Looking Back with the Birds: A Birds of Prey Retrospective

A Birds of Prey Retrospective

Birds of Prey #127

When the first issue of the ongoing Birds of Prey hit the stands in 1999, the cover price was $1.99, the paper was not glossy, the pages were numbered, and the issue ended with a letters page. Chuck Dixon, the original writer on Birds of Prey credits Editor Jordan Gorfinkel for bringing the title to the market, “The book was really his brainchild,” Dixon said. “Oracle was a popular character but was a hard sell for a solo title. Canary's own monthly had just failed but she remained beloved with readers. Teaming them was an elegant solution for the team’s creation.”

While Gorfinkel may have conceived of the series, he acknowledges that it had obstacles to overcome and credits Dixon with taking his creation forward, “The proposal I wrote that got the first Birds of Prey one-shot approved was pretty broad (you'll forgive the terrible pun). I laid out the bones. Chuck Dixon put the flesh on the series and even more paramount, the heart in it. Birds of Prey may seem obvious now, but recall that back then, few cared much for Oracle and Black Canary. Readers wanted Barbara-Batgirl restored and Black Canary, well, she'd just come off her, what?...fourth failed redesign in so many years? Plus, superhero readers are predominantly male; would they support a team of women heroes? I was asking DC to go out on a limb here. The writing of Chuck Dixon sealed the deal with the company and fans alike.”

The name of the series, Birds of Prey, is owed to two individuals according to Gorfinkel, “Frank Pittarese who came up with the winning entry in my series naming contest, and Mike Carlin who sagaciously insisted we not change it to ‘Hell's Belles’ (another true story).”

But before becoming an ongoing series, the concept had to prove itself. In 1996, Birds of Prey launched as a single-issue special titled Black Canary / Oracle: Birds of Prey, authored by Dixon, with pencils from Gary Frank and inking from John Dell. Gorfinkel readily acknowledged the contributions of Frank, “I admired Gary Frank's work and I asked him. He asked if he could draw cool cars. He loves cars. I said sure!” According to Gorfinkel, Dell provided heroics of his own, “Credit, too, to John Dell, a superior inker (particular when undoing his young child's doodling all over one of the original boards—true story!)”

That first issue provided Black Canary with a revamped costume that eliminated her fishnet stockings and seemed more functional for a field agent. In the issue, Dinah never has the opportunity to meet Barbara and this lack of connection would grow into a significant element of the mini-series and later series.

The standalone story garnered enough sales to convince DC to publish a four-issue mini-series, Black Canary / Oracle: Birds of Prey: Manhunt. Still bringing in readers, three more one shots followed, Revolution (1997), Wolves (Oct 1997), and Batgirl (Feb 1998). On the letters page at the end of Batgirl, another special, Siege, was solicited, but it was never published. “DC greenlit an ongoing Birds of Prey series! I believe that ‘Siege’ became an arc we did later on,” explained Gorfinkel of the missing one-shot. While the follow-ups had launched at an interval of approximately every six months, Birds of Prey went nearly a year between the publication of Batgirl and the first issue of the ongoing (Jan 1999).

The ongoing series launched with Dixon continuing at the helm as writer and Greg Land - who had penciled Batgirl - returning as artist. Jordan describes Land as “a superior draftsman and a willing and very able student of storytelling; not all new artists are, preferring to skate by on cheesecake. In Greg we had the best of both worlds: an artist who drew the female and male form beautifully and told a riveting story.” Dixon would remain on the series through issue #46, while the series saw the regular artist shift from Land to Butch Guice in issue #15.

The transition from mini-series to ongoing series allowed Dixon to alter his storytelling. “It was still a series of adventures but now I could build up some background continuity and build toward Dinah and Babs finally meeting. An event like that is more meaningful in a monthly than in a one-off story,” according to Dixon. The meeting between Dinah and Barbara would first occur in issue #21.

During his run, Dixon crafted an online friendship between Oracle and another internet presence with the moniker Beeb. After agreeing to meet in real person, Barbara learned that Beeb is Ted Kord and when she admits that she knows his secret identity, Kord figured out that Barbara must be Oracle. During this timeframe, Tim Drake (Robin) was a regular guest character in Birds of Prey as well. It was a natural fit - the latest Robin who had a technical astuteness that made for an easy friendship between Barbara and Robin. In describing why Babs got along so well with Ted and Tim, Dixon remarked, “Ted was a superhero but not the driven kind that Babs was used to associating with. He was smart and funny and I think Babs needed to have a friend like that. I think she also saw herself as a mentor to Tim; kind of counter programming to Bruce's grim manner.”

During Dixon’s run, Barbara first provided Black Canary with mechanical replications of her Canary Cry, although Dinah regained her natural ability after an encounter with Ra’s al Ghul that lead to Canary’s resurrection via a Lazarus Pit (issue #7). Dixon also orchestrated the first of Oracle’s two confrontations with the Joker in the pages of Birds of Prey. In issues #15 through #17, Oracle had to stop the Joker from unleashing a devastating chemical attack. The confrontation was a purely mental and psychological conflict between Oracle and the Joker, and Oracle came out the victor through deception and manipulation.

After brief runs by Terry Moore and Gilbert Hernandez, Gail Simone took over the writing duties on Birds of Prey starting with issue #56 and stayed on the series through #108. During her fan-favorite run, artists Ed Benes, Joe Bennett, and Nicola Scott joined the title, each supporting Simone’s stories with extended stays on the title. Building off of Dixon’s foundation, Simone’s work on Birds of Prey propelled Black Canary into a more prominent and respected role within the DC Universe leading to the character taking on the role of chairman for the JLA and leaving the title in issue #100.

The tone of the book changed under Simone’s guidance with the team of field agents expanding to include the Huntress when villains named Savant and Creote kidnapped and tortured Black Canary. The Huntress became a full-time member of the team adding an operative whom Barbara neither trusted nor liked based on her experiences as Batgirl. Over time, Huntress gained the confidence of both Dinah and Barbara and was elevated to full member status.

During Simone’s run, the team continued to expand to include new Birds of Prey Lady Blackhawk and Gypsy, and Lady Blackhawk was the first to use the series title to describe Oracle’s operatives. In addition to the new operatives, Simone created two new characters, Black Alice and Misfit, who have since taken on significance within the series. Black Alice, a goth teenage girl with the ability to steal the magic of others, has been a popular character since her first appearance. Misfit, an orphan with the ability to transport herself anywhere with uncanny accuracy, has elicited a very mixed response from fans.

Simone provided many memorable character moments during her tenure on Birds of Prey that saw the characters moving through both good and bad decisions - the interaction between Barbara, Helena, Dinah, and the rest of the characters showed a true friendship that has rarely been presented in such a casual manner in comic books.

The theme of family was further explored as Dinah adopted a young girl named Sin whom she met while Dinah and Lady Shiva attempted to understand each other better by experiencing each other’s lives. Humor was not lost in this swap, as Lady Shiva had to incorporate fishnets into her costume in order to meet Dinah’s demands. Barbara also had to reevaluate the meaning of family as she took on the guardianship of Misfit upon learning that the girl who dressed in a Batgirl t-shirt and screamed her battle cry of “Dark Vengeance,” was an orphan.

After expanding the team to include Manhunter and Big Barda following the departure of Black Canary, Simone finished her run with an arc that saw Barbara develop a nemesis in a government counter espionage phenomenon, Spy Smasher. During the arc, the Birds traveled to Russia for a confrontation with the Secret Six that eventually resulted in the resurrection of Tora Olafsdotter, aka Ice.

After Simone left the title, Tony Bedard stepped in for a series of one-shot stories. During these standalone stories, Bedard showed an understanding of the characters and was able to script issues that highlighted Lady Blackhawk, Huntress, and Black Canary’s marriage to Oliver Queen, a.k.a. Green Arrow.

One of these done-in-one issues focused on Huntress and Oracle having different priorities on whose problem needed to be solved first, and included three vignettes about agents that did not work out: Phantom Lady, Catwoman, and Black Orchid. Bedard discusses the selection of those three failed agents and the issue in total by saying, “I guess Catwoman was a natural because while she’d had some affiliation with Oracle’s team, she’s a loose cannon. The others were just characters that I figured no one else would mind me using. Balck Orchid’s fun because she’s so loopy - the Gaiman version, anyhow. Y’know, I actually Mike Carlin had a lot to do with the basic idea for that story. Sometimes readers fear, and rightly so, that too much editorial input can mess up a story. But I like collaborating, and that was an instance where Mike and I bounced around an idea and it worked out pretty well.”

The Bedard/Carlin working relationship must have worked out pretty well, because after a brief run on the title by Sean McKeever where the Birds of Prey decide to relocate from Metropolis to Platinum Flats, a new city in the geography of the DCU, Bedard returned to take the reins as the regular writer on the series. In crafting Platinum Flats, Bedard said, “My hope was that it could take root like Bludhaven did in Nightwing. I kinda doubt at this point that it will, though. In fact, I half expect that Platinum Flats will get nuked, ala Coast City (or Bludhaven, for that matter) in some crossover, years hence. But I did try to build up a place that might last.”

Platinum Flats served as the backdrop for the second confrontation between the Joker and Oracle in the pages of Birds of Prey. Unlike the first confrontation, this encounter was purely physical. Although the Joker defeated Oracle in the issue, Bedard described that issue by saying, “That story morphed a bit. I originally had her busting out his teeth and he is so horrified that he runs away. It was supposed to be that she really hit a nerve there: he took her legs, so she takes his grin. But then the decision was made to cancel the series, and the whole direction of the book and the tone of the encounter needed to be different, and we ended up making it a much more even match.”

Under Bedard’s guidance, Birds of Prey took another go around in addressing the competition between Oracle and the Calculator, a former low-rate Batman villain who had set himself up as Oracle’s opposite number. Bedard had previously shown an encounter between the Calculator and Oracle in one of his standalone issues, and in contrast to other appearances of Calculator, in these two stories, Kutler takes a more personal role in striving to achieve his goals. Bedard said, “The first story was just a way to have them face off in a real direct way like we hadn’t seen yet. And I think it was my best issue of all. I’m really proud of that one, and of the artist, Jason Orfalas, who is immensely talented and should get more work. The Faces of Evil story was another attempt to give him a new dimension. He’s still primarily using his mind and deviousness, but it yields a very tangible, physical power. Whether he keeps that power, I’m not sure. I guess we’ll have to check out the full Oracle mini by another very talented friend of mine, Kevin Van Hook.”

And with issue #127, DC Comics’ Birds of Prey series came to a close. In an early letters column, Jordan Gorfinkel stated, “The time has finally come for them to shed the label of ‘supporting character’ and strike out on their own together. Given the chance, they’ll shine.” Now that the series is ending, Jordan addresses the success in achieving this objective, “Birds of Prey is the longest running superhero title starring women save for Wonder Woman. How many trade paperbacks in print? And BoP became a WB TV series with, I'm told, its pilot garnering the second-largest ratings in that network's history to that date. Call me pretty pleased.”

For many, this series was a joy to read for more than a decade. Rest in peace, Birds of Prey.


Twitter activity