This month's Spider-Man/Daredevil team-up by Mark Waid and his colleagues succeeds in being as neophyte-friendly as it's entertaining and touching. By contrast, Birds Of Prey #5 is an enervating, emotionally-flat indulgence of dismally underpowered storytelling. Swierczynski, Saiz and Pina's Chokepoint reminds me of nothing so much as the time I drove through and out of a Northamptonshire country town before I realised that I'd arrived at my destination. It's surely telling that Birds of Prey #5 brought to mind an entirely wasted journey to a job interview best avoided long before it made me think of any other comic-book.
The very first page of Chokepoint, for example, is entirely lacking in either emotional intensity or physical jeopardy. It's almost comical how the scene that's been chosen to lead the story off and, presumably, snare the uncommitted reader should be so absolutely uninvolving. This being a book for which the label "deconstructed" would suggest far too high a level of complexity and content, the first page consists of three panels in which a group of four super-women stand calmly in a road and discuss being somewhat confused. There's nothing of pace, insight or tension here. The fact that one character's hand should be broken and yet somehow isn't is approached with all the intensity of a discussion concerning the virtues of semi-skinned and entirely-skimmed milk. The setting is ill-observed and utterly mundane, the characters could be described as generic if there was enough on the page to indicate any character at all, and it all reads as if somebody had decided to produce the world's least enticing first page teaser.
But turn the page and far worse awaits, as the reader's faced with one of the most unnecessary, uninformative and uninteresting double-page splashes in the history of the superhero comic-book. In that, the ennui-inspiring opening three panels really do succeed in setting the tone for the comic's remaining 19 wearisome pages. It's a desperately worrying business to wonder what principles of storytelling, let alone value-for-money, were guiding Mr Swierczynski when he sketched out the form and content of pages 2 and 3, for all that happens is that the Birds of Prey suddenly find a group of armed men appearing to one side of them. It's a business which could surely have been shown in a single panel, and yet here two sides are taken up with a scene which carries little of either surprise or jeopardy. Instead, the double-splash manages to create confusion rather than summoning up the slightest tension. Who these men are and anything specific of their purpose goes unmentioned. The reader might assume that these never-to-be-explained "Cleaners", as we later discover they're known, are attacking the Birds of Prey, but it's not even clear that that's precisely what's happening. Yes, there's two sound-effects that seems to indicate gun-shots, but there's only one character who might possibly be firing his weapon, and he seems to be aiming well to the left of his targets.
Elsewhere, many of the men who can be seen aren't even looking at the Black Canary and her allies, staring as they are in a variety of directions for no obvious reason at all. Where they've sprang from, we're not told, and indeed we're never informed of how they manage to achieve that trick in the remainder of the comic. (If they're teleporters, why aren't the Birds of Prey always uneasy about the possibility of being surprised? If they're not, how did they get there?) Even the question of how the vast spaces of the street in which they appear relate to the relatively confined area described vaguely in the very first panel of the story isn't explained either. These aren't page-turning enigmas, they're confusions, and yet, even if we include the title of the piece in the word-count for the two pages, there's just six words of story-content present. Even the most passionate supporter of content-free storytelling would surely accept that there's been, shall we say, opportunities missed when it comes to the matters of clarity and excitement.
The fault ultimately has to lie in an editorial culture which has convinced itself that such space-swallowing indulgences are entertaining in themselves. But surely nothing is entertaining in itself when it constitutes 10% of a $2.99 book and stands as being both profoundly visually dull and almost entirely lacking in content? What's most odd about this sorry process is that the creators and editors involved in Birds Of Prey #5 appear to have internalised one particular model of storytelling and yet failed to grasp that a method designed to project shock and awe rather than story and content has to actually focus on spectacle at all costs. In these pages, the logic of widescreen deconstructionism is taken to an absurd extreme while much of the point of such is entirely ignored. What can possibly be eye-catching and thrilling about these pages, which are as still and as dull as they're absent of the slightest cleverness or emotion? "The Birds are surrounded by armed bad -guys. A few guns may be being fired" is barely enough plot to weave a single little frame from, and yet such pose'n'piffle storytelling is extremely common in today's books. The only conclusion to be reached is that this is a style of comics which a significant number of DC's as well as Marvel's editorial staff don't simply tolerate, but actively encourage.
|Here we have two-thirds of page 18 of this book. Two thirds of a page filled largely by a shot of a woman standing quite still beneath some girders. Fantastic.|
Perhaps the very finest of widescreen-friendly artists might have been able to make something compelling out of Swierczynski's script, but even then, its double-page non-event of a story-opener would have been little but a cheat of an flaccid offering. These unhelpful first few pages pages could've been dumped and hardly anything about the story would have been lost. There's surely no more damning comment to be made. That Saiz and Pina were unable to even raise the angle of the panel so that we might actually see the super-women being surrounded and threatened in a more exciting fashion is a sign of either an astonishingly rushed job or a worrying lack of ambition and/or skill. But in the end, who can justify burning up so much space with so little worth? It's certainly alot easier to present such a confection than to really apply oneself to the responsibilities of ensuring that the consumer's money is well spent, but why would any editorial office encourage such audience-alienating practises? Did nobody notice, for example, that that double-page's worth of confusion and space-wasting was being produced in such a static and baffling fashion? We do, after all, live in an era where an artist can send their layouts instantaneously to head office, where the experts who enable the creation of a comic can advise on how to improve a page before it's ever completed.
|How little story and value-for-money extras can be included in one single side?|
This farce without laughter or even momentum continues without a noteworthy improvement in quality for the remainder of its pages. We're evidently supposed to be touched by a scene between Starling and a woman who has apparently asked her to stay away, but since we know nothing of who either is or their relationship, it's impossible to care. The Black Canary discovers that her team has been fighting the wrong people all the time, and goes on to discuss exploding men and sleeper agents and I haven't the faintest what's going on. Apparently there's a mastermind antagonist behind all this confusion, but since this "Choke" has barely even been mentioned until page 17, it's a revelation that's of no use to the reader at all. Yes, the super-villain of the piece is referenced in just four sentences in three seperate panels. In the first, we're told nothing more than the fact that the Birds Of Prey have once fought on his "secret floor", whatever that might mean. In the second, Ivy refers to "this so-called Choke's lair". And then we're told with three pages to go that all the troubles in this comic are down to said bad guy. A vitally important figure, it seems, and yet one that's almost totally absent from the book. Should the reader have never picked up anything from this run of Birds Of Prey before, pretty much everything about "Choke", from his appearance onwards, will remain a mystery after Chokepoint has concluded.
|Just one of an endless parade of good examples which might have inspired a far more interesting & exciting double-page splash for Birds of Prey #5. (A wonderful composition by Kirby & Ayers, image courtesy of GCD.)|
Yet it can't be said that the creators and editors here lacked space to elbow in any more information. There are far more pages than just the first three in which quite literally nothing beyond one or two simple plot-points are delivered. The five panels of page 13, for example, show us a man approaching Poison Ivy as she rests, half-buried in the ground, in what appears to be park-land. (We're not told where she is, of course.) That is quite literally all that happens that furthers the plot there. The following page tells us nothing extra across 6 frames beyond the facts that (1) Ivy has infiltrated the Birds of Prey for him and (2) he's given her a mysterious suitcase with a green-glowing interior. The contents and purpose of this suitcase are supposed to serve as an enigma, but there's little point in trying to interest a reader about such a MacGuffin's contents when there's been no storytelling of any weight, wit or momentum beforehand to make us care.
If Mark Waid's work is hardly typical of many modern-era comics, then Birds Of Prey is sadly just the opposite. For here we have yet another comic that's marked by the most insubstantial and complacent of storytelling. It would be shocking if it wasn't so typical of a mass of second and third division books, though at least the interests of the new reader haven't been put substantially below those of the book's existing fans. For everybody's been short-changed by both the form and content, or rather the lack of each, in Birds of Prey #5.
My advice is to keep Chokepoint well away from any comic that you suspect stands as an example of superior storytelling. Gawd knows what will happen if the two books touch .After all, we're well aware from what we've read of comicbook science of what might happen should any two entirely antithetical objects ever even brush against each other.
I can't speak poorly enough of Birds Of Prey, and yet the comic's so very poor that the temptation is to try. Best to move on, then.