While I usually write about culture here—stories, narratives, movies, videogames, the like—I thought I’d do something a bit different today. Namely, I thought I’d share with you my favorite strip from xkcd, a decently well-known webcomic (at least among nerds) that specializes in weird, dry humor and science mixed with sarcasm. However, this one’s a bit different. It’s called “Where Do Birds Go,” and I’ll let the strip speak for itself:
If you’ve read anything else I’ve written on this blog, you know my main theme is that narratives are everywhere, that stories are omnipresent, and that every single one of them has value. This comic strip—one piece of a more-or-less daily webcomic—encapsulates that for me; in a few minimalistic panels and some sketches of a typing bird, it creates this wash of emotion very few things have ever managed to equal. There’s this feeling of size, of space, of an entire world communicated through a simple conceit—a universal question.
But more than that—the comic beautifully subverts and deconstructs itself, and its ending to me has always felt incredibly bittersweet. While Cueball (the bald stick figure—a recurring character) finds this romantic appeal of this universal question, “where do birds go when it rains,” an appeal accentuated by the mass of pages and forums painting a literal picture of that unifying desire, the image of the bird flying down from the power line to an abandoned phone to ask that very question reverses the strip’s polarity. We are no longer in a human-centric world, where this question is just an honest, harmless query; we’re in the bird’s world, where a matter of curiosity has become something more dire. And the romanticized, heartwarming message of the first half dissolves into exactly that—a clear romanticization, in a world where, really, no one knows the answer. Not even the birds themselves.
It’s a beautiful, layered, subversive little piece of narrative art, told in a few comic panels, with some minimalist stick figures and a drawing of a bird typing on an abandoned phone. And years after I saw it for the first time, I’m still figuring it out.