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.