Friday, May 24, 2024

Batgirl And The Birds of Prey Goes Old School

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Ah, the Birds of Prey. I know I’ve sung the praises of Tynion’s current line-up for Detective Comics, but as far as super-teams go the Birds of Prey are my absolute favorite. And apparently a ton of other people’s too, since the original primary run lasted 127 issues.

In fact, it was so well received that it spawned a live-action TV adaptation back when the WB was still a thing. An almost immediately cancelled adaptation, but an adaptation all the same.

Originally a series of one-shots penned by Chuck Dixon beginning in 1995, the concept proved so popular that it launched its own ongoing series in 1999. The premise is classic and simple: Barbara Gordon, former Batgirl, refused to let her disability stop her from helping others and became the DCU’s prominent hacker and information broker. Oracle. Mostly all seeing, and mostly all knowing. The network she built was miles ahead of anything Batman could ever conceive. Oracle could be everywhere and nowhere.

Of course, electronic warfare alone didn’t cut it for most cases, so she needed someone to be her proxy legs and fists. Enter Dinah Lance, the second Black Canary. Martial arts grandmaster and metahuman with the ability to explode things by screaming.

Few titles did something as truly awesome during the “One Year Later” time jump.

The duo formed a nigh unbreakable bond over the years, proving time and again that they were far more to one another than partners. They were each other’s conscience, confidants and often a necessary source of inspiration. So, when Dixon left the series in 2003, there were big shoes to fill.

Shoes that exploded because the woman DC hired to replace him needs no introduction: Gail Simone. She quickly shook up the status quo by adding Helena Bertinelli, the Huntress, to the team on a trial basis and the duo became cemented as a trio. Dinah’s idealism, Barbara’s realism and Helena’s pragmatism all bounced off of one another rather perfectly.

But, that was then. That was, what many consider, to be the quintessential realization of the Birds of Prey. By all accounts, it should be unfair to judge any future incarnation of the title to that standard. Now, everyone has their own style and ideas for narrative, and the more diverse those get, so much the better.

And yet, somehow, the Benson Sisters, Julie and Shawna—whose names may sound familiar since they both wrote for The 100’s infamous third season—have managed to take DC’s Rebirth initiative to heart so much that, honestly, it feels like the classic Birds of Prey.

Yes, they’re all about food. And yes, that was on purpose.

Sure, Barbara’s still aged down and they’re integrating Huntress for the “first time” all over again, but the heart and soul of what made the team so great is there in spades. The banter is gold, the tone is perfect and the artistic collaboration between breakout artist Claire Roe, who renders the Birds of Prey as suitably shredded, and Roge Antonio is near-seamless.

Even better is that the narrative spin the Benson Sisters have put on it makes Batgirl and the Birds of Prey by far the funniest book in the Rebirth line.

Get it? It’s the lyrics to the elevator music!

Anyway, that’s enough backstory for title’s legacy. Onward to Today!

After all, today is a day filled with delicious meta-commentary, wonderful restorative continuity and good-old-fashioned great writing.

However, unlike my review of Detective Comics #945, I’m not going to be recapping the first five issues at the beginning. Mostly because there’s only five instead of like, eleven. With the primer above, it won’t be difficult to follow if you haven’t read it. Plus, there’ll be bits and pieces along the way, so it shouldn’t be too painful.

Or I could just let Babs recap everything.

Thanks Babs!

The Cover May Not Lie, But There’s A Better Truth

Normally, the cover isn’t something I’d focus on as they typically don’t include important character moments. The cover for Batgirl and the Birds of Prey #5, however, most certainly did.

Starting from the left we have Dinah perusing through a record store (she served as the headliner for a kickass rock band called Black Canary in her most recent solo title), Babs reading in the park and Helena praying in a Catholic Church.

Considering how deep this issue dug into old continuity, it’s a little surprising that Dinah’s not working as a florist, or that Babs isn’t at the library. Helena’s section is perfect, of course, as the internal conflict between her faith and her willingness to kill have been a cornerstone of her character for quite some time.

It’s not that these little moments don’t make sense, they do, but I just can’t help but feel that this was a missed opportunity to seamlessly reintegrate a few bits of Pre-Flashpoint Birds of Prey characterization. Granted, Babs’ work at the library is brought up early in this issue, which we’ll get to, but even still.

Just a thought.

Merchandising, Merchandising!

The Faux-Racle (Fake Oracle) has been revealed! After a wild goose chase involving snakes monsters, mafia bosses, weirdly intrusive realtors and a robot rogues gallery security system, the Birds of Prey finally tracked down the person who stole the title of Oracle.

Good news, it’s not the Calculator! More good news, the Birds of Prey did fight the Calculator at some point!

Again, I mean. Or, already had. Same with Scarecrow, Deathstroke (ideally with time travel and dinosaurs intact), Ra’s Al Ghul (Dinah dated him on accident but it still counts since she stole one of his Lazarus Pits), Catwoman, Joker, and Killer Croc!

So, basically, most of the stuff the New52 swept under the table is back in play. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, let me put it this way: everything is now way more awesome.

For those who do know what I’m talking about, yes, I’m just as excited as you are that they name dropped Lady freaking Shiva.

[slide-anything id=”54772″]

If you don’t know who this is, trust me…you will.

Anyway, back to Faux-Racle. Apparently, he’s some hacker dude named Gus Yale, who claims to be Batgirl’s, and by extension Oracle’s, biggest fan! Which is, of course, super-stalkery. He’s got, well, pretty much everything.

Even that old CRT monitor Babs was using back in the 90s. Which makes less and less sense the more you stop to think about that.

Since, if Babs is Forever 21…then…

Oh, who cares? Stuff is cool!

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Most of you reading this are probably familiar with the supremely successful Batgirl of Burnside relaunch, spearheaded by Cameron Stewart and Brenden Fletcher with art by Babs Tarr, that Barbara underwent a couple years back. Personally, I thought that run was tailor made for Stephanie Brown’s rendition of Batgirl, rather than Barbara, but that’s me.

The sense of sincerity, bubbly-ness and its self-aware narrative were all quite reminiscent of Bryan Q. Miller’s work on the earlier title. Which is probably a big reason why people loved the relaunch so much, now that I think about it.

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Anyway, with that relaunch came just…so much marketing. And merchandizing. DC pushed as hard as they could with this new Barbara Gordon, targeting the younger girls demographic with great success. Everywhere you looked, Babs was there. Toys, shirts, costumes, the subsequent launch of DC Superhero Girls—Babs became a hugely marketable property once more!

And that’s exactly what the Bensons are poking fun at.

And also the most marketable to the young girls demographic!

The sheer oversaturation of Burnside related media and licensing. Reaching a broader audience is a great thing, but sometimes that’s done at the expense of what made the property so special in the first place.

Somewhere under all of that glitz and social media and piles of cash was, well, Oracle. In-universe and out, there’s been a bit of a vacuum that Barbara left behind once she got out of the chair. For one, Barbara was no longer a disabled superhero. Also that whole information broker thing that, uh, nobody was really doing anymore.

Back In…Black? Gold? Purple?

It wasn’t just the role of Oracle, either. Barbara herself, as a character, never quite fit back into the groove of a solo active combatant. It’s something that Gail Simone’s New52 run dealt with quite a bit, since she was severely outclassed individually everywhere she went. Naturally, stuff like this happened pretty often:

[slide-anything id=”54775″]

…though rarely were they that funny. By the way, fun fact: that silk handkerchief changed hands so much that it’s on Earth-2 now. Not even kidding.

But, point being, it’s not that I expect Babs to win every fight, but her ratio is…very unbalanced. In fact, if memory serves, nearly every victory was the result of very explicit teamwork. And this is something that Bensons are keenly aware of.

Babs shines brightest when she’s part of a team, both as a character and as person.

From the very beginning, Babs sought out Dinah for help, wanting to reunite the Birds of Prey in order to find this Fake Oracle. And y’know what? Despite some relatively minor setbacks, the whole mission has gone exceptionally well!

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But, believe it or not, there’s another layer to this reveal. And, in my opinion, it’s a phenomenal metric for what is to come from the Benson Sisters.

Six (Eight) Writers, Three (Four) Barbara Gordons

It’s generally agreed upon that there are three different characterizations for Babs since she debuted as Oracle. The initial Dixon (Ostrander and Yale get partial credit for coming up with the idea, of course) era, the Simone era and the Stewart/Fletcher era.

The one you like the most is typically tied to how old you are, or when you got into comics, but there are exceptions. 

Of course, none of these interpretations are by any means “right” or “wrong”, but each are quite distinct. So, the question that many fans have been asking since Batgirl and the Birds of Prey started dropping was, well, which one is she this time? Which Barbara Gordon will I be reading about each month in this book?

Is she Chuck Dixon’s version, Gail Simone’s version or Cameron Stewart and Brenden Fletcher’s version? The answer may surprise you:

Thanks to the Benson Sisters, she’s all of them.

Throughout her hunt for the Fake Oracle, Babs has behaved as an organic amalgamation of her most iconic incarnations.

She’s aggressively asserted her independence from Batman (Dixon), bonded with her team to a deep emotional level in a short amount of time (Simone), and even got extremely excited and reached near Stephanie Brown levels of optimistic (Stewart/Fletcher).

Now, see, this is how you reach a broader audience without sacrificing a single damn thing. She’s Barbara Gordon, end of story. And, this one small moment is just…holy crap.

Roge Antonio flawlessly renders a quarter century worth of Babs in three panels. Her character design from each era is, yes, quite distinct, but to pull this off without changing a thing? No filters or differentiation in coloring from Allen Passalaqua? Just Babs and her old glasses. The simplicity itself is nothing short of amazing.

Oracle And The Birds of Prey

Moving on, in an interesting twist on the good ol’ “anyone could be Batman” trope…apparently Barbara had the same effect when she abandoned her role as Oracle. Gus Yale reclaimed the title to honor it, according to him, after waiting for her return. He saw Oracle as a hero and an inspiration to someone like him. The vacuum she left, as mentioned above, needed to be filled, and it was high time that someone did.

He wants to join the Birds of Prey, and gets super chummy with Helena and Dinah to great comedic effect. So, because this dude is super creepy and a giant troll,  I feel like throwing him out the window wouldn’t be the worst idea in the world. And yet, if not for Gus, well, none of this would have circled back around to something a ton of people have been dying to see for a long, long time:

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Truth be told, I was making the exact same face as Gus. How could I not? That’s Babs. In the chair. Green glow off the monitors. Just…yes.

Now, of course, I’m not thinking she’ll stay there forever. Since the title is called Batgirl and the Birds of Prey, not Birds of Prey. Babs is going to be in the field more often than not, and I’m honestly, for the first time since…well, ever. I don’t think I’ve ever been pumped to see her out and about like this. And really, the defining factor here is that she’s not flying solo.

Babs has her team. She’s got her birds, and her birds have her. Maybe Gus sticks around—turns out he was siphoning mafia money to charity but I’m pretty sure he was still technically an accomplice to murder but whatever—or maybe he doesn’t.

Maybe Frankie, Barbara’s grad school roommate, will punch him in the face and take over as Oracle.

Or maybe Alysia will come back in some way for some reason.

I dunno, just throwing out ideas.

Final Thoughts

Oh! Right, also this happens:

Saw this coming twenty miles away. Not a bad twist by any means; complicated familial dynamics are a favorite topic here at the Fandomentals!

That being said, covering Helena’s mother’s face during her flashback sequences in the previous issue, combined with the fact that we’ve already seen Fenice in the present and noted that her skin tone was curiously similar to Helena’s…I doubt this was meant to be a surprise.

Especially since the big reveal was that Faux-Racle wasn’t the Calculator. I know I keep saying that, but pretty much everybody jumped straight to that conclusion the second they heard about someone stealing Oracle’s identity. He has a history of obsession when it comes to Barbara. So, major props for subverting that, Bensons!

And if you’re wondering what I thought of this issue, y’know in like a big summation kind of way, I’ve got exactly six words for you.


Writers: Julie and Shawna Benson

Pencils/Inks: Roge Antonio

Colors: Allen Passalaqua

Letterer: Deron Bennett

All images courtesy of DC Comics

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