Review: Birds of Prey: The Death of Oracle hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, November 14, 2011

Birds of Prey: The Death of Oracle marks the beginning of the end of the DC Universe as we know it. If memory isn't failing me, this is the first book reviewed here that presents the final issues of a title before the Flashpoint/DC New 52 relaunch (a variety of cancellations notwithstanding). There's still a ways to go before we reach the New 52, with the final collections of certain pre-Flashpoint titles arriving even as late as May of next year, but this Birds of Prey trade marks the beginning of the old DC Universe putting the chairs up on the table and turning out the lights.

In terms of story, Death of Oracle does not necessarily provide the closure one might expect from the series's last book. Rather, Death of Oracle is about new beginnings, more like the first book instead of the last, and maybe that's fitting. There's also a heavy dose of wish-fulfillment here, with a couple of unexpected mash-ups of Birds writer Gail Simone's various titles, and even guest-writer Marc Andreyko penning the Manhunter character again. In this way, what defines the final volume of Birds of Prey is what also defines much of the series -- it's just plain fun -- and that's not a bad note to go out on after all.

[Contains spoilers]

Birds of Prey, as a title, ran beautifully for a long time but recently hit a rough patch. After issue #100 (Birds of Prey: Blood and Circuits), Black Canary left the team, and the revolving door of team members never quite carried the book like core members Canary, Huntress, and Oracle. Long-time writer Simone left after Birds of Prey: Dead of Winter, and neither the writers that followed nor a spate of uneven artists carried the book as well as Simone, until the first iteration's cancellation. Simone returned for Birds of Prey's second iteration with End Run, which was a marked improvement over what we'd seen of late, but was also a twisting story that never quite stopped to establish the Birds' new status quo.

The two-part story "Hostile Takeover," mid-way through Death of Oracle, is an entirely more familiar kind of Birds of Prey story. Oracle sends most of the team on an undercover mission; one team member, in this case Huntress, handles a parallel job that ends up tying in to the main plot. Simone gives each one of the Birds a role and a purpose here; with the first part of "Takeover" featuring art by Jesus Saiz -- a dynamic bright spot as compared to a number of the book's fill-in artists -- this final Birds story by Simone feels like a fresh new beginning. The story ends with Oracle presenting the Birds a new mission and a new status quo, and the reader gets a great sense that this book is finally on the right track, even if the Birds will now be having their adventures in limbo.

What gets the Birds to this point is the four-part "Death of Oracle," whose cover images tease the demise of Barbara Gordon even though that's never part of the plot. "Death," like End Run, is not the kind of Birds story I personally favor -- Oracle is at a loss in both stories, rather than leading her team -- but I entirely agree with the sentiment, that Oracle believes she's become so well-known she's no longer effective and uses the villain Calculator to fake her own death.

The story runs long, as the Birds fight some D-list villains and there's a subplot involving Black Canary's subconscious that never amounts to much. It ends, however, with Oracle newly back in the shadows, as she was in the very beginning of Birds of Prey, and that's an auspicious turn of events. The last couple of pages are, yes, a lot of fun, both as Simone gets to cameo the few members of the Bat-family who know Oracle is still living, and also as Catwoman calls Canary and Huntress's bluff about Oracle's death. It bespeaks fascinating stories to come (if only in our heads) where the Birds have to account for their information while preserving Oracle's anonymity -- all of this, a step in the right direction for the title.

After "Death," the single issue "Which Reason Knows Not Of" and the aforementioned "Hostile Takeover" share in common appearances by Simone's Secret Six characters. With both Birds and Six cancelled with the DC Relaunch, and only Birds getting a new #1, the final Six appearances are to be treasured, and so they're welcome here. The Huntress/Catman "date" is perfectly in character for the two and follows well from recent events in Secret Six: Cats in the Cradle; I also liked (in End Run and here) Simone giving the Huntress more standing as both a fighter and a detective.

"Takeover" pits the Birds against ghoulish Six baddie Junior; while I've been rooting for the Six to face Junior again, the villain almost seems too dark for Birds, and it's an effectively chilling tale. "Takeover" also brings the Question Renee Montoya into the fold; Simone picks up exactly the patter between Question and Huntress as in earlier team-ups by Greg Rucka, and it's great to get another shot of their ... bromance? womance? It's this -- Huntress and Catman! The Birds vs. Junior! Question teams with Huntress! -- that I mean by "wish-fulfillment"; in the final pages of Birds, Simone plays a kind of greatest hits series of the things fans (this fan, at least) have been waiting to see.

Death of Oracle ends with a two-part story by Marc Andreyko, writer of the fan-favorite Manhunter series. Manhunter Kate Spencer herself gets precious little to do in the story (though former Phantom Lady Sandra Knight's quip, "Did I ever tell you, Manhunter, that you are amazing?!" must come with a well-deserved wink and nod from Andreyko). Instead, Andreyko explores the fact that with Phantom Lady and sometime-Bird Manhunter in the mix, the Birds of Prey becomes something of a legacy team, with a Blackhawk and a Black Canary teaming both in the 1950s and today.

The two-part "War and Remebrance" is fairly standard superhero fare, but the characters are all having fun throughout and clearly so is Andreyko. The present Black Canary's toast to the female heroes who came before her is especially poignant here at the end of Birds of Prey, and there's a certain joy that comes from seeing these heroes out on a "regular" adventure one last time. That Andreyko has a chance to write Manhunter one last time, even if only a bit, is icing on the cake, and a perfect use of the final issues of Birds of Prey

[Includes original covers]

It feels as though the Flashpoint restart catches the Birds of Prey title somewhat off-guard, something we may find with a number of the concluding titles going forward. Even so, Gail Simone's Birds of Prey ends on a high note, and that's as much as we could have hoped for. Hail and farewell, Birds of Prey -- see you again post-Flashpoint.
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2 comments:

  1. I read the first volume (Endrun) of the relaunch but it wasn't as good as Simone's first run. That's why I decided to skip this volume and sell my copy of Endrun.

    Simone's first run was great - towards the end though I do agree it started to lose some of its magic - but it was still a fun book.

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  2. If not entirely, then at least parts of Death of Oracle were better than the entirety of End Run, in my opinion. Maybe that's my borderline-obsessive love for Jesus Saiz's artwork coming through, I'm not sure.

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