Review: Gotham City Sirens: Union hardcover/trade paperback (DC Comics)

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Monday, February 28, 2011

I thought the Gotham City Sirens series looked silly when DC Comics announced it. They'd canceled the long-running Catwoman series, which in its heyday was an astoundingly good crime noir series that transformed Selina Kyle from dismissible sex symbol to complex anti-hero. Consider that the Catwoman series prior to the Ed Brubaker incarnation sent Selina to women's prison so as to present a gratuitous shower fight, with steam dutifully covering everyone's naughty parts; Brubaker's stories, instead, dealt with alcoholism, guilt, and a grittier Gotham City than we'd seen before even in the Batman titles.

I'd long since stopped reading the previous Catwoman series before the women's prison storyline came around, but I knew that spelled the death knell of that book. There's something that seems to me rather tone-deaf about these kinds of "bad girl" books, a category in which I initially lumped Gotham City Sirens.

Despite the stereotype that comic book fans are male loners at home with their comic books while their peers are out on dates, we know that comic books fans are instead regular people, often adults, of both genders with social lives and a variety of interests. That is, art can be titillating, and so can comics, but when faced with something so ham-handed as Catwoman fighting naked women in the shower, or Hawkgirl wearing lingerie underneath her costume in The Maw, I wonder if the creators believe their audience to be that comic book fan stereotype. At times comics companies seem to think that books can survive on sexual innuendos that might titillate only the most basic of their readership, and I'm skeptical whether that strategy ever actually works.

But whereas indeed Gotham City Sirens has a naked Poison Ivy, a half-naked Zatanna, and for some reason Catwoman no longer ever seems to zip up her costume above her breasts, it also has one other aspect to sell it as more than just a "bad girl" book: writer Paul Dini.

[Contains spoilers]

We know from his years of work on animated Batman series that Paul Dini loves these characters. If Dini's depiction of Catwoman, Poison Ivy, and Harley Quinn, the so-called Sirens, is prurient, then it's prurient with the best of intentions, and he loves them for their minds as well as their bodies.

What I quickly found in Union is that this book is not Chuck Dixon or Gail Simone's Birds of Prey, nor is it Ed Brubaker's Catwoman. The twists in the story aren't terribly complex, nor is there much really gripping drama nor noir moodiness; in fact, the book has an overall air of comedic zaniness to it. I'd describe Sirens as a funny book about Batman's villains, perhaps unfortunately named since the characters in question include the Riddler and the Joker in addition to the three women. When one considers that Arkham Reborn is also a book about Batman's villains, positing this book as a comedy seems an unlikely fit; in essence, however, I'd say Sirens is about as close to the madcap tone Paul Dini achieved in some of his best Batman: The Animated Series episodes as we've seen so far in the DC Universe.

Union takes a while to get started. The purposefully-ridiculous villain that brings the Sirens together is perhaps a bit too silly. Guillem March's art, which is beautiful toward the end of the book, is too distorted here, and makes the whole first chapter feel hastily done. Then immediately Ivy and Harley turn on Catwoman to try to learn Batman's identity; then immediately after that, Hush captures Harley, and Catwoman and Ivy have to save her. It's all very obviously in the service of bringing the characters together, and in that way seems forced and predictable. Even the Sirens' initial fight with the Joker fails to distinguish itself from what we've seen before.

And then Paul Dini reveals the Joker in question as Gaggy Gagsworth.

It's not so much that I give Paul Dini credit for remembering and re-using a sidekick of the Joker who only appeared once at least fifty years ago, as much as how compelling Dini makes Gagsworth in this book's sixth chapter. The Joker is not the antithesis of Batman necessarily, but Gaggy turns out to be an altered version of Robin Dick Grayson, a circus performer who might've had a good life if the Flying Graysons hadn't replaced him in the circus, and then if the Joker hadn't later outgrown him. The irony is thick here in that Gaggy disguises himself as the Joker just as Dick has now taken on the cowl of Batman; even more moving is the way in which the Joker seems to have "put away childish things" by disowning his sidekick (after the death of Jason Todd, maybe?), while Batman's now working with Robin number four.

The book's concluding chapter is a single-issue story where the Sirens spend the holidays apart, and Dini steals the show with his depiction of the family we never knew Harley Quinn had. In a New York-style tenement building, Harley's mother takes care of Harley's lazy, no-good brother and his two kids. Like Oprah, perhaps, one never imagined Harley even had a mother, and then even more amazing is just how normal Harley and her mother's relationship is. Next, Harley visits her father, a con artist in prison, and Dini and March tell more about Harley in one panel than in years of comics -- a panel in whicih Harley's father displays a smile that's not exactly, but very much like, the ever-present smile of the Joker.

Gotham City Sirens: Union works, ultimately, when it's not trying to do too much -- throw the Sirens together, give them a whole bunch of villains to beat, pit them against one another. Rather, the single issue profiles -- of Gaggy, of Harley, writer Scott Lobdell on Riddler -- make this book, giving us unexpected insights into Batman's foes. I wouldn't necessarily put Gotham City Sirens at the top of my "to read" list, but the thought that Dini puts into these stories, especially at the end, satisfied my misgivings about what this book could have been.

[Contains full and variant covers. Printed on glossy paper.]

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9 comments:

  1. This is a book that very clearly would not work if Paul Dini weren't writing it. In fact, how true this is - Tony Bedard and Peter Calloway completely shot this book to hell once Dini left (I should have, too, but hung on hoping Bedard was just a fill-in). It's Dini's characteristic humor and - your word is best - zaniness that make this book work.

    Side note - when the Joker first showed up, I raged like Superboy-Prime: "But he's dead! (for now) Respect what Morrison is doing, Mr. Dini!!" Then Dini pulled the great move of bringing back Gaggy, and I was overjoyed. That's the moment that sold me on this book, but the Christmas issue is among the best Dini's written - definitely has the feel of all the B:TAS Christmas episodes, even if Batman's nowhere to be found. (Unfortunately, a similar issue, in which the Sirens go looking for a lost dog or something, flops in absurd form.)

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  2. Yeah, I had the "Really, the Joker? In his old costume? When we already know he's [redacted]?" moment, too. The things writers put themselves through for a surprise; I imagine the interwebs weren't too happy about that "continuity goof" until it was explained.

    Too bad the quality doesn't hold on Sirens. This was never going to be one of my top picks, but I'd rather it bow out gracefully. Streets of Gotham is gone; I can't imagine this will hold out that much longer.

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  3. I was just having a discussion on another site about how the fanservice in some anime makes me feel like a creeper,and this article reminds me us Americans are no slouches in the lonely pervert department.

    I like harley and Ivy,but I can't own this. It's not like I've never enjoyed a comic with a little sexiness,but look at Harley's ass on that cover. Seriously,that's a little much. It looks like something from Playboy,but with the added shame of it being a drawing of a supervillian.
    Honestly when I see stuff like this it makes me feel dumb for being a comics fan. I'm married with a job,not some neckbeard sweatpants dude.

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  4. Does the substitute Joker extend back into Dini's 'Tec run to explain the continuity inconsistencies between Morrison's Joker use and Dini's?

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  5. No, there's no mention of Dini's previous stories featuring the Joker. Even if they found a way to explain those inconsistencies between Morrison's and Dini's use of the character, there would still be problems like the fact that the Joker was on the Salvation Run planet sporting his "normal" look right before Final Crisis, and still found the time to take part in R.I.P. sporting the "thin white duke of death" look (bullet scar on his forehead and all).

    About this book, Dini's writing was the big draw for me, but March's art really grew on me, especially after Tomeu Morey replaced José Villarubia as the book's colorist. It's a shame that March left it after only 9 issues, and Dini's run abruptly ended with issue #11, on a cliffhanger to boot.

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  6. Speaking of Brubaker's Catwoman... where are the remaining collections featuring Gulacy art? Hopefully DC will release them in TPB or as DC Presents before the next Batman film.

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  7. At first when I saw the Joker in Dini's Gotham City Sirens, I thought it was the same mistake as in Batman: Detective too, but then indeed it turns out to be Gaggy. Character continuity has been somewhat loose in "Batman Reborn" -- Black Mask in particular seemed to change his mannerisms depending on the title -- but I think we all know which is the writer to ultimately go by.

    I'd love to see DC complete Brubaker's Catwoman in trades one day, and even get into the Will Pfiefer issues where Catwoman killed Black Mask.

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  8. A few of the Brubaker issues can be seen in the WAR GAMES trades....it struck me nice that of whoever thought of the whole plot up, the reveal that Spoiler didn't know that Matches is another front for the Batman; is made in the pages of CATWOMAN. Love Gulacy's art tho. Never managed to keep up into Pfeifer's run to discover how Black Mask died. I know this is typical fanboy talk but even tho I didn't read it, Selina as a mother put me off the title. Not bad, just a bit disturbing, nowhere near Norman Osborn as being father of the Stacy twins.

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  9. I wasn't much a fan of Catwoman as a mother either. It was so obvious the child wouldn't remain with the series, and "let's make a female character pregnant as a temporary plot device" is frankly offensive. That said, I thought Pfeifer managed some good moments even within that plot, hearkening back to Brubaker's noir, and my sense is that what came before that -- the final Black Mask confrontation -- was even better. So I'd like to see it; maybe the movie will inspire DC such.

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