Batgirl and the Birds of Prey Vol. 1: Who is Oracle? is satisfactorily in the style of Birds of Prey past, with especially funny interplay between Batgirl Barbara Gordon and Black Canary Dinah Lance. It's an enjoyable but not necessarily ground-breaking Birds of Prey tale, at least until the fifth part, when the whole thing cracks wide open and becomes a maniacal meta-commentary on Oracle's role or lack thereof in the New 52. Hints of this wackiness crop up before that point, suggesting this is really the tone the Bensons are going for; a lot of Oracle is devoted to setting up the "new" Birds of Prey team, and I'm eager to see what the writers do "unleashed" now that introductions are out of the way.
[Review contains spoilers]
Possibly the most controversial aspect of the New 52 was DC's jettisoning of Barbara Gordon's Oracle identity and reestablishing her as Batgirl. Gail Simone did no small amount of heavy lifting to make the change palatable, enough so that Batgirl became one of the few characters to surmount her "based on the original" New 52 origins to become something remarkably unique, the "Batgirl of Burnside." In this -- and in the "Burnside" team's late suggestion that maybe Killing Joke didn't even happen -- there was a sense that the modern Batgirl Barbara Gordon had become fully realized, entirely transcending her alt-continuity persona.
Whether that's good or bad -- whether Barbara Gordon ought always have been Oracle or never have been Oracle -- is up for debate, but the Bensons' Who is Oracle? gets into it with fists swinging. Nearly the first words from "Faux-racle" Gus Yale (named, nicely, for Oracle's late co-creator Kim Yale) are "I liked you better as Oracle," and he chews the rest of the pages fantastically from there. For all the work DC's done to make the readership forget Oracle, now here's a voice rooting for Oracle's reintegration, except that he's portrayed as absolutely nuts, from fawning over Barbara ("You. Back behind the monitors. Watching you work. It's ... the coolest") to lauding Oracle and Canary as "the O.G. dream team."
If DC and the Bensons are giving fans what they've been clamoring for (where Rebirth is meant to undo some of these New 52 changes), it's being delivered with tongue firmly in cheek. And not discounting that Oracle's existence or not is important to many in terms of representation, as a send-up of ardent fandom in general, Gus is rather hilarious. It's a weird and perhaps brave place for the Bensons to be, no strangers to fan controversies themselves in their work on CW's The 100. When Black Canary and Huntress opine almost immediately after meeting Gus about the differences between fans and trolls, the fourth wall begins to crack nearly to the breaking.
DC has maintained that Rebirth is not a "reboot," but clearly some elements of continuity shifted that day Wally West came back. Even setting aside Barbara Gordon's suddenly-remembered time as Oracle, the Bensons rejigger Black Canary's origins a scant year after Brendan Fletcher just did the same in the DC You Black Canary series. Admittedly I wasn't much of a fan of the idea that Dinah received her powers though Team 7 and Amanda Waller's experiments with what turned out to be alien blood, so the fact that Dinah is "just" a metahuman again doesn't bother me much. And in some respect it's refreshing for continuity changes to simply happen here rather than requiring Star Trek-esque prime Earth explanations, though I think we're going to end up with that before too long anyway.
(I'm less pleased about the Bensons returning to Barbara some of the trauma of the Joker's attack. People assuredly have real-life struggles but I thought Simone, Fletcher, and Cameron Stewart had all moved Barbara past things like not being able to eat marshmallows because of the Joker.)
Clearly the Bensons have a mandate to get Birds of Prey picking back up where it left off pre-Flashpoint as quickly as possible. This leads to an overemphasis on the Birds as a "family" that was true after fifty to a hundred issues of the original series but doesn't quite feel earned here, and so comes off as mildly overenthusiastic (though there are worse things that BFFs Canary, Batgirl, and Huntress sharing a group hug). Hopefully the book's final pages of friendship will take some edge off of Huntress Helena Bertinelli, who's almost unrecognizable as the interesting Grayson character. Matron and Huntress are really not the same, lumped together by virtue of name, but hopefully the Bensons can smooth it out over time.
Batgirl and the Birds of Prey is notable for being one of the first major outings for the "Batgirl of Burnside" version of the Batgirl character outside her own title. Series artist Claire Roe gets Barbara and the others pretty much right, I thought, with thin faces that often show exaggerated emotion for comedy, in line with the Babs Tarr model; only occasionally do the characters have a 1990s-esque rictus unnecessarily. I did actually favor second artist Roge Antonio a little more; Roe's and Antonio's work looks nicely similar, but Antonio has a rounded cartoonishness that reminds me of Rafael Albuquerque, which is fitting given that artist's presence on the Batgirl title proper.
Among the many things that Batgirl and the Birds of Prey Vol. 1: Who is Oracle? is, it's funny. There's gags like the discussion of putting Huntress's bra in the freezer, Gus's nutso introduction, and the scene-setting joke narrations peppered throughout the book. In all of that, we find a book that's just plain fun, and if that's one of the tent-poles of Rebirth, it's a good goal to have. There's an aspect of backward-facingness in this book that's probably not productive (even the book doesn't seem to think so), but Julie and Shawna Benson make it such an easy pill to swallow that it's hard to worry about it for the moment.
[Includes original and variant covers, character sketches]