Every once in a while, I think about whether it's worth it to read aspirational stories where people kick the crud out of each other. I weigh the negatives -- inequality in gender portrayals, meaningless acts of violence, cynical events created in the name of sales -- against the positives -- mind-bending entertainment, amazing metaphors, endless opportunities to bring diverse experiences to a broad audience. And I can't make up my mind. Should I stay, or should I go?
At times like these, I turn to my favorite superhero comics for clarity. Often, it's not even my favorite comics; it's usually my favorite panels. Because for all the inequality and outdated thinking I see in action-adventure comics, they also contain some of the most humane moments I've ever read. Case in point: Birds of Prey volume two, issue number six.
This issue revolves around a death match that Black Canary has agreed to fight, mostly in order to protect her teammates, family, and friends. Before the battle can begin, however, Huntress, aka, Helena Bertinelli, intercedes Sicily-style, and steals the match out from under the Canary's nose. It's classic Bertinelli, trying to help everybody, and doing it in the brashest way possible. Completely outmatched by her opponent, Huntress has no chance to win the fight; it's certain she will die. Black Canary shouts at her stupidity, and Helena asks to be left alone; one imagines it's to prepare herself for the coming pain.
Except it's not. Helena wants time alone to pray, in my favorite panels ever composed for a superhero comic:
The other half of the equation, of course, is writer Gail Simone. In her years-long work with the Huntress, she rekindled Helena's faith, and gave the heroine life-long friendships. So when her final prayer is not a prayer for rescue or redemption, but a prayer of thanks for friends and the purpose they give, Simone ensures you fall in love with Helena all over again. Further, you understand what's led her to make such a dangerous decision. The solemn sincerity of this sequence kills me; it's bracing, almost shocking in its lack of spectacle or superhero hi-jinks. (Helena does go on to win the fight, but only by refusing to fall down.)
So when I think about giving up on superhero comics, I look to moments like this for proof that superhero tales can be so much more than fisticuffs and fantasies. They allow us to explore not only identity and power differentials, but the vulnerability that is essential and inevitable in every human life. Birds of Prey issue six keeps me looking to the horizon, searching for the next set of panels to knock me flat.
Birds of Prey #6: Gail Simone, Writer; Alvin Lee & Adriana Melo, Pencillers; Nei Ruffino, Colorist; Jack Purcell & J.P. Mayer, Inkers.