You all know I’m a fan of the Birds of Prey, and if you’re not aware of that, I implore you to dig a little more into my history. So, when this specific title was announced, I was quite excited. Brian Azzarello isn’t my favorite writer – he’s very hit and miss for me – but I knew he would try to take a more serious angle with the book in a time when the BoP brand is widely known for things like Batgirl & the Birds of Prey and the feature film starring… Harley Quinn.

Now, I’m completely, very much opposed to the idea of Harley being a member of the Birds, but if that’s what we’re stuck with, then so be it. I’ll endure it… for now. My real question is how Azzarello and Lupacchino would handle Black Canary and Huntress. There’s good. There’s bad. And then there’s the ending… But I’m not going to blame the creative team for that.

The Set-Up

So, what is Birds of Prey like under Azzarello’s pen? Well, there are a lot of elements from the New 52 here – most of which concerns Dinah. The book opens with her receiving a call from an old Team 7 member, John Lagoon. If you’re not familiar with Team 7, it was essentially DC’s version of Seal Team 6 that took place in the early days of the New 52. The team consisted of Dinah, Steve Trevor, Amanda Waller, Deathstroke, Grifter, John Lynch, and Alex Fairchild. While this concept does sound cool, the execution never lived up to the potential.

That being said, the main elements of Team 7 that are brought in here, is the relationship between Dinah and Steve Trevor. The two meet after John Lagoon, a former Team 7 member, is murdered. It’s unclear what led to the murder – was Lagoon just caught up in a mission, or was he targeted because he was Team 7? Both Dinah and Steve have access to information through various streams, so they work to determine what was behind the murder.

So far, I really like what we get. From the way Dinah and Steve speak to each other – they’re definitely more acquaintances than friends, but it’s clear they trust and respect each other – to the operative tone to their entire encounter. It’s damn good! In fact, I wouldn’t mind if other titles played around with these two characters having a history together because they play off of each other so well (but for the love of God, do NOT try to create a romantic angle).

Anyway, they’re not the only two on this mission. As it turns out, Renee Montoya is working undercover with the cartel, and it just so happens that the cartel that she’s planted in is the same group behind John Lagoon’s murder. Montoya isn’t confident that the system will be effective enough or fast enough to stop what’s coming to Gotham though, so she decides to take things into her own hands and reach out to Huntress.

The two have a clandestine meeting under a bridge in the slums of Gotham, and this is easily one of my favorite scenes in the entire book. From Montoya’s desperation, to Huntress’ acknowledgment of what needs to be done – and willingness to do it – we’re set-up with one hell of a concept. Montoya is definitely breaking protocol and putting her career in jeopardy, and all I could think was, “Oh my God… We’re going to get the Question!” That doesn’t happen (more on that later), but the foundation was clearly there for it.

The one thing that was obvious, was that Huntress and Black Canary were on a collision course because of their individual missions. The real question though, is how does Harley fit into this?

So, as it turns out, Harley has been released from Belle Rev after having her sentence reduced, and she decides to return home to Gotham. Now, while I’m not a fan of Harley joining the Birds, I do think her introduction here is done relatively well. The first two or three scenes of her are essentially nothing but her talking to herself. I didn’t care for it initially, but as it kept going, I grew to love it. There’s something about Harley Quinn talking to Dr. Harleen Quinzel in a mirror that is simply hilarious, but it’s mainly in how Azzarello executed it, because he played it straight.

But how does she come to be with the Birds of Prey? Well, while walking the streets of Gotham, she literally has a head fall in front of her. Yep, you guessed it. The same cartel that both Dinah and Huntress are after decides to go after another drug dealer in Gotham, and they decapitate him to end the competition. So, while Canary and Huntress are both on their own mission, Harley kindly inserts herself to return the decapitated head to the cartel… because what else would Harley do?

Characterization and Maturity

You can clearly get a sense of the direction the story will take as far as the plot is concerned, and while the story is good, it’s the characters that make this memorable. They all feel true to who we know them to be, just with a bit of an edge to them since this is a Black Label title. But in the grand scheme of things, Azzarello has a clear grasp on who these characters are – minus some gaffs.

Dinah is still the no-nonsense, calls-it like-she-sees-it hero. Flawed, definitely, but still rather heroic. I mentioned that I enjoyed her scenes with Steve, but I enjoy almost every page where she’s involved. Yes, even the opening scene when she’s talking to Lagoon. He’s a total creep – which I’m sure many people will complain about – but I enjoyed the scene because Dinah responded to him in a manner in which I would expect her to respond to these types of comments.

Her interactions with Huntress and Harley are also quite strong, but some of the best work is when Azzarello and Lupacchino show her vulnerability. There’s a human aspect that’s incredibly relatable here – like when she’s at the bar, or at home trying to figure out why Lagoon’s death is impacting her as much as it is.

Unfortunately, one of the biggest issues I have with this book, is when Lord Byron, a member of Dinah’s band, calls Dinah for help. Byron apparently has a substance abuse problem – something that is revealed in this story – and Dinah responds in the least heroic way possible. I don’t want to say that Dinah’s response isn’t believable, just that without a buildup and some actual background here, the ultimate decision feels very harsh because we don’t have a history of this actually being a problem with Byron. I get what Azzarello was going for, but he hadn’t earned the moment, and it ultimately made Dinah look bad.

Huntress is also characterized quite well, but not without her faults. I still feel as though too many writers fail to capture her rage properly, but Azzarello does a decent job. I enjoy almost all of her dialogue, but man it feels like they nerfed her physically. She’s constantly getting the snot knocked out of her, and this is someone who has proven to go toe-to-toe with Dick Grayson in this continuity. But here, she’s getting knocked out by Harley and having to be saved by Montoya. It always feels as though it’s one thing or another. We’re either getting great action with poor characterization, or great characterization with poor action.

Harley, on the other hand, is a pleasure to read here, and I thought she’d be my least favorite aspect of this book. DC is doing some solid work with Harley in their Black Label titles, and I think it’s strictly because they’re giving her some balance. The Black Label books like Harleen are letting her be as brilliant as she is crazy, while the mainstream books are just going for crazy, slapstick, comedy… And even then, I rarely find their attempts that funny.

Finally, there’s Montoya. I also like the way Montoya is presented here, and I really wish we got more of her. If there’s anyone who got the shaft due to the behind-the-scenes decisions here, it’s definitely her. I have no doubt that Azzarello was toying with making her the Question at some point, but that clearly won’t happen. But, the little we do see of Montoya is incredibly effective – especially when she’s meeting with the cartel. If you’re familiar with Montoya’s pre-Flashpoint history, then you know what I’m talking about.

Behind-the-Scenes Drama

I mentioned “behind-the-scenes decisions.” If you don’t follow comics and solicitations, then you might wonder what I’m referring to. Originally, this iteration of Birds of Prey was supposed to be an on-going series that capitalized on the Birds of Prey film. And then DC delayed the book in favor of the Conner/ Palmiotti Harley Quinn & the Birds of Prey. Then this version was back, but as a Black Label limited series, and eventually just changed to a one-shot.

So, how did this impact the story? Well, it’s quite clear that the story and its climax/ conclusion was rushed due to these changes. I’d say that the first third to half of this book is great! Yeah, there are a few missteps, but, for the most part, we’re set-up with a great story, and some strong characterization. But things go downhill from there, and as I stated earlier, I’m not going to blame the creative team.

Why do I say that? Well, keep in mind that the book was already in development for two or three issues when the decision came to make it a Black Label limited series. A few more months passed, and then coronavirus hit. After radio silence pertaining to the book DC finally announced that it would be released as a single-issue story.

So, where are the problems? Well, first of all, you have the foundation of a story that was created with the intention of having an on-going book, so elements were being set-up and put in place for plots that would come much later in the run (for example, Montoya’s assumed role as Question).

Then there was the shift to Black Label. The prestige format meant that some of the long-form stories wouldn’t pan out as originally planned, but there would be plenty of pages to create a graphic-novel length story. Still, easily manageable. And then the story shifted to a one-shot, which cut anywhere from 20 to 30 pages from the story overall that was already altered for the limited series.

As expected, despite an incredibly strong set-up, the book fizzles out towards the end as it’s climax is rushed to a messy conclusion, and we, the fans, are left with a story that is never really paid off. Things go crazy, and then everything just ends. I’m not necessarily mad that it ends this way – I can make some peace with it – but I’m more upset that we will never get to see what should have been. So, yeah, my biggest problem with this book is with the plot itself, but those shortcomings should not be directed at the creative team.

The Art

Emanuela Lupacchino delivers the art for this issue, and does a fine job. The style and tone are consistent, so I welcome that and consider it a good thing. If I’m being honest though, had this been planned as a one-shot story, I probably would’ve wanted a more-distinct artist to help elevate this book to the next level. I don’t mean for that to be a shot against Lupacchino – I’d love to see more work on a regular series – but for a special, prestige edition release, I think we’ve come to expect more than just “good.”

Regardless, I enjoy the work that is delivered here, and especially enjoy the “quieter,” character-driven moments. I do feel as though the action left a little to be desired though, but that might also be a product of having to edit the story down.

If there’s one complaint I have about the art, it’s actually the colors. There are just times when the colors seem odd. The skin tone of the cartel members looks odd to me from time to time, and I can’t, for the life of me, understand why they didn’t go for the white Calaveras makeup as they did for the cover. Anyway, weird choices…

Recommended if:

  • You want to see an edgier take on the Birds.
  • You’re a champion of Harley joining the Birds of Prey.
  • There’s some great character work between Dinah and Renee.

Overall

Birds of Prey isn’t perfect, but I didn’t expect it to be considering the constant changes it endured behind the scenes. There are plenty of strong moments found here though, and that makes me wonder what we would’ve gotten had DC stuck with their original plan of making this an on-going series. More than likely, the book would’ve benefited because it was clear that Azzarello had a long-form plan that was character-focused, and he would have been restrained from some of his questionable choices by not having the luxury of a Black Label branding to give him more room to play with “mature themes.”

Anyway, it’s a solid story that I enjoyed reading, even if the ending is incredibly rushed and left me rather unsatisfied when all is said and done. (Raises a glass) Here’s to what could’ve been.

SCORE: 7/10