Want to study up before ‘Birds of Prey’? Read these comic books
It took the superhuman charisma of Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn in the otherwise dire “Suicide Squad” to make a “Bird of Prey” movie happen. But in the DC Comics books, the ladies of the latest superhero team adapted for the big screen have been around for a good long time — some since the 1940s, in one form or another.
“Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)” is in theaters this week. Here are some ways to study up on your new favorite crimefighters (or crime purveyors, in at least one case). Most of these comics can be found in local comics shops, book stores or libraries. They can also be found on digital apps such as Comixology or Amazon.
Harley was created by showrunners Paul Dini and Bruce Timm for the groundbreaking “Batman: The Animated Series.”
Debuting in 1992, Harley was originally designed to be a one-off sidekick to the Joker. But her design and shtick proved too popular for just one appearance, and Harley soon became the sensational character find of DC Comics’ 1990s era.
The criminal clown got her own origin story in the still-excellent 1994 graphic novel “The Batman Adventures: Mad Love” and has hung around — sometimes as a baddie, sometimes as a freelance agent of chaos — ever since, fully integrating in the mainline DC Comics line in series such as “Suicide Squad” and her own self-titled books.
For a while there, nobody did legacy heroes like DC Comics.
In the 1970s, the Huntress alias was given to a character named Helena Wayne, who was the grown-up daughter of Batman and Catwoman on Earth-2. Basically, that was DC’s alternate world where the World War II-era, or “Golden Age,” versions of its heroes hung out.
By day, she was a lawyer at Dick “Robin” Grayson’s law firm; by night, she cracked criminal skulls in a gravity-defiant purple costume and used a dope crossbow. Huntress was a great idea, but the stories were rarely more than fan service for continuity nerds. This take on the character later made it to TV in the 2002 “Birds of Prey” TV show.
Sadly, in 1985 she was eliminated from comic book existence in the “Crisis on Infinite Earths” event, when DC decided that all its alternate earths were just too complicated to follow (never mind that 8-year-old dorks live for this sort of complexity).
But comics, as they say, never throw anything away. DC kept the name and the basic look, and in 1989, suddenly Huntress was a character named Helena Bertinelli, the vengeful daughter of Gotham City mobsters. She’s been a consistent B-lister in the comics ever since. Her best-written adventures are in the “Birds of Prey” series written by Gail Simone starting in 2003, issue Nos. 68-108, which have been anthologized in various paperback editions.
Gotham City police detective Renee Montoya was another character created by Timm and Dini for “Batman: The Animated Series,” but she thrived in the terrific 2002-06 comic book series “Gotham Central.”
Written by noir savants Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka and drawn with chiaroscuro smarts by the great Michael Lark until issue No. 25, “Gotham Central” was a police procedural in the manner of “NYPD Blue” or “Homicide: Life on the Street” — instead of low-level drug deals, these cops had to deal with, say, the Joker shooting people, not to mention this righteous lunatic named Batman who just keeps whaling on bad guys.
Montoya, a lesbian who had to deal with being outed to her squad, gained a cult following along with the series. She eventually became a more superhero-ish presence in the comics, taking up the mantle of the faceless vigilante called the Question. But she was never better than in “Gotham Central.”
This gal’s history is so annoyingly convoluted that we’re going to skip it almost entirely. Suffice it to say, a version of street-level brawler Black Canary has existed in some fashion since 1947; she once moved from Earth-2 to Earth-1 (remember those earths?); she’s usually got a superpowered sonic scream; and she might have been her own daughter, thanks to a mind-transplant. (Comics, everybody!)
Black Canary, aka Dinah Lance, did time in the wonderful 1980s superhero title “Justice League International” (sporting a really ’80s outfit), which has aged quite well. She’s also often portrayed as Green Arrow’s lover, including in the truly grim, mature-readers “Green Arrow” series from that same decade, which has not aged well at all.
But, again, she just kind of hung around in various titles over the years; she’s another one whose best stories were in Simone’s run of “Birds of Prey.” You also might recognize her from the CW’s “Arrow” and “Smallville” TV series. In current DC Comics continuity, she is a singer, too. (Comics, everybody!)
It’s long been a comics dork in-joke that, for a guy who fashions himself a loner, Batman sure has a big chosen family. From his butler Alfred to various Robins and various Batgirls (Batsgirl?), Batman hangs with a powerful crew.
Created by writer Kelley Puckett and artist Damion Scott in 1999, Cain started life as the mute daughter of assassins who falls into Batman orbit. She decides to start adventuring as the new Batgirl, complete with a new costume that trades original mantle-bearer Barbara Gordon’s cheery hood for a face-covering cowl. Gordon, under her later secret identity as the computer hacker Oracle, is a founding member of the Birds of Prey in the comics, but she’s nowhere to be found in the film’s promotional material.
She futzed around with the identities like Blackbat and Orphan for a spell, but her best-written adventure might be her newest, a young adult-oriented book called “Shadow of the Batgirl” by Sarah Kuhn, author of “Heroine Complex” and “I Love You So Mochi,” with art by Nicole Goux.
‘Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)’
This movie was not screened for critics before this issue’s deadline. Read Eric Webb’s review Friday at austin360.com and in Sunday’s paper.
Starring: Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Rosie Perez, Ewan McGregor
Director: Cathy Yan
Rated: R for some sexual and drug material, language throughout and strong violence
Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes
Theaters: Alamo Lakeline, Alamo Mueller, Alamo Ritz, Alamo South Lamar, Alamo Slaughter, Alamo Village, Barton Creek, Cedar Park, City Lights, Evo, Flix, Galaxy, Hill Country, iPic, Lake Creek, Lakeline, Moviehouse 620, Moviehouse Lantana, Pflugerville 20, Round Rock 14, Sky Dripping, Southpark, Stone Hill, Tech Ridge, Westgate. IMAX: Barton Creek, Bullock Museum