SPOILER WARNING: The following contains spoilers for “Eleven-Fifty-Nine,” the “Arrow” episode that aired April 6.
My time with Dinah Laurel Lance, DC Comics’ Black Canary, was relatively brief, but impactful.
I grew up on the “Justice League of America” comic books which, among many other heroes, included Black Canary, in her fishnets, jacket, stiletto boots and bad attitude. She and Oliver Queen, the Green Arrow, were one of the popular couples within DC Comics’ superhero Camelot.
But my love for the character began when I read about a one-shot comic book called “Black Canary/Oracle: Birds of Prey.” With a creative team led by writer Chuck Dixon and penciller Gary Frank, the comic book took two female characters I liked and threw them into a covert ops world. Barbara Gordon emerged in full force as Oracle and Dinah Lance was her long-distance instrument, sword and shield against the terrible evils and ugliness of the world.
I met the mastermind and founding editor of “Birds of Prey,” Jordan B. Gorfinkel, while I was an editor at Milestone, as we ended up using the same copier for a few minutes. “Gorf,” as he is affectionately called by his fan club of millions, is the person who came up with the idea of pairing Oracle and Black Canary as a superhero duo, and it was a pleasure talking with him about the characters.
A few years later, I joined the Batman Editorial Group, and became the Associate Editor on “Birds of Prey,” working side-by-side with Gorf to put out the monthly adventures of Black Canary and Oracle. In reading the comics and working with the creative team, “Birds of Prey” became my favorite comic book in the entire Batman group. In these characters, I saw a friendship of women, the likes of which I had not seen since Marvel’s Daughters of the Dragon, with ex-cop Misty Knight and ronin Colleen Wing.
When Gorf left the Batman group to pursue a full-on writing career, the torch was passed to me to take over as Editor. It was bittersweet and exciting, and a heavy responsibility. Female representation of characters in any medium is, or should be, a heavy responsibility.
A few months after I became Editor, there was a creative team shake-up within the entire group of monthly Batman family titles, so suddenly I had to assemble a new art team. Gone was the crew of Greg Land, Drew Geraci and Brian Stelfreeze, most of whom moved over to “Nightwing.”
I chose Butch Guice, now known for his work on books like “Winter Soldier” for Marvel Comics, but in those days he was more known for working on the Superman family of titles. Butch brought his best to “Birds of Prey,” along with letterer Albert DeGuzman and colorist Gloria Vasquez.
During our time together, we did the historic meeting between Black Canary and Oracle. It was a tender moment, a culmination of all of the preceding stories, and the kick-off for a new level of friendship between the two characters.
My favorite issue, though, was “Birds of Prey” #15, in which Dinah tried to help an abused spouse who lived next door, and unfortunately failedbut she tried, and that was the point. That’s when she became the most heroic to me, in-between any two periods of fantastic adventure…
After I left DC Comics, I didn’t look back on how Dinah and Babs were doing. As an editor, I felt a territorial connection to the characters. I loved them and what they represented, and I didn’t want to cling to memories.
I did happen to hear about a writer by the name of Gail Simone who had taken over the title and, in turn, excited the fan base. Gail’s appointment made me give the characters a return visit for a while.
Fast forward a number of years later, specifically April 6, 2016, when I happened to be on Twitter and the buzz started. The character of Laurel Lance, the second Black Canary on The CW’s “Arrow,” was killed off the show.
I threw out a tweet, and connected with a large body of fans, fans of actress Katie Cassidy’s portrayal of Black Canary, the hero she took three seasons to become, and the rest of her short fictional life to be.
I’ve seen fan outrage and collective sense of loss from various proximities to ground zero, but for the rest of that week, I had the view from the epicenter. Admittedly, I am behind on my viewing of “Arrow,” and did not see the episode. I didn’t need to, because I felt a connection to the character, regardless.
Having helped keep her legacy going in the comic books, I was thrilled when Laurel Lance became the Black Canary, and started the next phase of that heroic journey. Everyone who works to maintain characters contributes to the media translation of those characters. Creators, editors, businesspersons, fans, supportive retailers; an impressive village to raise a character from the two dimensions of a comic book page to the four dimensions of the screen.
For the rest of that week, I was a fan among fans. We exchanged comments, anecdotes, shared emotions without filters, and exposed ourselves to each other. This group to which we proudly belong, of fans, geeks, admirers, consumers… whether it was from childhood or a juncture point of import in our lives, we connected with these stories of heroes. Their masks and costumes and codenames, keys to a world beyond the mundane, of mysticism and time travel and fantastic madness.
The characters become our avatars, our fantasies, and/or our collective refuge.
Corporations count on fans to be a portion of their audience, their free marketing mechanisms confirmation of a job well done. They call comic book fans a vocal minority, but somehow they use the comic book convention circuit to promote their shows. They go to the places where the vocal minority congregates because they know that audience base impacts their endeavors.
On the other side of the equation, the caretakers enter a world full of praise and peril. Handling the legacy of comic book characters in television is a responsibility like no other. There are so many levels of people between our comic books and the television shows. It’s not just the writer, Executive Producer, showrunner, etc., but those are the people we have the most access to via social media and the aforementioned conventions.
I don’t think either party totally understands what’s happening on the other party’s side. Even with that, there must be a respect between parties.
As a fan of Black Canary, as a former caretaker of her, I can be upset about the character’s death, upset about the decision to remove a beloved female character from the landscape, but I take refuge in two basic facts, facts which save me a hell of a lot of agita.
I don’t own Black Canary. Despite the time I was fortunate enough to have helped Dinah Laurel Lance go from one life trial to the next, punching and kicking and defending all the way, she was never my character. Her caretakers do not need to have her actions follow a path I consider best, even when I’m right.
Sometimes, fans are right.
The second fact is that I have the ability to create the heroes I want to see, the ones I need to answer the questions I’m asking. I honestly think that every person has a creative side, and unfortunately most of them rarely, if ever, touch it, tap into it, find others, and create stories.
We have more access than ever to vehicles for our stories, advice from professionals in the form of interviews, scripts, YouTube, blogs and on and on. We have more access to each other than ever before, through social media and through the growing number of conventions at which we congregate. We know that fiction is our food. It enriches and informs us and simultaneously takes on the issues of our world while allowing us to escape.
The solution, the means to less agita and pain and disappointment and anger, is to deal with our connections to these characters we don’t own, and then to create our own. New heroes, new stories, new vehicles through which to channel our feelings, hopes, and vision of a better world, or a different world, or a more relevant, resonant world.
Make what’s missing. Make what you need. There is no better time than now, to create the kinds of characters you want to see.
Laurel Lance, the Black Canary, is dead. Which one of you will make the next Black Canary? Wouldn’t that be fun.
Joseph Phillip Illidge is a public speaker on the subjects of race, comics and the corporate politics of diversity. In addition to his coverage by The New York Times, CNN Money, the BBC and Publishers Weekly, Joseph has been a speaker at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Digital Book World’s forum, Digitize Your Career: Marketing and Editing 2.0, Skidmore College, The School of Visual Arts, Purdue University, on the panel “Diversity in Comics: Race, Ethnicity, Gender and Sexual Orientation in American Comic Books” and at the Soho Gallery for Digital Art in New York City.
Joseph is the Head Writer for Verge Entertainment. Verge has developed an extensive library of intellectual properties for live-action and animated television and film, video games, graphic novels and web-based entertainment.
His graphic novel project, “The Ren,” about the romance between a young musician from the South and a Harlem-born dancer in 1925, set against the backdrop of a crime war, will be published by First Second Books, a division of Macmillan.
Joseph’s newest comic book project is the upcoming Scout Comics miniseries “Solarman,” a revamp of a teenage superhero originally written by Stan Lee.
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