Review: Birds of Prey Vol. 4: The Cruelest Cut trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, November 10, 2014

Unfortunately, since Duane Swierczynski's stellar first volume of the New 52 Birds of Prey, the quality of the successive volumes has gone steadily downhill. Swierczynski's second and third volumes simply didn't rise above the level of boilerplate superhero comics, and new series writer Christy Marx's Birds of Prey Vol. 4: The Cruelest Cut is more of the same.

Marx has a bunch of interesting premises here, including stories involving the fan-favorite Court of Owls and also picking up on some of the pseudo-Wildstorm storylines that have run in the background of the New 52. The actual result, however, is a bunch of "heroes run around and fight" stories, with uninspired characters, characterization, and art, all of which is surprising given how much I liked Marx's Sword of Sorcery: Amethyst. Even worse, where at least Swierczynski's volumes did no harm, Cruelest Cut effectively ruins one of the best parts of the New 52 Birds. That Birds of Prey is cancelled after the next volume seems at this point a mercy.

[Review contains spoilers]

Evelyn "Eve" Starling, to me, was the first indication that Swierczynski's New 52 Birds of Prey would turn out for the best. A self-assured, bombastic female character with shades of both Gail Simone's Lady Blackhawk and also Jeanette from Secret Six, Starling could have been as easily a Simone creation, and therefore demonstrated that Birds of Prey could change for the better even without Simone's guidance.

Therefore, the most alarming part of Cruelest Cut is the revelation of Starling turned traitor. This was apparently an editorial decision, not Marx's herself, though it still plays out in a Marx-penned book. For better or worse, Marx doesn't reach too far here, not stipulating that Starling has been cheating the Birds the whole time, only that she recently teamed with Mr. Freeze hunt the Court of Owls, with the Birds in the middle (Marx doesn't address that in Swierczynski's run, Starling was also working for Suicide Squad's Amanda Waller). It's not an outlandish enough notion to be easily dismissible a "wrong" take on the character, but neither does Marx do enough to make it a believable turn for Starling.

And indeed the material is there for Marx to pull this off, because at the core of the story, Starling is working for Freeze because she owes him, and because Freeze is not entirely wrong in wanting to take down the Owls. There was definitely a way for Starling to go out here that would feel more nuanced, would demonstrate more mixed emotions in the character, and might position the reader such to be conflicted whether to side with Starling or the Birds. Marx's Starling seems to me too flip, however, mistaking the character's persona for her personality. The real difficulty is in the wholly melodramatic reaction by the other Birds, which turns immediately to trite "You traitor! How could you!" dialogue with, again, no nuance in their consideration of why Starling did what she did.

Also, inasmuch as Marx utilizes Team 7 continuity later in the book, she overlooks here that Swierczynski's Birds actually came together under the auspices that they could be mind-controlled double-agents, which might've warranted a mention when Starling goes rogue.

In all, Marx's use of the Court of Owls in this book's first half lacks the real paranoid majesty of Scott Snyder's original; the Owl scientists here could as easily belong to Cadmus or Basilisk for as much as the story requires, nor does Freeze have any engaging motivation. And while I appreciate for completeness that DC includes the Talon issue that crosses over with Birds, "crossover" is a strong word for the a single Birds character appearing on just four pages of a twenty-page issue (the issue is so unrelated that it warrants a "continue[d] in Talon Vol. 2" box to explain its own cliffhanger). The story acquits neither Birds of Prey nor Talon well.

Cruelest Cut's second half fares little better in the characterization department, though rises above just a bit, for me, in that it deals heavily with Basilisk, Regulus, and Kaizen Gamorra, delving into Birds of Prey's Suicide Squad and Team 7 ties. At the same time, I fully recognize Team 7 is a cancelled book, the New 52 Suicide Squad has had an uneven run and just recently required a relaunch, and few if any other members of the audience may care about the Regulus storyline other than myself. Between the Talon crossover and this, it's indicative of the Birds of Prey title backing the wrong horses; were Birds more connected to the Bat-universe or tying in to Superman: Doomed somehow, perhaps that would raise interest in the title among the larger fanbase.

But amidst a rather plausible origin for Regulus that helps define the character and also reasonably ties up loose ends from Suicide Squad and Team 7, Marx has the Birds fighting a markedly insipid group of 1990s-esque Basilisk underlings with names like "Hammerdown" and "Whipcrack." Here again, the villains are one-dimensional, offering nothing for the audience to engage in aside from obviously-good versus obviously-evil fisticuffs. Further, Marx forces a mindless romance between Black Canary and new Birds member Condor (whom no one, to that point, has trusted), with such dialogue as Condor emoting, "Let me take away your pain," and Canary sighing back, "I want to believe in you. Help me believe." There's nothing wrong with Black Canary finding romance in her own title, but as with other parts of the book what Marx presents feels neither new nor convincing.

Whereas Marx does seem to have the Birds of Prey/Team 7 continuity locked down, I'd mention there's still an aspect of Black Canary's New 52 origins that bothers me. This is not Marx's doing, I don't think, though Marx does state explicitly that Canary's renegade status is due to her having killed her husband Kurt during a Team 7 mission (other stories have gone so far as to label Canary a "murderer"). The New 52 Birds of Prey was predicated on the idea that the Birds were "outside the law" indeed because of this crime Canary had committed.

But, clearly in Team 7 we see that Canary destroying Kaizen Gamorra's island with her Canary Cry was a last-ditch effort in a dire situation where she had the approval of her surviving teammates -- including Kurt; that Canary would be hunted for these actions or considered a murderer is nonsensical. What we have, I think, is the early establishment that Canary is an outlaw who killed Kurt, and then later that these events happened in Team 7, and eventually a variety of writers grafted one to another such that Canary is in trouble for having "murdered" her husband on Gamorra island when in fact she did no such thing. As the "hunting Canary" part falls in the untold New 52 five year gap, I doubt we'll ever get any better explanation, but this continues to bug me whenever it comes up.

For the few Suicide Squad and Team 7 fans who've actually been wondering about how Amanda Waller and Regulus know each other -- something that has nothing, really, to do with Birds of Prey -- then Birds of Prey Vol. 4: The Cruelest Cut might be for you; basically this book is a sequel to Team 7 and the Zero Month issue in Suicide Squad Vol. 2: Basilisk Rising. For ardent Birds of Prey fans -- especially Starling fans -- I might suggest reading just Duane Swierczynski's first New 52 volume and bidding the series farewell from there.

[Includes original covers as well as two-page "WTF" cover, sketches and cover designs]

Later this week, the Collected Editions 2014 gift guide, plus Worlds' Finest and next week, Batman/Superman.
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