PART VII: BLACK
"HOW DOES A HERO WITH THIS DUMB A NAME WORK FOR SO LONG?"
"IT AIN'T JUST THE LEATHER AND FISHNETS, BUT THEY DONíT HURT."
I'm a huge Black Canary fan. Have been my whole life. On the
other hand I'm a huge Zatana fan too, so maybe for me it is just about
Comic books are wrong for lots of reasons. This is one of them.
I don't think so, though. Let me elaborate. In fact, let me elaborate
for an entire column.
Black Canary debuted in "Flash Comics" #87, in 1947. Like every single
DC character, her continuity is totally screwed up, but we'll get to
that. She did not survive the Superhero purge of 1951, but she was
re-introduced in 1963, so even subtracting twelve years, she still has a
46-year career, give or take. Forty-six years is no small accomplishment
for a hero with a remarkably stupid name.
If you're not a Comics Dork (and if you're not but your still reading
this, pretend the Robot from "Lost in Space" is standing behind you
waving his arms saying "DANGER, WILL ROBINSON, DANGER!!"
Was that easy to do? See? You are a dork.) You already know how stupid
her name is. You knew it from the instant you saw the title of this
column. If you are a Comics Dork, ask a friend what kind of a superhero
name they think Black Canary is. Then ask yourself how it's possible you
It's probably 'cause they draw her wearing tight leather costumes, often
combined with fishnet tights. Isn't that sad? Remind yourself it's only
a drawing and think.
Black... Canary. Okay, black, sure, black is a kick ass tough color, we
all know it. It's a little confusing though, because she isn't Black.
The Black Panther? Black. Black Goliath? Black. Blackula? Black, friend
owl. So why Black? Is her costume black? No, it's really, really dark
blue. But okay, we agree Black is tough, so we'll let it slide.
Canary, though? Canary? Canaries are what you take down in coalmines
because they're fragile and will die before you do if there's poison
gas. Plus, they're yellow, a color traditionally associated with
cowardice and fiendish Orientals.
Black Canary is, to my mind, the most unlikely and wonderful success
story in mainstream comics. Back in the Golden age, it worked like this.
A given book, in this case "The Flash", had a flagship character,
almost always featured on the cover. The Flash (in this case) got the
first, longest story in the book. Then there were about four, shorter
stories. One of the second string features in 'Flash' was a comic relief
hero named Johnny Thunder. Johnny was a good natured, well scrubbed, bow
tie wearing doofus who had a pink Genie named Thunderbolt. To accent his
non-powered role in the story, Johnny got no superhero long johns. His
costume was a green wool three-piece suit. Black canary debuted as a
supporting character in Johnny Thunder. A bit player in a back-up, comic
She had a sort of Catwoman/Robinhood thing going on. She stole, but only
from criminals. She'd been denied entry to the Police academy because
she was a 'Girl' and her father, a police officer, died of a broken
heart, I shit you not. So she puts on a blond Veronica lake type wig, a
leather bustier, a domino mask, a blue bolero and fishnets. Thugs would
just be settling in for a good ogle when she'd proceed to kick the shit
out of them.
It was a winning formula. She was soon way more popular than Johnny and
took over the feature.
Hey Johnny. Nice little back up feature you got going on here.
Now clear the hell out before I push your face in.
Not content with such small humiliation, she soon took over his place in
the JSA (Justice Society of America, the WWII era precursor to
the Justice League.)
And then a little book called "The Seduction of the Innocents"
came out. It was a cute little screed that exposed the leather homo
undercurrents of Batman and Robin and pointed out that Wonder Woman came
from an Island populated only by hot women in shorty nightgowns who were
constantly getting chained up and that comics invariably turned kids
into brain dead gay homicidal maniacs. Just the sort of thing people say
today about "Grand Theft Auto" which makes one wonder what forms
of popular entertainment are coming down the pipe that will make a game
about stealing cars, killing people and driving to endanger (with
whores) seem quaint. In any case, it was the end of Horror comics, Crime
comics, and very nearly the end of superhero comics. Black Canary was
one of the many casualties.
She was resurrected about a decade later when DC started reviving old
superhero concepts in what was to be the first of their many continuity
reboots. The Flash was the first to be re-introduced, but not the
original Jay Garrick Flash. This was a new guy with a new origin and a
new costume. They did the same with Green Lantern. I imagine it must
have been as jarring for folks who'd read the originals as some of the
more recent reboots were for me. Or maybe not. Lifelong readers of
comics my age are a fairly new phenomenon. Maybe there weren't any older
fans picking up Showcase and saying, "Now wait a ding dong second here!
This ain't no Green Lantern!" Why my hypothetical fan talks like is
Hillbilly is anybody's guess.
Hawkman got a new unexplained revival as an Alien. The Atom showed up
with no connection beyond the name to his Golden Age self. Superhero
books were back and the fans seemed to have enough appetite to support a
whole mess of characters. In 1960, DC opened the door to basically every
superhero their company had ever owned title to. The story was called "The
Flash of Two worlds", and it explained the new Flash and all his new
pals as residents of "Earth 1". All the characters my parents had known
and loved were a little older, a little grayer, and they lived on "Earth
2". It was pretty much inevitable that the Justice League of America
would meet their Earth 2 counterpart, the Justice Society of America,
and they did, in 1963. There were a number of heroes who hadn't been
re-done, by 63. There was no Earth 1 Dr. Fate, no Starman, and you
guessed it, no Black Canary. Her first silver age appearance is in
Justice League #21.
Black Canary is one of the handful of Earth 2 characters to become
full-fledged DC regulars in the sixties without ever being revamped. She
basically immigrated to Earth 1 and joined the Justice League. The story
had a major impact on me and made the canary one of my favorite heroes.
It took place in Justice League of America 73-74, in 1969 when I was
seven years old. I didn't read it until a few years later. They were in
the brown paper bag of Comics mentioned in the
first installment of this column. The story went a little
something like this. Since 1963 the JLA/JSA team up had been a pretty
much annual event, eagerly awaited by fans (who back then were on the
whole a lot younger than they are today, which was a good thing, because
you didn't have to feel all that sorry for them, and there was less
masturbation involved.) It was written by a very young Denny O'Neil, who
had just taken over writing chores from the Sci-fi low characterization
approach of Gardner Fox. Denny O'Neil would become one of the driving
forces in making comic book heroes more realistic, first by giving them
distinct personalities and later by making them face real world
problems. These two themes are in full evidence in this crossover. I
tried like hell to find reprints of these two issues on line and
couldn't. It doesn't really matter though, because all that stuck with
me were the last few pages of the second issue, and I found the panels
Hey, now, my wife looks kinda sexy, layin' there like that all glued
oh never mind I'm going to die.
These are the last moments of Larry Lance, Black Canary's husband. He's
chucking his ass in front of the issues badass cosmic villain, a Living
Star named, if memory serves, Aquarius. Larry's not super
powered, he's not wearing the brightly colored spandex that can be
counted on to save your ass, He doesn't have a cool hero name, he's just
'Larry', and he dies.
Comic book characters did not die back then. When someone died, your
immediate response was 'How many issues before he comes back from the
dead?'. Larry Lance was just a normal Joe in a suit who died saving
his wife. That was heavy stuff for a little kid to read about, way
heavier than we were used to.
Dinah Lance, AKA the Black canary emigrated to Earth 1 and joined the
Justice League because she was a widow with a broken heart, and the
memories of Earth 2 were just too much for her. Now she wasn't just the
most take charge, self sufficient super hero broad the comics had ever
seen, She was an older woman with a tragic past.
When a young Green Arrow started hitting on her she told him to slow
down. When they hooked up, she told him not to expect any kind of
commitment from her. Then Denny gave GA a goatee, took away all his
money, and made him the kind of loud mouth macho liberal that as God is
my witness existed back then even though you'd never believe it now.
Sort of a bow slingin' Norman Mailer. Of course, you still don't get
what I'm driving at 'cause you are too damn young. Just take my word for
it. In any case, Canary couldn't resist the new GA on account of his
personality revamp. Plus, the both liked motorcycles.
Somewhere in here, Black Canary gets a super power, a sonic cry. She
rarely uses it, writers often forget about it, and it robs her of one of
the best things about her, she's got no stupid ass super powers. Like
Green Arrow and Superman, she's just kick ass tough and that's enough.
Black Canary played Etta Place to Green Arrow and Green Lantern's Butch
Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in what would become the most ground
breaking comic series of it's day, and I think the first comic books
ever to attract serious main stream media attention. Written by Denny
O'Neil and illustrated by Neal Adams, who shook up the comic
illustration world the same way Alex Ross would with 'Marvels' and
'Kingdom Come', it was a series of issues in 'Green Lantern, Green
Arrow' that would later be called 'Hard-traveling Heroes'. I've
written about it elsewhere as have lots of other folks, and I think the
series has been reprinted more than any other run of comics. It featured
among other things, heroin addiction, Manson-esque cults, a Villain who
looked exactly like then vice president Spiro Agnew and racism.
Suck on that, Lantern, you fuckin' racist bitch!
You need to put this in context. This came along at a time when heroes
were fighting giant starfish or getting magically turned into apes.
The Canary was not a major player in this arc, but she was there. Not
Wonder Woman, not Supergirl, Black Canary, right in the forefront of
where comic books were going, just as she somehow always seemed to be.
And then things get muddy. To be fair, they got muddy for comics
generally and DC particularly. The writing was lackluster, the art was
down right bad, and it dragged on for a very long time, through much of
the Seventies and into the Eighties. Dc's fan base was growing up and
out of comics, and new kids coming in had a very hard time catching up
with a continuity dating back to WW2 that featured a jillion parallel
earths. All of which lead to "Crisis on Infinite Earths" which I
have no intention of summarizing again.
Suffice it to say, continuity got TOTALLY changed, with the
biggest change being no more earth 2. Just one Earth. Which heroes were
born when became quite an issue.
Even before Crisis, DC had realized Dinah had a problem. If Black canary
had been an early member of the Justice Society that was gonna make her
old enough to be Green Arrows mom. That's a very different kind of comic
book, and mostly you have to get it from Japan.
So in Justice League 219-20, 1983, it was revealed that the Black canary
was NOT who she'd thought she was. She was in fact the daughter of the
original Black Canary. I can't for the life of me recall why she'd been
thinking she was her mom all this time, or at what point the Earth 2
Black Canary appearing in JSA/JLA crossover's got swapped out for her
kid, almost certainly because it was too convoluted and stupid to stick
in my head. And that, friends, is saying one HELL of a lot. Oh,
and she got a HORRIBLE costume with NO leather and NO
fishnets and a shag haircut.
Crisis smooths thing out a little in that there's no longer any need to
have some lame switcheroo with Mom and Daughter, plus they eventually
get to steal a lot of character and motivation from Alan Moores' "Watchmen"
character 'Silk Specter', (a daughter of the original 'Silk
Specter'). Also, they finally give Canary a the kind of status she'd
long deserved in the DC Universe by making her the sole female charter
member of the JLA, a spot that had belonged to Wonder Woman pre-crisis.
In the late eighties, a writer named Mike Grell had Black Canary
captured, graphically tortured and probably raped. It's hinted that
whatever was done to her, she can't have kids now. So, very ugly, very
adult, and it gives her back the tragic edge she'd lost when she stopped
being a young widow.
She lost her sonic cry (good) but pretty much stopped being Black canary
for several years (bad) appearing mostly as Dinah Lance, florist with a
bad attitude. Thank Christ, the few times she did do the Hero thing, she
wore her old costume.
This is what we all wanted to do.
In the early nineties, Black Canary dumped Green Arrow on account of him
being a playah. She'll hop in and out of bed with him from time to time
when he isn't busy being dead, but true to her tough as nails, self
sufficient character roots, it turns out she doesn't need him.
In 1996, she teams up with Barbara Gordon, ex-Batgirl, who's been in a
wheelchair ever since the Joker blew her spine out. It's a perfect
pairing really, the original feminist superhero and a redefined, smarter
than Batman, tech savvy hero who won't stop fightin' crime even if she
can't walk anymore so she's totally into cyberspace and she calls
Black Canary was the principle field operative for the Birds of Prey,
an all female team that often featured other DC Superbroads, in
particular The Huntress, another character who's continuity got
so screwed up by Crisis it took years to sort itself out.
She's recently left Birds of Prey to become a single mom, totally in
keeping with her go it alone character. Of course, the editors had her
pretty much immediately join the JLA, and how she's gonna juggle
childcare and that, I don't know. An interesting sidelight, Catwoman is
also currently a single Mom. Over at marvel, one of the many heroes with
the name Spiderwoman is a single Mom. Not the Jessica Drew Spiderwoman,
or the future daughter of Peter parker Spidergirl, the Spiderwoman with
the black suit and the orange hair.
In 2002 the WB network did one season of a Birds of Prey live action TV
show, which I never saw. My reading indicates their Dinah was the
daughter of the Black Canary, but you never find out much about Mom, and
her daughter does not carry on her name. Their Oracle did used to be
Batgirl and their Huntress is the daughter of Batman and Catwoman, which
was what the Huntress was originally in comics, back when there was
still an Earth 2.
I think they really missed the boat. Keeping Batgirl and Huntress close
to their roots is good, but Black Canary predates both of them by a good
thirty years. To my mind, she and not Wonder Woman is the original
female superhero. No disrespect to Wonder Woman who I love, but at the
time Black Canary was working her way up from back up character in a
comic relief sub feature, Wonder Woman was in the JSA as the secretary!
She got coffee and took notes, and I am not making that up! Plus, you
couldn't go one episode of her book without her getting chained up,
which is swell for bondage fans, but does little to increase her street
cred. Meanwhile, the Canary was beating the crap out of lowlifes and
And that's how she's managed to be one of the longest running
Superheroes out there. Of course, the leather and the fishnets don't