Birds of Prey #1

Birds of Prey #1

A

I wasn’t planning on picking up Birds of Prey. I’d been an avid reader of the last two volumes, but without either Gail Simone or Oracle, it just seemed like it would be too far from the concept that initially drew me in. Heck, judging by the appearance of Poison Ivy on the cover, I expected Birds of Prey to be more like Gotham City Sirens than its predecessor. And I wasn’t reading Gotham City Sirens.

I suppose I should have paid more attention to the book’s pedigree. I’ve liked what I’ve read of Duane Swierczynski’s Immortal Iron Fist run, and Jesus Saiz is just a top-notch artist, whose work I’ve liked at least since The OMAC Project. Together, they equate to a very pleasant surprise.

Birds of Prey opens on Charlie Keen, a reporter for the Gotham Gazette who’s been investigating the covert ops Birds. It’s a smart move, because it makes the exposition feel a lot more natural than omniscient narration or having the character talk at us through thought captions. His presence also grounds the story in some realism, which makes the action sequences feel like they have a bit more heft. Of course, a lot of that owes to Saiz’s pencils, which are utterly flawless in terms of flowing action. Even the panel design feels well-executed, so that the larger panels (and the two splash pages) pack a real visual punch.

Like a lot of the books in the last couple of weeks, Birds of Prey starts in the thick of things and flashes back to show how we got to where we are. When I saw that “two weeks ago” caption on the first read-through, I wondered aloud if writers knew any other story structure anymore. The technique works better here than in Grifter or Mister Terrific, or even Batwing. Part of that is the transition; Saiz frames shots so that each flashback begins with the character in the same position they held in the previous panel, which is a nice visual cue, and it really helps smooth out the time-jumps. The other aspect that works well here is that Swierczynski doesn’t belabor the points; the flashback scenes give us just enough information to let us know who the characters are, what Keen has learned, and why there’s a big fight with invisible snipers in a church, while also setting up some future plot threads and drama. He also uses the device to some humorous effect, as the last flashback takes us all the way to “Fifteen minutes ago.”

In fact, the humor is probably the most unexpected thing about the book. It’s not like Birds of Prey has historically been deadly serious or anything, but given the solicits, I wasn’t expecting this book to be funny. And yet, Keen’s position in what turns out to be an utterly absurd set of circumstances, plus his interactions with the witty and charming Black Canary and Starling, make for some honest-to-goodness laughs. Saiz again deserves some credit; Starling’s expressions are priceless in a Kevin Maguire or Steve Dillon sort of way.

The book isn’t perfect; the surprise cameo character feels very different from her previous New 52 appearance, and a lot more like her old-DCU counterpart. I would have liked to see all of the characters on the cover actually show up in the book (as opposed to half-ish), but it’s clear that they’re building toward this team. Starling has a little bit of Poochie Syndrome as the new character who suddenly has a major role (and relationships with the leads) and who we know is badass because the other characters tell us. I suspect that’ll go away as we get to know her, but right now there’s very little to set her apart from Huntress or Thorn or half a dozen other existing characters who could have filled that position. It is nice to have a character in a costume that wasn’t obviously designed by Jim Lee, as opposed to poor
Black Canary’s fishnet-and-armor ensemble.

But those are all minor complaints, and in a book that is as flat-out fun as Birds of Prey, they’re easy to overlook. The characterization is good, the action scenes are flawless, and the last-page shock is, well, actually shocking. Plus, in a week that gave us some of DC’s worst excesses in objectification and women-as-adolescent-fantasy-objects, it’s nice to see a team of female characters treated like actual people. The tragedy of Catwoman and Red Hood & The Outlaws is that more people aren’t talking about Birds of Prey. Hopefully that’ll change soon.

Pull list verdict: KEEP IT.

tags: birds of prey, duane swierczynski, jesus saiz, the new 52

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