Patrick: In a lot of ways, the New 52 incarnation of Birds of Prey acts as as one of only a few blank canvasses in DC’s library. The two founding members of the group are a brand new character — as in Starling — and one reformed in such a way as to be unrecognizable as the Black Canary of old. The rest of the team is rounded out by characters either not normally associated with the Birds of Prey or (in Barbara’s case) aggressively altered by the new continuity. My first dip into this world was so fresh and new and exciting, that I started to feel a little let down as writer Duane Swierczynski wrapped up one story arc, vamped for time, and then paid lip-service to Snyder’s Night of the Owls crossover event. I’m not going so far as to claim that those three issues (7, 8 and 9) were wasted, but now that Birds of Prey seems firmly set its own two feet again, it’s apparent that this series is at its strongest when its free to develop on its own terms.
The action picks up with our Birds flying over South America. In a plane; they’re not actual birds. They’ve got Poison Ivy in some kind of refrigerated box, and they’re taking her back to the “pulsating core of the Green.” Swamp Thing scholars will know that the Parliament of Trees – and the heart of The Green – is located in the rain forests of Brazil. Whether or not that’s where our heroes were headed remains to be seen because they’re targeted with a heat-seeking missile over Colombia. Black Canary uses some Advanced Canary Call to detonate the missile before impact. The plane still crashes, but everyone manages a successful bail. Once on the ground, the group is chased by plant monsters OF UNKNOWN ORIGIN. Despite the team’s on-going trust issues, they work together to escape these monsters and Ivy regains consciousness just in time to promise answers to all of the questions raised by the aforementioned monsters.
And there are a bunch of cool questions raised here. All the most compelling questions trace their way backs to the fundamental nature of these characters. Which, by the way, is exactly the kind of mysteries I can really get behind. Back on the ol’ LOST podcast, Damon Lindelof said that one of their goals was always to turn what questions into who questions. So “what is the smoke monster?” became “who is the smoke monster?” It’s a rule that seems obvious when state it outright, but so many mysteries are better served when they focus on the people at the heart of them. Birds of Prey juggles a bunch of these mysteries with aplomb.
First mystery: Starling. We’ve only gotten a handful of hints about who she is and what her history entails, but each detail raises a host of other questions. Take for example, her relationship with their pilot on this journey. He seems like an old friend, and naturally I assumed he was a buddy from her days as a super-spy. But it turns out Bret is actually smuggling gallons of liquid-cocaine in his little aircraft. As Katana so elegantly puts it: “You had us riding with a drug dealer?” As far as I’m concerned, she’s capable of just about anything and could have as many contacts in criminal organizations as she does in law enforcement. She’s a wildcard.
Next up is Black Canary. A woman on the run from the law after killing her husband, it’s safe to say that we knew she occupied a space morally grayer than most heroes. But we get one damn-enticing bit of development on her in this issue. Not only does she employ her Canary Cry to surgically detonate a missile remotely, she uses it to propel herself across a chasm. By way of flashback, we see Dinah working out the finer points of her abilities with her late husband Kurt. Why was he so interested in her abilities? Did she maybe accidentally kill him with a skull-shattering scream? (It’s been referred to as “skull-shattering” like a billion times, but we have yet to see it shatter any skulls.) The point is: I feel like she may also be capable of just about anything.
Finally – and most dramatically – Poison Ivy. I’ve never really thought much about where Ivy’s powers come from, but issue 10 has invoked the name of The Green. For anyone not reading Swamp Thing, firstly, get your ass to the comic book store and pick up the first 10 issues of Scott Snyder’s run: it’s amazing. Second, let me tell you a little something about “The Green.” There are three forces of life constantly in struggle on Earth: The Green, representing plant life; The Red, representing animal life; and The Rot, representing death and decay. These forces usually coexist more-or-less peacefully, but recent events in the Animal Man / Swamp Thing series have brought to light the extreme advantage The Rot holds over the other two. In short: there’s a war a’brewin’. Will Ivy have to take up arms along side Swamp Thing? Will the Birds come to her aid? HOLY SHIT – I hope so.
Perhaps Gabe Eltaeb realized that Travel Foreman’s straightforward drawings become ungainly messes when ambitiously shaded, because all of those computer aided gradients are toned down considerably from the previous issue. I’d still rather see mostly-flat coloring, but this is a marked improvement from the Night of the Owls. It helps too that Foreman’s art is allowed to play directly to his strengths: terrifying monsters. It turns out that he can draw scary agents of The Green just as well as he can scary agents of the Red. Some of the faces are still a little wonky – particularly Dinah. She’s looking strung-out in a way we haven’t really seen the character before. Jesus Saiz and Javier Pina used to draw Dinah very cleanly, so Foreman’s stringier portrayal feels a little like a departure. Drew, what do you think – is the character more frazzled than usual or is this just the way Foreman draws her?
It seems weird to say about a comic we’ve been reading for the last four months, but I’m glad to have it back.
Drew: It’s interesting you saw this issue as such a strong return to form. I definitely saw this as a step in the right direction, but with so much action tied to the somewhat middling issue 9, I can’t see this as quite arriving at the quality of the first few issues.
My main problem is definitely the characterization of Batman in the flashback. He swoops in, passes a lot of ungrateful judgment, then hightails it out. He tells Starling she should be seeking professional help, accuses Poison Ivy of being totally self-serving, and calls Black Canary a fool.
It’s not so much that I didn’t believe Batman would think this stuff — he has very high standards for crime-fighters — but it strikes me as arbitrarily bitchy to have him point this out but not do anything about it. He calls Black Canary “sloppy and dangerous,” but he doesn’t apprehend her, or otherwise try to stop her from fighting crime. If he has a problem with her, he could, you know, STOP her, but instead he just comes in to offer catty comments before leaving without a “thank you” for the Talon. Batman is a man of action, but this just felt passive-aggressive.
Maybe I’m overly sensitive about Batman characterizations — he does occupy only two pages of this issue — but it really distracted me from the rest of the issue. I would probably be more amenable if it felt like that flashback served any purpose besides inserting a Batman cameo. It’s tough to begrudge a writer a Batman cameo, he’s incredibly popular for readers — not to mention how damn cool he is (I know I write about him whenever I can) — but if he’s going to act like somebody else, what’s the point?
I also couldn’t help but notice the similarities between Canary’s newfound Canary Cry-aided flight and X-Men’s Banshee. I’m by no means an X-Men expert, so the fact that I can recognize this power-set suggests to me that the comparison is pretty obvious. That in itself isn’t that big of a deal, but it kind of represents a larger question I have about giving Canary more powers. An expert martial artist with the ability to produce a sonic blast that can shatter a human skull is plenty powerful (in fact, it’s already one meta-human ability more than my favorite superhero), so I don’t really see the need for powering her up. The ability to shatter other things, like say, smashing a missile out of the air, seems like a logical extension of that ability, but flight is another issue altogether. She’s gone from being a human who can scream really loud to a person who can fly. The funniest part about this is that she didn’t use this ability when she was falling out of a helicopter.
They’re high enough up in the air that you can see the curvature of the Earth, and that you can’t distinguish one tree from another. A fall like that surely should have killed everyone. I’ve always thought it was weird when Canary would jump out of exploding buildings without a rope or a parachute, but this is an entirely different feat.
This issue was by no means all bad — these villains are intriguing, and Starling is as charming as ever — even if I have my gripes. The freaky green monsters are as mysterious as whomever is sending those heat-seeking missiles. Are they related, or is this a coincidence? I don’t know, but I’m definitely excited to learn more. I’m also strangely excited to see Ivy back in the fold. Of the birds, we understand her motives the least, but I can’t wait to learn more.
To answer your question about Dinah; I think there are a few factors that lend to that strung-out look, and I think Foreman is only responsible for some of them. Partially, I think it’s the way Foreman tends to draw hair as always looking wet or greasy. For this issue — where the girls have been up and running for days on end, and are now in the jungles of Colombia in the same outfits they wear outside in January — it makes sense that they might be a little sweaty. The other factor is the rendering work Gabe Eltaeb turns in on colors. Patrick was right to point out that it’s not nearly as distracting here as it was in issue 9, but it still lends some inconsistency to the character models, occasionally making them look wan or unnatural. Together, the hair and the sometimes sunken cheeks make for that strung-out look.
All in all, I’m pumped for the next issue. I’m generally more interested in questions than answers, but Swierczynski is so skilled at questions that I often need more context to understand just what it is I don’t know. Context is so much broader than specific answers, and it’s a clever trick to make me desire the former instead of the latter. What I want is a broader understanding of this universe, which won’t come in the next issue or the next arc. Swierczynski has made me a Birds junkie, which means I have no choice but to forgive the occasional misstep.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to DC’s website and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?