The Comic Book History Behind 'Birds of Prey'
Birds of Prey is in theaters, and while audiences are surely familiar with Harley Quinn, there are a few characters largely unknown outside of comic book readers.
Who are Black Canary, Huntress, Renee Montoya et al, and what about their inspirations? Keep reading to find the complicated Cliff’s Notes for the comic book Birds.
Heat Vision breakdown
Harley didn’t actually get her start as a comic book character; she actually debuted in a September 1992 episode of Batman: The Animated Series (“Joker’s Favor,” for the curious, written by Paul Dini), and only showed up in comics a year later, in The Batman Adventures No. 12; even then, she didn’t debut in mainstream DC comic continuity until 1999’s Batman: Harley Quinn No. 1 — again written by Dini.
The comic book backstory of Harley is consistent with the big screen version: She’s a former psychiatrist whose attempts to treat the Joker led to her falling in love with him, and then being transformed from Harleen Quinzel to Harley Quinn via chemical means. Where things go after that is where stories start to change.
In comics, Harley has been released from the Joker’s clutches for most of her existence, but has continually found herself building new families and teams to make up for that, whether it’s the Gotham City Sirens — an anti-hero team with Catwoman and Poison Ivy that existed from 2009 through 2011 — or the Suicide Squad, where she’s been active since 2011. (Since 2013, she’s also had her very own family of misfits living in Coney Island, as a result of the successful Harley Quinn solo series.)
One of the more surprising things about Harley is that her history didn’t change considerably even when DC’s 2011 The New 52 relaunch rebooted the entire canon of its comic book universe. Certain storylines and affiliations may have disappeared in the process — say goodbye to the Gotham City Sirens, who no longer teamed up in the revised timeline — but Harley herself emerged relatively unscathed.
There is, however, one significant change that resulted from the new status quo: Harley went from villain — or, at best, nuisance — into something approaching sympathetic protagonist. In 2016’s Harley Quinn No. 25, Harley gets something approaching closure on her unhealthy relationship with the Joker, finally rejecting him and moving on. In the 2018-2019 Heroes in Crisis miniseries, she even teams up with Batgirl to help solve the mystery behind the mass slaughter of a number of superheroes, with the two having a heartfelt discussion about the trauma motivating the character in the process.
Notably, she appears alongside the heroes of the DC universe in January's Superman No. 19 as they celebrate the Man of Steel revealing his identity to the public, suggesting a shift in DC’s internal attitude about which side of the divide the character is on, if nothing else …
First appearing in 1947’s Flash Comics No. 86, Black Canary’s comic book history is complicated by the fact that there’s not one Black Canary — indeed, thanks to a retcon in 1983’s Justice League of America No. 220, there’s two and they’re mother and daughter.
Originally the charming mix of florist by day, crime-fighter by night, Dinah Drake had no superpowers to help her deal with bad guys, only some vague martial arts training and a pure heart. Her powers showed up in 1969, after the character was revived and added to the cast of the Justice League of America title, with the explanation being that she had traveled between parallel Earths and that had, somehow, created her ability to use a “canary cry” that could be used as an ultrasonic weapon.
As part of the 1983 retcon, it was revealed that Dinah Drake — now Dinah Lance, having married Larry Lance, the detective of her dreams, who’d been tragically killed in the line of duty — hadn’t actually traveled between worlds, or gained powers; both of those things had happened to her previously unknown daughter, also called Dinah Lance, who … believed herself to be her mother for reasons that don’t really make sense or need to be dwelled on. (The original Dinah was, instead, in stasis in between different Earths, because of course she was.)
The second Dinah Lance became a mainstay of the Justice League, and also the girlfriend of Green Arrow, soon after arriving on Earth-1, with those two facts becoming her defining characteristics for decades to follow, arguably more than her own abilities or personality. (In the wake of the history-rewriting Crisis on Infinite Earths comic book, Dinah was retroactively given founder status for the Justice League, in fact.) It wasn’t until 1996’s Black Canary/Oracle: Birds of Prey No. 1 that she full managed to step out of either shadow.
Birds of Prey gave Black Canary a new role — fittingly, seeing as she was no longer a member of the Justice League, and Green Arrow had died the year previously (It wouldn’t take; he’d be back by 2001) — as founding member and capable kick-ass operative of Oracle, the then-wheelchair bound Barbara Gordon. It also allowed her a chance to build relationships that didn’t rely on other superheroes, meaning that when Green Arrow returned, she had a life, and comic book fandom, of her own that was the equal of his.
With the reboot of its entire history in 2011, the separation between Black Canary and her old life became more pronounced: in the new reality, she’d never met Green Arrow nor been a member of the Justice League, instead being a widowed secret agent working as part of a newly mercenary Birds of Prey team. When that series ended, she launched a music career in the critically acclaimed 2015 Black Canary series — what better job for someone with a sonic scream? — before finally running into Green Arrow the following year, becoming part of the supporting cast of his relaunched comic book series, and joining the Justice League.
It was as if the universe wanted them all to be together … or, at least, the DC comics fan base.
There have been multiple heroes called Huntress in DC’s comic book mythology — and even different variations of the same version of character, because comics — making it impressively difficult to summarize in anything resembling coherency. That said, the Huntresses that we need to concentrate on are the second and third women to bear the name, starting with Helena Wayne.
As the name might suggest, Helena was the daughter of Bruce Wayne (and also Selena Kyle, AKA the Batwoman), albeit the Bruce Wayne of Earth-2, where he’d been quasi-retired for decades after a crime-fighting career in the 1940s. Helena took on the Huntress identity after the death of her father, and eventually replaced him in the Justice Society of America. She died in 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths series, which was perhaps a mercy; her parents ended up being wiped out of history before the story was over.
Four years after Helena Wayne’s career (and life) ended, Helena Bertinelli debuted in The Huntress No. 1, wearing a variation on Wayne’s costume. Her origins were far grimier, however; Bertinelli was the sole survivor of a crime family wiped out by rival cartels, and trained to get revenge on those responsible. She was, eventually, accepted into the superhero fold despite a tendency toward extreme violence, becoming a member of both the Justice League and the Birds of Prey.
And then, in 2011, DC started its whole continuity over from scratch … and gave fans two new versions of the Huntress in the process. One was, again, Helena Wayne from Earth-2, although in this situation, she had been trained as Robin until her father’s death, eventually taking on the Huntress identity. (She’d eventually call herself Batman, explaining, “The Batman is a symbol. And its my inheritance.)
The second was Helena Bertinelli, but a very different take on the character. This time around, Bertinelli is one of the most capable agents of spy agency Spyral after the death of her Mafia boss grandfather (later, her father, thanks to a retcon); she eventually leaves Spyral after serving a brief period as its director to dedicate herself to getting revenge on those responsible for her father’s murder, which is how she comes in contact with the Birds of Prey. While she’s successful in her mission to discover the truth behind her father’s death, it’s not exactly what she expected: her mother turned out to be responsible.
Only after her mother had redeemed herself, sacrificing her life to save her daughter, could Bertinelli move on, essentially retiring as Huntress and starting life over as a high school teacher … unless danger called, of course.
The comic book Cassandra Cain (who first appeared in 1999’s Batman No. 567) had a rough life. The daughter of mercenary David Cain, she was trained from birth to become the ultimate assassin, with any traditional socialization skills dropped in favor of … well, more ways to kill someone, really. Despite this — or, perhaps, because of it — she rebels against her upbringing and runs away to Gotham, where she eventually falls under the tutelage of Batman and Barbara Gordon, who train her to become the latest Batgirl.
As Batgirl, she spends time around other heroes, including brief stints as a member of both the Outsiders and Justice League, and eventually having the chance to confront both her father and the woman in charge of her training as an assassin; she not only fights both — at separate points, not together — but she defeats each, with her father dying as a result of their sparring. Disillusioned, Cassandra surrenders the role of Batgirl and goes underground, seemingly to achieve atonement. This was later revealed to be misdirection, with Cassandra actually working as “Black Bat,” a vigilante in Hong Kong at the direction of Batman himself.
Following the reboot of DC’s comic book continuity, Cassandra is returned to her roots as the manipulated daughter of mercenary David Cain, who in the revised timeline works under the name “Orphan” to further the mission of Mother, a villain who manipulates children and others to do her bidding. After David Cain sacrifices himself to stop Mother, Cassandra takes on the identity of Orphan herself, and becomes part of Batman’s plan to train a new generation of superheroes under the mentorship of the Dark Knight and Robin.
Currently, she’s part of the latest version of the Outsiders team, working alongside Black Lightning, learning the ropes (and making sure not to use them to kill anybody).
When Renee Montoya first appeared in 1992’s Batman No. 475, she was a detective in the Gotham City Police Department who had the rarest of qualities for that particular city: Integrity. It made her stand out for Commissioner Gordon and the fans alike — as well as Two-Face, who became creepily obsessed with her, a plot thread that eventually led to her being outed as a lesbian in 2003’s Gotham Central No. 6, as well as being framed for murder.
As a result of both events, Montoya’s life begins to crumble, as does her career; she leaves the police force in disgust after her partner is murdered by a corrupt CSI, and becomes a private investigator, albeit one that barely works so as to afford more time for her alcoholism. It’s in this role where she becomes involved with the Question, a vigilante who brings her on board a case that ultimately takes them around the world and ends in the Question’s death, as he reveals that he knew he was dying from lung cancer, and has been secretly training Montoya as his replacement. Montoya did, indeed, take up the guise of the Question, despite her cynicism about costumed vigilantes in general.
After DC rebooted its mythology in 2011, Montoya was returned to the Gotham City Police Department, and seemingly without her costumed alter ego — although she is now in a relationship with Kate Kane, AKA Batwoman. Last year, however, Lois Lane No. 1 revealed that Montoya is still active as the Question, and working secretly as an operative for the iconic Daily Planet reporter to help her uncover corruption. Think of it as an unlikely, but entirely awesome, team-up.
What if Bruce Wayne went … wrong? That’s the basic concept behind Roman Sionis, AKA Black Mask. As his first appearance in 1985’s Batman No. 386 revealed, Sionis was born to a wealthy family that cared so little for him that it hushed up both his being dropped on his head as a baby — no, really — but also being attacked by a raccoon — no, really — rather than face potential embarrassment from those accidents becoming public. No wonder, then, that Sionis ended up murdering his parents to take control of the family fortune and related business.
That was just the start of his career, of course; soon afterwards, he was struck by lightning and took his survival to be a sign of divine intervention and proof that he was meant to be a criminal mastermind, leading him to form the False Face Society, a group of criminals hiding behind masks as they plotted out how to carve up the Gotham City underworld. As the leader of this society, using the sobriquet “Black Mask,” he came into conflict with Batman on a number of occasions.
It wasn’t just Batman who had to deal with Black Mask, however; Catwoman ran afoul of the villain and learned first hand how truly evil he could be, when her sister was kidnapped and blinded by Black Mask’s organization before being driven insane after being forced to eat the remains of her murdered husband. As might be clear at this point, little about Black Mask could be considered subtle. Or, indeed, anything less than over the top and ridiculous.
Surprisingly little has changed for Roman in the wake of DC rebooting its comic book continuity in 2011, with the exception of it becoming canon that he has two distinct personalities — Roman Sionis and Black Mask — with new technology inside the mask allowing the wearer to have some level of telepathic influence over the “weak minded” in the immediate area. Because who better to be able to impress his will upon other people, when you come to think about it …?
There’s something almost charmingly old-fashioned about Victor Zsasz, who first showed up in 1992’s Batman: Shadow of the Bat No. 1. He doesn’t have fancy superpowers, not a particularly confusing backstory — he’s simply a psychopathic serial killer who carves a mark on his own body for every fresh kill. See? Simple!
Like Black Mask, Zsasz comes from a wealthy background, but that didn’t set him up for future success, as it turned out; after his parents died in a boating accident, he went on an emotional downspin that saw him gamble away his entire fortune and left him contemplating suicide … at least until an attempting mugging ended with the accidental death of his assailant, convincing him that his true purpose of life was to liberate everyone from the existential burden of, well, living.
Unsurprisingly, this is the kind of thing that brought him face-to-face with Batman on a number of occasions, as well as the kind of thing that drew the attention of other Batman villains. It was in 2009’s Batman: Battle for the Cowl No. 1 where Black Mask and Zsasz first became acquainted, with the former hiring the latter as part of a wider war between crime lords being planned for Gotham City — after all, it doesn’t hurt to have a serial killer on speed dial to help thin out the competition when necessary.
Post-2011 reboot of DC’s comic history, Zsasz has kept a relatively low profile, but has shown up both working for the Riddler and also temporarily transformed into a human/bat hybrid, because why not. Maybe I should reconsider that whole “charmingly old-fashioned” comment, all things considered.
Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) opens Feb. 7.
by Hilary Lewis
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by Lesley Goldberg
by Lesley Goldberg
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