Like every important thing ever, the Birds of Prey came out of the 1990s. Long before the New 52, before the relaunch during the Brightest Day event, even before the critically acclaimed ongoing series, and definitely before the not-so-acclaimed TV series, the perfect pairing of Black Canary and the once-and-future Batgirl, Barbara Gordon, began in the one-shot Black Canary/Oracle: Birds of Prey.
The book came out in June of 1996 with a list price of $3.95 US dollars. That's four cents less than a current issue of Batman, except Black Canary/Oracle: Birds of Prey came in at 54 story pages, nearly double the amount of a Caped Crusader comic today. The story inside is officially titled "One Man's Hell", which seems like an interesting choice for a book starring two women. It was written by Chuck Dixon with pencil art by Gary Frank and inks by John Dell.
"One Man's Hell" begins in the Republic of Rheelasia, which is not a real Asian country. The president is announcing the opening of a factory over one of the nation's natural gas reserves. With the flip of a switch, the poor, nonexistent country will power the homes of thousands of Rheelasians, thereby bringing them swiftly into the Twentieth century, and not a moment too soon in 1996. When the president/generalissimo flips the switch, however, he triggers an explosion that levels the plant and kills five thousand people and injures twice that number. Did he flip the wrong switch? Perhaps not; most authorities are suspecting sabotage.
Meanwhile, in Seattle, Dinah Laurel Lance is out for a pleasure drive when some ruffians attempt to steal her car. It goes well for them.
Right off the bat, artist Gary Frank takes a more realistic and visually intriguing approach to Black Canary's wardrobe. Her leather jacket has fringe tassels running down the back and the sleeves, and her boots have molded bird feathers. The look could be silly, but Frank and Dell pull it off very well. This type of costume works fantastically for a street-level bruiser version of Black Canary, a perfect compliment to Mike Grell's urban hunter Green Arrow.
After beating the crap out of the three carjackers, Black Canary confiscates their weapons and drives off. At her nest, we discover that Dinah's life isn't in the best of shape. Her floor is littered with unopened bills and her answering machine is crowded with angry notices from banks and creditors. What's more, a page after fending off the carjackers, Dinah's ride is repossessed and towed away anyway.
But one of the messages on Dinah's machine is from the enigmatic information merchant of the costumed community: Oracle!
A world away, philanthropist Nick Devine is speaking at a technology symposium, promising to help develop third world countries. From the sound of things, he raises funds from investors, then uses local resources to help bolster the industry and infrastructure of these poor nations. Very saintly of him; no sign of anything duplicitous. Then some people in the crowd start shouting that Devine is exploiting the third world countries for his own profit. That's probably way off base. There's no way this Nick Devine is up to anything untoward, and it's not suspicious at all that he defends himself against two armed assailants.
Well, for some reason, Oracle isn't too sure. She's watching Devine's news conference while monitoring Dinah's travel from Seattle to Gotham City. She provides Dinah with a new sports car and a plush hotel room.
Oracle provides Dinah--and us--with necessary exposition on Nick Devine's operation. She's suspicious because every project he works on is targeted and sabotaged by a terrorist group called the Green Brotherhood, who nobody knows anything about. Dinah asks why Oracle tapped her for this kind of assignment and Oracle gives the strategic reasons, and then the personal reasons. Black Canary needs direction and a higher profile. This means losing the fishnet tights and the blonde wig, which just breaks my little heart.
So Dinah dyes her hair blonde and slips into a little black dress designed to draw Nick Devine's attention by emphasizing her breasts and legs so he'll take her seriously as a bodyguard. Inside a private room, Dinah learns that Nick Devine has a security presence on site. He's hired Lynx, the female boss of the Ghost Dragons, a group of Chinese Mafia assassins. That sounds like the type of thing a legitimate developer would do.
Of course, before long, they're attacked by the Green Brotherhood, and Dinah must take some of her clothes off to protect her client.
Nick Devine hires Dinah as a second bodyguard despite the obvious fact that she and Lynx are going to kill each other the minute they get a chance.
Afterwards, Dinah reports back to Oracle. There are three suspicious circumstances surrounding the night's events. One: Lynx has taken over the Asian Underworld in Gotham, making her the first woman ever to hold such a position of power. Two: Dinah saw a tattoo on one of the Green Brotherhood attackers at the suite, a tattoo they can't identify. Three: No bodies were recovered and no attack was reported. Oracle and Dinah suspect that Lynx may be behind the attacks on Devine's operations for some reason.
Dinah joins Devine and Lynx to the also fictitious country of Bwunda, where Dinah puts on her new working outfit.
I've said before that this is my least favorite Black Canary costume, but Gary Frank's art is so pleasing to look at that I forgive it for this story.
Nick Devine, along with the president of Bwunda, Lynx and Dinah take a helicopter ride over the country to see Devine's newest project, a dam. From the helicopter, they witness the Green Brotherhood attacking a village below and killing Bwundan people. That night, Dinah briefs Oracle on the latest mission updates. Oracle is still suspicious of the Green Brotherhood; claiming they are too too good to leave a trail or too small, neither of which seems to fit their profile.
Dinah goes to the dam that night, anticipating the Green Brotherhood's attack. There, the new Black Canary strikes!
She easily takes down the Green Brotherhood terrorists, but is then ambushed by Lynx in a not-at-all surprising twist.
Lynx has the upper hand. She appears to be the superior fighter and during their battle, explosives detonate part of the dam, releasing water on the villages nearby. Black Canary is beaten down, spent, and ready to give up, but Oracle won't let her.
It's not the greatest motivational speech ever delivered, but it's not Al Pacino's halftime speech in Any Given Sunday, either. In any event, it inspires Black Canary to come back at Lynx with a chest kick, the best kind of kick!
Unfortunately, the dam continues to deteriorate. Black Canary and Lynx are separated by the rushing water. The villages of Bwunda are flooded and Lynx escapes after confirming the Green Brotherhood and the whole terror angle was part of a shadowplay.
Dinah wakes Barbara from a dream about the Joker paralyzing her. Dinah wants Oracle to track down Nick Devine, that he's the key to this whole fake-terror plot.
Devine is meeting with a group of Arabs from what's likely another fake Middle eastern nation, like maybe Kahndaq or Bialya or something. During his pitch to save their country and their pitiful population, Black Canary busts in reveals Devine's real plan. His operation boils down to raising tons of cash for these development projects, using cheap labor and materials, then hiring fake terrorists to destroy the factory or plant or dam, leaving no evidence of Devine's shoddy workmanship. Didn't see that coming!
Devine sicks his Chinese mob queen on Black Canary for Round 2.
This is actually my favorite action beat in the whole story… and Black Canary is barely on the page. Lynx charges her. Devine reacts to the unseen battle punctuated by SFX. Then Lynx broken body is slid across the table to crumble at Devine's feet.
Devine lashes out at Dinah. She brings him to his knees, literally. She's ready to kill him for the pain, the misery, and the thousands of deaths on his hands. Oracle talks her down from execution to face-kick, then Black Canary leaves him for Scotland Yard.
She drives off in a newer sports car. In lieu of a vacation, Oracle offers her a gig breaking up a slave trafficking ring, and Dinah drives off into the sunset.
Black Canary/Oracle: Birds of Prey: "One Man's Hell" is a fun, action-packed espionage adventure. Spies, geopolitical intrigue, assassins and sexy female warriors--these are all in Dixon's wheelhouse. Meanwhile, the art team of Gary Frank and John Dell bring a stylish realism to the characters, the environment, the cars. The fight scenes are thrilling and appropriately gritty.
This Black Canary is still reeling from the effects of her kidnapping and torture in Mike Grell's Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters. Her personal life is a mess, so much so that she looks forward to distractions like dangerous carjackers and ninja assassins. She's a warrior without a cause, without a king; she's ronin, essentially. Oracle offers her a mission, a sense of direction and focus, something important and worthwhile to punch. I love this direction for Black Canary and where it will eventually lead during the Birds of Prey ongoing series.
What I don't love Black Canary's new uniform. I miss the fishnets, the jacket, the sense of Golden Age femme fatale fashion. This new '90s costume is more functional for a super spy, but nothing about it feels personal or unique to Dinah. I don't mind that she dyed her hair in favor of a whig, but whatever. I would have preferred 50-something pages of this type of Black Canary instead.
I have no idea why this story is titled "One Man's Hell". I assume the man in question is Nick Devine, since he's like the only guy in the story (Commissioner Gordon shows up for a panel, I think). I'm going to assume the title was the editor's suggestion/mandate instead of the writer's. Something like "Shadowplay" would make a lot more sense, or even just "Birds of Prey" since that's the book's name.
Overall, this was a awesome kickoff to the Birds of Prey series, and the start of a beautiful friendship of beautiful women!
Two fun facts I forgot to mention for continuity buffs:
1. Oracle never identifies herself as Barbara Gordon to Black Canary. At this stage in their partnership, Dinah does not know who is on the other end of the phone.
2. The term "birds of prey" is never mentioned except in the title. Neither Oracle nor Black Canary refer to their operation or partnership as Birds of Prey. I don't remember when that term comes into use in-story, so I'm looking forward to getting back to that place in the timeline.