(For an idea of the plot points I'll be discussing here, check this out.)
It's true that I'm referencing a ridiculously badass yet physically improbable/sexualized comics cover in the adjoining space here. And it's true I'm using it as a hook of sorts for this entry. But! I don't mean it as a weird judgment of the work at hand. Rather, everything in that Huntress drawing highlights what I want to talk about in Birds of Prey: Of Like Minds -- specifically how sexual and badass fantasies are fulfilled in this work WHILE writer Gail Simone continually humanizes her characters AND turns the tables on a weird captivity fantasy by giving her heroines most of the cards to play.
But look at that cover again. Who is this sexy mash-up meant for?
Is it meant for men who look to their comics not only for oggle-fests but also a black and white definition of the male as protector and the female as physically pleasing and available once protected? Or is it meant for the woman who loves comic book adventures but hate the festishization of violence involving females, a la "Women In Refrigerators?" (For more information on that concept, check out this website, actually created by Gail Simone herself.)
Simone and her artist Ed Benes strike a neat balance between these two sets of readers. Benes does so by creating the type of ridiculous exaggerations that won his visceral work acclaim -- and lots of male fans, I'm sure. Check out this cover and get an eyeful of breasts and muscles (Black Canary's abs are amazing, and Barbara Gordon's boobs are barely covered!):
Meanwhile, Simone errs on the side of the ladies' fan base by showcasing an understandably terrifying situation and still allowing women to act forcefully in the middle of a kidnapping shitstorm. The rescuer of our captive, after all, is not male:
Strength is a hook. Sex is a hook. But the development of a female support system and solid female characters is what keeps people -- men and women -- reading this story. Because the decidedly fantastic masculine ass-kickery, and the assumed and dreamed sexiness exploited by Benes' artwork (so many thigh and ass shots here, it gets a little grating) isn't enough to captivate -- a lot of writers and artists can do that.
If those lurid elements weren't rubbing against the reality of characters acting under dangerous circumstances, with the safety of friends and family hanging in the balance, then there'd be no reason to keep reading. You'd just have a violent cheesecake book. Here, Simone presents us with women who have wide-ranging personalities -- Oracle, formerly Batgirl and confined to a wheelchair but okay with that, to the point that she's becoming a bit of a information vulture, aka, worse than Big Brother; Black Canary, vulnerable when around her gadabout boyfriend Green Arrow and his liberal propaganda, but well-equipped to withstand torture after being dragged through the mud by author Mike Grell on that count once before; and Huntress, an insecure loner who can't fit into any group. Somehow these women manage to work together and function as a family, despite their various weaknesses, interests and blind spots. And that's what makes the adventure penned by Simone remarkable, because she explores their various traits and connections, gives their conversations a history, and their trials a reality that moves beyond adventure, and into day-to-day life. In accomplishing this, Simone makes the Birds of Prey true women, not playthings or masculinized females.
It's not for nothing that when we first meet Huntress, her vigilante actions are tempered by her appreciation for the baby she's just saved ("I wish you could smell how good this baby smells," she says). Nor is it surprising when Barbara spends a two-issue arc hashing out her PTSD after Black Canary's rescue. Simone treats these woman as real women dealing with situations that would have long-lasting effects on any woman. She shows us their worries and human frailty, and thus takes a potentially exploitative situation (kidnapping and torture funneled through hyper-masculine attacks and muscles), and tempers it with a female perspective. So, every reader gets the best of both worlds here, but in the end I think Simone's world wins over Benes' comic fantasy.
If only because Simone allows this panel to conflate ra-ra hyper-masculinity with questions about sexual identity:
Birds of Prey: Gail Simone, Writer; Ed Benes, Pencils; Alex Lei, Inker; Hi-Fi Design, Color; John Workman, Letterer.