#CBR5 Maneuver #1 – Birds of Prey Volume 1
Profile: Comics, Mystery, Science Fiction
Summary: From the Back Cover, “One is wanted for a murder. The other is on the run for knowing too much. Together Black Canary and Starling work in Gotham City, taking down the villains other heroes can’t touch. But now, as a grizzled newspaper reporter threatens to expose them, the tow get sucked into a nightmare involving stolen pharmaceuticals, terrorists for hire and killers in stealth suits who can appear – and disappear – at will.
Realizing that Gotham City’s citizens are in grave danger, Black Canary recruits Katana, a vengeful samurai, and the notorious bioterrorist Poison Ivy. Will the Birds of Prey be able to work together to save Gotham?”
After Action Report:
I came to (American) comics relatively late in life, and entirely because of Joss Whedon. I started collecting the Buffy Season 8 trade paperbacks in college, but couldn’t really get excited about trying to break into the enormous continuity clusterfuck of ether DC Comics or Marvel’s main universe. I would read a few stray issues here or there if an author I liked was guesting, but that was about it. When DC decided to do a partial reboot of their continuity it seemed like a good opportunity to start seriously exploring comics. That lasted all of three weeks, but now that the first trade paperbacks from the reboot are coming out, I decided to take another stab at it.
Birds of Prey is an interesting series that walks in the shadows of some of DC’s biggest names, but has managed to stand on its own as both a concept, and as a storyline. The original concept was the pairing of a paralyzed former Batgirl, now called Oracle, and the impulsive Black Canary taking on organized crime in the city of Gotham. The team grew over the years, but at the core of the series was the conflict between the headstrong Black Canary and the cautious and organized Oracle. The reboot undid Oracle’s paralysis, and made Black Canary the team leader in charge of a new batch of unknowns, including the mentally unstable Katana and the former bio-terrorist Poison Ivy.
The story is much more of a mystery than a typical comic book plot. The main opponents of the first story arc are a team of stealth-suited ninjas with a penchant for subliminal mind control and bio-weaponry. The lack of a highly visible arch-villain lends an air of seriousness to the story and helps ground the superhuman action moments. Not that I would qualify the book as realistic by any stretch of the imagination, but there are elements that shift the series away from the fantastic scale of many modern comics.
The strongest aspect of this iteration of Birds of Prey lies in the interpersonal conflict within the team. While Black Canary is primarily interested in justice, the same can’t really be said of the rest of the team. Starling, a baseline human with a background in espionage and wetwork, is definitely a good guy but isn’t afraid to cross a line or two to achieve her ends. Katana is a vigilante with a very bloody past, just wrapping up a year-long murder spree targeting Yakuza leaders. And everyone can agree that Poison Ivy isn’t trustworthy in the slightest. This dynamic can feel a bit overplayed at times, particularly because it is compounded with an insidious mind control plot that may or may not be affecting the entire team, but I think it helps more than it hurts.
Another major selling point is the skilled use of these strong female characters. DC Comics has taken a lot of criticism for their use of female characters in a large number of the New 52 reboot series. And Birds of Prey didn’t dodge that bullet entirely. However, for the most part, the cast is written with a lot of style and grace. They feel like women, not like pin-ups. There are definitely some aspects of these ‘femmes fatales’ that are sexualized more than they need to be, but with the exception of Starling’s ridiculous corset number, the book takes a much more mature approach to women than a lot of the DC reboots do.
And there’s definitely a strong story at work here. With the exception of major crossover events, most comics wrap up storylines in 4-6 issues. In Trouble in Mind, a seven-issue run, we barely get one layer off the onion. Some of that is due to space taken up by team arguments, but this opening storyline was clearly intended to be a long term mystery with a lot at stake for both the heroes, and the victims. Swierczynski’s background in mystery writing is serving the series very well, and giving the reader something a little different than the standard Hero vs. Villain mentality. The Birds of Prey title has historically had a more ‘shades of grey’ approach to superheroics, and that aspect is still critical to the series’ feel.
Birds of Prey is definitely worth a read if you’re already into comics. If you’re not, or just have a passing interest in the medium, there’s still a lot here to like. While it’s no Watchmen, there is a surprising amount of depth for a mainstream imprint. I’ll definitely be sticking around for at least the second trade paperback, if only to find out why Poison Ivy is playing the part of good guy.