DC Comics’ 2011 company-wide relaunch saw the reshuffling of creative teams on many titles, including fan-favorite series “Birds Of Prey.” When the New 52 relaunch happened in September 2011, artist Jesus Saiz tayed onboard for the relaunched monthly series, but writing duties changed from Gail Simone to Duane Swierczynski, a crime novelist and comic book writer best known for his comics work for Marvel, from “Cable” to “Deadpool” and more.
Swierczynski has used the relaunch to introduce readers to his new “Birds Of Prey,” pitting the characters against a brand-new villain named Choke in his very first story arc. Marking a shift in the team’s long-running dynamic, the new Birds are composed of Barbara Gordon as Batgirl, super villainess Poison Ivy and the death-dealing heroine Katana. Led by Black Canary and another brand-new character named Starling, the series has also seen a large tonal shift as the Birds are now firmly on the wrong side of the law, whether by accident or design, attempting to fight crime in Gotham while being hunted themselves.
As the Birds are pulled deeper into conflict with their invisible antagonist Choke, Swierczynski stepped forward to speak with THE BAT SIGNAL about the title, touching on everything from why he passed on using ex-teammate Lady Blackhawk to his conversations with “Batgirl” and previous “Birds Of Prey” writer Gail Simone.
CBR News: You’ve made a name in comics mainly writing for Marvel, but you’re even more well known for your crime novels. Was the allure of bringing some of that crime writing sensibility to comics one of the reasons you wanted to tackle “Birds of Prey” and this specific team?
Duane Swierczynski: Definitely. Two editors at DC approached me, and I was interested because, for one thing, it was set in Gotham City and I’ve been a huge Batman fan since I was a kid. To me, the Batman world in Gotham is actually the perfect crime world in comics. I had written a sort of illustrated novel involving Batman for DC and Quirk Books, maybe five years ago. So it wasn’t my first time in Gotham City, but it was my first time working with the Birds. I saw so much potential with them having fun being the outlaw group running around town and the group dynamics. I was a big fan of Gail Simone’s run and just to have all these characters, that was the appeal to me. I really hadn’t done a team book before, and I thought it would be fun to explore.
The idea that you wanted to start them off on the wrong side of the law was part of the original pitch, something you had been thinking about for a while?
It’s funny — they already had the line-up. My editors said, “We have these characters, what would you do with them?” The one thing I noticed about their back stories is that they all have an outlaw feel to them. They all don’t really fit in, especially Poison Ivy. Poison Ivy was kind of the surprise team member. When I first saw her I thought, “What?” [Laughs]
I thought about how cool it is to wonder why would she join a team of do-gooders, and what her primary motivation might be. So it kind of evolved out of the list of characters’ outlaw status. Then I thought it would be fun to show them as trying to do the right thing but also being hunted down by other forces, other agencies or other people. Black Canary is accused of murder; Starling is being hunted by four or five different intelligence groups and Katana is being pursued by the Yakuza. This one team is, to me, the classic hero team where they try to do the right thing despite the world trying to knock them down and make their life miserable. That’s kind of a cool thing.
So, DC came to you and said, “We want her on the team.” As a writer, how did you go about deciding what role she would play in the new Birds?
I thought about her motivation, mostly. Why would she join? What does she want most out of this world? It’s hard — I can’t really discuss too much of that because it’ll be coming up in the next issues, what her true motivation is and what she’s all about. I hope it’s surprising. It’s not black and white. I don’t think she’s a bad guy, I think she straddles both worlds. I think she’s genuine in her wanting to help this team, but also has her own agenda. Once I figured that out, it informed her entire character and I saw where it was going. I started at a certain endpoint and backtracked. Her journey is a big part of the [team’s story].
One of the standout characters in “Birds Of Prey” is the new hero, Starling. What was the idea and inspiration behind her?
It was funny, we wanted a new character on the team. Originally we were thinking about having Lady Blackhawk appear, but it seemed kind of weird having her [in “Birds of Prey”] with a book called “The Blackhawks” [also being published.] There’s sort of a lot to explain — her backstory is great, but it’s almost too much. So when she dropped out of the line-up, the editors said, “Ok, come up with a new character.” I thought, “Who would be a good counterpoint to Black Canary?” and then I just had fun with her. I made this little, short backstory for her and it kind of snowballed from there. Every issue so far has been more and more about her. I almost have to hold myself back, because if I could, I’d do a Starling spinoff comic in a heartbeat! [Laughs] I think she’s fun! But it’s a team book, so I can’t let her grab too much attention. Again, she’s an outlaw, she’s had a weird upbringing. You’re going to meet her Uncle Earl in a future issue, who’s a big influence in her life and sort of how she developed into who she is.
While Batgirl is in the book, the defining friendship of your “Birds Of Prey” is between Starling and Canary. What are the differences between the way Starling and Black Canary operate and personally relate to each other versus the old Black Canary/Oracle dynamic?
In previous runs, Oracle was definitely running the show. She was the center of this team and all things flew out from her. I approached it where Black Canary and Starling are kind of equals; they kind of joined up out of friendship and necessity, how any friends meet up. It just sort of becomes enmeshed in its own weird way. It’s often interesting when you have two very different people who become friends and compliment each other. I thought that would make a different dynamic for this team to have, these two being the core and then the others joining in. Even though Batgirl joined in, she didn’t become the core. I feel they keep each other honest. Starling’s a loose canon but she cares deeply about Dinah and vice versa. In a world where they can trust no one I think they trust each other.
The new Batgirl, as you said, she’s almost an outlier of the group. Was this partly because you’re waiting for Gail Simone to fill in the blanks of her past before you used her as a core character, or is she always going to be a side character, part of the group but not the focus?
I think the latter. I think she’s always going to be a part of the team, insomuch as she has a friendship with Dinah, and that is always going to be there. But she is an essential part of this team, so it’s kind of back and forth. In issue #1, she was very standoffish. She sees this group as, “You guys are outlaws, no way! I’m not going to join your team.” She’s motivated by friendship to join the team and help out. You see that more in issue #5 and #6. But again, she has her own solo title and she’s the center of that universe, I didn’t want to make her the center of this one as well. I kind of wanted to explore these different characters, Black Canary and Starling, and what they’re all about. Plus, Batgirl is not fond of Poison Ivy by any stretch, so that kind of strains things. That’s a wrench in the works for the whole team. I feel like Katana sometimes gets short shrift, but she’s so much fun to write and plot and think about because the big question for her is, is she sane or is she really crazy?
Is her husband’s soul in the sword, or is she just talking to it?
Exactly! [Laughs] There is probably evidence both ways. I want to believe her, but it sounds kind of goofy.
Are you interested at all in answering that question, or are you going to leave it ambiguous?
You know, it’s funny. We’re going to be playing with it on both sides in coming issues. At some point, I think we’re going to focus on her a little more and focus on her backstory, but for the moment, a lot of the next arc will be on Black Canary, on her backstory. I’m going to tease it along, probably! [Laughs]
It sounds like a big cop-out, but I honestly kind of wait for characters to reveal themselves to me as much as I actually plot. When I’m writing, they kind of lead me in certain directions. A lot of the fun and surprises I get out of things, and this is true of novels as well, is when I relax a little bit and let the characters run for a little while and they surprise me with where they want to go. I try to apply that to comics as much as possible even though in comics you plot out things, you run it by editors, it’s a collaborative effort. I still try to preserve a sense of surprise when I can about these guys.
The first villain they’re tackling in this big starting arc is the mind-controlling Choke. What does Choke bring out in the Birds, and how does it set the tone for the sorts of adventures they’ll have in the next arc?
That’s a great question; in fact, the whole motivation for Choke being the big bad is that I thought for a team of outlaws the biggest enemy would be paranoia. You’re always wondering who’s chasing after you, always looking over your shoulder. If there was an enemy who did that to the nth degree, it really makes you question everything, makes you question who is around you. I love the fact that we haven’t seen his or her face yet; my whole pitch to the editors was that we aren’t going to show this person until deep into this arc. It’s what we want to do with the series because I think a lot of the most fun villains are the ones that keep you guessing, keep you on top of your game. The arc to follow this first seven issue arc will be, I think, surprising [in terms of] who becomes the antagonists. I don’t want to say too much, but I like the idea that there’s one thing about having an enemy in front of you that you can see, they’re wearing a mask and you can beat the crap out of them, but then there’s the enemy you can’t see. You’re wondering where they’ll strike next, which is a lot of fun!
You’re also playing with their memories, so there’s that uncertainty as well.
Yes, exactly; you’ll see a lot of that false memory stuff going on, and that’s the worst. You kind of have an idea of how things went down and your best friend says, “No, you are so wrong, that’s not what happened last night.” That’s fun to explore.
On the art side, you’re working with pre-relaunch “Birds” artist Jesus Saiz. He’s obviously already got experience with this kind of story and cast, but in what ways have his sensibilities lined up with your approach to the Birds as outlaws?
He is a thrill to work with. It’s funny, I don’t work with him directly. We go through his agent David Macho, so we’ve never had a conversation — we email through David, but we get along great. He is sort of oddly tuned to what I’m going for all the time, down to facial expression. I can see it in my head and there’s only so well I can describe what I’m going for, and he nails it somehow. He guesses what I’m going for, which I think makes him psychic or super-talented — probably both! The small things like facial expressions always impress me; the pages come in and I think, “This is it, this is great!” What’s funny is, when we first started, I plotted the first issue, wrote the script even, and then we had a conversation through David about what [Jesus] likes to draw, what he’s into. One thing he says is, “What I’m not crazy about is drawing guns and cars.” I’m thinking, “Oh, issue #1 is full of guns and cars! This poor guy!” But beyond that it’s been pretty great. I think he does some great dynamic stuff. His Poison Ivy impresses the hell out of me. Jesus is really great at the organic thing, the flowing suit with the tendrils, all the plant stuff — he’s just super cool and it’s fun to let him go crazy with it.
Finally, with you two having the same character in your books and Gail being the last one to write “Birds Of Prey,” have you had conversations with Gail about Batgirl or the approach to the team as it stands?
Well, you know, we did have this pretty serious knife fight in an alleyway early on. Gail cut me deep — she’s brutal and merciless! [Laughs] No, we have talked through email, and even through Twitter, a lot. We’re not trying to push too much of what we’re doing on each other, but she’s just been super-cool to me and really supportive and fantastic about everything. I’m sure it wasn’t easy for her to leave the Birds behind to pursue these other things, but she’s been fantastic. We’ve been talking quite a bit about how Batgirl can fit in both worlds, so I’m very grateful. She’s even cooler than I thought she was before!
“Birds Of Prey” issue #6 hits shelves February 15.