Imagine a flock of birds so huge that you can no longer see the horizon. Imagine that flock passing over you in such a gigantic swarm that the sky is “black with birds” for three days straight.
Naturalist John J. Audubon documented this phenomenon as he observed the now extinct passenger pigeon migrating over Kentucky in 1813. It’s a striking, epic image, one that inspired one of Germany’s leading comics artists, the mysterious and inscrutable ATAK (a pseudonym), to pen Martha—The History of the Last Passenger Pigeon, a new picture book released this week by Aladin Verlag.
The book tells of the fate of the passenger pigeon, endemic to North America during the 1800s when it had a population greater that all other bird species on the continent combined. Netted, shot at, and smoked out of trees, the passenger pigeon was driven to extinction by uncontrolled commercial hunting. It’s last living individual—Martha—died at the Cincinatti Zoo in 1914.
In rich hues, densely-packed pages, and with few words (the German language narrative is told from the perspective of a flock of birds), ATAK recounts the history of this red-and-orange breed of pigeon—focusing on the lonely last of its kind, who sits in a cage and is gaped at by wide-eyed faces through captivity’s bars.
Born Hans-Georg Barber in Berlin (East Germany) in 1967, ATAK began drawing as a form of escapism during his military service, eventually becoming a major figure in the country’s comic scene during the 90s. His bright, colorful, old-world illustrations are filled with thick vegetation, luscious landscapes, animals, and characters from Gertrude Stein short stories as well as figures like Batman and King Kong.
ATAK’s candid version of the history of the passenger pigeon succeeds in something spectacular, with allusions to American history and the sublime speckled throughout. A page with Caspar David Friedrich’s majestic figure from The Wanderer above a Sea of Mist (1818) grounds the story in an art historical context, juxtaposed intriguingly with the dreamy and folkloric nature of the illustrations, so that the book is a rich culmination of references and artful compositions. It carries the weight of history yet also has the powerful impact of a fable.
In its design, Martha lies somewhere between comic narrative, painting, and traditional book illustration; the framing and image sequence is dense, complex, and enveloping like a narrative tapestry. It is majestic and floral like a Frida Kahlo painting, with spindly details giving it an unnerving and confrontational edge like Heinrich Hoffman’s grizzly 1885 German children’s book, Stockheaded Peter.
A candid style is crucial to the book’s lasting effect: ATAK’s details give way to raw sense of violence. The illustrator unapologetically documents how billions of animals were slaughtered for decades, but also presents another view; “we are gigantically many, and we need food” say the flock. The species was not just a wonderful spectacle, but also a plague, and Martha depicts how swarms would devastate entire regions, brooding on forest edges and hopelessly overfertlizing the land until people were forced to hunt and eat the doves.
After seeing how the passenger pigeon wreaked havoc across the continent, the reader might decide that the scourge of birds had to disappear. ATAK’s evocation of a traditional German fairy tale means that reader is encouraged to see the universality of the story—fable after all is analogy—and to apply its message elsewhere. So ATAK subtly articulates a provocative dilemma; human settlements and cities, and how society’s pollution has made landscapes uninhabitable for other animals.