There's a new crime lord in Gotham and he's hiring. He's taking on a pair of twisted sisters by the name of Trissa and Somnia. Before they meet the big man, though, they accompany his lieutenant, Mr Tripe, to a meeting with blonde bombshell Miss Hargison, a helpless beauty who wants him to bury her sordid past. Miss Hargison has associates of her own: another blonde, a white-haired woman and a burly chauffeur.
You'll have realised that Miss Hargison and colleagues are Birds of Prey, but if you're assuming it's Black Canary taking point, think again. For Miss Hargison is Zinda Blake, ace pilot Lady Blackhawk who, as a literal refugee from the Forties, knows a thing or two about playing the femme fatale. While she distracts Tripe, having persuaded him to leave the new help outside, Dove and Black Canary attempt to get into the crimelord's private quarters via perilous means, while Hawk hangs around upstairs and proves a less than natural espionage agent. But he looks fantastic in a chauffeur's uniform.
There's a B-plot, involving the Huntress and potential Oracle operative the Question, Renee Montoya, tracking down some bad cops in the Gotham sewers. While the sparky relationship between these two always rewards, I initially found this the less enticing of the issue's two threads. Then, the sequence takes a very dark turn, and it becomes obvious that both storylines involve the unknown crimelord.
So who is he? Well, there are clues in the hiring of twin sisters ... Two Face? He's nicknamed Mr J ... the Joker? Nah, and I'm happy to say I guessed who writer Gail Simone was bringing into this book by page 3. Let's just say that if you read Simone's superb Secret Six, you'll likely work it out pretty quickly, something that doesn't so much spoil the book as increase the tension as you're paging through.
There's very much a Secret Six feel to this issue, with Simone ratcheting up the sexual element, making the sense of menace grislier than ever. I'm nor sure I'd want every storyline to be this dark, but given who the Birds are going up against, the more disturbing sensibility makes sense.
As well as a masterly script - the dialogue sparkles, the plot impresses and the well-established characters convincingly surprise - this issue sees the debut of Jesus Saiz as regular artist. And the pages are beautiful. First of all, the former Manhunter illustrator takes care to give the heroines different features, strong, recognisable faces. Then he dresses the undercover birds demurely, professionally. He doesn't even use the exercise session of Barbara Gordon (her face a homage, methinks, to TV Oracle Dina Meyer) as an excuse to put her in a teeny bikini. The only flesh on display belongs to the twins in a panel that sets up a mystery centred on their past.
Then, Saiz moves his cast around the page with naturalistic body language; there are no awkward poses, no frozen moments - the characters are moving, we're simply seeing them for a second at a time.
Take, for example, Saiz's depiction of the confrontation between Huntress, Question and the corrupt cops - it's energy and grace in motion (click to enlarge). Finally, gasp at the creepiest cliffhanger you ever did see. And it's all behind Saiz's confident, sly cover.
Nei Ruffino's colours perfectly complement Saiz's art, underlying the somber, tense mood of the story. And the fine lettering of Carlos M Mangual makes for easy reading. This really is a creative team to reckon with, and if editors Janelle Asselin and Katie Kubert manage to keep them together for awhile, this book will soar.
Aside from corralling the gang, I'd ask the editors to avoid lettercol spoilers - some of us like to read the mail page before the story, so no surprises in the first par, please. Especially not in screaming upper case.
If you're not yet a Birds of Prey fan, try this issue. It's sophisticated superhero action with a side order of madness.