Reviewing the Birds of Prey
Year Six: 2004
Birds of Prey #61
"Feeding the Game, Part Two", January 2004, written by Gail Simone, pencilled by Ed Benes, inked by Alex Lei, colored by Hi-Fi Design, lettered by Jared K. Fletcher, edited by Lysa Hawkins, cover by Benes and Lei.
This issue is packed with great characterization of all three of our heroines (yeah, I guess Huntress is joining up with the Birds). The interaction between Babs and Dinah, especially, is very realistic while never being banal.
Following the events that led to Canary being disabled for an unspecified but obviously multi-week period of time, Oracle is stressed about her partner's safety on future field missions and this doubt leads her to make a fateful decision.
Babs' doubts inspire Dinah to reexamine her own approach to her work, and while she's considering this, she gets a taste of life on Oracle's side of the mission when Huntress calls in for assistance in dealing with the fallout of last issue's mission where she subbed for Canary.
What this issue does best — aside from the great character moments all over the place — is act as a real bridge between Gail & Co.'s first arc Of Like Minds and the next one. This is notable only because it is such a rare thing for a comic book to stop and clarify where it's story and characters are. I think the fear is of losing the action and momentum but what is usually lost is depth and the sense of any consequences from prior adventures. Gail manages to to deliver the whole package, action AND character depth and development. Go, Gail!
Birds of Prey #62
"Sensei & Student", February 2004, written by Gail Simone, pencilled by Ed Benes and Cliff Richards, inked by Alex Lei, colored by Hi-Fi Design, lettered by Nick Napolitano, edited by Lysa Hawkins, cover by Benes and Lei.
This issue kicks "Sensei & Student" off with a bang, giving us more great Canary internal dialogue (have I thanked Gail properly for that? THANK YOU, Gail!), and giving us the first, proper Lady Shiva appearance in Birds of Prey since her brief but impressive appearance away back in the Manhunt miniseries. We also get some insight into Canary's pre-heroing history which has only been glimpsed and implied other places. Neat!
Meanwhile, back in Gotham, we see Oracle at work with Batman — again, something that's rarely seen in Birds of Prey, though from the other Bat-titles, we know she spends a lot of her time doing this — and things are not going with their usual Oracular perfection. This goes on throughout the issue as we watch Oracle's well-oiled machine break down, setting up more fun for future issues.
But back in Hong Kong with Canary and Shiva, who are now grabbing a bite together and discussing their mutal Sensei (who is dying of cancer) among other things, the action heats up as the women are set upon by six gang members. Poor gang members.
After making short work of their attackers, Canary and Shiva figure out the attack was a diversion and they race back to the Sensei's dojo to find... bad things have happened.
Again, fabulous characterization. Shiva comes across as human and real and not just a freak who likes to fight to the death. I have rarely seen her so well-written (her appearances in Batgirl are comparably complex). Canary's characterization continues to deepen as does Oracle's. We just want to know more and more about them and the action is frosting. Better yet, the action serves the overall development of the characters individually and as a team. Really great writing. And beautiful art, too. Benes's work has really come together with Gail's writing — this book just rocks.
Birds of Prey #63
"Sensei & Student, Part Two: Pride & Poison", March 2004, written by Gail Simone, pencilled by Ed Benes and Cliff Richards, inked by Alex Lei, colored by Hi-Fi Design, lettered by Jared K. Fletcher, edited by Lysa Hawkins, cover by Benes and Lei
From the first issue of her run, Gail's take on the Birds of Prey has been masterful, but with "Sensei & Student," she proves that her grasp of the female DCU characters — especially those who work in the martial arts — is far more nuanced and interesting than pretty much anyone else's. Shiva isn't crazy, and — ooh, look! — neither is Cheshire! The shortcut, far too often with other writers, is to skip characterization of the bad guys in favor of "well, they're nuts! what do you expect?" and then have them do whatever gets the story to the fight scenes, regardless of any motivation.
Gail isn't working that way. Everyone has an agenda. Everyone has her reasons. Insanity may play into it, but it isn't an uncontrolled insanity. Calculating, careful, crafty. The bad girls are smart which makes them interesting. You find yourself on the same ground as Canary, constantly trying to figure out the why of what's going on.
Her Canary is smart, too, and very good at the detective work. Her Oracle is — of course — brilliant, but not infallible. This makes HER far more interesting than she's been in a very long time. Fallibility is dramatic. Perfection, not so much.
So while Oracle's technology problems persist and get worse, Canary's grasp of the situation surrounding her Sensei's death continues to evolve as she and Shive, sharing a tense truce, track down Cheshire and proceed to interrogate her as prime suspect.
Both of their stories end with major twists, leaving the issue ending on parallel cliffhangers, but getting there has involved a lot of great characterization for our heroines.
Ed Benes likes the sexy art. It is a bit too much in some places — especially Cheshire's amazingly cooperative teddy which never quite reveals everything — but his consistency as far as character looks and individuality is quite nice. Can't really complain. This is some truly excellent work.
Birds of Prey #64
"Sensei & Student, Part Three: Mercy & Murder", April 2004, written by Gail Simone, pencilled by Ed Benes, , inked by Alex Lei, colored by Hi-Fi Design, lettered by Jared K. Fletcher, edited by Lysa Hawkins, cover by Benes and Lei
The story continues and in the same vein of goodness. Great dialogue amonst Canary, Shiva, and Cheshire; excellent, moody X-Files-ish goings-on with Oracle's predicament; cool fight scene on a boat; costume changes, and a surprise ending spoiled by the cover art! Who can beat THAT?
This issue moves the story forward but is very much a "middle" with action continued from the last issue and into the next without too much happening that makes this issue stand alone. This is not a criticism. If I picked this issue up randomly, I'd be really interested to find out what led up to what goes on in this issue ("Canary and Shiva and Cheshire working together? Oracle captured? Whaaa?")
The two major events in this issue — both of which happen near the end — is Shiva's interesting proposal to Canary on the plane (minds OUT of the gutter, fanboys) and the re-entrance into the story and into the title of the Huntress.
More pretty, rather too sexy art by Benes. Excellent page layout and clarity on the fight scenes, however. Not sure I've mentioned that before and it's no small feat. You always can figure out what's happening and who's doing what in Bene's fight scenes. Good job.
Birds of Prey #65
"Sensei & Student, Part Four: Power & Performance", May 2004, written by Gail Simone, pencilled by Ed Benes, inked by Alex Lei, colored by Hi-Fi Design, lettered by Jared K. Fletcher, edited by Lysa Hawkins, cover by Greg Land and Jay Leister
The issue opens with a really excellent, moody scene of the "Witch Canary" whom Dinah imagines herself becoming after being trained by Shiva. Again, things move along well, here, continuing the story. Gail writes Huntress AMAZINGLY well, taking her from her usual, one-note "angry, kinda-crazy woman" to someone with depth and strength and integrity. She's not a comfortable, motherish superheroine; she'd rather punish than make careful decisions about how far is too far, but she has her own code of honor that comes in very handy for Oracle.
Speaking of own codes of honor, Shiva — in contrast to Cheshire — has one, too. Cheshire may or may not be crazy but she is definitely amoral and completely self-interested. Shiva's honor is what sets her apart from most of the villains in the DCU and makes her such an interesting foil for Canary whose own code of honor is one of the strongest in the DCU as well, making her the moral compass of the Birds.
Savant is back as of last issue, too, and his arc continues to defy easy categorization. He's a bad guy, but is he an irredeemable bad guy? He actually is crazy, but is it an incurable insanity? It isn't an unfocused insanity. He has his own agenda, too, and his own sense of how things should be.
The issue ends with things in rather a mess for Shiva, in somewhat of a mess for team Huntress/Oracle, and in confusion for Canary. A mystery ties it altogether, and Dinah aims to solve it in the next issue.
Birds of Prey #66
"Sensei & Student, Part Five: Murder & Mystery", June 2004, written by Gail Simone, pencilled by Michael Golden, inked by Mike Manley and Scott Hanna with Michael Golden, colored by Hi-Fi Design, lettered by Rob Leigh, edited by Lysa Hawkins, cover by Dan Brereton and Phil Noto
We take a bit of a breather from the pell-mell action of "Sensei & Student" for a nice, old-fashioned mystery story — A mystery within a mystery, all focused on the Black Canarys, Junior and Senior.
Dinah Jr. investigates the history of one of Dinah Senior's last — and unsolved — cases. Her own detective instincts and vague memories sparked by things said by her prime suspect lead her to her mother's old case files and to that unsolved mystery.
The majority of the issue focuses on that case with a lovely flashback story featuring both Dinah's and Barbara's fathers in supporting roles to the original Black Canary. There's even an appearance by a member of the Huntress's family.
This story can almost stand alone outside of the "Sensei & Student" story arc, so well-crafted is the mystery it contains. However, it also serves to continue the arc's focus on Dinah's pre-heroing history — begun by her going to visit her Sensei and then rather lost in the action for awhile.
Dinah Sr. is often portrayed as being rather harder-edged than her daughter, a tough broad, so to speak, in the style of 1940s film actresses (fair enough, considering the character's actual origins), and this underlies Gail's interpretation of Canary Sr. as well; however, we also see echoes of her daughter's more emotion-driven style in her friendship with the librarian. That, however, is the one flaw in the story and it may simply be something I'm missing. The killer ends up at the library but I don't see why this happened aside from Major Coincidence, especially as he's very surprised to have Black Canary find him there, too. It only makes sense to me if he's overheard what she tells the man at the laundry, but this does not seem to be the case from their conversation during the fight.
This is an otherwise excellent story with very nicely done guest art and leads into the concluding chapter of the arc with the mystery almost solved.
Birds of Prey #67
"Sensei & Student, Part Six: Faith & Finality", July 2004, written by Gail Simone, art by Ed Benes, colored by Hi-Fi Design, lettered by Jared K. Fletcher, edited by Lysa Hawkins, cover by Greg Land and Matt Ryan
"Sensei & Student" wraps with a full raft of guest stars, fight scenes, revelations, twists, turns, and general coolness. Canary makes a full-blown entrance on her motorcycle and in full cry. Ah, the fangirl joy of that moment, so beautifully illustrated by Benes. Can't begin to tell you how I love that panel.
Everybody looks good in this one. It's a barrel full of cool with the whole gang — Canary, Huntress, Oracle, Shiva, and guest stars Katana, Catwoman and Gypsy — just kicking the snot out of the opposition, both physically and intellectually. The next twist in the Savant story is introduced here, too, with Savant changing sides to assist in the destruction of the Senator's evil team.
Gypsy and Katana don't get used much these days, but they both look really great and come across as strong, smart superheroines you'd want fighting on your side.
The resolution of the murder mystery is nicely done with Dinah donning her mother's old costume in honor of the closing of her mother's old case, and the finale features an excellent exchange between Shiva and Canary where you can really see the change in Shiva from her association with Canary. She may not change, but Canary has made her think about things she hasn't really considered before. Gail uses this secret superpower of Dinah's to good advantage in her portrayal of Huntress's evolution as well.
All in all an excellent story which could almost serve as a how-to manual on the use of guest stars in an ongoing title. They are very important; you learn alot about them (Shiva and Cheshire particularly) but they never take over the action or steal focus from the main characters. Excellent work.
Birds of Prey #68
"One Day, Well-Chosen", August 2004, written by Gail Simone, pencilled by Joe Bennett, inked by Ruy Jose, colored by Hi-Fi Design, lettered by Jared K. Fletcher, edited by Joan Hilty, cover by Greg Land and Jay Leisten
Canary's skank outfit notwithstanding, this is a lovely issue, focusing on our three main characters, their interaction with each other and who they are when they're aren't at work. I especially loved the interaction between Canary and Wonder Woman, but all the character moments -- their talks and fights with each other, Babs' lunch with her father, Huntress's date -- were wonderfully handled and defining.
Dinah and Babs' friendship, especially, shines with a reality you don't often see in any fiction, let alone comics. It rewards those of us who have been with this team since its inception, because it feels real; it feels like the kind of friendship that's been built, brick-by-brick by two strong, real women who value each other's strengths, know each other's weaknesses, and just really like and respect each other.
Birds of Prey #69
"Between Dark and Dawn, Part One", Early September 2004, written by Gail Simone, pencilled by Ron Adrian, inked by Rob Lea, colored by Hi-Fi Design, lettered by Jared K. Fletcher, edited by Joan Hilty, cover by Mark Texiera
Geez, this art's amazing. Where is Ron Adrian and why can't he come back and pencil BoP permanently? His art has a similar look and feel to Ed Benes' (and that may have been on purpose for this arc) but his shot choices are more tasteful (not so many of the "POV, Canary's butt" shots).
This story is the first in an arc with a mystery embedded in it. It's neat to see the Birds investigating a "simple" murder and watching the team work they bring to the table doing it. Each one of them has a valuable skillset in dealing with such a sensitive situation, but this issue is primarily Helena's.
Gail has done a masterful job of rehabilitating the Huntress, evolving her from a hair-trigger, half-crazy cliche of a nearly-villainous bitch Batman always had to bring into line into someone whose methods and motivations are comprehensible and make sense. She may tend to more violence than her colleagues, but let's be honest -- it's all a matter of degree.
The setup is intriguing; the crime sad and involving; and Helena's situation precarious and tense. The final reveal sets up the cliffhanger very well, and the side-story of Canary's interview of the bereaved parents only adds to the tension and drama.
An excellent story, and a great one to have chosen for this twice-monthly special arc. More of these for BoP, please!
Birds of Prey #70
"Between Dark and Dawn, Part Two: Huntress/Prey", Late September 2004, written by Gail Simone, art by Ed Benes, colored by Hi-Fi Design, lettered by Jared K. Fletcher, edited by Joan Hilty, cover by Greg Land and Jay Leisten
Oracle likes to make people jump through hoops to see what they're capable of doing, but in Savant's case -- totally deserved hoop-jumping.
Yep, evil ol' Savant is back, this time on the side of the angels -- er, Birds. At least, maybe he is. We'll see. Oracle will see.
Naturally, Dinah isn't so happy about this possible rehabilitation, and so are we readers. After what he did to Canary, we're going to give him a CHANCE? Good drama, there.
And more good drama. Huntress is getting the snot beaten out of her by someone she really doesn't want to hit back: fellow former JLA-er and all-around badass, Vixen. But there's a moment in this fight that further defines Helena. She'll do what it takes to end the fight, even unto taking a pretty drastic step. Not sure Canary would be willing to do the same, let alone Oracle. Again, as I said in the last review, it's a matter of degree. Is beating someone within an inch of their life really any better than shooting to wound? Batman would think so -- he has that whole gun hangup -- but what, really, is the difference?
Helena finds herself in an ever-more twisty and dangerous situation, trapped in a mind-controlling cult which has Vixen under its spell and a strange tie to other superheroes as well as the deaths of some of its young members.
And, boy, is Gail good with the evil cliffhangers! Glad this book came out twice monthly on this arc, 'cause waiting the full month would've been killer after an ending like this -- Oracle attacked! Huntress maybe dead?! Canary crying! WHA!!? ... most excellent.
Birds of Prey #71
"Between Dark and Dawn, Part Three: Insanity Defense", Early October 2004, written by Gail Simone, pencilled by Ron Adrian, inked by Rob Lea, colored by Hi-Fi Design, lettered by Jared K. Fletcher, edited by Joan Hilty, cover by Mark Texiera
Canary calls in the big guns, whoo! After Oracle's collapse last issue, Canary hails the nearest flying superhero for emergency transport to the hospital; Superman obliges, and it is all but spelled out that he's made the connection of Barbara Gordon to Oracle, but, y'know, it's Superman. It's okay if he knows that.
Meanwhile Huntress isn't so much dead as badly scratched; Vixen is suffering from cult-induced amnesia but seems to be regaining some sense of self as she disobeyed her kill order so that she could interrogate Huntress
And Savant's starting work on his rehab mission in his own... inimitable style. This is probably my favorite part of the issue. He is so clue-free about how to go about being stealthy, and poor, smitten Creote is so loathe to correct his approach that he gets a shuriken in his shoulder. But, y'know, they're both tough guys, so that's okay.
Meanwhile, Vixen is coming to her senses, thanks to Huntress who proves she can think fast as well as act fast, and Oracle's going CRAZY! Thus we reach another, well-crafted cliffhanger.
Birds of Prey #72
"Between Dark and Dawn, Part Four: Material Girl", Late October 2004, written by Gail Simone, pencilled by Ron Adrian, inked by Rob Lea, colored by Hi-Fi Design, lettered by Jared K. Fletcher, edited by Joan Hilty, cover by Greg Land and Jay Leisten
Oracle does have a beautiful mind, but generally the things she sees are actually there. So the going-crazy thing is pretty unsettling.
Brainiac has found an ideal new host, and he sends Canary off on a lives-saving mission to stop several teen cultists from doing the big splat around Gotham while he works out his issues with Oracle.
Huntress and Vixen, meanwhile, have gotten themselves onto the same page and realize they are in a BIG mess. A big, headline-grabbing, mass-cult-death mess, and it's only going to get worse.
This is very much a transition issue, setting up next issues' finale by getting all the pieces into place, but while all of this is going on, we're getting some truly excellent character-building. The internal monologue for Canary is definitely one of the most important additions Gail has brought to the title, and seeing what she thinks while she works really defines her as one of the great superheroes in the DCU. Huntress gets to take a shot at Batman -- the man who's defined her inside the superhero community for far too long -- and grab a bit more control over her own destiny. And Oracle shows her mettle in dealing with one of the most bizarre opponents anyone has ever had to face. Here we dangle on the cliff's edge once more. Let's see how things wrap up.
Birds of Prey #73
"Between Dark and Dawn, Part Five: Blood and Circuits", Early November 2004, written by Gail Simone, pencilled by Ron Adrian and Eric Battle, inked by Rob Lea and Rodney Ramos, colored by Hi-Fi Design, lettered by Jared K. Fletcher, edited by Joan Hilty, cover by Mark Texiera
A great finale that doesn't wrap everything up (but in a good way). Oracle's fight with Brainiac, though done for now, will have lasting consequences.
But first, lots of full-out, about-to-die fights. Oracle clocks Canary; Vixen and Huntress clock and get-clocked by a bunch of enthralled metas; and Huntress has a moment of truth about how far she's really willing to go to stop the bad guys, proving she is, indeed, the scary one. Hard to argue with her reasoning, though, and Vixen may or may not have pulled it off. I think she didn't and that Huntress wasn't lying when she claimed her crossbow had jammed. It really is a matter not of logic or justice but of faith. What a person truly, at his or her bedrock, believes defines what he or she is willing to do. Huntress's beliefs are in flux; her faith shaken, her sense of right and wrong honed to, perhaps, too fine a point.
Let's talk about the art. Ron Adrian shares the pencils with Eric Battle whose style suits the Canary/Oracle part of the story very well. His angry, intense Canary is perfect for the moment; his use of shadow and light brilliant (naturally, a shout-out to inker Rodney Ramos on that, too); And Adrian's work is as gorgeous as ever on this arc. I just LOVE his stuff. Please, come back to us, Ron! His Huntress is beautiful and intense and smart and scary and consistently herself rather than some posable, interchangeable model. Just great work.
As is often the case with Gail's stories, the ending isn't all happiness and light. People come out of fights for the lives in her stories looking, feeling, and acting like they've been in fights for their lives. They seem changed or at least impacted by what's happened. And that's a really great thing.
Birds of Prey #74
"Unraveled", Late November 2004, written by Gail Simone, pencilled by Jim Fern, inked by Steve Bird, colored by Hi-Fi Design, lettered by Ken Lopez, edited by Joan Hilty, cover by Greg Land and Matt Ryan
This is a transitional issue, but in a good way. A lot of character interaction and relationship definition going on with Canary and Huntress, who are a GREAT team. Poor Huntress. She's so needed a friend who gets her.
Our heroines infiltrate a villainous union-organizing meeting (shades of DCU-future, huh?) dressed up as Penguin and Riddler sidekicks. They make snarky comments the whole time and generally have as much fun as one would have on any "girl's day out." Love it. Best bit in the whole story, though, has to be Canary's jabs at Batman when she compares a "grotesque" to him. This is what's great about Canary; she ain't afraid of no Batman ;-)
Oracle, meanwhile, is dealing with Savant who has taken a, shall we say, unique approach to his rehabilitation assignment. Little does Oracle or Savant know that Canary has plans for his rehab, too. And this is the meat of the issue. Canary has some issues to work out with Savant and -- shades of her Shiva-apprentice dream on the plane -- she looms large and scary when she explains the situation to him.
They fight hard but, in the end, it's Canary who wins. This is an understandable moment for her but also an off-note one -- so much so that even she feels it. This is not like her to want revenge. To take revenge. But what Savant did to her isn't something she can just shrug off, especially if they are going to be working on the same side.
The consequences of this moment will very likely come into play later on, and that's the beauty of Gail's work. You know she isn't just going to drop a thread and let it lie. She has plans and ideas. She'll leave something alone for awhile then weave it in later in a truly interesting and clever way. There is an internal continuity to her work on BoP that never forgets not only what these characters have done but who they are.
Guest art is nice but less polished -- more noticeable after such brilliant work on the twice-monthly issues. It works best for the fight scenes which have a clarity and ease that's often lost by artists who work in a heavier style.
Birds of Prey #75
"Breathless/There Would Be No Spring", December 2004, written by Gail Simone, pencilled by Ed Benes and Eduardo Barreto, inked by Ed Benes and Andrew Pepoy, colored by Hi-Fi Design, lettered by Jared K. Fletcher, edited by Joan Hilty, cover by Jason Pearson
Talk about a transitional issue. This follows, for Oracle, especially, the life-altering events that played out in the Bat-crossover, War Games and the impact on the Birds is a serious one. Forced to blow up her clock tower in order to save Batman's life, Oracle is now homeless and the other events that unfolded during that horrible time for the Batcrew have led her to make a fateful decision to leave Gotham City.
Ed Benes really outdoes himself on the art in this story -- and he inks his own work beautifully -- with every detail, every glance and gesture, all rendered just perfectly. There is no dialogue on the first three pages, but it isn't needed. The art says everything.
The whole issue's a joy, actually. Everything Gail's been building since she came aboard comes together like magic in this issue. The art is so gorgeous, it could make any story seem good, but since both writing and art are so on their game, the issue is elevated up to being, simply, one of the best issues of BoP ever. And with 75+ (let's not forget the pre-monthly-series stuff!) issues, that's saying something.
We greet the intro of yet another new addition to the team -- Lady Blackhawk! Yow! -- with eagerness rather than "oh, no! they're watering down the team!" No watering-down here. Everyone is assimilated until they feel as if they've always been there. Even the plane is a great new character. And there's a truly warm and sweet appearance by Ted Kord, nodding to the past as well as launching into the future.
The definition of mission focus -- something I never thought Dixon did well -- is nailed here, too, setting up the next arc beautifully.
In other words, love, love, love.
Nice little, "yay, it's issue #75!" back-up story explaining how Lady Blackhawk -- and the Aerie One itself -- came to join the team. Story-appropriate art on this one, too, colored with a lovely sepia tint washing over all. For those of us who either have no idea who Lady Blackhawk is or who just don't know what she's been up to recently (that would be me, there), this catches us up, explains who and what she is, why she's in the 21st Century, and why it's so cool that she's now on the team. Zinda rocks -- that's the impression we're left with -- and there are nothing but cool things ahead for our favorite crime-fighting team.