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.
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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