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On the Wing

Why Read Birds of Prey

by Constance Cochran

art by Fred Sadek

Oracle at the Keys by Fred SadekThere's been talk on The Dixonverse comment board for a while now as to why sales on Birds of Prey aren't higher. Apparently some comic book stores won't even carry it. Fortunately, I live in a large metropolitan area and I not only manage to get each monthly issue, but back issues as well. Lucky me. But the sales mystery remains.

There is speculation that stores don't stock Birds of Prey because it's a "girlie" book. It's that kind of neanderthal thinking that recently resulted in the butchering of the first episode of the anime series Escaflowne on Fox Kids. Fox left only a few scenes intact, dropping them into episode two as flashbacks. So, you wonder now, what does anime have to do with Birds of Prey? Both Birds of Prey and Escaflowne are a unique mixture. They are action-oriented, simultaneously plot- and character- driven stories that happen to have one or more females as the key character. Escaflowne is known for combining shoujou (stories targeted at girls) elements with elements that supposedly have more "boy appeal" like mecha exo-frame fighting devices and massive battles.

The reason Fox condensed episode 1 of Escaflowne is that their marketers thought boys would be bored with it. Episode 1 focuses strongly on the series heroine and establishes her character.

Fox cheated the boys and the girls, just as much as the comic book dealers who won't stock Birds of Prey. Two narrow-minded and erroneous assumptions rear their hairy heads. One, that females will be bored with action, major-scale conflict, and eye-candy. Two, that males will be unable to appreciate emotion, character development, and internal conflict.

Birds of Prey is a skillful melding of both. Where else will you find boot-to-fist fighting, the foiling of international terrorist plots, lots of neat high-tech toys, plenty of explosions, and yet also issue #8, which existed solely for a bittersweet, sad, and tender encounter between one of the series' two heroines and the man she shares a complicated growing romance with? If Birds were an anime series imported to american television, #8 would have been merely a three panel flashback.

Birds primarily focuses on its two female leads. They aren't part of an ensemble cast, like Starfire and Donna Troy in The New Teen Titans during the 1980's, or a lone star surrounded by an ensemble, like the innovative WB hit Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Both are excellent series which attract an audience likely to enjoy Birds. I can think of only one action/drama tv series, and no comics (although I admit to limited knowledge) that focused on a female/female partership, the cop show Cagney and Lacey. There's a new series on USA called The Huntress, which is about two female bounty hunters, but one, the show didn't strike me as all that good, and two, the team-up focuses on a mother and daughter. They're related, stuck with each other either way. But maybe that's beside the point--Birds is one of the comics I read convincing me, for the moment, that the sequntial art format can take us places most network television won't.

For the unitiated, Black Canary, a.k.a. Dinah Lance, is a superhero with no superpowers, but plenty of martial arts skill and a punch that could fell a rhino. She's unfocused at the start of the series, a bit of a loose cannon who dislikes taking orders. Canary is the perfect foil to the more serious Oracle. Once upon a time the original Batgirl until the Joker shot her and rendered her wheelchair-bound, in her new superhero identity of Oracle, Barbara Gordon dedicates herself to an astonishing information network. Oracle knows all and sees all, and even Batman himself uses her 411. She is driven and sets high standards for herself, even more so because of the wheelchair. This book not only contains an original and engaging pair of heroines, but it quesions the very definition of what makes a superhero. Neither Oracle nor Canary are more "important" to the success of a mission than the other. It's not just the fact that Barbara is now handicapped. It's that she doesn't wear spandex or a cape. She has fighting skills and can wield escrima sticks with the best of them, but her power comes from her mind. Superheroes come in all shapes, sizes, and abilities. Both are clever, but one in a more "street smarts" way, one in an analytical, bookish fashion. Both are strong-willed, one somewhat rash in her confidence in her ability to bust the door down and start kicking booty, the other more deliberate and thoughtful, perhaps too cautious. These two are one of history's great team-ups.

Oracle and Black Canary didn't meet face-to-face until just recently. They communicate via audio remote. Canary's safety often depends on the voice coming over her earpiece like some female Jiminy Cricket. Because of their contrasting methods, personalities, and styles, and because Canary believes that She Who Dodges Bullets knows better than She Who Sits at Computer, the two are in steady conflict. Against this conflict, over the past two years or so of the book's run, we have seen Canary and Oracle come to trust and rely on each other. We have seen a professional bond become friendship. Via remote, these women have known each other at their strongest and most vulnerable.

This slow evolution over time is one of the comic book format's great gifts. Birds of Prey is one of the great comic books. It relies on characterization to seize attention. The action is satisfying and the bullets seem real--these are no cardboard-cutout formulaic comic book figures. We are fully aware of Canary's danger. Despite the smooth martial arts, Dinah is expressive with her sense of peril; like Harrison Ford's portrayal of Indiana Jones, this offers not an impression of cowardice but rather a poignant awareness of her own mortality. We feel heart-wrenching sympathy as Oracle can only listen, hopeless to take action as Canary is captured. Oracle buries her head in her arms before her computer console, and we realize how much she has come to care about her partner.

As for the "girlie book" fears, forget about it. Being literate and a member of the human race is enough reason to read. For the guys, there are two attractive female leads, for the gals two rare role models (and the occasional cameo from some of the heart-thumping men of the DCU). And despite the attractiveness, neither woman exists as sex object. To paraphrase series writer Chuck Dixon, they keep their clothes on. Dixon is brilliant at character and action, and in his titles seems to enjoy adrenaline pumping as much as thougtful, respectful delineations of heroes of either gender and all ages, from the adolescent Tim Drake/Robin to elderly retired superhero John Law/Tarantula.

Let's not forget the artists. Greg Land started the series. His naturalistic work has a beauty and precision that is unequaled. Good in his pencil is warm and breathtaking. Evil is lethal and also beautiful, Lucifer-like. Butch Guice, who took over after Land left to do Nightwing, took little time to prove himself to fans. His work is grittier than Land's, but emanates emotion and energy. When his characters are calm or happy, they look pretty, while anger transforms them to harshness. His portrayal of Oracle is my favorite. Guice somehow manages to celebrate her intellect as much as her looks. He never shows her as nerdy even while the numbers on a computer screen reflect off her glasses, and he never shows her as some big-busted over-sexed broad even when she is beautiful. And check out the cover of Birds of Prey #21, which kind of sums it all up in one picture. Oracle is in full action mode, yet there are tell-tale straps around her limp legs. Her head is back, her arms outflung, hands propelling her along through a tunnel filled with rushing water. This cover was part of the "Hunt for Oracle" storyline, where we saw clearly that Barbara could take care of herself intellectually and physically. Black Canary, who wears spandex, is an easier target for objectification and yet also receives respectful treatment. She is portrayed as good-looking and physically fit, but without the body-distortions found in some comics or on the ubiquitous Barbie. She has to be fit to survive. Don't hate her because she's beautiful.

Birds combines action and emotion, humor and angst. And oh yeah, eye-candy. Comic book stores are missing out on sales by not stocking this book. Readers are only depriving themselves by not giving it at least a trial. Birds of Prey is a "good read" with depth.

 
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