The Birds of Prey series is apparently a new incarnation of an old series, but I am entering their world as a complete newcomer, a stranger in a strange land. I made the choice to cross the threshold into the text without doing any background reading, to see just how privileged of an environment I was attempting to assimilate into.
But before I dive right into the meat of this issue, I am inclined to believe it necessary to discuss why I chose this particular comic book in the first place. What I am most interested in, in regard to the study of the comic book super hero, is how the heroines are portrayed, past and present, as well as what can be their projected portrayal into the future of the genre. I am also interested in analyzing the female superhero because I have always seen the comic genre as a male centered genre. It is my intent to discover whether these female stars are drawn in the manner they are in order to please this primarily male audience or if their audience is primarily male because the ways in which they are portrayed is unappealing to a female audience. This is just the kind of egg / chicken debate that I enjoy, so here I am.
Now back to the birds.
While gazing at the shelves in Earth 2 Comics, I noticed right away that there was a definite lack in female-centered series. But the Birds of Prey drew my attention in that there was not just one strong female portrayed upon the cover, but FOUR. Now we were getting somewhere! Yes, there outfits seemed inappropriate for a life of crime fighting, and yes, their most discerning feature was their physical perfection and flawless beauty, but still, four forceful female super heroes. And the series was written by a woman too. I had found my case study.
The action opens in an unlikely place for a super hero comic: the tundra of Iceland. The first several pages are focused on the interior monologues of a female character who is not introduced by name until the fourth page. When she is finally introduced she is described as Black Canary A.K.A. Dinah Lance, one of the world’s deadliest hand-to-hand combat fighters and the possessor of a scream that can shatter steel. She proceeds to get the better of four physically formidable would be child murders, aided by another female character, Zinda, who in true super hero fashion, fires rubber bullets from her helicopter. What is presented in this opening is classic super hero business with a twist. Life is being preserved, the weak are being saved, and yet there is a juxtaposition presented, between the tough as nails exterior and a sensitive, human interior.
When analyzing this opening scene, I took note of several things. First, I was taken by the use of the interior monologue. Right from the opening page, the reader is allowed to enter the psyche of this hero in a way that is often absent in other comics that I have read thus far for this class. The reader enters an advantaged space in which he or she knows Black Canary’s plans before she executes them, as well as her anxieties, fears and doubts. This is not only crucial to rounding our her character, for on the outside she is able to appear strong and without a crack in her armor, while internally she is actually very much human, but additionally it is a marked difference from the way comic heroes are often portrayed. Mentally, here was a character that I could relate to.
In terms of the layout of this comic, I found it to be lush, detailed and dynamic. The drawings were fluid from panel to panel and had an incredible depth to them. The artist, Ed Benes, gives the reader beautiful and sensuous female characters, yes, but most of all I was struck by the amount of detail put in their musculature. These women are strong and it is evident in each depiction of them. Also appreciated was the fact that although their outfits were skintight and skimpy, there were some practical elements to them, such as flat soled boots and kneepads and things of that nature. Still, it is obvious that the primary objective of the physical representation of these characters is most assuredly sex appeal. Still, they aren’t in stilettos, so that, I suppose, is a move in the right direction.
Getting back into the storyline, the third character the reader is introduced to is a wheelchair bound Oracle A.K.A. Barbara Gordon A.K.A. the former Batgirl. Like Black Canary, the mind of Oracle is also accessible to the reader. And it is through these inner thoughts that I was, quite unexpectedly, thrust into a world I was somewhat familiar with, Gotham City. But it is altered from what I am accustomed to. This Gotham, still dark, still gritty, still full of crime seems to be void of the Batman. Ms. Gordon is in the Batcave, now modified for wheelchair access, but Bruce and Alfred are not on the scene. And the crime is now being combated by a new set of supers. Oracle is attempting to get her now disbanded group back together, the Black Canary, Zinda, A.K.A Blackhawk and a third heroine, the Huntress.
Another old face surfaces towards the end of the volume, the infamous Batman villain, Penguin. Interestingly enough, just before this volume ends it appears that Black Canary and Huntress are interested in protecting Penguin, he even appears to summon them via a spotlight which presumably used to call Batman and now calls the Birds. When they arrive,the group is attacked by an unidentified female, who stabs Penguin, and gets the better of both the Huntress and Black Canary, and the reader is left with a final image of this formidable female foe standing above a fallen Black Canary and a bleeding Penguin in a full page shot who taunts for someone to “save him, if you can.” The teaser for the next volume identifies her as the White Canary.
Like some of the earlier panels, this one is striking; the grit of this Gotham, the power of these female characters, and the binaries of light and dark, good and evil, hero and villain are brought into question in a single drawing.
This volume presents many questions and no answers for me, and leaves me anxious to get to volume number two.