It’s just about time for the latest round of superhero films to hit the big screen, and in 2020 it is all about the ladies. The wave of female-fronted, -written, and -directed films kicks off with DC Comics’ most beloved all-female team of crime fighters — the Birds of Prey — smashing their way into movie history on February 7.
It's safe to say that while many of us heading to see Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) will be familiar with their comic book counterparts, most of the audience may only know these characters as they appear on screen. Comics, after all, can be incredibly difficult to jump into, especially for women who frequently feel out of place or unwanted in comic book shops. That’s why you need people to help point you in the right direction to say, "Here, read these."
With so many characters about to show up in the frames of this film, allow me to be your guide, and allow this list to be your introduction to some of my all-time favorite comic book characters. Note: This is merely a starting point, and there are plenty of directions to go once you've worked your way through the titles below. Hopefully you find something here that gets you hooked just like Birds of Prey hooked me a decade ago.
So, are you looking for the comics you should read before heading to the theater? Here, read these.
Suicide Squad #1/Batman #13/Harley Quinn #25
Bear with me, because this combo is not even remotely a single story. They’re not even entirely complete stories in and of themselves, but they do provide a view into to Harley Quinn’s life after the end of her relationship with the Joker. Since the aftermath of that particular event is a large part of the backdrop for the film, it’s probably a good place to start. Kicking off with the New 52’s Suicide Squad #1, a book that begins just after the Joker has disappeared and left Harley all on her own and on a murderous rampage. It’s short, but it’s an introduction to this new imagining of the character which carries into the Joker’s return in Batman #13, part of the Death of the Family arc. This issue sees the heartbroken Harley reunited with the Joker but this time it’s not all sunshine and rainbows in their Mad Love. The whole thing forces Harley to rethink her relationship, which culminates in Harley Quinn #25 as Harley and the Joker come face-to-face once again, and things end in violence.
Black Canary: Kicking and Screaming
This is Black Canary as you’ve never seen her before, and as many likely never imagined. When the book first started in 2012, it was … weird, to say the least. Big changes had already befallen the longtime hero, completely upending her backstory and changing almost everything fans had known about the character for decades. This new series converted Dinah Lance into the frontwoman for a rock band after even her newfound life had gone up in literal smoke. It’s a big shift but ultimately a fun one, and one that it appears the new film will be leaning into at least a little. Plus, when the comic came out, DC got an actual band to write and record songs that you can still listen to online.
Batman #567/Detective Comics #734: Mark of Cain
Part of the giant No Man’s Land crossover storyline, this is the first true introduction of Cassandra Cain, the girl who would be Batgirl. Cass arrives in Gotham in the aftermath of the Cataclysm that cut the city off from the rest of the world and while she technically arrived with nefarious intent thanks to her assassin father, time spent with Barbara Gordon changes her motivations. Cass is easily the biggest question mark when it comes to the film, as the movie version seems to be very unlike the one that appeared in the comics in the late '90s/early '00s, but the idea of a young woman who gets caught up in the machinations of a criminal underground only to be taken in by a strong female mentor seems like it will at least be thematically similar.
Batgirl: Silent Knight
If you liked what you read in Mark of Cain, you’re gonna love what comes next. There’s a reason Cassandra Cain is often considered the best of the Batgirls and while I strongly recommend you read every issue of her time as Batgirl, the first volume, Silent Knight (which was just recently collected into a single trade paperback), is the distillation of those reasons. Writer Kelley Puckett and artist Scott Peterson craft a brilliant story in this first arc, re-introducing Cass to readers in the very first eponymous Batgirl book. This story utilizes flashbacks to Cassandra’s childhood along with a confrontation with the infamous martial artist, Lady Shiva, to craft a portrait of a teen girl out of her element, trying to do some good in the world, even when she lacks the ability to properly communicate with those around her.
Batman/Huntress: Cry for Blood
Huntress is a complex character, as all good ones are. Mostly, she has a messed up family and her heroic efforts, as chaotic and violent as they might be, are generally rooted in her childhood as the daughter of a mafia boss. You can get a lot of this from reading Gail Simone’s entire run on Birds of Prey, but if you want a faster read with similar results, the Cry for Blood mini-series is what you’re looking for. In it, Huntress and the Question work to evade Batman while attempting to prove Huntress’ innocence in the murder of a high ranking member of a different crime family. The series explores her crime-fighting motivations as well as her tragic past and how the two intersect and is an excellent way to get to know the character many movie goers might not have heard of before.
Gotham Central: Half a Life
Renee Montoya has existed in the pages of Batman comics for decades but she has largely been a background character for most of that time. You can find her as a major, though secondary, character in Batwoman: Elegy, and she has a major, if spread out, arc as she transitions to The Question in the pages of the massive 52 series. But if you want a book that focuses on Renee Montoya and her compatriots of the GCPD, then you want to read Gotham Central. Montoya plays a big part in the entire series, but if you’re looking to speed things up and drill down on just the one book that means the most to the character, it’s Half a Life (which combines her story from issues 6-10). The book deals with what happens when Renee is forcefully outed and the fallout at work and in her family.
Birds of Prey: Of Like Minds
If you’re only going to read one arc of this incredible series, this is the one to read, especially if you’re looking for a fast and dirty introduction to Black Canary, the Huntress, and their working relationship. Even though this arc popped up more than 50 issues into the first volume of the series, it was in many ways a rebirth of the entire book as it also marked the beginning of Gail Simone’s tenure as series writer. The book distills a lot of what many love about Black Canary — her grit, her quips, and her inability to back down from a fight — with a re-introduction to Helena Bertinelli’s Huntress, the hardened daughter of a crime boss with few qualms about killing and an inability to play nice with others.
War Games is another of those massive, sprawling storylines that took up the pages of every single Gotham-set comic for up to six months. It’s deep and involved and not every moment is completely relevant to the story at hand, but it is engrossing and has huge implications for all its characters. It’s simultaneously the book that might be the hardest for nascent comics fans to absorb (due to the number of characters involved) and the one book you should read if you only have time to read one. It’s the definitive Black Mask story, as he takes advantage of a situation to become the head of every crime family in Gotham. It’s also the only book on this list to bring together nearly every character who will appear in the film (with the exception of one Harley Quinn). While the specific details of the Birds of Prey film are still murky, it’s very possible the movie’s plot will pull much of its thematic material from this common source.