Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Birds of Prey: The Ravens (June 1998)

In June of 1998, DC Comics did something fun and creative, albeit with a slightly patronizing vibe.  They christened the fifth week of the month GirlFrenzy! and published seven standalone female-driven comics derived from their ongoing books.  From the pages of the Superman comics, for example, came a Lois Lane one-shot.  From the Batman books came a Batgirl special, from Wonder Woman came Donna Troy, and from JLA came Tomorrow Woman.  There were a few others, and then there was The Ravens, supposedly spinning out of the pages of Birds of Prey.

The thing is... Birds of Prey wasn't an ongoing series yet, and wouldn't be for another six months.  And this team had never appeared anywhere before this comic.  Also, and perhaps most obvious, Birds of Prey was already a female-led title.  Why did DC create an off-shoot comic staring female characters we didn't know for a quarterly publication starring female characters we did know?

Well, whatever.  Birds of Prey: The Ravens: "S.I.M.O.N. Says...Armageddon" is written by Chuck Dixon and drawn by new artist Nelson DeCastro.  That completeS the set of putting a different artist on every Birds of Prey story up to this point, but for the first time we get a cover by someone other than Gary Frank.  This time, Leonard Kirk and Karl Story provide the chromatic cover art.

The story opens with a splash page of some mercenary soldier holding a detonator threatening to press the button and potentially rule the world.  Then there's a double-page splash of the so-called Ravens, a team of four deadly ladies led by Cheshire, who seems pretty confident that the merc won't press the button, activating whatever it is he's threatening.  Then we see another sort-of splash panel showcasing Cheshire and her history as an assassin, squaring off against the Teen Titans, and surrendering her daughter, Lian.

That's a lot of big splashy images in the first four pages without a lot of story.  What's happening?  Cheshire explains that her mission--which we don't yet know--was in preparation for months before tonight when her crew goes into operation.

By my reckoning, Cheshire and Pistolera are the only established characters in the quartet.  Pistolera was created by Chuck Dixon in one of his Batman stories.  Vicious and Termina were created for this issue.

The Ravens jetski to the coast of Rheelasia, which had some trouble back in the first Birds of Prey special.  Dixon establishes tension in the team by having Vicious make fun of Pistolera's name.  I guess this is like characterization, because they're like villains, so they're nasty to each other, and Vicious is the "wild one".

Cheshire hired them to help her do a job but she hasn't told them what the job is.  I guess the advance she offered was pretty tantalizing because they're in the middle of the operation and don't have the foggiest clue what the objective is.  And Cheshire ain't telling them either.  The Ravens climb up the coastal bluffs and march through the jungle where they discover an unsettling fact about Termina.

Yeah, anything that touches her dies.  Damn.

As they approach the target, which again, only Cheshire knows, they find a soldier and kill him.  Cheshire identifies him as S.I.M.O.N., part of an international crime cartel that's been trying to take over Rheelasia in the two years since everyone in power got blown up by a nuclear power plant explosion.

The Ravens continue their mysterious mission with Cheshire choosing to think about the nuclear destruction of Qurac and giving up her love child with Roy Harper instead of focusing on the mission or even telling her teammates what they're up against or what they're looking for.  Along the way, they kill some more S.I.M.O.N. soldiers.  Cheshire reveals to the readers but not to her teammates that Termina is dying of the same disease she secretes to poison her victims.

When they get close to a heavily fortified facility, the ladies steal an armored assault vehicle and blast their way inside.

This is about where we catch up to the issue's opening scene.  This S.I.M.O.N. soldier grabs the detonator and threatens to push the button.  It's not a nuclear bomb, however, but a neutron generator. Apparently, activating a neutron generator in any given location would create deadly levels of radiation without the destructive capability of a normal bomb.  So, if you wanted to take over an entire city, the neutron generator would disperse the population in one way or another without causing structural damage.  Cheshire's plan all along was to steal the thing, although why that needed to be a secret I don't know.

Termina walks up to the mercenary and kills him by sheer proximity, but before Cheshire can prepare the generator for transportation, Termina threatens to do exactly what the soldier planned.

So Termina turns on the neutron generator to bombard herself with the kind of radiation that will kill her disease, and likely herself.  Cheshire tells her that if she does survive, she'll kill her for this betrayal.

Then we have a sighting of our heroines as Oracle makes Black Canary aware of the radiation spike in Rheelasia.

After that, Cheshire leads Vicious and Pistolera away from the facility as the neutron generator goes off.  Also, Cheshire says she doesn't know what S.I.M.O.N. stands for.

Okay, so this comic sucked.

I can't prove that Dixon wrote this comic in twenty minutes, either during his lunch break on on the toilet, but that's about how much thought went into the plot and characterization.  I'm convinced the reason Cheshire didn't reveal what the mission was about until the end of the story was because Dixon hadn't thought of it when he scripted the earlier pages.  Since we don't know what the mission is, we don't know what the stakes are, and without that, we have no tension or drama.

There is nothing worthwhile about the characters.  Cheshire could have been replaced by anyone and the story wouldn't have changed much.  Pistolera and Vicious' feuding isn't catty or interesting.  The only kind of intriguing character is Termina, who I'm pretty sure dies off-panel.

After the Batgirl one-shot that came out a few months earlier, we were promised another story called "Siege", but instead we get this.  A month later, however, Oracle and Black Canary would pop up in the Green Arrow/Batman crossover story, "Brotherhood of the Fist".  And a few months after that, the first issue of Birds of Prey, the ongoing series, would debut.  Come back next Tuesday for that review!

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