Drew: I’ve often said that I prefer questions to answers. Questions stimulate the imagination, where answers play in the realm of cut-and-dried facts; questions keep us guessing, while answers end the guessing. This leads me to seek out narratives steeped in mystery, like LOST. As that series drew to its conclusion, I was often frustrated as we received answers, partially because they weren’t always that interesting, and partially because I didn’t care. Answers to questions I’m not interested in — however well conceived — aren’t as interesting as more guesses about the questions I am interested in. I found myself thinking about this quite a bit as I read Birds of Prey 11, an issue that sets out to give us answers about Ivy’s past I hadn’t even realized were questions.
The issue picks up right where #10 left off, as the Birds are trapped in a bunker by those freaky plant-men. The walls of the bunker seem only to slow down the plant-men, but Ivy insists that she can stop them if she’s just brought to the basement of the facility to rejuvenate. She explains that the plant-men are the Perennial, a botched attempt at fusing humans with plants a la Poison Ivy. It turns out, the Poison Ivy controls the Perennial, and had only used them to expose the Birds to a toxin that will kill them in six months unless they agree to help her (also, if they choose death over helping, the toxin will be released, destroying all human life on Earth). Flash forward one week to where the Birds are busting up an energy company board meeting, doing Ivy’s bloody bidding as eco-terrorists.
That ending is a really interesting idea — what would Ivy do if she had control over the team — and it’s executed well enough. Heroes forced to do evil is a pretty common device, but making that “evil” environmental in nature is a clever twist. Sure, killing people is bad, but would allowing them to destroy the planet be better? I’m not suggesting that there’s no middle-ground, or that Ivy is right in her actions, but this isn’t as black-and-white as one might expect.
But, while I like the destination, I can’t say I’m as thrilled with the path we take to get there. The Perennial — and thus almost the entirety of the previous issue — are a red herring. Ivy uses them to expose the Birds to the toxin, but there’s no reason she couldn’t have just done it herself. She’s touched the rest of the team several times since she showed up in issue 2, occasionally violently, so I’m not sure what purpose the Perennial served other than to give us an action sequence in the previous issue. I’m all for action sequences, but this just feels like needless drawing-out. What’s worse is that this issue then feels rushed, cramming in the end of that action sequence, the explanation of Ivy’s plan, and the Bird’s first outing as a terrorist organization into one issue. It doesn’t leave us much space for exploring the Bird’s reactions to all of this, which is a real shame for a title with such a good sense of its characters’ voices.
For their part, artists Travel Foreman and Timothy Green II do an excellent job conveying all of that information as efficiently as possible. I was particularly impressed by the sequence explaining “Plan B,” where the toxin in the Birds’ bloodstream kills everyone on Earth.
Honestly, I think my big problem here is that we’re focusing on Ivy when I still have so many unanswered questions about Dinah. Those were the questions I’m interested in, but instead, we’re focusing on Ivy’s new suit and expanded power-set, which given the reboot, I hadn’t realized were mysteries. I like seeing her motivations come to the fore, especially as they conflict with the rest of the group, but it seems a little dishonest to treat these things as big reveals. I can think of no better example of an unearned reveal than this exchange:
Ivy responds in the next panel “I’m addressing the Perennial,” but unless the Perennial are also called “Canary,” I can’t really see that. Even if she were only addressing the Perennial in that second sentence, it still doesn’t make sense, nor does it work to call them off, which was the whole purpose of her talking in the first place. There isn’t room for confusion here, but I can see why Swierczynski wanted there to be. Having Ivy address the monsters like they will listen to her certainly would be counterintuitive, but wouldn’t “Stop” or “leave them alone” accomplished that in a way that’s more natural?
Ultimately, I think I’m just disappointed that we’re spending so much time focusing on plotting that we don’t get to bask in the personalities of the team members. Starling gets some good kicks in, but this title has shown that it is capable of giving the whole team moments to shine. I think spending a little more time with the Birds’ reaction to Ivy’s plan might have given us those opportunities. That would have had the added effect of not feeling so damn expository — I love seeing these characters bounce off of each other, even when they don’t have anything important to say.
Ah, but there I go chastising a work of art for not being what I want it to be. That can be a dangerous rabbit-hole for criticism, but it seems fair if the standard I’m holding it to is its own. This title’s greatest strength is Swierczynski’s sense of voice for each character — is it fair to be frustrated when it fails to play to that strength?
Patrick: Oh man, I totally did a double take when I read that scene in the basement of the facility. Like you, I was thinking “that is some clumsy-ass double-meaning.” So I read it again, convinced the problem was mine – this is Duane Swierczynski we’re reading, after all. In the end, I think Ivy was honestly addressing Dinah when she talked about their friendships and sacrifices being real. The next sentence – the one that starts “I am addressing the Perennial” – is like an incantation. She’s evoking her powers in order to command the plant monsters. You’ll note that she doesn’t say “I was addressing the Perennial.” The reason she has to assure Canary of the legitimacy of their friendship is that she’s about the reveal how the whole trip has been a set-up.
I’ll concede that that’s meeting the title at least half-way, but it’s a reading I can live with.
This series had done such a good job of keeping Black Canary and Starling in its lead roles, and I think you and I both responded really well to those characters. I mean, we were both hurting for a positive portrayal of Canary and how can anyone possibly object to Starling? But whatever force (be it authorial or editorial) has moved the Poison Ivy card to the top of the deck didn’t count on creating quite the personality-vacuum we’ve got on our hands. Ivy is interesting conceptually – both her power set and her motivation for crime are compelling and fairly unique in this world. But she’s sort of a humorless idealist, with very little self-awareness or psychological depth. Why does Ivy do what she does? Because plants and SHUT UP – that’s why.
And I even find myself a little let down by the revelations about Ivy’s superpowers. Especially given the nod to the character in a recent issue of Swamp Thing, I assumed that she was powered by The Green. That may still be part of it, but the soul-sucking explanation that a ‘green-friendly private research company’ developed technology to amplify her powers is disappointingly dull. It also robs Ivy of some of her agency to put a big faceless corporation behind her new power-set.
While the twists and turns are frustrating, the promise of more non-consentual eco-terrorism is enough to keep me really excited. Also, what do you make of Plan B? Is that a threat or a promise? It seems like the “global cleansing” is Ivy’s end goal anyway – why would she stuff that away into a contingency plan? We’ve seen prophecies in both Swamp Thing and Animal Man that show the ruin of the world, with dead superheroes strewn everywhere. It’s possible that this vision is related. It’s also possible that the image of a world-in-ruin is just an old comic book writer staple…
I love the art of Travel Foreman. I think the man’s got a unique visual vocabulary and he brings an absolutely manic energy to everything he draws. So, why am I about to complain about the art in this issue? Well, there are my previously expressed distaste for Gabe Eltaeb’s colors, but there are also a significant number of panels drawn by Timothy Green II. Foreman’s style is gracefully grotesque, and those that effectively imitate it (like Steve Pugh on Animal Man) do so by finding that same tone in their own style. Green, on the other hand, seems to have simply aped the “grotesque” portion of that equation, forsaking grace entirely. What does that look like?
Big eyes, oddly proportioned faces, three basically identical mouths… This, by the way, is in reaction to the news that they’ve all been poisoned. Come on, man, I’ve seen Katana chop heads off for less.
It’s shitty to be so hard on this series. Babs, Dinah and Ev are all such wonderful characters, it can be frustrating to see them shuffled out of the spotlight. But that’s not fair, right? We may love Batgirl due to her appearances elsewhere, but both Black Canary and Starling were expertly crafted within the pages of this series. Ivy hasn’t had a chance to win that kind of affection from us yet. I’m not 100% convinced that this is the way to go about winning it, but I do trust Swierczynski to pay off this insane set-up.
Oh and I always get on board with a good environmental message. Superheroes don’t deal with enough real-world issues, and even though they’re going to do so in a supervillainous kind of way, I like that the Birds are taking on greedy corporate assholes. But is there a connection between deep core fracking and earthquakes? IF SO, that’s nuts and Poison Ivy is fighting the good fight.
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?