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HEY DORK! LET'S TALK COMICS!
PART VII: BLACK CANARY
"HOW DOES A HERO WITH THIS DUMB A NAME WORK FOR SO LONG?"
or
"IT AIN'T JUST THE LEATHER AND FISHNETS, BUT THEY DONíT HURT."

by: Max Burbank

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 the fishnets.


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 hadn't noticed.

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 relief, feature.

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 that matter.


Hey, now, my wife looks kinda sexy, layin' there like that all glued down and...
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.

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.


Nice snowboots.

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 herself Oracle.

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 street thugs.

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 hurt.

If you're twelve.

Questions or Comments about this piece?
Email Max and let him know!


Gimme some sugar, Batman.

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