21 January 2013

Faster than a DC Bullet: Birds of Prey, Part I: Black Canary/Oracle/Huntress

Comic trade paperback, 206 pages
Published 2002 (contents: 1996-97)
Borrowed from the library
Read January 2013
Black Canary/Oracle/Huntress: Birds of Prey

Writers: Chuck Dixon, Jordan B. Gorfinkel
Pencillers: Gary Frank, Stefano Raffaele, Matt Haley, Jennifer Graves, Sal Buscema
Inkers: John Dell, Bob McLeod, Wade Von Grawbadger, John Lowe, Cam Smith, Stan Woch
Colorists: Sherilyn Van Valkenburgh, Glora Vasquez, Dave Grafe
Letterers: Albert De Guzman, Phil Felix, Ken Bruzenak

One series ends, another begins. Having finished The Sandman and all its sundry spin-offs, I've decided to tackle another series, one I've heard about for many years, and heard a lot of good things about: Birds of Prey. This first volume, with the somewhat ungainly title Black Canary/Oracle/Huntress: Birds of Prey, collects a number of one-shots and miniseries that introduced the Birds of Prey. Despite the title, the Huntress isn't really a member yet, just being along for the ride in one of the stories. The focus here is squarely on Dinah Laurel Lance a.k.a. the Black Canary, and Barbara Gordon a.k.a. Oracle f.k.a. Batgirl.

At the time this story came out, both characters were at something of a loose end, as far as I know. Black Canary had been cut adrift from Green Arrow some time ago (and then the guy had died), and Oracle had never really had a starring role since taking on her new identity. In the first story, "One Man's Hell," written by Chuck Dixon and illustrated by Gary Frank and John Dell, Barbara recruits Dinah to be her field agent in investigating a series of terrorist attacks against some butthole's Third World development projects. The story moves a little abruptly at times (the destruction of a dam and flooding of an entire village gets like half a page), but it's a decent start, with action and sass. I've read a lot of Green Arrow comics, and Dinah plays differently placed in opposition to Barbara: she's a bit of a wild card and loose cannon. Which was probably always case, but basically everyone would look reserved standing next to Oliver Queen.

I like Frank and Dell's linework: it's thin and clear. The depiction of women is, of course, a key issue in a series that starred DC's first all-female superhero team, and I think they handle it nicely. Dinah and Barbara are drawn attractively, of course, but I don't think this crosses the line into the "male gaze" too much. I like Black Canary's new outfit. (I liked the old one too, in general, but not the way it always seemed to be drawn in the 1990s, including here.) I also really, really like Dinah's short blond hairdo; I wish that had stayed around by the time of Green Arrow and Black Canary.

The second story, "Revolution," kind of feels like the same as the first one over again: exploited people in the Third World under the thumb of a local dictator being saved by the timely and glamorous intervention of the Birds of Prey. The politics-- such as they are-- get a little confusing, and I'm a bit wary of any story that invokes the token of "white slavery." The breakup, such as it is, between Dinah and Barbara feels a little contrived, too. And the art by Stefano Raffaele and Bob McLeod is the weakest in the book: a few too many jutting butts and cocked hips, and a wonky sense of perspective in some panels.

"Birds of a Feather" is the book's only story not written by Chuck Dixon, instead penned by Jordan B. Gorfinkel and illustrated by Jennifer Graves and Stan Woch. Graves and Woch have a simpler style than some of the book's other artists, aided by more solid coloring, and I liked it a lot: clean and elegant. And Lois is even dressed like a real person in jeans and a t-shirt! Gorfinkel does a good job-- it's fun seeing Lois alongside other superheroes without Superman-- but it's the shortest story in the book, and both the explanations and the resolution shoot by too quickly.

"Manhunt" is the longest story in the book, a four-chapter miniseries illustrated by Matt Haley, Wade Von Grawbadger, John Lowe, Sal Buscema, and Cam Smith. It's also the best story in the book: it's fast-paced, but unlike "One Man's Hell" or "Revolution," never moves so fast as to lose you. It's also fun, in the way that a story that teams Black Canary up with the Huntress and Catwoman just ought to be. There's a lot of mutual suspicion and differing motives in the group that keep the whole thing engaging on a level of character interaction, and it distracts from the repetitive "Stop being so reckless!"/"I'm the one on the ground!" interactions of Barbara and Dinah. There's even a Batman and Robin cameo, definitely worth it for how the Huntress and Catwoman react to seeing him speed by.

There's also good jokes, especially the one about the villain's butt. (I wish that being spurned lovers wasn't part of our heroes' motive here, even if it does seem to be a small one. I cannot imagine a Superman/Batman team-up where they teemed up to take down a woman who never called them after one-night stands. Nor even a Blue Beetle/Booster Gold one.) The art is good, too, even if there's a tendency to sexual posing (especially by Catwoman) starting to creep in here. The story sets up the idea of a team fairly nicely, so it's a little disappointing that in the next volume it goes back to being just Black Canary and Oracle once more...

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