THE END OF BIRDS OF PREY?
I'm usually not one to focus on news items or hype from the big two that talk about projects five months down the road. But now that Gail Simone's announcement that she's leaving Birds of Prey is official, I find that I'm a bit worried for the survival of the book.
It's a strange thing to be a reader of comics as well as a commentator of sorts on a podcast that talks about comics. The reason being, you sometimes learn info, whether you want to or not, before it's official but you can't say anything until the info is made official. That was the case with this little bit of news. Now that it's out, I want to talk about my initial reaction to the news.
I really enjoy Birds of Prey the comic. For many reasons and on many different levels.
On the most obvious level, ever since Simone took over the book, Birds of Prey has been a wonderful title full of great characterization set against a backdrop of the more action/adventure/spy aspects of the DC Universe. It is a consistent read month to month and the art very rarely disappoints (even when I felt Ed Benes went a bit over the line with his excessive T & A poses). But still, for a good solid read month to month, I'm there.
On a non "most obvious level", Birds of Prey is in a unique position. It's a moderately successful comic with an all female cast written by (arguably) the highest profile mainstream female comic writer. It recently celebrated its 100th issue while managing to (finally!) acquire a female artist. It is a title that sells primarily on the strength of its content with a strong reader following and a title that rarely relies on any kind of "bad girl" or "tintillation" factor (now if only DC would trust that it can sell without that damn Batman symbol).
It is because of this unique position that I'm worried for its future.
When Gail Simone took over the series, she gave the book something very special in terms of credibility, believability and honesty. I hadn't read Birds of Prey for years before she came onboard and it was her name that made me pick it up once again. After a few issues, I was definitely staying for the long haul. Simone's voices for each character rang true. Their reactions and interactions felt like they were coming from a place of experience. And above all, the characters existed because Black Canary, Barbara Gordon and Huntress had fully developed personalities and roles that moved out of the shadows of their respective counterparts (Green Arrow, Batman and/or Nightwing and Batman again). These women complimented each other.
In my Top Five Favorite Female Heroes, Black Canary ranks around #3. One of the first super-hero comics I ever read was Justice League of America vol.1 #210 (Jan'83). Justice League of America vol.1 #219 & 220 featured a Black Canary story where we finally learned her true origin and, believe it or not, where the Black Canary that we know today first appeared.
Continuity 101: Before these issues, it was assumed by the reader that the Black Canary that joined the JLA back in issue #75 (Nov'69) was the Golden Age version that previously belonged to the JSA. In this story, Black Canary's husband sacrifices himself to protect his wife. Feeling like she had nothing left on Earth-2, Black Canary crosses over to Earth-1, joins the JLA, falls in love with Green Arrow and somehow acquires her canary cry. It is revealed in Justice League of America #219 & 220 that the Earth-2 Black Canary never made it to Earth-1. The same energies that killed her husband were slowly killing her. On the journey between worlds, Black Canary decided to give her life to her daughter, who, unknown to readers, had been held in stasis for years because of out of control powers given to her as a child by the Golden Age villain the Wizard. It was the daughter that emerged onto Earth-1 all those years ago. The daughter (and readers) never knew this whole transference happened until now in a story suggested by Marv Wolfman, written by Gerry Conway and Roy Thomas and beautifully pencilled by Chuck Patton. All wrapped up behind two amazing George Perez covers, this story was a major retcon at a time when that word didn't even exist. By the way, you should be able to find these issues in cheap back issue bins.
Ever since then, Black Canary has been a favorite. Most likely because I was in on the ground floor of a "new" character. Another reason I liked her as a character is because she often stood side by side with Green Arrow and felt like his equal. She wasn't content to being just a sidekick or a second-string partner. The same could be said, in rare occurances, of the pre-Crisis Hawkwoman and definitely of the current Kendra Saunders Hawkgirl. Black Canary had some ups and downs on her journey since Justice League of America, most notably her supporting cast role in the Mike Grell Green Arrow series. She would play second fiddle to Green Arrow for years (even during Kevin Smith's run) and unfortunately became a bit aimless as a character.
Cue Chuck Dixon.
It was Chuck Dixon who started the whole Birds of Prey concept in 1996 and throughout his stories, Black Canary often struggled to find her place again in the DC Universe. Alongside Barbara Gordon in her role as Oracle, the two characters began to carve a name for themselves as individuals and partners. But it was Gail Simone who proved that Black Canary could be a major player worthy of standing next to the magnificent seven of the Justice League of America as well as the legacy heroes of the Justice Society of America.
(Let me interject that Mark Waid's handling of Black Canary in JLA: Year One is certainly a highpoint for the character. However, since she was used as a substitute for Wonder Woman in JLA continuity, it's a little bit of a cheat in that the focus on her was almost demanded instead of earned.)
As we know her today, Black Canary is back as a major player, a current member of the Justice League of America and a strong individual character and much of that credit has to go to Gail Simone.
However - and here's where I falter a bit because I hate to play in a sandbox full of "but what if's" - all that could change if the creative team set to take over Birds of Prey ignores what has come before and takes her or any of the Birds back into any kind of "damsel in distress" or second fiddle role. There have been major steps taken in the relationships between Black Canary and Green Arrow, Oracle and Batman, Oracle and Nightwing, Huntress and Batman etc. that cannot be ingnored. Especially by the Batman-comics editorial office which has been notorious in the past for being moody, grim and stubborn. Hmmmmm.....
Anyway, another reason why I fear this backtracking could happen is because of the rumored Green Arrow/Black Canary comic and the eventual marriage of Green Arrow and Black Canary. While I think that could be in Green Arrow's favor, it could backfire for Black Canary much in the same way that Storm has taken several steps backwards from "X-Men leader" to "Black Panther's wife". It's as if the decision is made to force upon the character some kind of false immediate importance when in fact the character is probably stronger on their own in the right hands.
I'm not trying to predict the future or be a naysayer. I just hope that Birds of Prey continues to take chances and show why these characters are necessary in the DCU. And why a book like this is important for female readers and for the industry in general. And why they don't need ripped costumes, boyfriends or to be tied up every third issue to attract male readers. In other words, don't let this comic become another male-fantasy driven book behind cheesecake covers. Let it be smart, funny, sexy, important and fun.
Surprise me, DC. Remember Gail Simone's run for the chances it took. You took that chance for Manhunter, now continue to do it for Birds of Prey.