Black Canary/Oracle: Birds of Prey #1 (1996)

It might be hard for some modern readers to believe, but there was a time when Batgirl was not interesting. At all. In fact, the only pre-Crisis on Infinite Earths Batgirl story I can remember was a story where she and Batman took down Dr. Phosphorus. I don’t know what could have been done to make the character more compelling, but turning her into a congresswoman wasn’t it. And then The Killing Joke happened and it seemed Batgirl was gone forever, put on the shelf with other Batman characters like Vicki Vale.

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But then something happened. A character named Oracle began popping up in comics, giving heroes critical information to aid them in fighting crime. First appearing in Suicide Squad #23, Oracle’s identity remained a mystery for a year and a half, and when she was revealed to be Barbara Gordon it was honestly a shock. But for me and every other comic fans, it was a very pleasant surprise. Suddenly Barbara Gordon was interesting in a way she had never been before. As we would see in later years, numerous other people could become Batgirl. But there was only one Oracle. And then DC screwed things up by removing one of comic’s few disabled heroes and turning Barbara Gordon into Batgirl again, even though there were at least two other viable candidates. But that’s a rant for a different day. Today, I want to talk about when Oracle was taken to the next level when she was partnered up with another character who had hit a bit of a slump: Black Canary. Together they became… the Birds of Prey.

Our story opens in the republic of “Rheelasia”, a fictional nation so obscure it doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry. Turns out the country’s name is being changed to “Rhelasia” for… reasons? Our glorious leader, Singh Mahn Lee, appears before his adoring public and claims he’s going to carry them into the 20th century. Uh, it’s 1996, Lee; you’re running juuuust a little behind. We’ve got pink elephant balloons in the air and a podium with a pink elephant with “RNG” on its side. Our man Lee talks about how awesome the new natural gas refinery is, and he throws the switch to light it up, and rather than carrying them into the present, Lee blows Rheelasia back to the stone age. Or the refinery, at any rate. Hmm, if this was a modern comic I would assume the pink elephants represented the Republican party and the explosion of a natural gas refinery an indictment of our over reliance on fossil fuels. And hey, maybe it is, but if so, writer Chuck Dixon is smart enough to let people draw their own conclusions rather than having some character monologue about it.

Cut to Seattle and a blonde woman wearing, well…

It’s either Black Canary or a stripper. Judging by the tacky tassels on her jacket sleeve, I’m assuming the latter. Three guys are attempting to jack the lady’s ride, and her response is to introduce the car door to the first man’s crotch, which also shows cowboy boots complete her ensemble. The woman proceeds to then beat the crap out of the men as she explains that the car has problems; the clutch sticks and it stalls on wet mornings, but it’s still more reliable than her last boyfriend. Ouch. She finishes by saying she’s five car payments behind, so it’s either these jackasses or the repo man. She leaves the trio broken and bleeding and she takes their guns, thinking she can trade them in for Paul Simon tickets, then drives off to the smooth sound of David Sanborn’s saxy jazz. The woman returns home, stepping over letters emblazoned with “past due” notices. She removes her blonde wig and we see a framed photo of her and Green Arrow. Her answering machine is full of messages for “Dinah” and “Miss Lance”, noting she’s pretty much broke and owing everyone. But wait! There’s a message from Oracle suggesting a job that promises danger and how she can’t say more. A free ticket out of town? Away from creditors and real world problems? Dinah’s so there. Her ride’s being repo’ed so she gives a cabbie her last twenty and she’s gone.

In Gotham City, we’re at an “emerging nations technology seminar”, hosted by [drum roll] Nick Devine. He’s sporting jeans and an oversized belt buckle, and a gaudy red button-down shirt sporting dollar signs on the shoulders, And despite all that, when he talks I’m not hearing a Texan twang, but that dude from the Slap Chop commercials. He sounds pretty condescending as he explains how yesterday the people before him might have lived in grass huts or under a Soviet dictator, but that was the past. He’s going to show them the future and how to exploit mineral, agricultural, and human resources! Despite the fact he doesn’t look anything like him, I’m half expecting this dud to be Glorious Godfrey. Or Funky Flashman. But not everyone is buying Nick’s divine pitch; the delegation from “Bwunda” charge in with machetes. Now I don’t mean to sound racist, but “Bwunda” sounds like it might be a riff on an African nation. I mean, the guys are wearing leopard skins over their suits. And yet when they charge the stage…

…damn, is that bald dude white. Was this a mistake from the colorist? Did someone decide at the last minute to Caucasian-ify the dude because they thought the portrayal was a touch racist? I confess, the leopard skin sash is a bit much; I get the feeling Dixon saw Coming to America and thought James Earl Jones was rockin’ in that lion skin. Devine finishes off both dudes and now I’m wondering if he’s really Nightwing, because he certainly has the moves, and if I recall, Dick was sporting a really stupid looking rat-tail at the time. I never liked rat-tails; they’re for people who want a ponytail but can’t commit.

These shenanigans are being viewed on TV by Barbara Gordon, who’s less than impressed. She receives a call from her father, Commissioner Jim Gordon, who wants to take his little girl out to dinner. But Babs begs off, claiming she has an appointment.

Said appointment has arrived at the airport… wearing her superhero costume along with those boots and tasseled jacket. I get that Black Canary’s costume isn’t as iconic as, say, Batman or Wonder Woman’s, but you’d think she’d give half a damn trying to maintain a secret identity. She didn’t even erase the message from Oracle from her answering machine. A man has a sign with her name on it; it turns out she’s got a hot rental ride waiting for her outside, all paid for. Things are looking up for Ms. Lance. She finds a cassette tape in the car with a message from Oracle that she’s got a suite at the Marlton Grand. There, she finds a VCR tape and gets a briefing that Devine is a billionaire guru (So, not Dick Grayson, then). For all his jackassery, he’s done some good, but it seems he’s had a run of bad luck, the Rheelasia refinery explosion being the latest. A group known as the “Green Brotherhood” is claiming responsibility for all of Devine’s troubles and Dinah’s mission, should she choose to accept it, is to get close to the billionaire and find out who has it in for him.

Dinah’s been supplied with a special necklace and earpiece that allows her to communicate with Oracle 24/7. She puts in a call as she explores the hotel room, and asks Oracle why she picked her. There are two good reasons: the first is Dinah is the sort of gal that guys like Devine go for, and the second is Dinah’s life is a total mess and she needs the job. Oracle puts it more diplomatically, but that’s it. So, pretty much Dinah got picked because she’s hot and can’t afford to say “no”. Dinah finds her new wardrobe and a new costume, sans fishnets. Boo!

We soon find ourselves at a party, and Bruce Wayne is chatting with Devine, with Lucius Fox at his elbow… and Fox is white. Okay, so there must have been an issue with the colorist, and not some stupid PC initiative. It’s like that story where some dude didn’t know Spock was supposed to have a green tint to him and kept trying to “correct” Star Trek film footage. Devine fails to secure some of Wayne’s cash, but he’s soon got something else to focus his attention on.

Dinah’s ditched the wig and is now bleaching her hair, which now means she has the worst secret identity in comics history. She chats up Devine as Oracle listens in, and the latter is unimpressed by the man’s dating game, but Dinah uses it to her advantage. Devine is approached by General Mbarra, a (presumably) black man who’s actually colored properly. He wants to speak in private, and Dinah tags along by claiming she’s avoiding a man, which presses Devine’s “chivalry” button. Up in Devine’s suite, someone is waiting for them: Lynx. Who? She was created by Dixon and underrated artist Tom Lyle in one of the Robin mini-series. She’s also Devine’s new bodyguard, and seems pretty good at her job because she recognizes Dinah immediately. But before the two can talk, more baddies come crashing through the glass. Mbarra’s man is shot via crossbow and he’s next, but Devine tackles him to safety while the women pound on the masked intruders. Things seem to be going well, when…

…Damn, this Gary Frank knows how to craft action sequences. Dinah sees the dragon tattoo on the man’s forearm, but before she can do more, Lynx whips a knife down and catches the guy in the face. Lynx is willing to allow Dinah to fall, but Devine makes the save. The rest of the attackers have fled, and Dinah suspects shenanigans. Devine then offers Dinah a job which she gladly accepts, much to Lynx’s chagrin. Later, as Oracle takes a swim, she compares notes with Dinah, giving her the 4-1-1 on Lynx. The woman is powerful and dangerous and the cops don’t have a thing on her. As Dinah turns in, she admits she finds Devine kind of cute. So she’s attracted to rich men who act like adolescents?

Cut to Devine meeting with Mbarra over lunch and assuring him everything’s fine, and that once the chemical plant opens up in his country they’ll have Big Belly Burger franchises and cable TV, sure signs of civilization, and the man will have nothing to worry about in regards to the “People’s Front” and the green terrorists. But, Mbarra asks, what of the other disasters? To which Devine assures him he’s got a handle on the “green wienies”. Elsewhere, Oracle and Dinah discuss the dragon tattoo and point out how the guy’s body was never recovered. Am I the only one who’s figured out Lynx had her own people attack so she could possibly impress Devine? And she had to kill her own man to prevent him from talking? Anyway, the Green Brotherhood’s leadership was killed in a car bombing two years ago, so nobody knows who’s running them now, and their agenda these days could be nothing more than an elaborate protection racket. Is Lynx behind it? Mebbe so. In any case, Dinah shows up for her first day on the job.

Okay, I miss the fishnets, but as costumes go I don’t hate it. It’s certainly better than that mid-’80s abomination they saddled her with. Devine’s crew is wheels-up and flying to Bwunda. There, the gang is met by Mbarra’s security detail, the head of which is his own nephew. They’re flown out via helicopter to a dam that Devine assures everyone will provide cheap power, although he’s a little hazy how a country like this can afford to build the thing. As he talks about shopping malls and statues built to celebrate Mbarra’s greatness, they fly over a poverty-stricken village and starving children. Mbarra brings up the Greens again, but Devine once more assures the man he’s got nothing to worry about, unaware that at that moment the terrorists have just burned a camp to the ground and murdered everyone there. Dinah and Oracle compare notes (while the latter gets some throwing-star practice in against a Joker 8×10 glossy) and she’s annoyed she can’t crack the Greens. Dinah figures the dam will be the next target and plans to play spoiler. Sure enough, that night she finds the Greens and she proceeds to kung-fu them into submission. But she needs one conscious, and goes easy on him.

Um… sort of. Spare her the “Captain Planet crap”? Careful, Dinah, or he’ll turn you into a tree. Before the man can give up the goods, Lynx puts in an appearance and proceeds to kick Dinah’s ass, while Oracle keeps talking in Dinah’s ear, distracting her. Dinah makes a bit of a comeback, but it’s not enough and Lynx flees up the dam, explaining that what Dinah’s gotten herself into is global, and she’s strictly a “local” hero. The woman opens up with her machine gun, killing her men at the base of the dam and setting off the explosives. Lynx smacks Dinah upside the head, and it looks like Dinah is going under, but Oracle gives her a little pep talk, admitting that she used to be Batgirl, and she’d be out in the field if she could. She can’t take scum like Lynx down, but by gawd, Dinah will. The speech is enough and Dinah gets her second wind, dropping Lynx. But before the woman can give it up, the dam cracks and Lynx bails.

Later on, Oracle dreams…

…and it’s a nice way to bring people up to speed on her backstory. I kind of wish the same could have been done with Dinah, because honestly, at this point, I can’t remember if Green Arrow is alive or dead or what he did specifically to piss her off. I do know I hated this era because I think it was Mike Grell who turned Oliver Queen into a hound, wrecking his reputation. Dinah’s voice finally wakes Oracle up; she’s been trying to get through for hours but wasn’t able to. And Dinah tells her the horrible news; the village at the foot of the dam is destroyed; the good guys failed. As Dinah looks at the innocent dead, she begs Oracle to find Devine for her.

Later, we find the man making a new pitch to Arabs in London, selling them on a new refinery. But the meeting is interrupted by Dinah, who’s made short work of some bodyguards outside. At least I hope those guys in the suits were bodyguards. I’d hate to think they were just some poor bastards in the wrong place at the wrong time. Dinah explains to the Arabs how Devine uses substandard materials and pockets the money he saved, and then his pet terrorists blow shit up long before the facilities can fail. Dinah proceeds to then beat the crap out of Devine’s people and the Arabs bail. Lynx dives in but she doesn’t have the benefit of blindsiding Dinah this time.

Sorry, Lynx, you might be one of Chuck Dixon’s favorite characters, but you’re still C-list. Dinah wants to pitch Devine out the window, but Oracle plays the role of Dinah’s conscience. Ultimately, all Dinah can do is settle for kneeing the man in the face as Scotland Yard shows up to take him into custody. Later, as Dinah drives off into the sunset in a sweet new ride, Oracle offers the woman a working vacation on the hell-hole of Santa Prisca, birthplace of Bane. How does Black Canary feel about taking down a white slavery ring? And this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship?

This Oracle/Black Canary one shot led into an ongoing Birds of Prey series, and it’s a strong story that does a fantastic job of setting up the dynamic between Dinah Lance and Barbara Gordon. I appreciate how Dinah chaffs a bit at being at the end of Barbara’s leash; she’s not a woman who likes to be told what to do. And I appreciate how, while Oracle thrives in her new position as information broker, she’s still frustrated by not being able to do the job herself. Dixon does a good job giving us a tight story, while Gary Frank and John Dell deliver on their end with some dynamic art. Dinah looks strong and sexy, and the fight sequences are top-notch.

Next time, I take a look at the further evolution of the Birds of Prey, as it goes from one incarnation into another in the hands of a new writer, Gail Simone.

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