Friday, March 27, 2009

Flown The Coop

So, I usually like to keep things light and fluffy here at The LookOut and only talk about things that make me happy. That said, I just gotta let out a rant.

I hated the ending to Birds of Prey. Whether or not it was editorially mandated or not, it blew. I've always been of the school of "if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all" but some things just irk me until I can't keep quiet.

You see, I have this bad habit. I tend to analyze stories on their own merit. As a strict literary critic, it is a fine habit. As a bad deconstructionist and someone who doesn't always agree to the social contract that a comic book in a superhero universe is never, ever entirely it's own series - well, it drives me batshit nuts. Let's say I wrote a novel about two women who each have problems. One has a bad habit of dating cocky, blonde jerks (I'm not deliberately trashing Green Arrow here - that is one of the problems Dinah herself states at the beginning of the series). The other has issues stemming from an attack on her life that left her physically handicapped. One reaches out to the other to regain her feeling of power and ability to restore justice to the world. The other accepts her friendship and learns more about herself as a result. They both improve as people along the way and their circle of friends grow. Now, I would think the natural ending for such a story would be to have the outgoing character lead her introverted friend into a more comfortable space, filling her with confidence. The other half of that story would naturally dovetail into the more outgoing character becoming aware of her flaws and finding the confidence to live her life alone and only choosing to take a life partner if she feels that person is worthy.

That is not even remotely how this story ended.

Birds of Prey was a story, at it's core, about women making names for themselves and owning their own power. They acted with agency, competency and drive. They did so with joy in their hearts. And now, the series has just ended with Barbara Gordon dissolving her own team and leaving the care of a minor to someone else - all via a Dear John Letter. 127 issues and we get to see the main female lead end things, not in triumph, but awash in self-doubt, self-pity and just before running away.

To have a series devoted to such capable heroines - one that has lasted over 100 issues in a market that has not always been favorable to superheroines and even spawned a (mostly terrible) live action series - dissolved in a way that has Oracle berating herself and throwing in the towel, well, it's more than insulting. It's bad storytelling.

So why do I have such a bug up my nose, you might ask? Some back story for the uninitiated, first. Birds of Prey started with two characters - Barbara Gordon and Dinah Lance a.k.a. Oracle and Black Canary. Both were female characters who had supporting roles in the books of male superheroes. Black Canary was Green Arrow's girlfriend and Oracle was the Batfamily and the Justice League's hub of information. In BoP, each of these characters was given a place to shine and to grow. While Chuck Dixon was more than a bit guilty of making Black Canary a trifle flghty, he created a space where Barbara and Dinah could be the stars instead of the sidekicks.

In fairness, I didn't start reading Birds of Prey under Dixon. I read the trades, enjoyed them but felt like it was missing something. Cue Gail Simone. Her run, possibly because it was finally two female characters actually being written by a woman, felt alive, interesting and authentic in ways Dixon's did not. There's a quote I quite like from Gail Simone, the writer whom I took to following the book for because I love her work -

"Birds of Prey got a reputation for scraping the barnacles off of a lot of characters, which I find very flattering. [...] One amusing thing is, we managed to do fifty issues without a single serious romantic plot of any seriousness. I'm actually pretty tickled about that, as that seems to be the first thing writers think of when writing women - "Who is she in love with?" The Birds can stand on their own in that regard."

Simone wrote Dinah as fighting her way into being the equal of Lady Shiva - one of the DCU's greatest martial artists, on par with Batman. She wrote her as having enough control over her sonic abilities to shatter a billiard ball in a person's fist without breaking their fingers. She wrote Barbara as a woman who could always fend for herself but surrounded herself with friends who mattered. Who, in taking in Lady Blackhawk, Huntress and Misfit, made a team a family. More than anything, this became a book where women supported each other and superheroines had a place to shine. Just check out this exchange between Canary and Huntress to see how tender Simone's run could get.

And Oracle, quite simply, kicked ass. This was an Oracle who'd carved out a niche in the DCU and shined as one of it's stars. The Birds of Prey became a team as important in their own right as the Justice League or Teen Titans. When Simone had a villainess appear to forcibly take over Oracle's team - to remove her agency - Oracle called in everyone who owed her a favor and it looked a little like this:

Gives me shivers every time I see it.

And now? Now, Dinah is the "co-star" of Green Arrow/Black Canary. She's married to Green Arrow, the man who got her hand in marriage by faking her adopted daughter's death and lying to her about it. The man who, in a recent issue of Green Arrow/Black Canary, demonstrated his respect for her by shocking her unconscious before going to do things himself.

Not to mention the fun plot wherein Dinah was so sloppy that she needed help defeating someone hand to hand, then stopped him with a sonic cry that deafened an innocent bystander. Yeah, that's just terrific respect for the character and her abilities.

On the Oracle side of things, we now get an Oracle mini-series to follow up the underwhelming ending to Birds of Prey. I won't even start on how obnoxious it is for Oracle to have abandoned Misfit, a girl clearly in need of supervision and care, because that would lead me down Cassandra Cain Drive to Rantypants Road. Let's just say that the former team leader and heart of the Birds of Prey now toils alone in a crappy apartment with the promise of a cure for her paralysis dangled in front of her (scroll down here for several far more salient reviews of Oracle: The Cure).

A lot of people have been saying that this story will lead to Barbara Gordon becoming Batgirl again, which I'm sorry, does not strike me as a step up. As Oracle, she was a team leader, a woman who called the shots. I don't think this character needs to reclaim anything by becoming a girl again.

Here's a fun question - exactly how many appearances did Green Arrow have in Birds of Prey? Ever? And how many times did Batman ever appear? I ask because, after reading 50-plus issues of Simone's run, I don't remember Green Arrow doing much of fuck-all. And I remember the one time Batman appeared, he got told off by everyone for being a prick and then subsequently thanked for not being a prick once he stopped trying to run the Birds of Prey himself.

Please understand that, for somebody who read Birds of Prey - and only Birds of Prey - having Black Canary shipped off to be married to Green Arrow felt like a crazy random plot twist. It was like reading fifty issues of Batman only to have Alfred say "Hey, I'm in love with Martha Kent and we're moving to space now, KTHNXBYE." Yes, I get it. I'm being unfair by, heaven forfend, judging the series on it's own merits. There's history. There's continuity! They wanted to respect the longterm, hardcore DC fans who've followed the Black Canary/Green Arrow relationship for decades. The problem is not that they wanted to do that. It's how they did it and how they're continuing to do it. If they did it in a way that was organic and spun out the story in Birds of Prey naturally, I'd be all for it. If they were writing Black Canary at the same level Simone did, I'd be happy as a clam. They didn't and they aren't. If they're going to write a book about Black Canary and Green Arrow as a married couple, it should be a book that treats them as equal partners, not one constantly having to be incompetent to make the other look good. Hell, I still think that if they wanted Green Arrow to win Black Canary back, they should have had him do it in her title as well as his. That's called a partnership and I think it was something that the character of Black Canary, strengthened by Simone as she was, had earned.

Hey, I know I'm talking like a crazy entitled fan here and I apologize. These are not my characters and I have no real right to demand they be written any which way. The thing is, I give out my Simone trades of BoP to non-comic book readers to encourage them to enjoy comic books. I see BoP trades in the teen sections of my local library, where young girls are reading them. It's a story of how Oracle took back her power and showed Canary just how much she could take back hers and seriously? That's awesome. So when I see this story ending with one of them being married off to a guy who's acting like a jerk and the other one left full of self-doubt and confusion, it feels like a betrayal. Not just a betrayal of the characters' own arcs but moreover of the principles on which the book itself was formed. And that makes me angry and more than a little sad.

Anyways, I think I've ranted enough for one night. Here's hoping that both characters end up more awesome than they are currently being portrayed. And failing that, let's hope that Lady Blackhawk, Huntress and all the good work previous writers have done on the title doesn't get forgotten, ignored or, heaven help us, fridged away*.

*Seriously, guys, I will go all Chris Crocker if anything happens to Lady BlackHawk or Huntress. Of course, to be brutally honest, I wouldn't mind it too terribly if something bad happened to Misfit. Sorry.


SallyP said...

Fabulous. You said it all, and you said it quite well.

B said...

BoP was my first comic -- I'm devastated at how it ended.

Maddy said...

I just wanted to say that I love the hell out of this review. You hit the nail on the head with what was wrong with BoP's ending.

K. D. Bryan said...

SallyP, Maddy - Thanks very much for the kind words! I usually keep this sort of thing bottled up, so it's nice to know it wasn't just me.

B - Aw, man. I'm really sorry to hear that. You have my sympathies. Your first title is always going to be your sentimental favorite. I still have a soft spot for Spider-Man as a result of that.

Jamie said...

BoP was one of the first comic book series I'd genuinely enjoyed and loved after the disaster of Marvel comics I'd read back in the 90s. What you said expressed all that I feel about the dissolution of the team (even though I didn't read those issues) and Black Canary's enforced marriage to Green Arrow.

What's sad is that I don't think we'll ever get to see another series like this again, unless we can bribe Gail Simone to start writing the series again. Aside from Ed Benes' stupid cheesecake art, the writing made the series shine on a level I'd never seen before, and while knowing almost next to nothing about the DC universe aside from the top tier guys, I actually cared for these characters.

But, instead, the series ends on a whimper... a sad, little whimper after such a great run.

Anonymous said...

Well said.

You captured everything I was thinking about how BoP backslid into mediocrity but never voiced in my own reviews because I was so shocked by the stupidity of the gang of EVIL computer nerds, with the head of ebay forcing people to live in an underground suburb and the President of MySpace helping child molesters and filming the resulting encounters... :P

One question I'd like to answer; you asked if Green Arrow ever appeared in Birds of Prey and actually did anything. The answer is yes. He showed up three times I can think of during the Simone run alone.

First, he was among the heroes who came to Oracle's aid in that scene you posted the picture of. Okay, he didn't do much more than stand there, but he WAS there.

Before that, he showed up briefly during the storyline where Canary met Sin - he used his authority as Mayor of Star City to pull some strings to speed the adoption process along.

Finally, he and Canary partnered up in BoP #88. And it was the best Oliver Queen has been written anywhere in the last five years.

For more information on how Ollie has been mismanaged ever since Kevin Smith left his book, see my blog. :)

K. D. Bryan said...

Jamie - Thank you. Gail Simone has a real gift for translating her love of her characters into something universal and real. I wouldn't have looked past the Benes cheesecake if it wasn't for her fun, fast-paced and heartfelt storytelling (and in fairness to Benes, he did a lot of great facial expressions - the Chinese food eating scene, for instance).
If you had told me I'd be the most excited about a book starring guys named "Catman" and "Ragdoll" two years ago, I'd think you were crazy. Such is the power of Gail Simone.

I still have hope that somebody will relaunch the series after some time has passed, hopefully Simone herself or somebody with an equally deft touch. Huntress and Lady Blackhawk are way too awesome to be left floating in limbo for long.
*fingers crossed*

looking2dastars - Thank you.

And thank you so much for the answer to the Green Arrow question! I really was asking that as a serious question and I'm thrilled to have an answer for it. I'm also now kicking myself for not noticing the obvious inclusion of Ollie in that group shot. *smacks forehead*
Yeah, I only followed the last few issues sporadically but it really wasn't the most noble of ends for Birds of Prey, to put it mildly.

And I cackled like a madman at your Black Canary/Green Arrow edits! It's funny because it's (sadly) true.

Saranga said...

"If they're going to write a book about Black Canary and Green Arrow as a married couple, it should be a book that treats them as equal partners, not one constantly having to be incompetent to make the other look good."

Hear hear. Apart from the first 5 issues Dinah's portrayal in GA/BC is terrible.

As for the rest of the post, I stopped reading BoP around about issue 120, but everything you've said chimes well with what I did read.

batagogo said...

Awesome review! Absolutely.

Thanks to you for writing it, Maddy for the heads up.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for this. I too adore the BoP. One quickie. Batman showed up later on as well when Helena was working to break up the mob -- she gave him a bible of all of the Gotham mafia. He told she had done a good job (after spending the past decade telling her it was "his town". Dinah even gave him a big kiss for being nice (and deservedly so)

Other than that I think you summed up nicely the disappointment I had with how they wound down the series. I understand they wanted to shake up the books and reboot Barbara but I think they could have done it in a more positive way.
As you probably know by now Dinah and Ollie will have separate features. I can only hope that this will enable Dinah to return to some of her BoP form. Between the crap they have put her through in GA/BC and the shitatious way the JLA has treated her she needs something good. Why not just make her and Batgirl a team(if indeed a return to the cowl is what they have planned for Babs)

Until then I least I have Simone on the Six.

Traumador said...

Alas BOP. It was my favourite book under Simone, and kept in me comics a good extra 2 years longer than I'd planned.

I must say as a sidenote the guy who did the fill ins between Simone and McKeaver was really good as well. I hadn't noticed Simone left till my buddy asked how I was liking the post her run, and was shocked to find she'd left with the Spy Smasher arc.

I dropped the book as of McKeaver's 3rd issue, which was awful. That in and of itself is a shame. His Sentinel book at Marvel is among my all time favourites.

Now I'm bummed out (more so) by hearing how it actually ended. I was furious at DC's reason for ending it (along with soooo many other good books) simply so they could "kill" Batman. Why mess with a okay selling thing... Especially given how far they've fallen in the sales compared to Marvel these days.

I feel your pain, but feel joy in this. They may have taken our franchise, but they can never take our back issues!