In June, DC Comics kicked off the start of its Rebirth initiative. After a wave of criticism surrounding the way they have treated their characters’ rich histories since 2011’s New 52 relaunch, DC has decided to rebrand. They hope that by restoring their characters’ pasts, they will restore readers’ faith in them as well. Do they succeed? That’s what the Comics Beat managing editor Alex Lu and entertainment editor Kyle Pinion are here to discuss. Book by book. Panel by panel.
Welcome to month three of DC Reborn!
Note: the review below contains **spoilers**. If you want a quick, spoiler-free buy/pass recommendation on this book, check out the bottom of the article for our final verdict.
Batgirl and the Birds of Prey #1
Writers: Julie Benson & Shawna Benson
Artist: Claire Roe
Colorist: Allen Passalaqua
Kyle Pinion: When reviewing Batgirl and the Birds of Prey: Rebirth, I was generally pretty positive on the experience. I recognized there were a little bit of “new to comics” moments from Julie and Shawna Benson, but I ended up getting the sense that the title was potentially headed to a fun place. It was an issue that bridged the gap between the DC You eras of Batgirl and Black Canary (and even a little bit of Grayson) to coagulate into something that seemed like it was going to pay homage to Chuck Dixon’s classic team. I was excited about where this was headed.
Nevermind all of that. This first issue is, to put it bluntly, god awful. From an overwrought opening that presents atrocious dialogue between this new iteration of the team, to clumsily plotted scenes that attempt to highlight how important the Oracle name is to Barbara, to hideously severe art from Claire Roe, to an unbelievably terrible fight between Asp and the three leads of this comic; I struggled to get through this. I found that choking down the contents of this issue was akin to trying to swallow a really disgusting pill without the benefit of water. I had to stop every few pages and question why I was reading it and putting myself through the displeasure.
I’m not sure if this is the worst Rebirth issue I’ve read yet, but it’s very close. I just can’t imagine ever wanting to pick this comic up again, I was that turned off by it. Alex, maybe you’ll hold a different opinion and shock the hell out of me.
Alex Lu: Well…I think we share the same opinion with a different level of severity. I’ll be frank and say I did not like Batgirl and the Birds of Prey #1 either. I think there was a great deal wrong with it both narratively and visually. However, I think it’s worth giving credit where credit is due, first.
On a basic level, I think writers Julie Benson and Shawna Benson do have a decent understanding of the various members of the Birds of Prey and do their best to highlight the similarities and differences between them. Dinah’s relationship with Barbara is sometimes strained but always supportive. Barbara’s need to salvage her previous identity as Oracle makes sense for her character. Even Huntress’ motivations are understandable through the clunky dialogue of this book. If you had never read a story featuring these characters, you would at least be able to follow the book along.
That said, there are a lot of problems with the way this story was crafted. For one thing, Dinah’s narration is way too overdone. I don’t think the Bensons are close to being the only writers who load up on caption boxes, but it’s particularly egregious here given how often Dinah’s words are redundant when juxtaposed with the dialogue and art on the page. At one point, Dinah says “Babs has never been the type to let her emotions run roughshod over her restraint. But this is different. This is Oracle. This is personal for her.” The captions are placed over a panel showing Batgirl lashing out, gritting her teeth and yelling that they need to do something. This panel would have read in exactly the same way without this text– at the very least without the bits about Oracle being “different” for Babs. It may seem like a nitpicky critique, but when this sort of problem crops up every other page it makes the reading experience feel like much more of a slog.
I know you are certainly not big on the dialogue in general here, Kyle. Do you want to dive deeper into that?
Kyle: Really, the best way I can summarize my issues with the groan-worthy (and did I ever groan out loud often) dialogue is to bring up specific examples that just drove me up the wall:
Batgirl: “I need him alive!”
Huntress: “And I want him dead!”
Huntress: “Stay away from me or I expose you both, Barbara Gordon and Dinah Lance!”
Huntress: “The only reason I’m letting you live is because Grayson trusted you”
Batgirl: “Dick Grayson?”
Huntress: “Good, you remember him.”
And it goes on and on, including a run-down of Huntress’ tragic backstory as she’s assaulting a gangster and a play on words regarding Dinah’s canary cry that falls flatter than a pancake. The issues with dialogue underline just how much difficulty the Bensons have had with adapting to these characters. Sure, they have a decent enough understanding of Barbara and Dinah’s relationship, though I might argue that their iteration of Helena is nothing like the character we saw in Grayson, but the conversations held between all of them are brutally forced, loaded with exposition, and written as if it’s pitched to the absolutely lowest common denominator. I know this isn’t high art, but the audience deserves a little more credit than they’re being given here. It’s a fine line, trying to establish a new series for a hopefully growing audience, and underscore the history these characters have, but they shouldn’t talk like they’ve all had lobotomies either.
And sadly, even in terms of its visuals, which I found fairly enjoyable last go-round, something seemed to be lacking in Roe’s turn at bat with this issue. I don’t want to call it the least attractive book of the line because I think Green Lanterns still remains the reigning champ, but there’s something about the facial work that Roe employs here that is rather repelling. I’m reminded a bit of when Ron Wimberly jumped on board She-Hulk, and while I’m normally a fan of that artist, it was a case of someone whose stylistic flourishes and exaggerated characteristics did not line up with the comic at hand (and fans responded in kind). I get the same sense here, as Roe and Wimberly share some common traits perhaps, and maybe that’s just not the best fit for superhero, or at least Big Two, comics. I know that’s weird to say, given how we tend to eschew the concept of house-style and celebrate artists like Carmine Di Giandomenico on The Flash, but perhaps what Roe is doing is a step too far here. Alex, am I off-base? Or am I just taking wild swings to justify why I hated this so much?
Alex: No, I would agree. I think Roe generally has the right idea going into each page. You can see the story flow in a relatively decent way and big moments always get their appropriate amount of visual space. Roe even does some truly neat things like turning a “HISS” sound effect into a series of reaction shot panels. Unfortunately though, in the end a lot of her figure work and facial expressions come off as way overdone.
In this book, emotions are not made to be expressed subtly. They’re made to be screamed from the rooftops at the world. When Barbara grits her teeth to indicate frustration, her eyes bug out and she looks like she just took a huge punch to the chest. When she focuses on her fight with Huntress, her mouth suddenly envelops itself for no apparent reason and her nose takes on all sorts of new shapes depending on the angle of the panel. Dinah often looks more annoyed and frustrated than sympathetic to Barbara’s plight as the text would have you believe.
Worse yet, the way that characters are portrayed is wildly inconsistent from panel to panel. You used the word “severe” earlier, Kyle, and I think that’s the proper term for it. The characters in this book, especially Dinah, look very jagged throughout the issue. A part of this comes down to the shading placed on top of the inks, which exaggerates the characters’ facial expressions in a way that comes off as more malevolent than intended. Another part of it is the coloring. Passalaqua does a solid job for most of the issue but there are random moments where I feel like things really fall off the deep end. At the end of this issue the creative team reveals a major villain for the arc but her body is shrouded in shadow. Unlike most of the book which renders the shadows in a more jagged and stylized way, the shadows here basically look like they’ve been airbrushed in using a basic Photoshop brush on 0% hardness. It makes the character stand out from the rest of the comic in a bad way.
In the end, I don’t think Batgirl and the Birds of Prey #1 is the worst book I’ve read out of Rebirth, but I certainly can’t recommend it. It’s a definite pass for me, which is upsetting given how important it is that this book has an all-female creative team. The Bensons have a lot of good will going into this series thanks to their work on CW’s The 100 but they haven’t managed to capitalize it yet. Claire Roe’s art in the Rebirth issue of this series was honestly stellar in a lot of ways, but takes a hard nosedive here for some reason. I’m certainly willing to revisit this book at some point down the road to see if things improve but unfortunately things aren’t looking good for this particular reboot. Are you willing to give this book another chance at any point, Kyle?
Kyle: It’s unlikely. Life is too short to read awful comics. Let’s all read good stuff and expect more out of the industry, and I say that as somebody that read WAY too many New 52 comics for way longer than some of their collective shelf-lives. Pass on this one and pick up something better instead, like say, a candybar or two.
Final Verdict: Pass
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