Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

17 July 2009

Birds of Prey, v. 2: Sensei & Student

Collects: Birds of Prey #62-8 (2004)

Released: January 2005 (DC)

Format: 168 pages / color / $17.99 / ISBN: 9781401204341

What is this?: Black Canary and Lady Shiva meet for the death of their sensei and are entangled in Cheshire’s poisonous plots; Oracle is menaced by a talented hacker.

The culprits: Writer Gail Simone and pencilers Ed Benes, Cliff Richards, Michael Golden, and Joe Bennett

When it comes to Birds of Prey, v. 2: Sensei & Student, there is a strong temptation to say, “Second verse, same as the first, good job,” and call it a day. Very strong temptation — hmm, I wonder when happy hour begins down at that tiki bar down near the public beach …

No! No, I have to do a better job than that. This isn’t a retread of the first volume, Of Like Minds. Writer Gail Simone didn’t slack off, and I shouldn’t either. There are new antagonists, a new interaction for Black Canary, and thrilling new hacking action! OK, that last part isn’t true: the hacking is decidedly not thrilling.

Birds of Prey, v. 2: Sensei & Student coverThe most interesting part of Sensei is Black Canary’s story. She heads to Hong Kong to see her dying sensei; while there, she meets the assassin Lady Shiva, who is also there to pay her respects. When the sensei is murdered before he can die, they team up to find the culprit; the trail leads to assassin / poisoner Cheshire, who insists she’s being set up.

The interaction between the three is great; a grudging respect between Canary and Shiva is turned into a genuine partnership when the truly evil Cheshire is thrown into the mix. The dialogue and characterization of the three is great, even if Cheshire shies away from some of her evil (mutilating Shiva) for no defined reason. Simone does her best work in this part of the story; every time Shiva is on the page, the story seems more lively, more interesting, and more dangerous, and some of that rubs off on Black Canary.

Unfortunately, Oracle’s subplot, in which she is menaced by a hacker whose abilities seem to outstrip hers, seems lacking. Although it’s nice — and it would have been eventually necessary — for Oracle to run into someone better at the keyboards, there’s no effective payoff for that part of the story. Oracle is also abducted by a mysterious government group, forcing her to call on Huntress for rescue; even though those two storylines have a connection, they never feel related, just like Canary’s story doesn’t feel connected with Oracle’s despite common antagonists. That’s worse, in its way, than a swarm of completely unconnected plots.

That has me worried; I’m not quite convinced about Simone’s overall plotting skills. There’s too much coincidence in the story; the plans of Cheshire, the hacker’s employer, and an old serial killer investigated by the original Black Canary come to a head all of once, and the evil is all related by blood. This raises certain nature / nurture questions Simone doesn’t address, despite the presence of a perfect candidate: Huntress, a daughter of the mob. Speaking of Huntress, if a male writer had emphasized her sexual proclivities as Simone does, he would probably be accused of titillating his readers. And while we’re on gender politics, doesn’t Oracle know any male superheroes? All the ones who aid in her escape are female, except Savant; although I appreciate his presence as a tie in to the previous storyline, I’m not sure about his long-term viability as a character.

Black Canary in a crop topEd Benes provides most of the pencils (and some inks) for Sensei, and he shows his usual restraint and taste when drawing the female form. There’s nothing I can say that I didn’t say in the review of Of Like Minds: he’s a good artist who lets the female anatomy dominate his style. I have nothing to say about Joe Bennett (penciler for #68) or Cliff Richards, who pitched in with pencils on the first two issues. For Richards, that’s good, since he’s obviously supposed to blend in with Benes’s work. It’s good for Bennett as well; his style differs from Benes’s more than Richards, but he definitely fits in with the artistic tone of the book: I mean, just look at the crop top he gave Canary in that issue.

I’m torn on Michael Golden’s work on #66; it’s a flashback, in which the bulk of the issue is narrated by Canary’s mother, the original Black Canary. It’s a nice idea to have a different artist for the flashback issue, and Benes’s pencils would have looked odd in the shadowily defined past. But Golden’s work doesn’t say “past” to me either, for the most part; he does better on the more detail-oriented pages — in the hospital, for instance. At one point in the story, though, I had trouble figuring out a murder victim was a woman rather than an Albert Einstein impersonator. Perhaps she was both. I don’t know.

Although the comments in this review are different than the ones for the first Birds of Prey volume, the summary and rating aren’t: I’m looking forward to the next volume, and I’ll be very happy when Benes has moved on. Now, if you will excuse me, I can already hear the steak sizzling, and the beach is calling …

Rating: DC logo DC logo DC logo Half DC symbol (3.5 of 5)

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