Patrick: You know how the common perception of Aquaman is that he’s lame and talks to fish and is generally useless in a peer group that includes the likes of Superman and Batman? That is exactly how I’ve always seen the Black Canary. Too frequently in the old continuity she was made to function solely as the Green Arrow’s wife or ex-wife or ex-wife-that-still-fucks-him-from-time-to-time. After being marginalized by a hero as boring as Green Arrow, the very mention of the character’s name signaled petty, tedious bullshit. This largely-domestic history, coupled with a super-sonic scream super-power, paints the image of the ultimate shrew. I never imagined that I’d be reading a book that features the character so prominently. And I certainly never thought I’d be enjoying it this much.
Birds of Prey is a putting-the-team-together series. But unlike most of those series, this one doesn’t feel incomplete in the time leading up to the assembly of the five-woman team (okay, four and-a-half: Batgirl rejects membership, but does tag along). This is achieved by finding a strong anchor in both of the team’s founding members: Black Canary and Starling. While my opinion of Black Canary was basement-level-low going into this series, I knew absolutely nothing about Starling. Six issues later, I love them both and I find myself in that precious position of just wanting to know what happens next. Which is just such an exciting place to be in while reading a comic book.
The team is a healthy mix of old and new. Let’s take a look at them:
Black Canary is basically as I described her above, but with a few key differences. The most attractive difference is that she doesn’t seem to have any involvement whatsoever with Oliver Queen. That baggage is dropped in favor of making the character more criminally dangerous and less domestically dangerous. She’s wanted for murder – and while she claims to be wrongly accused, the team she leads is plenty keen on murder if that’s what fits the bill. While her martial arts skillz and super sonic screaming are still what she’d have to list on her stat sheet under “Powers and Abilities,” what’s really on display on these first six issues are her leadership skills. Get this: she successfully leads a group that contains both Batgirl and Poison Ivy – lady’s got some conflict resolution skills.
Starling is a former secret agent, master tactician and party-girl. She frequently mentions the bevy of helpful (if not totally paranoid) tips that her uncle Earl passed along to her. She seems like the kind of warrior that’s seen everything twice. Between her level of experience and her crasser party-sensibilities, Duane Swierczynski gives her this great devil-may-care attitude that’s reflected in her voice and her costume. She’s the only one of the Birds who shows a little extra skin when she’s out fighting crime, but it works because it’s a character-based decision. This title has mostly weeded out pointless T&A, and even characters who are usually given the ultra-sexual treatment, like Ivy and Black Canary, are tastefully clothed. Which gives Starling’s slightly more revealing costume more significance, and lets her show off those sweet tattoos (yet another great little character detail).
Katana is a badass ninja. She also believes that the spirit of her dead husband resides in her sword. Her whole deal is that she’s out to avenge the murder of her husband by the Yakuza. Killing is not only in her wheelhouse, it’s almost her default MO. Which makes her inclusion in a team of heroes interesting. She’s a strange entity, and one that hasn’t really been explored yet; she’s usually happy to hang out in the back and slice up baddies when she’s needed.
Poison Ivy and Batgirl are much as you would expect them to be. The only substantive difference is the more conservative costume Ivy dons, as mentioned above. Babs somehow retains that spark of Gail Simone’s Batgirl, which is always welcome. Batgirl’s not really a full-time member of the team (too damn much murder for her liking), so she appears sparingly. I love Batgirl – her cameo in Nightwing #4 was a highlight – and as far as I’m concerned, she’s more than welcome of the Birds’ adventures.
When not putting together a kickin’ team, the Birds investigate a mysterious criminal that goes by the code-name Choke. Choke is big into head explosions, temporary amnesia, mind control – any way he can mess with someone’s brain really. He makes for an impressively enigmatic villain, as his henchmen don’t know anything even our heroes can’t be certain when they’re under his influence. As a measure of just how far Choke’s reach is, there’s a point where he’s managed to rigged Black Canary’s brain to explode. He’s remained in the shadows so far, but has clearly asserted a lot of menace on our characters.
Jesus Saiz handles art duties on the first four issues and hangs on to teach replacement artist Javier Pina a thing or two about layouts. Saiz’ layouts are great, but not in any mind-blowing way. He’s great at drawing visual parallels between adjacent panels or adjacent pages that give everything a really impressive sense of continuity and cause-and-effect. Take a look at these panels from the first issue. A page break separates them, and the setting jumps back a week in time, but the similarity in Starling’s poses is awesome and gives such great little insight into her character.
This also this absolutely kick-ass sequence in the airport where Starling is making an escape and one of Choke’s invisible henchmen appears to report on the goings-on. There’s this couple closer to the camera and some dude in the background of all four images. Keeping those ancillary characters and the exact same camera angle gives the scene a real sense of both time and space. In the most literal sense of the word, this isn’t layout work isn’t spectacular, but goddamn it is satisfying.
I expected this title to be stupid fun at best. This series actually delivers the fun and never feels stupid, which may sound like a low benchmark, but I mean it in the most complimentary way possible. It’s just so easy to keep coming back to. I’m not going to use this as an example of something everyone HAS TO READ, but it’s great fun all the same. I’ll drudge up my standard question for Bat-family titles: are you looking forward to the Night of Owls crossover?
Drew: Between the match cuts and the distinct sense of space and time you pointed out in the sequences above, this title is reminding me a bit of Watchmen, a book that is littered with those details. I’d say the comparisons to that particular sacred cow actually extend to the writing, as well, which tells an ensemble story that still manages to give each character a distinct voice with distinct motivations and goals. Needless to say, I’m really digging this title.
Part of this enjoyment is that I’m just a sucker for mysteries, especially if they have a sci-fi twist (my LOST fandom warrants a nod yet again), and the central mystery here is a doosy. A villain who controls an army of unwitting pawns? Awesome. Stealth suits? Awesome. Brains wired to blow via cue words? Double awesome. There’s a ton of great little stories told in this arc, from the kick-ass train sequence in issue 3 to the mini-saga of Brendan Bowman in issue 6, but my favorite has to be the fallout from the end of issue 4, where the team finds themselves on the streets of Gotham with no idea how they got there. It’s kind of an action version of The Hangover, but with the added twist that Choke is still controlling their minds. Did I mention that I think this title is awesome?
I’m also really appreciating how well these characters are written. We’ve been reading a few ensemble titles, but my complaint with all of them is that we never really get a good sense of who the individual characters are. I think part of this is that the team is so small, but much of the credit really goes to some smart decisions on Swierczynski’s part. Introducing the characters one at a time has given us room to understand who they are and how their presence affects the group dynamic, both in planning and in action. More importantly, even as the camera has pulled out, the focus has largely stayed on Black Canary and Starling. We get small glimpses of Katana and Ivy’s motivations (and I’m looking forward to learning more about both), but BC and Starling are the only teammates who get voiceover boxes.
Speaking of those boxes, how funny are the cues we get for whose voiceover we’re reading? The house style at DC has been to include the symbol associated with the character in those voiceovers, but BC and Starling notably don’t have any such symbols on their costumes, so instead, we get guns for Starling and…fishnets for Black Canary.
This actually gets at my own baggage with Black Canary; I only know her from Frank Miller and Jim Lee’s All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder, where her only superpower seemed to be having an ass you could fry an egg on:
They make no attempt to make her anything other then a sex object. Later in the book, she bones Batman on the docks after they fight a bunch of bad guys or something. They keep their masks on. IT’S NOT A GOOD BOOK.
Point is, this title actually manages to take the fishnets back from the completely exploitative way Miller and Lee (and, let’s be honest, most comic book artists ever). We’ve complained a lot recently about cheesecake in comics, but, surprisingly, the title featuring a team of fetching ladies isn’t guilty of gratuitous T&A at all. What’s really neat is that Swierczynski didn’t have to make the team asexual in order to make the characters about more than just their bodies. Black Canary mentions that Starling is always trying to set her up, and Starling visits what looks like an ex-girlfriend, but these events all happen naturally, and are revealing moments for the characters. I’m not sure Birds of Prey has always been this respectful of its characters, but it’s a much appreciated take.
And these characters really are carrying this title. You mention that the Batgirl that appears here feels like Gail Simones, which I think is high praise to Swierczynski for nailing her voice. Each of the characters feel distinct, and all of the team conflicts fall out naturally from simply putting those characters in the same room. It also helps that I like these characters. They all have intriguing histories, but Starling’s attitude is just so infectious. Look at the joy in her face as she takes a hostage:
The praise for the quality of acting really belongs to Saiz and Pina. (They probably also deserve some praise for keeping everything so classy.) Everything looks great. You say that the layout work isn’t spectacular in that it doesn’t have the kind of creative flair of Batwoman or the Flash, but I’d actually like to tie the layouts here back to Watchmen, which managed to squeeze a great deal out of very straightforward layouts. This title is by no means that strict with its layouts, but it is willing to play by the rules when it will make for a clear sequence (and that clarity can be used to make sequences touching, exciting, funny, or really anywhere in between). It’s a style that doesn’t feel that distinct, but it’s now so tied in with how I think of this book that I couldn’t imagine it changing, which is the same praise I give to those titles with the pyrotechnic layouts.
I may be suffering a bit from “whatever I just finished reading is my favorite comic” syndrome here, but even the fact that this title can (at least temporarily) challenge my favorite titles is a testament to how good it is. I may live to be embarrassed by my comparisons to Watchmen, but I’ll stand by them for now. This book really is good, and I’m looking forward to sticking with it for the long haul. To answer your question: I may be less excited about this title’s involvement in the crossover, but only because I’m so enjoying what they’re doing now.
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?