Un-Calendar Girls: Swierczynski, Saiz and the Real Women of “Birds of Prey”

In its first month, the New 52 faced controversy for its portrayal of female characters. Catwoman opened with the title character in her underwear and ended in a costumed romp with Batman. Starfire in Red Hood and the Outlaws spent part of the first issue in a bikini. Whether these characters should be classified as misogynistic or neo-feminist, they are both stilled defined by the issue of sex.

In Birds of Prey #2, which centers around an all-female team, writer Duane Swierczynski could have easily followed suit and focused on his characters’ physical looks or sexual appetite. Instead, he develops protagonists with unique voices who face universal issues among heroes: maintaining professionalism under stress, recklessness on the job, and seeking revenge for a personal loss.

Dinah Lance, a.k.a. Black Canary, is the leader of the Birds of Prey and a straight-laced detective. Through her narration, Swierczynski conveys Dinah’s inner struggle to remain professional, especially after the murder of reporter Charlie Keen. She tells herself to forget that Charlie was “a living, breathing man just a few minutes ago,” as she picks up his bloody remains to bring to the crime lab.

On the other hand, Ev Crawford, a.k.a. Starling, exemplifies the opposite end of the professional spectrum. She’s irreverent and often funny. In one scene, she traps a bruised assassin in a headlock and quips with a chipper smile, “I made a new friend. Let’s bring him back to our place!”

Although Ev was created only recently for the Birds of Prey comics, she shines as a well-developed character and is often used by Swierczynski as a foil to Dinah. In a scene when the duo is in need of a getaway, Ev feigns illness, steals a police car, and drives it through an airport window. Artist Jesus Saiz draws Dinah shielding her face from the glass and Ev beaming like she’s on a Sunday afternoon drive. And Swierczynski reinforces this difference through dialogue: Dinah questions Ev’s driving, to which Ev replies “Sue me. I like breaking stuff.”

Tatsu Yamashiro, a.k.a. Katana, is the third member of the group and a mentally unbalanced samurai. Her husband was killed by the Yakuza, and now she believes his spirit resides in her sword. Swierczynski makes her issue of revenge pertinent by revealing that she has spent the past year killing those responsible.

This issue of killing is one of the several ways that Swierczynski distinguishes his team from others in the New 52. Make no mistake, the Birds of Prey are indeed a fringe group. Although Black Canary doesn’t use lethal force, it seems that Starling and Katana are much more open to the subject. In addition, each character is on the run: Black Canary is accused of killing a man with a single punch, Starling is being chased by the government after learning too many of its secrets, and Katana is hiding from the Yakuza.

Swierczynski’s decision to include lethal force and a lawless background for each character sets the group up for the inclusion of Poison Ivy as the fourth member. As a known supervillain, Ivy moves the Birds of Prey away from the superhero team of previous incarnations and closer to a band of criminals with a mission like the Suicide Squad.

Whereas Swierczynski separates the Birds of Prey from the other female-led and team-based comics through his characterizations, Jesus Saiz reminds the reader that these women are human. He seems to be one of only several artists who is capable of drawing female characters in realistic proportions. And his drawing of subtle gestures and emotive faces is masterful. In one panel, Starling calls Katana a “psycho sword chick”; in the next, Katana sneaks up on Starling who whispers, “She’s right behind me, isn’t she?” Saiz draws Starling exactly the same in these two panels except for a crinkling of the eyes and immediately the reader knows how uncomfortable Starling has become.

In addition, the costumes Saiz designs are functional and evocative of the character’s personality. Black Canary’s iconic though impractical fishnet stockings costume is now darker and more befitting her new role as leader and detective. Starling’s sleeve tattoo depicts a bird above a snake. Katana’s costume is spy-like with the addition of several samurai tributes. And Poison Ivy’s costume looks organic and autumnal.

It’s said that a good mystery keeps the reader turning pages, but I believe a good character is what brings them back for the next issue. In Bird of Prey #2, Swierczynski and Saiz have achieved both these objectives. They’ve avoided the murky issue of gender roles, and just made these characters interesting people. And for that, I’ll be returning.

RATING 7 / 10