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ecomics: Birds of Prey

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DC Comics is rebooting various series and characters, and Dave S linked the other day to a good article by Andy Khouri: “Batgirl Triumphant: The Price of Restoring DC Comics' Disabled Heroine.”

And it reminded me that I've been out of touch with most mainstream superhero comics for so long that I still think of Barbara Gordon as Batgirl, even though she's been Oracle since 1989. Yes, I am ancient.

So I started wondering whether the well-regarded Birds of Prey series, featuring Oracle and Black Canary and Huntress, which I've never read, was available in trade-paperback reprint volumes by now. And then I remembered that I have the DC Comics iPad app.

And I did a search in that app's downloadable-comics store, and found that Birds of Prey back issues are in fact available for instant buy-and-download through that app. Only the earliest issue available was #39.

But I did a little research and found that Gail Simone's run on the series (which I had heard particularly good things about) began with #56, and that issue was available, so I bought it and read it, and then I bought and read the next three issues, taking me through the end of Simone's first storyline.

And I mostly really liked it; I intend to read the rest of her run.

Some assorted thoughts about the series so far:

I love the dialogue. Snappy, funny, smart.

The art is mostly fine, but (a) kind of confusing (there were several panels where I couldn't visually parse hands or feet or bits of clothing), and (b) really focused on crotch shots of the female characters, especially of Black Canary, even when the text is making feminist fun of such things.

I've now done some Googling and learned that the artist, known as Ed Benes, is known and widely criticized for this kind of thing. Apparently he regularly goes out of his way to focus on female characters' asses and crotches.

A lot of people seem to take the tack that he's a pretty good artist who has this unfortunate focus. But even if I could ignore all the crotch shots, I don't think much of his art here. There's lots of blocking that doesn't make sense, a bunch of people and things shifting positions between panels, the aforementioned visual-parsing issues. He just seems sloppy to me.

And I can't ignore the crotch shots. It's partly just the costumes; the extremely high-cut trunks lend emphasis to the crotches. (And both Canary's and Huntress's costumes just happen to have a prominent seam running right down the middle of the crotch.) But the women also spread their legs a lot—they're taking strong stances, which is great, but those stances regularly just happen to emphasize their crotches. The men, in contrast, are mostly fully covered (sometimes bare arms), and their legs stay closer together, and we usually see them from the waist up, with almost no views of their crotches. And in several instances, in a frame of a woman interacting with a man, the man is shown in the background, with the ass or crotch of the woman filling up a significant part of the foreground.

I think the most egregious example I noticed was in issue 59, where there's a shot of Savant through Huntress's legs, from behind her, with her ass and crotch taking up the top quarter of the frame. WTF, Benes?

Oh, or maybe the most egregious example was in issue 56, when Canary kicks a guy out of a car, and we see her from the guy's point of view, looking straight into her crotch, with her legs weirdly spread wide. It looks more like a come-on than combat, though to be fair, nothing else about that frame gives the impression of a come-on. (Also to be fair, her crotch is hidden in a couple of other panels in that sequence. Which wouldn't normally be commentworthy in most contexts.)

(Side note: I suspect a couple of you are gearing up to post one of the standard arguments about this kind of thing. If you're about to tell me that I shouldn't be objecting to Benes's approach to drawing women, I recommend first taking a look at the Anti-Comics-Feminist Bingo card. Each standard argument in the card is helpfully linked to a detailed discussion. If you still want to argue about it after reading those discussions, I can't stop you, but I may not reply.)

Anyway. I have issues with the art, but I'm sorry to talk so much about it in this entry, because I mostly love the writing. I mentioned the dialogue earlier, but I more generally love the characters and their interactions. And it passes the Bechdel/Wallace test by page eight! And there's buildup to what looks to be some interesting moral conflict about means and ends and acceptable uses of power. Good stuff, Gail Simone. I'll keep reading.

On a side note, I find it interesting how much emphasis there is on Batman in this storyline. He's mentioned so often that he's practically a character throughout the story, even though he doesn't appear on-camera except in flashbacks and hallucinations. It makes me wonder whether the Batman-focus was part of the series all along, or whether Simone brought that in. And maybe it's just this first storyline, not sure. But so far, he figures more prominently in the series than I would've expected.


On a different sort of side note: I'd already been liking the iPad as an ebook reader; it's even better as an ecomics reader. I see that the latest Finder volume is available in one of the comic-reading apps, and I got the first issue of the newish T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents series; I'm looking forward to reading more comics in this format.

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