Review: Birds of Prey Vol. 1: Trouble in Mind trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Toward the end of the "old" DC Universe, the Birds of Prey title had become somewhat dour and directionless, despite the return of long-time Birds scribe Gail Simone. Still, when DC Comics announced their New 52 initiative, it was alarming that someone other than Simone would be writing the book -- crime writer Duane Swierczynski. Simone was only one of two writers, with Chuck Dixon, that had successfully written the title in its over fifteen-year history, so fans met a new writer with some apprehension.

Fortunately, Swierczynski's Birds of Prey: Trouble in Mind is near flawless. Swierczynski proves right away he understands the Birds concept and what makes it work. Not only does Swierczynski write a great Black Canary, he also makes new character Starling a favorite in seconds, and the book barely falters from there. Like Teen Titans, Birds of Prey was a book that needed a kick in the seat, and Swierczynski delivers with perhaps one of the most enjoyable relaunches of the DC New 52 so far.

[Review contains spoilers]

There's plenty to like in Swierczynski's first chapter of Trouble in Mind, with a high-action caper sequence reminiscent of Chuck Dixon's early Birds stories or, perhaps, a James Bond movie. Things don't really calm down until about eight pages into the second chapter, just after Starling crashes her second vehicle of the book. "Is this going to be a thing with you from now on?" Black Canary asks, Starling replies, "Sue me. I like breaking stuff," and the book is off to the races. Black Canary is still Black Canary, tough but idealistic. Starling could herself be a Gail Simone creation, a combination of the "old" DC Universes's Birds Huntress and Lady Blackhawk, with even some of Simone's Secret Six's Scandal and Jeannette mixed in. It's a crime story, it's a spy novel, and it's fresher than Birds of Prey has felt in a while.

As befits a story about Black Canary getting a new team together, Swierczynski pits the characters against a villain that can secretly control minds, such that the Birds can't trust one another even as they're just beginning to mesh. The scenes of Katana and Poison Ivy joining are fine, as are the Birds's initial fights against mind-controlled citizens, but Trouble gets truly, deliciously paranoid once the Birds find they've been compromised themselves. Swierczynski uses some narrative tricks slightly more complicated than one might find in the average DC comic, sometimes moving the Birds inexplicably between times and locations such to present the mental blocks caused by the villain Choke. The final scene in which the teammates attack each other one moment and deny doing so the next is wonderfully chilling.

Despite Poison Ivy's presence, the new Birds of Prey title is Birds and not a New 52 rendition of the Gotham City Sirens title -- the former a superhero-espionage title, and the latter a Gotham villains sitcom with considerable cheesecake undertones. The new Birds shares on facet with Sirens, however, that differentiates it from the old Birds, that the Birds this time around are criminals, or at least wanted by the law. This adds a Marvel-esque layer to their adventures -- no matter how much good they do, the public will never accept them. It also begs the question how the larger superhero community will accept, or not, Black Canary's Birds team; Swierczynski includes the obligatory Batgirl appearance here, a nod to former Birds leader Oracle, and Barbara is generally accepting of Canary's activities, but one wonders if a Batman-type might not be so gracious.

The art throughout most of the book is by Jesus Saiz, late of Greg Rucka's Checkmate, a series with plenty of tonal similarity to Swierczynski's Birds; that his back-up artist is Javier Pina, artist also on Marc Andreyko's Manhunter, is fitting, too. In a book where all the protagonists are women, Saiz's characters are sexy without being oversexed or gratuitous; Starling's costume may be low cut, but Saiz never has Canary's zipper, zipped to her chin, just-so-happen slip down as many artists would. The distinction is starkest when compared to David Finch's covers, in which the doe-eyed women are strangely contorted to accentuate both bosoms and bottoms; these don't reflect the contents of the chapters near as well as Saiz's covers do.

Birds often has the cadence of a television drama in dialogue-based story recaps and emphasis on the characters calling one another by name. This gives the book, in collected form, a slight drag it might not have had in the single issues -- Trouble is fast-paced enough to be read in one sitting, but in doing so the reader will encounter some repetitious exposition. The characters' dialogue becomes slightly melodramatic at the end, especially when Canary faces Choke directly, but these are small matters in a book that's otherwise a striking debut collection.

There are certainly flaws to be found in DC's New 52 initiative, but between Animal Man and Batman, Batwoman and Flash, Superboy, Teen Titans and others, there's a lot to like. Duane Swierczynski's Birds of Prey: Trouble in Mind is another one of those -- one that took the core concept and relaunched it, and the concept is better for him having done so. This book ends on a cliffhanger, and volume two can't come soon enough.

[Includes original covers and uncolored covers, sketchbook by Jesus Saiz, Jim Lee, and Cully Hamner]

Next week, the Collected Editions review of Ron Marz's New 52 Voodoo: What Lies Beneath, and some special Thanksgiving guest reviews.
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4 comments:

  1. This current run is everything the Brightest Day relaunch should have been: just plain fun comics with strong female characters, a smart, fast-paced plot, beautiful art and no "woe is me" inner monologue dragging the whole thing down.

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  2. I'd give Duane Swierczynski a bit more comic-writer credit than just "crime writer". He wrote the latter part of "Immortal Iron Fist" and the "Cable" series, amongst others. He's definitely a rising star.

    I really enjoyed the first issue; it just fell by the wayside when I switched to trades-only. I'll check this one out.

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  3. Sounds like a decent relaunch actually!
    Might give this a look then^^

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  4. Sadly, Swierczynski is off this title now, but I'm looking forward to his second (and final) volume.

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