ultimately, this is your story.
As off-the-wall, horrific, and poignant as so many of the pages of Day of the Corvid are, and as unconscious and free-flowing as their production may have been, they do hang together. Yet they hang together like a fever dream — producing the same sort of emotional reaction. Hicks writes on the back of Day of the Corvid, “Life is a nightmare under normal circumstances.” While this certainly is a world view, it does provide some context. A global pandemic tears apart our sense of what is normal, throws naked into the streets all the inequities that have long been locked from casual viewing, and swaddles everyone in the anxiousness of an invisible unknown threat seemingly looming everywhere.
For all of its faults as a story, what Spencer Hicks does in the hastily drawn pages that encompass Day of the Corvid is capture that zeitgeist, crudely, without regard, and full-assed into the reader’s face. It’s dumb, it’s flawed, it’s unprocessed, it’s raw. What other reaction would you expect?