This month saw Batgirl and the Birds of Prey become the latest DC Universe Rebirth launch title to end its run. Running for 22 issues, plus a special “Rebirth” issue published as a lead-in to #1, the comic was written by Julie and Shawna Benson who were tasked with tailoring the Birds of Prey— a superheroine team that existed in multiple forms since the mid-nineties—to suit the current state of the DC Universe.
The Bensons’ Birds of Prey revolves around a straightforward three-girl team. Dinah Lance, alias Black Canary, is one of the main characters having led her own twelve-issue series as part of the DCYou line. Also on the team is Helena Bertnelli, the daughter of a notorious mob family who now fights crime as the crossbow-wielding vigilante Huntress. After being sidelined by an alt-Earth counterpart during the New 52 era, this character was re-introduced into the DC Universe thanks to the spy comic Grayson.
Leading the team—as the series’ title suggests—is Batgirl herself, Barbara Gordon. More specifically, she is the Burnside interpretation of Batgirl. And this is where the Rebirth Birds of Prey differs from earlier versions of the series: right from its beginning, the comic needed to take account of how Batgirl has evolved in recent years.
In late 2014, the main Batgirl series was taken over by the creative team of Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher, and Babs Tarr, who sent Barbara Gordon to the hipster haven of Burnside. A world of day-glo colours, wacky villains, and a bubbly sense of humour, the Burnside Batgirl took the camp Gotham of the 1960s and ran it through a filter of Powerpuff Girls-cum-Scott Pilgrim. The Stewart/Tarr/Fletcher run ended with Rebirth, but some of its spirit lived on—if in muted form—with the relaunched Batgirl. Likewise, the bright pink shadow of Burnside looms over Batgirl and the Birds of Prey.
Admittedly, the comic does start out with the typical grim-and-gritty trappings that readers expect from Gotham. Issue #1 sets the mood by opening with Dinah’s description of urban decay: “It’s been years since I was on that train, and I can still smell the stench of urine mixed with impatience to this day.” The one-shot Rebirth issue published before that has a memorably macabre scene in which Huntress confesses her sins in a church booth, but instead of a priest, she turns out to be speaking to the corpse of a Mafia hit-man she has just killed.
But yet, underneath all this is the same love of the goofier, frothier side of the superhero genre that characterizes the Burnside Batgirl.
Batgirl and the Birds of Prey has a thick streak of cheese running through it, and this streak of cheese was placed there quite deliberately. When the heroes and villains get into a fight in a cinema, and begin spouting such quips as “sounds like we’re missing the movie,” “I hate being late to the movies,” and “I hate when people talk during the movies,” the comic is unabashedly celebrating superhero conventions. Admittedly, the dialogue sometimes becomes too cornball for its own good. The comic manages to trot out the old “you did it/no, we did it” exchange twice during its run. But on the whole, the goofiness ratio is well-balanced.
The series’ main artwork was handled by a revolving team of three illustrators, each of whom stays generally within the lighter, more cartoonish sphere. Claire Roe shows a fondness for comically exaggerated facial expressions. Roge Antonio’s artwork tends to lack this humorous touch, although it still uses a fair amount of cartoon stylization. Finally, Marcio Takara goes all-out with a chunky mixture of cuteness, brashness, and glamour, a perfect combination for the title, making it a shame that Takara got only two issues in the entire run.
While owing a debt to Burnside, the series also draws upon Barbara Gordon’s earlier incarnations. Her paralysis in The Killing Joke, and subsequent career as the wheelchair-using computer hacker Oracle, are major parts of her backstory in Batgirl and the Birds of Prey. The first story arc—“Who Is Oracle?”—pits Barbara against a cyberspace doppelganger: there is a new hacker in Gotham using her old pseudonym of Oracle. What’s more, this individual has managed to obtain the real names of all three Birds of Prey and has ties to Gotham’s gangland.
Tracking the false Oracle to his lair, the Birds of Prey find an array of photographs and objects relating to Batgirl and initially conclude that they are dealing with a stalker. But as it happens, Oracle turns out to be the ultimate fanboy: “I’m Gus Yale, A.K.A. Oracle, A.K.A. your biggest fan!” Gus obtained the Birds’ identities out of misplaced affection, rather than a desire to expose them, and even his criminal connections have a wholesome slant as he is diverting mob money to charity.
This revelation is very much in-keeping with the Burnside Batgirl. The sequence has a dash of the knowing humor that characterizes that run, with Gus’ collection of Batgirl memorabilia (ranging from weaponry to cuddly toys) blurs the line between an in-universe fan of superheroes and a real-world comic book enthusiast. The decision to make the false Oracle an unusual friend rather than a sinister villain is also true to the Stewart/Tarr/Fletcher interpretation, with its varied additions to Barbara’s social circle.
While all of this is going on, Batgirl and Black Canary struggle with the third wheel on their team, as Huntress is rather more brutal than the other two and has no qualms about killing her foes. The internal conflict between the gritty and the goofy plays out in narrative terms as the conflict between Barbara and Helena.
Barbara and Dinah’s reactions to Huntress’ brutality are often played for laughs. One of the team’s first clashes occurs over the best way to interrogate a captive; Huntress suggests torture, only to receive a sarcastic response from Black Canary (“All in favor of a plan that doesn’t involve waterboarding a Mafia guy for intel, raise your hand”). Again, behind the grim veneer is the lightness of Burnside.
Fenice, the mob boss who is manipulating Oracle, turns out to be Huntress’ mother Maria Bertinelli (a plot twist which is, alas, telegraphed a little too early by the fact that Maria’s face is carefully hidden in flashbacks). The ensuing family drama leads Huntress to Santo—the man who murdered the rest of the Bertinellis—but having had her moral compass adjusted by Babs and Dinah, Helena settles for handing Santo over to the police rather than killing him.
As “Who is Oracle?” is focused very much on Babs and Helena; Black Canary gets pushed to the side. The second story arc, “Blackbird,” makes up for this by placing her center stage. The villain of the story, the titular Blackbird, is secretly training metahumans in a Fight Club-like underground; as the only superpowered member of the Birds, it falls upon Dinah to infiltrate her operation.
“Blackbird” is an example of how Batgirl and the Birds of Prey freely delves into the more fantastical aspects of the Batman mythos. The comic had already made some moves in this direction with its first storyline (Fenice’s heavies are snake/human monsters, while a supervillain with the ability to magically control zodiac signs turned up in a throwaway scene), and “Blackbird” takes things a step further with a whole storyline focusing on superpowered Gothamites.
A plot thread running through the comic involves Gus’ continued involvement with criminals behind the backs of his new allies. This is the center of the third story arc, “Source Code,” where the Birds of Prey learn that all this time Gus has been working for long-time DC villain Calculator.
But Gus pleads his case, explaining that Calculator came into his life when he was a child in a broken home. The ensuing flashback is set partly in the imagination of Gus’ childhood self; in a quirky visual touch, the characters here are portrayed as Muppets, childlike innocence mingling with harsh reality. In exchange for his whizz-kid hacking services, Calculator helped Gus first by paying off his mother’s mortgage and later by providing black market medication for his bipolar disorder. The Birds of Prey forgive Gus, only for another twist: Calculator comes to them for help, his wife and children having been kidnapped.
What follows is a traditionally convoluted detective yarn in the best Gotham tradition. The hostages are being held by the shady corporation Terracare as punishment for Calculator’s involvement in the theft of company property. But the person who holds that stolen property is Catwoman, Calculator having been no more than her accomplice. In helping Calculator, the Birds of Prey initially spar with Catwoman before persuading her to help save the innocent hostages. However, doing so puts them up against Poison Ivy in eco-terrorist mode, who is trying to bring down Terracare from within. Batgirl eventually wins the day by appealing to Ivy’s better nature.
Much of this is very silly, and consciously so, but the storyline touches upon some sensitive topics and succeeds in treating them with dignity. The shame that Gus feels about his bipolar disorder, his bonding with Calculator (who has obsessive compulsive disorder), and his subsequent support from the heroines all help to bring a human touch to Batgirl and the Birds of Prey.
The addition of Catwoman and Poison Ivy to the comic’s cast leads into the next story arc, “Manslaughter,” which celebrates the heroines and villainesses of Gotham. The city is hit by a mysterious disease, which incapacitates men but leaves women unharmed. To solve the mystery, the Birds of Prey team up with Harley Quinn, Batwoman, Spoiler, Orphan, Gotham Girl, and Renee Monotoya, while Lois Lane, Wonder Woman, and Amanda Waller arrive from further afield.
The culprits turn out to be a man-hating terrorist sect called the Daughters of Gotham. Clad in medieval plague masques and cult-like robes adorned with Venus symbols, the Daughters offer an uncompromising manifesto:
Women of Gotham! For too long we have been under the oppressive patriarchy which has made our city crime-ridden and weak. Men are the disease infecting Gotham City and the Daughters of Gotham are the cure. We seek to end the tyranny of men. We’ve neutralized our enemy without a single shot fired. Soon we will do more than simply weaken them. Men only understand one language—violence. We have spoken in our language—peace. With the men of Gotham incapacitated, women are free to walk the streets without fear, judgment, sexual harassment, murder, robbery, or other violence against them.
The decision to use militant feminists as villains in a story celebrating female heroes is a significant one, given the climate under which the comic was published. In the era of Comicsgate and online outrage over a perceived “SJW” influence within the comics industry, the “Manslaughter” storyline seems like a calculatedly middle-of-the-road statement, its script indicating that feminism is generally positive but has an extreme fringe that needs to be reined in.
“Misandry isn’t feminism,” says Lois Lane. “This could set us back decades.” Huntress concurs, “They don’t speak for all women.” When the terrorists’ spokeswoman expresses a desire to “start over, raising good men of Gotham,” the Birds of Prey respond with, “There are good men in Gotham … and we’re ready to fight for them.”
“Manslaughter” also makes a dig at trans-exclusionary feminism, albeit in a single panel towards its very end. Once the disease has been thwarted, Renee states that “the virus targeted people with the genetic make-up of males, but not all the victims were men,” prompting Batwoman to make an additional condemnation of the terrorist leader’s “binary view of the world.” This part of the story seems like a last-minute consideration, particularly as Barbara’s transgender friend Alysia Yeoh—a regular character in the main Batgirl title—is nowhere to be seen. (The disease, incidentally, is cured by giving all of the men of Gotham doses of estrogen. Any side-effects of this measure are, alas, unexplored.)
The bubbly qualities of Batgirl and the Birds of Prey come to a head in issue #14, a done-in-one story involving an immortal Native American magician fitting in between “Source Code” and “Manslaughter.” Here, the three heroines are portrayed for all intents and purposes as a bunch of happy-go-lucky kids, exchanging ghost stories over a campfire, putting pig noses on their selfies, and battling a villain straight out of a Disney cartoon.
But the final story arc, “Full Circle,” forces the characters to grow up. The plot begins with Barbara finding a way to hack into Calculator’s online correspondence and identify his criminal cohorts. The Birds of Prey manage to take down a number of villains using this trick, although Babs keeps her cohorts in the dark about her ethically dubious measures. Eventually Calculator finds out what is going on and pins the blame on Oracle. He sends a Terminator-like robot assassin named Burnrate on a mission to track down the hacker; the robot ends up killing not Babs but Gus.
The loss tears the team apart; Batgirl is wracked with guilt, while Canary and Huntress blame her for the catastrophe. But while the heroes are falling out, the villains are banding together, as Calculator and Burnrate break Blackbird and Fenice out of Arkham. Calculator manages to capture Helena after getting her identity from Fenice, and so Batgirl and Black Canary must team up again to save their cohort.
Helena is forced to confront her gangland history and lay her family’s Mafia connections to rest. Black Canary, who previously had her vocal powers enhanced by Blackbird, is now afraid to use them in case she harms bystanders; she is laid low by a kind of super-stagefright, as befitting her recent portrayal as lead singer of a band. Barbara, meanwhile, is again faced with her past identity as Oracle. It turns out that Calculator’s sole motivation for going after the Birds of Prey is that, after all these years, he remains sour that Oracle outsmarted him. All in all, “Full Circle” makes for a satisfying conclusion to the comic’s run.
Batgirl and the Birds of Prey does stumble a number of times across its twenty-three issues, and slips into cliché a few times too often, but its unabashed and infectious enthusiasm for old-school superheroics makes this easy to forgive. Julie and Shawna Benson did a good job of integrating the colourful Batgirl of Burnside into the gloomier corners of Gotham, and showed how Barbara Gordon is a character equally at home with the frothy and the sombre.