THIS WEEK: Brian Azzarello and Emanuela Lupacchino finally deliver their DC Black Label Birds of Prey book. Was it worth the wait?
Note: the reviews below contain spoilers. Content Warning: Brief mention of sexual assault. If you want a quick, spoiler-free buy/pass recommendation on the comics in question, check out the bottom of the article for our final verdicts.
Birds of Prey
Writer: Brian Azzarello
Penciller: Emanuela Lupacchino
Inker: Ray McCarthy
Colorists: Trish Mulvihill with John Kalisz
Letterer: Steve Wands
Cover: Ivan Reis, Joe Prado & Alex Sinclair
Remember this book? It was originally solicited as a new ongoing series meant to debut last October. Then it was announced that it was moving to the Black Label line. Finally, right around the time the original first issue was solicited for, it was announced that instead of a Black Label mini-series, Birds of Prey was going going to be a one-shot.
I’ve had my reservations about this series since the solicitation dropped last July. Azzarello is not high on my list of writers I enjoy, and while I love Lupacchino’s art, I didn’t know how well it would work with Azzarello’s writing. The answer is not well. Azzarello’s writing is dark and gritty, as always, while Lupacchino’s art is stunningly beautiful and bright. One of these is the right tone for a Birds of Prey book, and it’s not the writing.
While not a perfect movie, Birds of Prey was fun, bouncy, and cathartic. This comic is none of those things. I’m glad it got delayed long enough to not really tie-in to the movie at all, but there’s no real reason for it to exist either. Black Label Birds of Prey bears no resemblance to the movie that came out earlier this year, save for the cast of characters. And even then, these characters are nothing like their movie counterparts (or indeed not a lot like their mainline continuity comic counterparts either). Dinah is a “not like other girls” former government agent? Cass is nowhere to be found. Helena’s probably the closest to either of her counterparts, but that’s because she’s not really a character and more of a plot device to get other characters involved in the story. Renee Montoya is absolutely nothing like any character by that name that we’ve ever met. Azzarello makes her a dirty cop, and Lupacchino glams her up to the point of her being unrecognizable. Harley Quinn at least seems a little closer to what we expect but still pales in comparison to the character arc we got in the movie.
My biggest fear going into the Black Label Birds of Prey book was realized. Azzarello doesn’t have a great track record when writing women. Remember when he had the Amazons force sailors to procreate with them before murdering them? Remember when he put a period joke into a movie focused on Batgirl? And as such it comes as no shock to me that this book also has its share of misogynistic moments. The characters are catty with each other (and ableist) throughout the book. As said above, Dinah is written very out of character in a very stereotypically misogynistic way.
Harley’s indeed broken up with the Joker like in the movie, but unlike the movie, she doesn’t move past the person she was with him. In the movie, she gets a whole new look, a whole new identity without the baggage of an abusive relationship. Here? She keeps the same old costume, she just replaces the “Daddy’s Little Monster” tee-shirt with a generic one of the same style but no text. Couple that with a completely superfluous Joker subplot of this book, where she basically confesses to him that she still loves him, and I’m left with a sour taste in my mouth.
On top of the general misogyny, there’s also racism. A woman of color is killed by drug overdose for no plot discernable reason, other than to make Dinah sad. Worse yet, that plot point does wonders to making Dinah a horrible person. One of the key components to Dinah Lance’s character is her compassion. When Roy Harper was hooked on heroin, she’s the one that stayed with him and helped him get clean while his actual father figure abandoned him. So it’s extremely striking and out of character that when one of her friends has the same issue in this book, Dinah not only selfishly thinks about how that problem affects her, but she ignores her friend’s blatant call for help. Her friend says she needs her now, Dinah says “No, I’ll be there in four and a half to five hours.” What does she do instead of helping her friend stay sober? Get drunk and laid. And then by the time she shows up to help, it’s too late.
In addition to that, the villains are a Mexican cartel going around chopping heads off in Sugar Skull tattoos. They speak poorly Google-translated Spanish, and are complete stereotypes of the variety used to demonize Latinx immigrants. In a time of horrifying government treatment of Latinx immigrants, this story is not only mean spirited, but also incredibly irresponsible.
Aside from the general problems with the writing, the story also feels unfinished. It feels exactly like it was meant to be the start of a series and it got condensed to a one-shot. Neither section of the story feels finished at all, and given that it’s a 100-page issue, it makes me wonder if the originally planned arc was six 20 page issues, and an entire issue’s worth of content is on the cutting room floor.
The Black Label Birds of Prey book would have been better off never getting released, as it adds nothing to the storied legacy of the team. It’s 2020, why are we still getting men to write ensemble books of women?
- Shazam! #12 was a fill-in issue by Jeff Loveness and Brandon Peterson and it was a refreshingly fun team-up (totally counts). Why is that crocodile in a business suit?
- Also delightful was Action Comics #1022. Finally getting Conner and Jon to meet is wonderful, and so was the twist with Ma and Pa.
- Far Sector #6 was another fantastic issue, and the subject matter of it hits a bit close to home right now.
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