Monday, February 15, 2016

On the new Birds of Prey Vol. 1 collection

Despite the occasional hand-wringing within the comics industry about the state of DC Comics' performance in month-to-month sales to direct market comic shops, and whether their near-constant reboots and refreshes do more harm than good (a new round of which began when an Internet rumor-mongerer began mongering rumors), the fact remains that DC has an incredible back catalog of great comics, and a generally excellent track record for keeping their best books in print. A modern DC fan could probably ignore the publisher's monthly serial comics output in favor of collections of older material, and be very, very happy for a long time.

There are, of course, holes in their catalog of trade collections, some of which they seem to just now be starting to fill (The 1987-1992 Suicide Squad being one of the better examples; it apparently took the upcoming movie to kick them in the pants to get the good run of Suicide Squad available in trade*).

I am extremely excited about this, as books like Suicide Squad, the Garth Ennis/John McCrea 1993-1995 run on The Demon and Norm Breyfogle-drawn Batman comics are series I've spent years trying to track down in single-issue format from bargain bins, never managing to complete the runs, and, inevitably, getting and reading them out of order.

That excitement is tempered with fears of my own mortality, however, as some of those books are ones I remember seeing on the new comics rack every Wednesday, during a time well before DC and Marvel collected everything they published serially in trade format later, and only did so for big, important or classic stories and runs. While I'm glad that the Chuck Dixon-written Robin miniseries and ongoing are being collected, for example, or that the original, mostly Dixon-written Birds of Prey comics are finally being reprinted, the fact also makes me feel the specter of death breathing down my neck. The first Birds of Prey special is 20 years old? The first Dixon/Tom Lyle Robin miniseries is 25 years old?!

My God, I'm old!

I'll likely skip the first few volumes of DC's Robin reprints, as I have the first three mini-series and the first few issues of the monthly already (although I guess buying the trades would reduce the number of old comics in my comics midden, which I will someday bequeath to my nieces and nephew, in the most annoying inheritance possible: "And finally, to my beloved nieces and nephew, I leave these thousands and thousands of old, worthless comic books, none of which ever actually appreciated in value in any way that would even be worth your trying to sell, even those I thought would be solid investments, like 'The Death of Superman' and Spawn #1. Enjoy lugging all these decrepit, disintegrating longboxes to the recycling center!"

But Birds of Prey is a different matter entirely.

When the Black Canary/Oracle: Birds of Prey #1 one-shot was released in 1996, I was in my freshman year in college, and on a pretty limited comics-buying budget, my only discretionary spending coming from the extremely part-time jobs I had at that point. I got my Gotham-based vigilante crime-fighter needs filled by a handful of Batman comics, and skipped this, as well as all of the comics contained in the first volume collecting the original, pre-Gail Simone Birds of Prey.

She's the writer most associated with the title at this point, having written the ongoing series from 2003-2007, about 50 issues, and then returning for the first 13 issues of the short-lived, 2010-2011 second volume of the series. Prior to this, just about every Birds of Prey collection available was from Simone's run, or that of her successors Sean McKeever, Tony Bedard and Marc Andreyko, or from the third, New 52 volume of the series by...well, actually, let's continue to pretend that volume doesn't exist, shall we?

Dixon wrote all of the pre-monthly one-shots and mini-series, as well as the first 46 issues of the 1999-launched ongoing series. Without doing any math, I'm pretty sure Simone therefore has Dixon beat in terms of pages of BOP comics scripted, as well as time on the franchise, but Dixon deserves a ton of credit for the franchise, credit he doesn't always get. With original editor Jordan B. Gorfinkel, Dixon created the Birds of Prey (if not the two individual stars), and capitalized on Kim Yale and John Ostrander's transformation of the former Batgirl into hacker and information broker Oracle to make Barbara Gordon a key player in the Batman franchise and the wider DC Universe (even joining the Justice League for a while).

So now, finally, the first Birds of Prey comics are collected, giving a new generation of fans (and those of us who missed them the first time around) a chance to read them, and giving Dixon and his collaborators a spotlight they missed out on back in the day by virtue of the trade collection market not really existing in its current form (not to mention, one hopes, plenty of well-deserved royalties). Dixon's earliest Birds of Prey comics were published previously in a pair of trades, from 2002 and 2003, which collected everything in this volume, plus the first six issues of the ongoing. Those are out of print now, and this seems like the start of a concentrated effort to collect the pre-Simone well as being part of a revival of interest in Dixon's '90s Bat-office work, when one takes into consideration these new volumes will be released alongside the Robin collections.

So, what do we have here?

Dixon wrote all of the above save for the 18-page "Birds of a Feather" story, which was the cover story in Showcase '96 #3; that one is written by Gorfinkel, who edited the rest of the books in this collection and who is credited as a co-creator of the Birds of Prey team, (at least according to Wikipedia).

As for the art, there are quite a few more cooks in the kitchen. Gary Frank, Stefano Raffaele and Dick Giordano and an all but unrecognizable Greg Land each pencil one one-shot apiece (Seriously, you should check out Land's art in this; if you know it's Land ahead of time, you can kind of see hints of the Land of the last decade or so in it, but he appears to have actually drawn-drawn his art back then, and it looks perfectly fine). The four-issue miniseries Manhunt features pencils by Matt Haley, with a couple different inkers and, on the final issue, layouts by Sal Buscema. The Showcase team-up featured layouts by Jennifer Graves, an artist of whom I know almost nothing, aside from the fact that she drew at least one of my favorite issues of Robin (and that I wished she was the ongoing artist) and finishes by Stan Woch. 

Of these, the first special is likely to be of greatest interest, as it shows the origin of the Black Canary/Oracle team-up, or at least their first time working together in a book of their own. It also marks a major turning point in the history of the Black Canary character, as she goes from being a supporting character in Green Arrow and Justice League comics to being the co-star of what would end up being a long-running series. At the beginning of the issue, she's still rocking her classic look, complete with fishnets and blonde wig. A few pages in, she decides to dye her hair blonde and suits up in a new costume that Oracle has designed for her.

Canary is in a rut when we meet her in Seattle, and Oracle not only recruits her for a mission (via answering machine; this was the '90s, remember), but also acts as her life coach, giving her new direction and new duds.

The plot, like most of Dixon's at the time, is pretty boilerplate, action movie type stuff, with little of the character work that would go into his Batman or Robin comics. There's a shady businessman who is supposedly helping various leaders of third world countries who keep falling prey to terrorists...a group he is in cahoots with. For protection, he has hired Lynx of the Ghost Dragons, a Dixon creation who first appeared in the original Robin miniseries (and a character I always liked; although she got killed during the bad old days of "War Games"-era Batman comics). He takes Canary on as an additional bodyguard as well, and, naturally, she foils his schemes.

More so than any other comic in this collection, Frank's artwork plays up the cheesecake aspects of Black Canary (and the other female characters). There is a lot of sexy art in this book, with Canary in various states of undress...although we should probably keep in mind that her superhero costume was basically a state of undress. When she takes off her wig and jacket to take a cab or go to an airport as Dinah Lance rather than Black Canary, she's basically just wearing lingerie and boots. 

The threats of the other stories are similarly non-super; they may not be exactly realistic, but they're the sort you might find in an action movie rather than a superhero comic. They're rarely imaginative, but Dixon was always pretty adept at making up realistic-ish, generic bad guy types with bad guy plots. 

There's an international criminal and con man with an elaborate plan to seek refuge in an incredibly inaccessible land of bad guys hiding out, there's a cola company-sponsored revolution in Santa Prisca (home country of Bane!) and Dinah finds herself running from the Ukranian mob while Barbara deals with muggers and home invaders. It's not until the very last issue in the collection that we see any real supervillains, in the form of Spellbinder III and, in one panel, Blockbuster (at that point reinvented to basically be the Wilson Fisk of the DC Universe). 

The collection's cover shows the trio that would form the heart of the team during Simone's run, but the stories inside revolve around the somewhat strained relationship of Black Canary and Oracle (who never meet one another at any point in these stories). There are plenty of guest-stars though. The Showcase Story has a Canary teamed up with very badly dressed Lois Lane, Manhunt has Canary teaming with Huntress and Catwoman (and, in the climax, fighting Lady Shiva) and, in the final story, Batgirl Barbara Gordon appears, along with pretty much Batman's entire rogue's gallery, but only via illusion (Um, spoiler alert). 

These guest-stars highlight what would become a hallmark of Birds of Prey, that what was originally a partnership would become, eventually, a friendship and then a constantly expanding and retracting team, in which characters that couldn't command their own monthly series (at least, not for long) would find the strength in numbers to do just that. Which actually reflects the in-comic storylines too, since Canary and Oracle need each other, and other occasional partners, to accomplish things they can't manage solo.

None of these are really great comics, although there are things to recommend them (Particularly good art here or there, easily accessible stories, etc). The greatest pleasure the collection offers, really, is in reading (or re-reading) these rather basic, run-of-the-mill action adventure comics with the knowledge of what they lead to in the future.

*Sorry, Everyone Involved With The New 52 Suicide Squad, but that book has been just this side of unreadable since it launched, and no amount of creative team changes have been able to change that so far. In your defense, the New 52 reboot sort of hobbled the general appeal of the concept, I realize, because rather than allowing you guys to pick and choose great and/or expendable super-villains and bad-guys from throughout DC history, you were basically stuck with brand-new, history-less characters that had absolutely nothing in common with their previous iterations other than their codenames

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