Friday, June 28, 2013

Birds of Prey: Manhunt #4 (Dec 1996)

Review: Birds of Prey: Manhunt #1.

What Happened Before…
  • Black Canary was captured by master criminal Archer Braun and taken to his base of operations in Kazakstan.
  • Canary's partner, Oracle, enlists the help of Huntress and Catwoman, both of whom were looking for Braun for their own reasons.
  • Braun's base is a haven for terrorists, criminals, and assassins, including possibly the deadliest woman alive: Lady Shiva!

Birds of Prey: Manhunt #4 - "Ladies' Choice" was written by Chuck Dixon, but the art team changes yet again for this final issue.  This time, series penciller Matt Haley draws over Sal Buscema's layouts and Wade Von Grawbadger, the inker for issue #1, is back.  I don't know why Buscema was brought in but his inclusion isn't that noticeable.  This still looks and feels like Matt Haley's book.

We open with Dinah and Archer Braun being held at gunpoint by a group of mercenaries and thugs.  Apparently, Braun doesn't run the show at Katchik 9-9 as much as last issue suggested; the real power here seems to be a big man named Serge.  Serge is angry with Braun for failing to deliver a large score of American money in exchange for a percentage of Serge's Afghan heroin operation.

I don't know where any of this is coming from.  Serge here has never been mentioned before this scene.  We know that Braun did pull off a large robbery score, because that's what sent Black Canary and Huntress and Catwoman all after him in the first place.  We've never heard any clues about a bigger plan Braun might have.  Chuck Dixon's failure to establish Braun as a fully realized villain in the first three issues is put on display in this final chapter.  This opening scene sounds like it was written for a different series as what precious little we know of the villain seems completely flipped around.  What's more confounding is none of this is going to matter, because Serge, his plans, and everything he and Braun discuss in the first few pages is dropped and never again referred to later in the chapter.

The only part of the issue that is relevant is Lady Shiva.  She vetoes Serge's kill order, claiming she wants Black Canary alive.  To test her.  Braun intervenes, so Lady Shiva strikes, but her attack is easily deflected.  Braun's defense is beyond impressive--it's astonishing.  Oracle, who has been eavesdropping on Dinah's captivity, suspects that Braun may have a metahuman ability they didn't know about and does some digging online.

On the road leading to Katchik 9-9, Huntress and Catwoman's car breaks down.  Years ago, the city was exposed to a man-made virus that devours plastics, making the place uninhabitable to all but the most desperate and infamous of supercriminals (a "wretched hive of scum and villainy" basically).  The virus eats the ladies' engine, forcing them to proceed with their rescue on foot.

Back in the city, Dinah is taken to her holding cell in what passes for the local jail.  She rebuffs his advances, so he hits her, displaying an ability to predict not only her moves but her thoughts and words, as well.

Huntress and Catwoman have arrived and begin making their way across the rooftops.  Oracle gives them as much direction as she can based on the sounds she's overheard from Dinah's transmitter.  She also fills them in on the missing part of Braun's history, that he was subjected to KGB experiments and granted precognitive abilities which make him an expert combatant.

Huntress and Catwoman make it to Dinah's cell, but by then, Dinah has already freed herself and fled the jail.  The ladies aren't left alone, though, as Braun and Lady Shiva arrive at that moment.  As match ups go, our ladies are severely outmatched.

Catwoman has zero chance against Lady Shiva, and they both know it, but Selina Kyle may be the universe's ultimate opportunist.  She takes the fight outside where distance and environment may give her some leverage.

Huntress is left to fight Braun in the holding cell, which is now burning thanks to Catwoman's whip toppling over a kerosine lamp.  This is the fight Huntress--and we readers--have been waiting for, as once, long ago, Braun broke Helena's heart by being a lying douche bag.  It would be cathartic to get her revenge by pummeling him into unconsciousness.  The problem is, Braun's psychic ability makes him the superior fighter.

In the streets outside the jail, Lady Shiva stands ready to kill Catwoman when Black Canary returns.

Back in the blazing Bastille, Huntress is getting her ass handed to her by Braun.  Oracle tells Huntress that she cannot beat him because his precognition allows him to anticipate her attacks before she moves.  To overcome this, Huntress clears her mind and instinctively responds to Oracle's attack commands--in a sense, Oracle fights Braun using Huntress as a physical surrogate, negating his powers.

Okay, this does look like Sal Buscema.

As Huntress defeats Braun, the fire burns away enough of the building that it collapses.  Oracle orders her to save Braun, telling him that no matter what he has done, she cannot simply leave him to die.  But that's what happens.  Could Huntress have saved him?  The art makes it a little ambiguous, but it seems like she doesn't make the best effort to pull him out of the fire.

Huntress is a different type of vigilante thanOracle.  She doesn't have the same philosophy of crime fighting that Batman's family has, and that difference will continue to divide them for years to come.

As the jail burns, Dinah and Catwoman fight Lady Shiva to a standstill.  Even though it looked like there were dozens, if not hundreds, of mercenaries and killers in Katchik 9-9, they are nowhere to be found when things get hot.  Seriously, where is Serge?  Where is everybody?

Huntress reunites with Catwoman and Dinah, who recommends they make use of the destruction to escape without prolonging the fight with Lady Shiva.

The three women mount horses and ride off.  Dinah is finally verbally reunited with Oracle, who asks if this entire adventure was worth the pain and expense.  Dinah doesn't even have to think about it.

As a concluding chapter, this issue does a decent job of drawing the characters back together and bringing the action.  It's not perfect.  The threat of Lady Shiva is never fully realized, in part because she was introduced too late into the story, and in part because her status is quickly undercut by Braun's metahuman defense technique.  The obligatory conflict established in issue #1 is Huntress and Braun, and their fight is a satisfying climax.  Huntress relying on Oracle to command her end of the fight like a marionette in the hands of a puppeteer is exciting and smart.  It reminds me of the Star Wars novel The Last Command, where a blinded Mara Jade is mentally guided by Leia Organa-Solo during a lightsaber duel.

Overall, Birds of Prey: Manhunt was a superficial adventure story.  The plot was laughably thin from the onset--Dinah and Huntress are both gunning for a man who romantically toyed with them and sort of casually happened to be a criminal.  Archer Braun seems to get more dangerous with each chapter, but the mounting threats never feel organic, never feel like layers of his character are being pulled away.  Instead, it feels like Dixon is just throwing stuff at him, making it up on the fly as the situation calls for it.

What works in the series is the women, who all look good, talk tough, and act authentic, insofar as they stay true to their character established in previous stories.  But I don't believe anything was really achieved by this story.  I don't know that this event has built upon the Black Canary, Oracle, Huntress and Catwoman we've known before.  Despite getting top billing, Dinah and Oracle are limited for good chunks of time.  Dinah's a hostage for an issue and a half, and Oracle talks to nobody for about as long.  Huntress and Catwoman take most of the spotlight and the series feels crowded.  I think either one of them could have been cut from the story and it would have felt tighter, more personal, and more significant.

If this title is about Black Canary and Oracle, I'm not sure they're in any different place emotionally or personally than they were at the end of the Birds of Prey one-shot that brought them together.  But… as I said, though the story may not be deep or meaningful, it's a fun ride and any fan of Dinah or the Birds of Prey should give it a read!

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