Birds of Prey Volume 3 and 4 by Gail Simone – Graphic Novel Review [Shadowhawk]
Shadowhawk reviews the third and fourth trade collections from the first run of Birds of Prey which was originally penned by Chuck Dixon.
Volume 3 collects issues #56-61 and Volume 4 collects issues #62-67.
“Excellent work all around, from the script to the art, these two collections offer a unique insight into the Birds of Prey that is matched only by Duane Swierczynski’s New 52 run. If I wasn’t already reading Gail Simone’s current Batgirl run, I’d say that these two trades are her best work ever. And the same goes for Ed Benes and his New 52 work on both Batgirl and Red Lanterns.” ~The Founding Fields
I’ve read some of Gail Simone’s work on Birds of Prey before, but that was her second volume for the second series, The Death of Oracle. In the last few months, I’ve also read her work on the current Batgirl series, and I’ve been a big fan of her work for a good while now. There’s something very approachable and easy-going about her work that really appeals to me. There are complexities in the scripts and characters but they never get overbearing. The attitude of the characters is always spot-on. The pacing is always perfect or near-perfect. Reading her comics is like reading something really fun, light-hearted, and yet challenging as well since her work often forces a degree of self-introspection.
The same applies to her first two story-arcs (numbers three and four on the main continuity as trade collections) on the first series of Birds of Prey, which she took over from Chuck Dixon. Duane Swierczynski’s New 52 run on Birds of Prey has been really, really good, and it was absolutely thrilling to read the more “classic” stories, which show how these relationships all started off in the early days. Having already seen the short-lived live-action series of the same name, and loving the Birds of Prey comics so much, I’m definitely a huge fan of the all-female superhero team now. As characters and team-members, Black Canary, Batgirl/Oracle, and, Huntress bring a lot to the table for the reader to enjoy.
Volume 3: Of Like Minds starts off in the middle of an investigation with Black Canary in the field while Oracle/Barbara coordinates everything from their hide-out. An almost routine investigation into corporate embezzlement and pension-funds turns upside down when their target announces his intentions to commit suicide. Being a tech-genius and a hacker of no small ability, Oracle finds about the suicide while tapped into the target’s computer, and she sends off Black Canary to save him. From there on, things go down all the way south and the old adage of “appearances can often be deceptive” applies full well here, for literally, nothing is as it seems. A new villain is introduced at this moment (for me at least), and he soon matches wits with both Black Canary and Oracle, proving himself to be quite formidable in the process.
The one thing that I really liked about Of Like Minds is that Gail Simone captured the small moments between her heroines really well. Early on in #56 (the first issue of Of Like Minds), Black Canary brings Oracle some take-out food and the two of them have a brief bonding moment that serves to emphasise their comfortability with each other, and their friendship. It breaks up the narrative and shows that these two heroines are people too, with normal urges, normal feelings, normal needs. This continues on throughout both volumes, and underscores how well Gail Simone is able to get into the minds of her characters and make them into people that the reader can empathise with. They are not remote individuals so dedicated to their work that the outside world be damned. They aren’t too deeply focused on their jobs that they lose perspective, or ignore it.
There are three heroines that Gail focuses on here: Black Canary and Oracle, with Huntress being the new recruit into the team when Savant manages to essentially hold Black Canary hostage. The relationship, both professional and personal, between the three heroines is emphasised again and again by Gail. Much as with the small scene I mentioned before, it is all about making the trio gel as a team where Oracle is the brains behind the operation with Black Canary and Huntress being the field agents, getting the kind of work done that Oracle can’t. There are a lot of hints as to the backstory about all three characters, particularly Black Canary since she is in the script’s spotlight quite a bit, and it serves to enhance the world even more. We learn more about how all three characters met in their previous appearances, how much they all trust and respect each other, and so on. It is the kind of developmental work that I would really have enjoyed seeing in the first year of Geoff Johns’ current Justice League title. Interestingly enough, the kind of depth that Gail Simone has invested into Of Like Minds is something that Johns reflects in his new ongoing title Justice League of America. Truly fascinating to see how all these characters (talking about the Birds of Prey team here) come together to take down common enemies.
Then there’s the villain, Savant, who is now one of my favourite DC villains. There’s something very simplistic and yet complex about him. The way that he is introduced into the script is handled really well in the kind of welcome bombastic entries I love reading/seeing about where villains are concerned, and Gail takes a lot of time to develop his character alongside that of her heroines. It makes Savant into a real, breathing character, rather than someone who is just there because the plot says that there must be a villain in the script.
Alongwith Savant, we are also introduced to Creote, a former KGB agent who now assists Savant with his extortion and strong-arm activities. Creote doesn’t have a lot of page-time, but his effect is felt when he is there. Gail uses him as a sort of go-between character where Savant and Black Canary are concerned, and shows how both of them are able to manipulate him (whether intentionally or not as it may apply) to their own ends. Creote represents the trusted villain side-kick in the script, but by no means does he lack agency because of that fact. He is a wonderful side-character that deserves to get more page-time and should any future Birds of Prey comics do that, I’m sure I’ll enjoy them for that reason alone.
Ultimately, Gail has written a script that goes beyond the confrontation between the Savant-Creote duo and the Birds of Prey. There is a larger story at work, involving people high up in the government, and it is interesting to see how it all plays out. There is a lot of subterfuge and blindsiding used on both sides of the divide, which adds to the whole drama of the events as they happen, and shows how a multi-layered story involving heroes and villains like the Birds of Prey and Savant can be really, really fun.
In Sensei and Student, the Birds of Prey go global as Black Canary travels to Hong Kong to meet her former sensei one final time before his impending death. There, she also meets Shiva, her (former) fellow student and the most dangerous assassin in the world. Shiva is also shown off as someone who is orders of magnitude more dangerous than Black Canary as far as their martial arts skills are concerned. This is reflected really well in the scene where Shiva extends a limited-time offer to Black Canary wherein the latter would apprentice under the former and thus become the heir to all the skills and knowledge that Shiva has accumulated over the years. That was another one of those small moments in the script that Gail handles so well. The story progresses from the meeting between the two women to a murder mystery when they return from a dinner to find that the dying sensei has been murdered, and they set off to find the person who did it, eventually confronting renowned poisoner Chesire. And in an interesting turn of events for me, it turns out that Black Canary is godmother to Chesire’s daughter, so that makes this confrontation even more damning and personal.
Of course, once again, nothing is as it seems, since there is a much deeper and involved mystery at work, so the three women team up to get to the bottom of things. And back in Gotham, Oracle is… compromised and is eventually picked up by some sort of top-secret government agents who pretty much haul her off to a remote location. She is not alone however, for several other Gotham women have been picked up as well, and they are all suspected of being Oracle, which puts Barbara Gordon in a really tough place.
Essentially, there is a lot going on in Sensei and Student. On one hand we have a team-up of Shiva, Chesire, and Black Canary, three of the most dangerous women in the world and all of them ostensibly fighting for the same goal. On the other hand, we have a team-up of Oracle and Huntress where once again the latter steps in to help the former, directly this time, eventually becoming a formal member of the Birds of Prey.
Once again, Gail shows that she has a really good handle on all her characters. The relationship between Shiva and Black Canary is explored in quite a bit of detail, and serves to show off more of the backstory involving both of them. Shiva’s role as a sort of anti-hero focused on her own needs/wants clashes with Black Canary’s role as a defender of the weak and someone who is out there to save people. The temporary truce between the two is always just a hair’s breadth away from going nuclear, so the tenseness that this imparts to the narrative made for an absolutely thrilling ride. I’ve never really cared about Shiva as a character before, whether from her brief one-episode appearance in the live-action Birds of Prey TV show or her two-issue appearance in Kyle Higgins’ ongoing Nightwing series. But after reading Sensei and Student, she has become another favourite DC villain, someone that I would love to read about.
It is not easy to pull off a character who is meant to be as dangerous and lethal as Shiva, but Gail has done exactly that by striking true to another… maxim: less is more. Shiva is almost always shown as someone who restrains herself from using her abilities to their maximum potential, very much like how Superman is often portrayed as pulling his punches since he knows he is far too dangerous even against some really powerful supervillains and would grind them into toothpaste should he go all-out. Gail’s minimalist approach adds another dimension to Shiva’s character, developing her much more fully than she would have been otherwise.
The primary story-arc here focuses on Black Canary, so it is a given that we would see more of her character, and her past, which is exactly what happens. The Black Canary in those pages is quite a bit different from the Black Canary in Of Like Minds, but not fundamentally different. It is more about showing a different side of her character than what we’ve seen before, adding more layers and complexity to her character without overdoing it. Much as with Shiva, by the end of Sensei and Student, Black Canary is a much fuller character than she was at the start, with a whole lot more nuance to her.
Chesire made for an interesting villain. Given the double narrative going on, she doesn’t get all that much page-time, and her arc was a bit predictable and too… straight, but still fairly enjoyable. Like with Savant and Creote before her in Of Like Minds, Chesire is a character that I want to know more about, see more of since her relationship with Black Canary was one of the highlights of this story-arc. She is an out-and-out baddie as well, which contrasts perfectly with Black Canary’s own moral compass and her beliefs.
And as far as the whole arc with Oracle and Huntress is concerned, it was just as terrific as the whole Hong Kong arc. It highlighted how even someone of the extremely high level of mental skills and fortitude like Oracle can be compromised and put on the back foot by someone equally intelligent and working against her. It highlighted her weaknesses, primarily physical, and showed how much dependent she is on a field team-member like Black Canary and Huntress. She is definitely not the Batgirl from Gail Simone’s ongoing series, nor is she the same as from the second Birds of Prey series, which is set quite a bit after this story-arc from the first series. More character exploration and development, which was exactly what was needed.
Finally, Huntress. Huntress is a really complex character, someone I’ve seen and read of almost as much as I have of Black Canary and Batgirl. Her inclusion into the team, her professional and personal relationships with her team-members, her tactics, her beliefs, they all offer a much different perspective to what the Birds of Prey do. She is the one who can go further than either of them in pursuit of her duties and responsibilities, someone who can make the hard choices the others can’t. But at her core, she is still someone who wants and needs friendship and support from those around her, which is what both of Gail’s first two volumes on Birds of Prey are about. Along with the other two, the Huntress is definitely in my top-tier of favourite DC heroes. Also, Helena Bertinelli as Huntress is far better a character than Helena Wayne as Huntress.
And it all brings me to the art, which I haven’t talked about. Ed Benes is the premier penciller for both volumes and for the most part, I have to say that he has turned out some really great art, of the kind that puts both volumes in the “awesome” category. He has a great eye for scene layouts, and getting the story beats down perfectly with his panels. The various inkers and colourists who are part of the art team have contributed really well to his work, and turned out some of the best visually looking graphic novels I’ve read to date. However, I can’t deny that there are some questionable panels in both volumes, where the characters are sexualised more than they should have been, primarily Huntress and Black Canary, given the outfits they wear. This is an argument that is as old as the sun, as far as the comics industry is concerned, and is the only aspect of the two volumes that I did not like. It certainly could have been better, but then I’m reminded of how Ms. Marvel has been portrayed in her Brian Reed run, and how Starfire is currently portrayed in the current Red Hood and The Outlaws by Scott Lobdell, or some of the other such depictions of female superhero characters in comics from both DC and Marvel. What Benes has done here isn’t as bad for the most part, but it does bring down the enjoyment factor of the comics, and that’s a shame. Missed opportunities.
Overall, from a story standpoint, both Of Like Minds, and Sensei and Student are excellent graphic novels that do the job well: showing how female superheroes/heroes can be just as kickass awesome as their male counterparts, how they can have agency, be feminine and yet realistic with respect to the setting, and above all, be characters that are pure fun to read about. The art, as I’ve said, could be better, but I’m not really going to hold the visual portrayal of the characters against the books. It is an argument that applies to an endless number of comics featuring female characters, especially superheroes, and if I went around docking points for this reason for all of them, then that would just be too depressing.
So, on a mostly story standpoint, I would highly recommend these two volumes. I’m certainly going to carry on with the series and read more of both Gail Simone and the Birds of Prey.
Rating for Volume 3: Of Like Minds – 9/10
Rating for Volume 4: Student and Sensei – 9/10