Pulp and Dagger

Graphic Novel Review


Birds of Prey: Of Like Minds

2004 - available in soft cover

Written by Gail Simone. Pencils by Ed Benes. Inks by Alex Lei with Rob Lea.
Colours: Hi Fi. Letters: John Workman, others. Editor: Lysa Hawkins.

Reprinting: Birds of Prey #56-61 (2003)

144 pages

Published by DC Comics

Cover price: $14.95 USA

The Birds of Prey comic book series features the original Batgirl, now a wheelchair bound uber-hacker named Oracle who guides street level operatives, namely the Black Canary and, more irregularly, the Huntress. In an industry that has trouble maintaining female leads, this all-girl team has done pretty well for itself, even having spawned a short-lived TV series. That show fiddled with the concept, namely by making Huntress the central character (and a version of the character that owes little to this one), but other aspects of the comic will seem comfortably familiar to TV fans -- some of the heart-to-hearts between Oracle and Black Canary could easily have been conversations between Oracle and Huntress in the TV series. I mention this because even a poorly rated TV series probably had a larger audience than most comics, and the comic might still benefit from a crossover audience.

The Birds of Prey comic has been a generally well regarded effort if you're looking for breezy, two-fisted action tales, often with foes that are crooks and gangsters rather than "super" villains, and with some emphasis on the buddy bonding between the heroines. This trade paperback collection, Birds of Prey: Of Like Minds, showcases the beginning of a new creative team of writer Gail Simone and artist Ed Benes (and, like a lot of recent TPBs, it's been rushed onto the stands so that, if you pick this up, then run to the local comic shop for the latest issue...you'll only have missed an issue or two in-between).

And, for the most part, it delivers the goods as a breezy, action series with an emphasis on buddy bonding.

The Birds come up against Savant, an unstable villain who's well named; he's almost as smart as Oracle, and as physically tough as Black Canary. His stock-in-trade is blackmail and he captures Black Canary in order to force Oracle to do his bidding, forcing Oracle to call in the Huntress for help.

The "Of Like Minds" story occupies the first four issues, then segues into a two-part tale that stems from the first. That's worth noting because I can sometimes read a TPB collection, getting my taste buds set for a complex, epic saga...only to be a bit put-off when, as here, it turns out actually to be comprised of two shorter, and simpler, stories. The kidnapping isn't the first act in an epic story. Rather, it is the story (well, the first story, anyway). Black Canary is kidnapped, Huntress and Oracle work to rescue her.

Simone writes breezily, with an emphasis on wry humour. The result is both enjoyable...but also a touch light-weight. Simone tells a tale that's fun even though it should seem decidedly unpleasant, involving as it does Black Canary having both legs broken and, later, breaking her own thumb to escape handcuffs! Oracle is worried that the Canary, having been through a similar ordeal (way back in Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters) might be traumatized...but, instead, she remains cheery and unfazed. If this was Daredevil or Batman, it would be treated as a gruelling, gritty saga of human endurance...here, it's all pretty glib. The tone keeps the story from being unpleasant but, I'll admit, one can look back with qualms about Simone's cavalier attitude toward violence.

There's an unbelievable cartooniness throughout...such as a sequence where the Canary, in a wheelchair and with a broken hand, easily trounces three armed thugs.

Still, Simone tells the story well enough, keeping the pace up, and even smartly structuring it so that each chapter has its own narrative focus. The badinage is generally amusing enough and there is some effective quirkiness, particularly involving the villain, as well as his henchman.

The final storyline arises from the first, but leaves a few threads dangling, presumably for later storylines -- though it's not to be continued, per se. Reading on-line descriptions of the next couple of issues, the series seems to start on a new plot line.

The art by Ed Benes and inker Alex Lei borders on a guilty pleasure. Benes is a clean, disciplined artist, nicely handling faces and figures and backgrounds. He has a touch of a Manga style perhaps, with a certain Eurasian cast to all the women, and all the men big and blocky, but not so much so that it slides into caricature. The guilty pleasure comes in because Benes also likes women, or rather, the womanly form. It's interesting how far comics have come (or fallen, depending on your P.O.V.) that where once critics would heap derision on sexploitive comics, this revamped Birds of Prey has been getting mainly good press. Both Black Canary and the Huntress feature costumes with cut-off shorts that could be defined as just a little, ahem, cheeky. And Benes favours low angle shots so that even when focusing on a character in the background, a perky posterior can be featured in the foreground. Granted, Benes avoids endowing his heroines with ridiculous measurements (at least, any moreso than any comic book hero, male or female) and the cheesecake poses at least stem a little from the scenes.

Though I'm ambivalent, what's not to like about beautiful babes in revealing costumes who are given some emotional texture and legitimacy by a female writer? You can respect 'em AND ogle 'em!

All of Benes' women look identical save for their hair. And Simone is also guilty of writing her heroines a little homogeneously. Though, to her credit, amid all the action and glibness, there's some delving into the relationships. As seems to be the overall editorial policy at DC Comics, the characters are portrayed a lot as if they're wisecracking teenagers. At times I wondered if Simone and Benes were angling for a gig doing Buffy the Vampire Slayer comics. I can't say I fully recognized these characters as the Barbara Gordon and Dinah Lance I remembered from days gone by.

The fact that the series is written by a woman probably gives it a teflon coating. I mean, with Black Canary spending much of the story bound, battered and stretched out on a bed, with some risqué dialogue, and banter emphasizing the skimpiness of the costumes, it's hard to imagine a man writing this stuff and not getting hauled onto the carpet for sexism.

Simone also has an unfortunate tendency to treat morality as a kind of fluid concept. Sadly, she's not alone. Characters might debate right and wrong, and even argue liberal views...but, in Simone's world view, ethics are just something to be paid lip service to, nothing more.

Ultimately, what can one say? Fun and sexy and well paced, with some quirky twists and turns, this collection actually makes me open to reading further adventures...even as, breezy and superficial as it is, it admittedly falls a bit short of being riveting drama.

Reviewed by D.K. Latta

Got a response?  Email us at lattabros@yahoo.com

Pulp and Dagger Fiction Webzine