By: Duane Swierczynski (writer), Jesus Saiz (artist), June Chung (colorist)

The Story: I’m telling you—the 19th floor exists!  It does!

The Review: After reading through this issue, it occurred to me that comics have conditioned us to expect supervillains in these kinds of stories, by which I mean crazy wackos with weird costumes, terrible codenames, and themed powers and weapons.  The side-effect is we tend to underestimate the more down-to-earth criminals, the ones who’ve got a plan and don’t need to show off to get it done.  These types see superheroes as obstacles, not nemeses.

I think that’s the situation we have with the big, unseen mastermind (with the name “Choke”—not a bad one, as these things tend to go) haunting the Birds at every turn in this story arc.  Sure, his “invisible” thugs (called “Cleaners”) don’t really pose much of a threat to our well-trained ladies, but you can’t deny how far the reach of his manipulations can go.  It’s not just the bombs he can secretly implant in your head; he can turn people into living microphones, transmitting to him all they see or hear—for what, we can only guess, but it’ll be big, that’s for sure.

Beyond that Swierczynski (and can I just say, it takes me about a minute just to spell this guy’s name correctly every time—no offense) simply crafts a darn gripping plot, filled with all kinds of intriguing details that make Choke seem more impressive all the time.  As Starling explains, “They operate in the spaces between floors…phantom floors someone sneaked into the original design.  This building’s owners and tenants have no idea the creepy Cleaner is here.”  I don’t know if it’s really an original idea, but a fun one to think about, nonetheless.

Fun is really the underlying chord of this series.  Even in the most bombastic action sequence or sober string of exposition, Swierczynski manages to inject some humor.  Best of all, he doesn’t do it by dropping forced gags or strings of witty banter everywhere; he just stays true to the characters and lets them react naturally to the situation at hand.  For example, having Katana prelude her imminent bloodbath with, “My husband wishes to meet with you,” never gets old.

But the lady who delivers most of the series’ liveliness has to be Starling, who, I have to admit, has officially become my favorite of the Birds.  No matter what she does, she does it with an irresistible mixture of good humor, bravado, intelligence, and tenderness.  Here, she not only saves Canary’s life, sparing a train full of innocents in the process, she does it by busting Dinah in the chops, breaking her hand in the process.  As she says, “I’ve seen you take so many punches and just brush them off…  Well, I kind of had to give you everything I had.”

As the cover indicates, Batgirl joins up with the Birds in this issue, without much fanfare and actually without any opportunity to see her contribution to the team.  No sooner do they all gather for the big showdown with Choke than they suddenly find themselves standing in the middle of smoking rubble, without a single clue about what happened.  Makes for a pretty good cliffhanger, I must say, especially since Batgirl can’t be found among them.

Saiz delivers beautiful women who look feminine and elegant even as they punch people’s lights out, strangle henchmen with vines, or run them through with swords.  And I think Saiz deserves more credit for the humor he adds to the series; the dazed expression on Canary’s face after Starling socks her on the title page is both dynamic and hilarious.  Chung’s colors work fine, all in all, but she makes everyone’s skin tones a bit too pale (Trevor Cahill, the kindly chemist, has lost the healthy tan he sported in #2), and their noses too red, like everyone has a bit of cold.

Conclusion: We get a compelling picture of the big baddie the Birds are working against, and plenty of fun moments, but a slight dampener on the pace and action overall.

Grade: B

– Minhquan Nguyen

Some Musings: – Actually, Dinah should consider throwing Trevor a bone.  He did save her life, after all.  And they have pretty good chemistry.  Trevor: “I could be talked out of [reporting you to the A.M.A.].  Over a drink, maybe?”  Dinah: “So you’re advising someone who just ingested a highly experimental stroke drug…to drink alcohol?

– Bonus points for those of you who know what reference I’m making in my “The Story” blurb.