Review: Batgirl and the Birds of Prey Vol. 1: Who is Oracle? (Rebirth) trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, April 06, 2017

Julie and Shawna Benson's Rebirth Batgirl and the Birds of Prey Vol. 1: Who is Oracle? is satisfactorily in the style of Birds of Prey past, with especially funny interplay between Batgirl Barbara Gordon and Black Canary Dinah Lance. It's an enjoyable but not necessarily ground-breaking Birds of Prey tale, at least until the fifth part, when the whole thing cracks wide open and becomes a maniacal meta-commentary on Oracle's role or lack thereof in the New 52. Hints of this wackiness crop up before that point, suggesting this is really the tone the Bensons are going for; a lot of Oracle is devoted to setting up the "new" Birds of Prey team, and I'm eager to see what the writers do "unleashed" now that introductions are out of the way.

[Review contains spoilers]

Possibly the most controversial aspect of the New 52 was DC's jettisoning of Barbara Gordon's Oracle identity and reestablishing her as Batgirl. Gail Simone did no small amount of heavy lifting to make the change palatable, enough so that Batgirl became one of the few characters to surmount her "based on the original" New 52 origins to become something remarkably unique, the "Batgirl of Burnside." In this -- and in the "Burnside" team's late suggestion that maybe Killing Joke didn't even happen -- there was a sense that the modern Batgirl Barbara Gordon had become fully realized, entirely transcending her alt-continuity persona.

Whether that's good or bad -- whether Barbara Gordon ought always have been Oracle or never have been Oracle -- is up for debate, but the Bensons' Who is Oracle? gets into it with fists swinging. Nearly the first words from "Faux-racle" Gus Yale (named, nicely, for Oracle's late co-creator Kim Yale) are "I liked you better as Oracle," and he chews the rest of the pages fantastically from there. For all the work DC's done to make the readership forget Oracle, now here's a voice rooting for Oracle's reintegration, except that he's portrayed as absolutely nuts, from fawning over Barbara ("You. Back behind the monitors. Watching you work. It's ... the coolest") to lauding Oracle and Canary as "the O.G. dream team."

If DC and the Bensons are giving fans what they've been clamoring for (where Rebirth is meant to undo some of these New 52 changes), it's being delivered with tongue firmly in cheek. And not discounting that Oracle's existence or not is important to many in terms of representation, as a send-up of ardent fandom in general, Gus is rather hilarious. It's a weird and perhaps brave place for the Bensons to be, no strangers to fan controversies themselves in their work on CW's The 100. When Black Canary and Huntress opine almost immediately after meeting Gus about the differences between fans and trolls, the fourth wall begins to crack nearly to the breaking.

DC has maintained that Rebirth is not a "reboot," but clearly some elements of continuity shifted that day Wally West came back. Even setting aside Barbara Gordon's suddenly-remembered time as Oracle, the Bensons rejigger Black Canary's origins a scant year after Brendan Fletcher just did the same in the DC You Black Canary series. Admittedly I wasn't much of a fan of the idea that Dinah received her powers though Team 7 and Amanda Waller's experiments with what turned out to be alien blood, so the fact that Dinah is "just" a metahuman again doesn't bother me much. And in some respect it's refreshing for continuity changes to simply happen here rather than requiring Star Trek-esque prime Earth explanations, though I think we're going to end up with that before too long anyway.

(I'm less pleased about the Bensons returning to Barbara some of the trauma of the Joker's attack. People assuredly have real-life struggles but I thought Simone, Fletcher, and Cameron Stewart had all moved Barbara past things like not being able to eat marshmallows because of the Joker.)

Clearly the Bensons have a mandate to get Birds of Prey picking back up where it left off pre-Flashpoint as quickly as possible. This leads to an overemphasis on the Birds as a "family" that was true after fifty to a hundred issues of the original series but doesn't quite feel earned here, and so comes off as mildly overenthusiastic (though there are worse things that BFFs Canary, Batgirl, and Huntress sharing a group hug). Hopefully the book's final pages of friendship will take some edge off of Huntress Helena Bertinelli, who's almost unrecognizable as the interesting Grayson character. Matron and Huntress are really not the same, lumped together by virtue of name, but hopefully the Bensons can smooth it out over time.

Batgirl and the Birds of Prey is notable for being one of the first major outings for the "Batgirl of Burnside" version of the Batgirl character outside her own title. Series artist Claire Roe gets Barbara and the others pretty much right, I thought, with thin faces that often show exaggerated emotion for comedy, in line with the Babs Tarr model; only occasionally do the characters have a 1990s-esque rictus unnecessarily. I did actually favor second artist Roge Antonio a little more; Roe's and Antonio's work looks nicely similar, but Antonio has a rounded cartoonishness that reminds me of Rafael Albuquerque, which is fitting given that artist's presence on the Batgirl title proper.

Among the many things that Batgirl and the Birds of Prey Vol. 1: Who is Oracle? is, it's funny. There's gags like the discussion of putting Huntress's bra in the freezer, Gus's nutso introduction, and the scene-setting joke narrations peppered throughout the book. In all of that, we find a book that's just plain fun, and if that's one of the tent-poles of Rebirth, it's a good goal to have. There's an aspect of backward-facingness in this book that's probably not productive (even the book doesn't seem to think so), but Julie and Shawna Benson make it such an easy pill to swallow that it's hard to worry about it for the moment.

[Includes original and variant covers, character sketches]
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7 comments:

  1. Interesting review. This makes me more optimistic about this book than I was. I'm still sad the Birds team Fletcher et al. seemed to be setting up in Batgirl (Babs, Dinah, Operator, Spoiler, Bluebird) won't come to pass, though.

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    1. I like those characters, no doubt. Just my two cents, for me that didn't quite say "Birds" because, maybe something like Justice League or Suicide Squad, I do like it when the Birds is a team-up book for top-tier characters that have home or purpose elsewhere, and not one made up of support characters. I recognize that's a sentiment that immediately falls apart under scrutiny, but Spoiler, Bluebird, and Operator doesn't seem as strong a Birds team to me as Batgirl, Black Canary, and Huntress, or even Canary, Katana, and Poison Ivy with Starling.

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    2. Interesting-- I'm not sure I buy it, because weren't Dinah, Barbara, and Helena all pretty defunct characters when they were rolled into the Birds? Dinah had just been ejected from Green Arrow and had a pretty miserable ongoing, Barbara was a support character in Batman comics, and Helena too had had a failed ongoing and some guest appearances.

      Maybe you're more reacting to a depth of history? Something I thought both Dixon and Simone were good at was turning continuity in character: their versions felt like people with ongoing stories, and real pasts that influenced their presents. Helena was the youngest of the Simone Birds, with a decade of stories, and obviously Barbara and Dinah had very long histories!

      But in the New 52, Spoiler, Bluebird, and Operator lack that, having only been around for two years or so. There's just not as much there.

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    3. Right, exactly. Even as I typed it, I could see the flaw in a Birds/JLA comparison, precisely because the JLA members are ostensibly so popular in their own titles that then they get a "team-up" title (the original impetus for team books, I believe) whereas the Birds were in many respect the opposite -- albeit fan-favorite characters but with no title of their own to speak of. "Depth of history" is a good way to put it, or perhaps iconic-ness -- though again, I do recognize that it's perhaps only with the benefit of hindsight that I'm calling Batgirl/Oracle, Black Canary, or Huntress "iconic." For whatever reason -- maybe because Spoiler, Bluebird, and Operator come off to me more like a "Young Justice" team than Birds -- I wasn't so hot on that idea as the Birds who came before or since. I'd be happy to see the "Birds of Burnside" show up in Detective Comics, however, for sure.

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    4. I think for myself,I mainly.enjoyed their dynamic. Relatively new heroes, who became friends and fought along side each other. Be it in BoP or not, it was a dream team of misfits working together. They have fresh, modern personalities that made them exciting.

      On the subject of Blue Bird, I never cared for her. Mainly because how quickly she went to being a hero from just a citizen. I suppose the same could be said about Spoiler, but that could be linked with the creatives teams wanting to rush the return of a fan favorite character. Blue Bird being a new character bothered Me (same with Duke), and it bothers me more that she is currently inactive. Im sure she'll show up again in 'Tec, or for the upcoming Batman Metal event.

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  2. I liked this book, oddly enough, even if it had some awkward dialogue. It was a bit on-the-nose with the Lethal Weapon dynamic between Barbara and Helena, but I had fun with it.

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    1. Agreed; I'm hoping some of the interpersonal stuff becomes more natural as the book goes on. We gain and lose stuff with the jettisoning of continuity -- the Batgirl/Huntress dynamic is still interesting because they still share in common a friendship with Dick Grayson; ultimately they're two sides of the same coin even if they can't see it (see also Barry Allen's and Oliver Queen's friendship with Hal Jordan). What we lack here, going way back, is Barbara's subtle resentment/respect for Huntress because Huntress was, for one brief moment, a Batgirl (spearheaded, to an extent, the advent of legacy Batgirls), but hopefully the Bensons can layer in other stuff as a substitute.

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