Saturday, 9 October 2010

Review - Birds of Prey: Sensei & Student TPB

One of my motives for contributing to this blog is that I want to ‘name and shame’ myself into buying better comics. Believe it or not, I did once used to have pretty good taste. I don’t think I bought a single Marvel, DC (not including Vertigo), or Image comic in the 1990s – back then, if it wasn’t published by Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly, or some other indie / small press publisher, I didn’t really want to know – but that all changed with the advent of widespread, affordable internet access and online comics ‘journalism’ that steered me in the wrong direction. Gradually, I got sucked back in and now I find myself in a situation where ‘Wilson’ by Dan Clowes (once my favourite cartoonist) has been out for weeks (or maybe even months for all I know) and I have only just added it to my Amazon wish list, have certainly not rushed out and bought it, and barely glanced at it when I saw a copy in my local branch of Waterstone’s last week. Almost as bad, I have not yet bought ‘Love and Rockets New Stories’ issues 2 and 3, or even read the copy of issue 1 that’s been sitting on my shelves for the last couple of years, even though I love the Hernandez brothers and 'Palomar' is one of my all time favourite books. And yet I have bought five Birds of Prey trade paperbacks on eBay in the last couple of months, even though I didn’t really like the first one I read that much, and I’m thinking of buying more. Something has gone badly wrong with my life, and if the only way I can turn things around is by confessing to buying bad comics online, I’m willing to give it a try. So here goes:

‘Sensei & Student’ is the second of several TPBs collecting issues of the ongoing Birds of Prey series written by Gail Simone, and it was the fact that this is written by Simone that made me buy it. I am not that familiar with her work but I hear a lot of good things about her and, as I was desperate to read some good modern superhero comics a month or so ago, I thought I’d check some of her stuff out. I’m not sure why I found it necessary to buy quite so much of her stuff (I bought five B.O.P. trades and also bought a couple of Secret Six books that I’ve yet to read) but I tend to get a bit obsessive about these things (comics) sometimes and often find myself regretting it later, which is pretty much the case again this time.

This wasn’t necessarily a bad book but I was a bit bored reading it and have forgotten most of it already, even though I only finished reading it last night. As far as I can remember, the story involved Black Canary travelling to Hong Kong to visit her former sensei, only to find that he’d been murdered, and then teaming up with two bad girls – Shiva and Cheshire (nope, I’ve never heard of them either) – to track down his killer. This tied into a subplot in which Oracle (A.K.A. Barbara Gordon, the former Batgirl) was abducted buy some bad guys and also seemed to tie in to another story involving a serial killer Black Canary’s mum once fought (prior to reading this, I had no idea that Black Canary’s mum was also a superhero called Black Canary), although I was a bit confused by this particular subplot. Like I said, this wasn’t actually bad but I was a bit bored the whole time I was reading it and I also felt like maybe I’d missed something somewhere along the line, and maybe I had, as I very rarely read DC comics and wasn’t even a big DC fan as a kid. I certainly had no idea who the villains in this comic were.

Despite being slightly bored and slightly confused, though, I didn’t really see anything here that made me doubt Simone’s reputation as a good writer. I’ve certainly read worse comics and my lack of enjoyment was probably down to me being too old for this sort of thing, not really being interested in martial arts, and being largely unfamiliar with the finer details of the DC universe. Simone’s characterisation was certainly strong. She made me care about Black Canary, a character I have always been largely indifferent to, and I particularly like the character of Oracle. The Huntress is also a character I have a soft spot for, based purely on my memories of the character from one or two issues of the Brave and the Bold in the ‘70s. Confusingly, though, she is no longer the daughter of the Earth 2 Batman and Catwoman, which she was when I was a kid (I think). I understand that Simone also has a reputation as a funny writer but I can’t say that this book was all that funny. There were a couple of amusing moments in the last issue reprinted here but the rest of the book probably took itself a bit too seriously, if anything. Based on the writing alone, though, I would say this was just about okay. The art, however, was awful.

Well, maybe awful is a bit unfair. There were a couple of issues in here drawn by guest artists, and one issue in particular was very well drawn. The majority of the art in this book, however, was by Ed Benes, whose art is not very good at all. I have certainly seen worse art in a comic but, like the art in a lot of modern DC comics, Benes’ art looks more like the work of a talented amateur than a professional artist. It certainly doesn’t look like the work of someone who has ever studied life drawing – not at a life drawing class that used female models, anyway. It also seems to sit badly at odds with the story. I mean, Simone seems well aware that most superhero comics are inherently sexist and tries to redress the balance somewhat by writing strong female characters who aren’t just there as love interests for the male characters. Meanwhile, Benes insists on drawing every character with huge, gravity- and logic-defying tits, and often draws them in the most ridiculously cheesy poses he can manage. I swear the characters’ crotches feature almost as prominently in this book as their faces. Wasn’t this sort of thing outlawed in the ‘90s? I was genuinely embarrassed to leave this book lying around the house in case my wife saw it, and it is certainly not something I would ever read in public, even though I am usually not embarrassed to be seen reading comics in pubic and this is supposed to be an all-ages, female-friendly book. Benes’ art is so cheesy that it actually made the Greg Land covers reprinted inside look quite classy by comparison, even though Land, as usual, appears to have copied all his character poses from an old issue of ‘Men Only’.

To be honest, if this was well drawn, it would probably be a perfectly decent superhero comic for younger readers (younger than me, that is – not necessarily kids) but the art just ruined it. I will read the other Birds of Prey books I have only because the rules of this blog say that I have to read everything I buy before I sell it, but the prospect of doing so doesn’t completely horrify me. I do like these characters a lot, and it’s not just because they all have really big tits. Honest.

As for the cost, well, I bought this on eBay along with another Birds of Prey TPB for a price that worked out to around £4.60 per book, including postage. I suppose that isn’t such a bad price for a trade paperback, and I suspect that I will be able to sell this on for at least that, as it seems to be out of print at the moment. However, I do feel like a bit of a pillock for buying it and can’t help thinking that I should have put the money towards a copy of ‘Wilson’ instead.


  1. Having to read the remaining BoP books is your punishment for buying them in the first place. Another enjoyable review, Rob.

  2. Thanks, Paul. I accept my punishment as fair. It's the very least I deserve for buying these books. I also promise to buy copies of Wilson and Love and Rockets New Stories with the money I get from selling them.