Since its inception, there have been two standard elements to DC Comics "Birds of Prey" title: Black Canary and Barbara Gordon. The sonic screamer and the heroine again known as Batgirl have appeared in every iteration of the all-female super team, even as the New 52 relaunch changed most of the particulars surrounding them.
And now starting with March's issue #18, "Birds of Prey" will switch up again. Taking over in that comic for departing writer Duane Swierczynski is Jim Zubkavich – known for his work on Image's fan favorite "Skullkickers." The man commonly known as Jim Zub will keep the Canary, Batgirl and series artist Romano Molenaar while also welcoming new Bird Strix to the team full time in a story that follows up on the "Night of the Owls" crossover – specifically the fate of Owl victim and villain Mr. Freeze.
CBR News got the exclusive on the change and spoke with Zub about his plans for the series. Below, the writer talks about his view of "Birds of Prey" history from Chuck Dixon and Gail Simone's classic runs through Swierczynski's current storylines, shares his view on why the franchise is led by it leading ladies' character dynamic and reveals what villains new and old will be breaking into the book this March.
CBR News: Jim, I think a lot of folks will know you from "Skullkickers" at Image and likely other folks have started to learn about you work through UDON, Dynamite's "Pathfinder" and your web comics for NAMCO/Shiftylook. But picking up "Birds of Prey" is a high profile gig and your first DC work. How did you land on the radar of the publisher, and what led to this title being your first big superhero comic?
Jim Zubkavich: Just over a year ago I was approached by DC to write a fill-in issue on one of the New 52 books. It was a way to make sure things stayed on schedule and also show how I’d approach superhero stories/characters. I had a lot of fun with it and, thankfully, it impressed folks at the DC office.
Slowly but surely I was approached about other possible DC writing projects and, when I expressed that I really wanted to write something people wouldn’t expect from me, DC Editorial Director Bobbie Chase asked me to write up my take on Birds of Prey.
As the pitch I put together moved through each stage of approvals I tried not to get my hopes up too high since I knew I was an underdog heading into the whole thing, and when they finally told me I was taking over the series I could hardly believe it. It’s been a whirlwind ever since.
Before we get into the specifics of your story, I wondered what impression you have of the "Birds" as a team and a franchise from the outside. We're at the point now where the team has a lot of history under its belt as well as a few different incarnations. What's the strongest hook for you in working on a (usually) all-female team in the DCU? Any previous runs that will influence what you do here?
I know I’m not a writer people would have expected to pick up the torch on "Birds of Prey," but that’s part of what makes it such an exciting challenge. I know I have a lot to prove.
I read through the older "Birds of Prey" issues quite extensively as I was tightening up my pitch and what struck me most wasn’t a particular plotline as much as it was the quality of characterization that’s punctuated "Birds of Prey." The series really sings when readers care about the cast and root for them, issue after issue.
Gail Simone and Chuck Dixon’s best "Birds of Prey" issues had a wonderful sense of personality and camaraderie that went hand-in-hand with top-notch action and drama. I’m not here to retread stories that have been told before and there are distinct differences between the past and this new incarnation of the team, but I‘m looking to keep that character/action balance at the core of the series because I feel that’s what makes it such a special series.
When it comes to the cast of the book, I'm sure there are a few things that are under wraps as Duane Swierczynski ties up the many threads of his run in the coming months. But I'm betting one assumption we can make is that Black Canary and Batgirl will play a central role in the series. Since Barbara and Dinah have formed the backbone of "Birds" since its inception, what's your take on their relationship today, and how do they share a role in the book overall?
Black Canary and Batgirl are definitely a big part of my plans and character relationships as a whole are crucial to me in "Birds of Prey." Before I started generating specific story threads for the series, I put together a character “matrix” for the cast – who they are, how they feel about each other and what could change as the story moves forward. Going through that process and digging into each character’s personality gave me a lot more confidence. It acts as a baseline to build from so that no matter what scenario I throw the team into I can gauge their reactions based on where things are in each character’s development.
Dinah’s an optimist who keeps ending up on the wrong side of conflict. She’s a fighter who doesn’t know how to stop even when, by all rights, she should give up. In the New 52 she’s the glue that holds the "Birds of Prey" together. That leadership role is at the core of Dinah’s personality, whether she wants it or not.
Batgirl in the New 52 wants to be a part of the Birds and support Dinah’s vision for a team that looks out for each other, but she’s quite used to “going it alone”, especially since she has her own solo series. Barbara will struggle with that “individual vs. team” dynamic and the choices she makes, especially after bringing Strix to the team, will affect everyone.
Looking deeper into the team, we know some shake-ups are in store soon. Katana is on her way to a solo series and "Justice League of America." Meanwhile, Starling looks to be some kind of double agent for Amanda Waller. And let's not forget new player Strix in the series. How will the team be fleshed out as your run begins? Are there certain threads from Duane's run you'll be incorporating, or is this an opportunity for a clean slate for the ladies on the team?
"Birds of Prey" #18 is written as an ideal jumping on point for new or lapsed readers, but it doesn’t get rid of anything that’s happened in previous issues. It sets a new baseline and reintroduces the team while building on the foundation that’s been solidly set up.
Duane developed some great plotlines I intend to utilize as the story moves forward. In addition to creating a bunch of new material I’m also picking up threads from Duane’s run that will re-emerge in new and unexpected ways. As far as I’m concerned, everything’s in play.
In your first issue, the focus is on Mr. Freeze whose origin got a revamp in the recent "Batman Annual" #1. What was the draw on following up the "Court of Owls" tie-in, and how are you picking that character up after those revelations?
After being physically and emotionally trounced by Batman, Freeze is damaged goods and he’s not dealing with that too well. He feels he’s been used by Bruce Wayne, used by Batman and used by the Court of Owls. Since Batman and Wayne Corp. soundly kicked his ass, he’s lashing out at the next thing on his list and is determined to wreck vengeance on the Court and its many minions. That’s going to bring him into conflict with Strix and the rest of the Birds. The end result of that nasty conflict will be far reaching and bloody for everyone involved.
Playing in the DC sandbox with both classic and new characters feels pretty cool, I don’t mind saying. When Freeze’s name came up during brainstorming sessions I felt I could build on the great new material that started in the "Batman Annual." I’m excited about showing readers how focused and dangerous he can be.
Between Freeze and Strix's roles, one theme that appears to be growing in the book is stronger ties it to the Batman world. Are you looking to incorporate some of the Birds story to the Dark Knight's family of titles, or are there ways it will remain off in its own corner of the DCU?
I’m planning "Birds of Prey" to work on its own as a reading experience. It may echo story elements that are happening in other series or shepherd along larger plotlines, but I feel really strongly about building "Birds" into something that works on its own merits while also adding to the larger tapestry of the DC universe.
One long term plot that seems to be getting a kick start early in your run is an organization called the Daughters of the Dawn. What can you reveal about this group, and how do they serve as a counterpoint for the Birds team?
Working with established characters is great, but one of the areas I’m super-pumped about is bringing new characters and ideas into the mix. The Daughters of the Dawn are a group I’ve come up with as a long term threat for the Birds (and who knows, maybe other parts of the DC universe as well). They’ll be introduced in issue #18 in a cutaway scene and will slowly develop in the background, putting pieces into play bit by bit. By the time they make their big move I’m hoping readers will be excited about who they are and how they tie into the bigger picture.
Artist Romano Molenaar is sticking on the title with you. What have you gleaned of his style and strengths from his initial issues with the book, and how has that impacted what you're doing for him in the scripts?
Romano’s got a solid combat-oriented approach to the series that suits me just fine. I love writing fight scenes and he enjoys drawing them, so I expect good times coming down the road for us. I’m going to push for a mix of big emotion and big action and, from everything I’ve seen, he’s definitely up to the challenge.
Unlike "Skullkickers" and a few of your other creator-owned works, this series is a big change up from the fantasy landscape. You've talked in the past about wanting to branch out in the kinds of stories you tell. What story and genre itch does "Birds of Prey" scratch for you in a general sense and in terms of your view of superhero comics?
In the end I think it’s less about genre and more about characters. I love sword & sorcery and feel incredibly fortunate that I’m writing two fantasy-based comics, but the core of my passion for storytelling comes from developing engaging characters, whatever genre they’re in. I’m thrilled to be contributing a tiny new chapter to the DC universe while fulfilling the gloriously goofy dreams of an 11-year-old Zub who wanted to make superhero comics.
Also, Black Canary is DC’s foremost ass-kicker with a heart of gold. How could I not love writing about her and the people she calls her friends and allies?
You've made the rounds lately on the web talking about the tough realities of working on smaller, creator-owned comics and what it takes to make that kind of career work. Overall, what does taking a step like working for DC mean for you in career terms? How does it impact what you'd like to do in comics moving forward?
It’s obviously a big milestone for me and one I’m not looking to take for granted. Beyond the increased visibility and financial benefit that comes from working on a DC series, I’m feeling a motivated sense of “put up or shut up.”
I’ve talked pretty good game on my blog about what it takes to break in, how to pitch stories, comic writing process and creator-owned economics. Now I’ve got to prove to myself and the readers who know and love these characters that I can make the most of this amazing opportunity. I hope readers will check out the first few issues of my run and let me know if I do it justice.