In September, 2011, DC Comics relaunched their entire line of books with new first issues, a lot of bold new directions, and in some cases, entirely new continuities. The New 52, as it was called, because of the fifty-two ongoing series, was met with initially soaring sales and a War World worth of concern from both critics and fans. Some of the books did predictably well (Batman, Justice League), some did surprisingly great (Aquaman, Swamp Thing), and others failed miserably (Hawk & Dove, Static Shock). Still others fell somewhere in the mediocre middle; that, I believe, is where Birds of Prey fits in.
Every Tuesday, I will review an issue of the New 52 version of BOP until I catch up with the current issue, or the book gets cancelled, or I die. Honestly, I think any of these options is as likely as the other. My goal is to review these issues as if they're fresh, like I haven't read them before and I don't know where the series is going. I'll try not to forecast happenings in issue #14 when I review issue #4, but we'll see how long that lasts.
I am also going to do my best to not hold this series up against previous incarnations of BOP for comparison, except where characterization is concerned. I don't want to scrutinize the stories of Duane Swierczynski or Christy Marx for not being enough like Gail Simone or Chuck Dixon. I want to judge them objectively. I will undoubtedly fail at this.
Here we go!
"Let Us Prey", the first issue of the third volume of Birds of Prey is written by Duane Swierczynski and drawn by Jesus Saiz. Swierczysnki had written some comics for Marvel that I never read, and before that, I believe, he was know mostly as a crime and non-fiction writer. This is/was my first exposure to his writing. Saiz, on the other hand, I adore. He worked on The Brave and the Bold with writer J. Michael Straczynski (what is with Jesus Saiz and these Polish-sounding writers?), as well as the superhero espionage thriller, Checkmate, with Greg Rucka. I recommend checking both of those out! The cover depicts new versions of Black Canary, Katana, Poison Ivy, and newbie Starling.
"Some Covert Ops Team Run by a Bunch of Supercriminal Hotties"
The story begins with a banner letting us know we're in Gotham City now, which is a little weird, I think, because usually those time indicators come after a time shift, not in the first scene. I assume that some part of this issue will take place in flashback. Anyway, we open in a church where a reporter named Charlie Keen is talking on the phone to an informant--a "tipster" he later calls him. Charlie is frustrated that the story he's been chasing for two weeks--apparently on this tipster's behalf--isn't going anywhere and Charlie is ready to drop it.
Well, that doesn't please Charlie's informant at all, because somebody's got the reporter in the crosshairs of a sniper rifle. From their conversation it sounds like the informant wants Charlie to run a story exposing a covert team of female supercriminals, but in the two weeks Charlie has spent investigating this tip, he hasn't found any facts.
Then the facts drive through the wall of the church in a 1940s Rolls-Royce-style car! (I don't know from car models, so if anyone can identify the actual type used for reference in this issue, feel free to share in the comments section below.) Emerging from the car, which doesn't seem to have suffered any damage despite crashing through the stone wall of a freaking church, is a woman in skin-tight black. And it's not Black Canary.
This new character, who we'll learn is named Starling, looks like a cashier at Hot Topic. Black pants, black corset, black driving gloves, dragon tattoos, ponytail and bangs, and a Luger pistol--Hey, maybe the first page told us this story takes place now because otherwise a reader would see Starling's car, corset and sidearm and assume this story was set decades ago.
The sniper who was about execute Charlie turns his attention to Starling, but he's quickly felled by the appearance of Black Canary, who begins to narrate and provide much needed exposition. Unlucky for the ladies, of course, the shooter wasn't alone, and a brawl erupts in the church. Black Canary takes down her foes with judicious use of her formidable fighting skills and her meta-human "Canary Cry", while Starling just shoots them and pulls Charlie into the car.
During the fracas, we flashback two weeks. Charlie Keen followed a dressed-down Black Canary to a hotel where she meets with Barbara Gordon. Barbara, who moonlights as Batgirl in Batgirl, identifies Canary as Dinah Lance, so we know they're on a personal basis, but from the rest of their conversation, best friends these two are definitely not. Barbara says Dinah is wanted for murder, and doesn't sound all that sympathetic about it. Dinah wants Barbara for the team she's putting together with Starling, but Barbara declines, instead recommending Katana.
Back in the present, Starling causes even more damage to the church as she attempts to escape with Charlie in the backseat. At this point, Charlie narrates for a page to give us some background on Starling, calling her a "natural born hellraiser" with a mysteriously empty past.
Black Canary jumps on top of Starling's car, but before they can drive off to safety, one of the not-so-invisible bad guys hits her on the back of the neck--she says it felt like he bit her--and then he kisses her on the mouth, saying he just killed her. Interesting stratagem; I wonder if anyone has ever tried to kill Batman with a kiss. Maybe Poison Ivy, who, by the way, hasn't appeared yet in this issue. Starling drives through the church door and she and Black Canary escape with a bewildered Charlie.
Charlie clarifies for the readers that Dinah is not merely wanted for murder, but "wanted for murdering a man with a punch." Then Dinah and Starling explain that his mysterious tipster was using Charlie to lure them into an ambush, and they turned the tables back on the bad guys, even though it doesn't seem like they learned anything about the bad guys from that whole skirmish.
Starling makes flight arrangements to get Charlie out of Gotham for a while. As he's getting ready to board his plane, Black Canary gets a harsh tingle in her brain. She's so distracted that she doesn't notice Charlie get a text, then Charlie bleeding from every hole in his head, and then Charlie exploding in the middle of the terminal.
I've already posted my dislike for Black Canary's New 52 costume so I won't delve into that again. But it must be said that Dinah's classic leather jacket and fishnet leggings would complement Starling's goth chic look perfectly. Instead, we get… what we get.
As a Black Canary fan and blogger, I'm happy that Dinah is the star of this series. However, this is not the Dinah I've known and loved for years. This Dinah is wanted for a murder that she might not have committed, but while she's working to clear her name, it certainly doesn't seem like a high priority for her as she builds a team of misfit heroines. Before the New 52, Black Canary was firmly entrenched in the Justice League, even chairing the team not so long ago. Now there is no mention of the League and no indication that she has ever been associated with them, or that they could help her clear her name of the murder charge. Before the New 52, Black Canary was a former lover and wife of Green Arrow. Now there is no evidence in either series that the two have ever met. Before the New 52, Black Canary shared a friendship with Barbara Gordon the likes of which most people will never know. Now it feels like they were never very good friends, or maybe there is some deep betrayal in their past.
The other star of this issue is newcomer Starling, and based solely on this issue, I'm not a fan of her. Everything about her screams "tries too hard" that she reads almost like a Mary-Sue fan fiction creation. A natural hellraiser, Charlie calls her, she's a hard drinking party girl who curses and snarks and screams like a cowgirl when she crashes through church walls, but she also has a mysterious past with the government or some spy agency. She calls Charlie "playah" and says things like, "Who does a bitch have to cut to get some service in here?"
But probably her biggest offense is her use of guns. I thought we moved beyond this type of "hero" a decade ago, but since the New 52 is so referential and derivative of the '90s, I guess not. I know I said I wouldn't compare this series to prior versions of Birds of Prey, but this aspect of Starling's character instantly took me out of the book. In the old universe, Barbara Gordon would never abide a hero who used firearms, and neither would Black Canary, out of love for Barbara. While the ladies are fighting their not-invisible enemies in the church, Black Canary kicks, punches and "cries" at them. Starling, though, just shoots them. And I have to assume that those guys died. Having just seen Man of Steel in theaters this past weekend, wherein the protagonist they refer to as "Superman"--SPOILER ALERT-- kills the bad guy, I'm really disappointed, verging on disgusted with this type of conflict resolution in superhero stories. Maybe I'm just old.
Anyway, I don't care for Starling.
Barbara Gordon is barely in the issue, and her brief, abrupt scene with Dinah just makes me sad. She clearly wants nothing to do with Black Canary or her team, but she's willing to recommend Katana for membership. Katana is viewed in a photo only and nothing is really said about her. Poison Ivy never appears in the story.
At one point, Charlie asks Black Canary and Starling, "Who are you guys? Really?"
Dinah doesn't answer the question. Neither does Swierczynski. This first issue raises a lot of questions and provides no real answers that I can think of. This is clearly a different Black Canary in a different place with a different history than pre-New 52, but we're never told anything about her past other than this murder charge that might or might not be a big deal for her. How did she learn to fight? How did she acquire her meta-human ability? Why does she want to be a hero at all? We also don't know anything about the "bad guys" or why they're targeting Black Canary.
If this issue was written for new readers, it fails to establish the heroes or villains that readers need to understand. I'm guessing Swierczynski is creating a mystery around these characters, but that's meeting him more than halfway because the questions raised are too basic to be enticing.
There's one other line that made me cringe. When Dinah pitches her team to Barbara, she says "Two people aren't a team." It was all I could do not to shout bull$#@% at the comic. Here again, I cannot separate the greatness of the previous BOP series from this title. Dinah and Barbara started off a two-woman team, Batman and Robin are a two-man team, and if you argued that those are not teams per se, but partnerships, I would say, yeah, that's what Bird of Prey was! At it's heart, regardless of how many agents worked for Oracle, they weren't a team. They were partners. And friends.
I don't know what they are in the New 52. Or why they are.
What saves this issue from dismal failure is Saiz' art. I could watch him draw Black Canary for the rest of either of their careers, but oh how that makes me wish he were drawing her in a more classic getup.