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Grumpy Old Fan | Necessity invented Black Canary’s mother

(NOTE: I'm happy to acknowledge the hard work and obvious dedication of the blogger Count Drunkula, whose Black Canary fansite Flowers & Fishnets was a great resource in putting together this post.)

Recent developments on The CW's Arrow have gotten me thinking about the various twists and turns visited over the years upon DC Comics' Black Canary. The television series has come at the character from a few different directions, even splitting some of her characteristics among three players. It makes sense for an adaptation of Green Arrow to include at least a nod to his longtime love interest, as traditionally they’ve been one of DC’s most prominent super-couples.

However, Black Canary didn’t start out as part of Green Arrow’s supporting cast, and even a cursory glimpse of her past invites some careful examination. Indeed, for a few years in the ‘80s, the history of Black Canary threatened to approach Hawkman levels of continuity complexity. Today we’ll look back at that history, and specifically at how a shared-universe setting can both screw up and enrich a character.

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Bob Kanigher and Carmine Infantino created Black Canary for August 1947's Flash Comics #86, where she debuted as part of the Johnny Thunder and  Thunderbolt feature. Before too long, she was soloing in Flash and had joined the Justice Society of America. However, her Golden Age career was fairly short. Her final appearance in Flash Comics was in its final issue (#104, February 1949); and her last adventure with the JSA was also its last for a while (All Star Comics #57, February-March 1951). As far as I can see, her first Silver Age appearance was in August 1963's Justice League of America #21, the first JLA/JSA team-up. In hindsight that seems very telling, as those annual get-togethers would end up supplying some pretty significant milestones.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. In the Golden Age, Black Canary (aka Dinah Drake) was a black-haired florist by day and blonde-wigged crime-fighter by night. Her steady guy (and future husband) was Gotham City police detective Larry Lance. That, plus the simple-yet-distinctive black outfit, seems to have been pretty much it. I will freely admit to not being much of a Golden Age Black Canary scholar, so -- and here I am not being sarcastic -- maybe I am missing out on its subtleties and quirks.

Nevertheless, after six years and about a dozen appearances (which wasn’t really a bad ratio at the time), editor Julius Schwartz, writer Denny O’Neil and artists Dick Dillin and Sid Greene produced the story that literally changed Dinah’s world. In September 1969's JLA #74, Larry Lance sacrificed himself to save his wife from being killed by the star-creature called Aquarius. Consequently, a distraught Dinah decided to leave her (retroactively assigned) home of Earth-Two and join up with the Justice League on Earth-One. It was in this context that she eventually fell in love with Green Arrow* and put her past behind her.

(For whatever it’s worth, Michael Eury interviewed O’Neil for TwoMorrows’ 2005 Justice League Companion book, and asked him about Black Canary’s trip to Earth-One. O’Neil’s memories weren’t that specific; he said it was “probably” his idea to transplant her from Earth-Two, admitted he had “no idea” whether it was to replace the then-depowered Wonder Woman, and said “evidently” he wanted her to get together with Green Arrow, because he had “knocked off her husband in the best Biblical tradition” [p. 129].)

For the most part this new arrangement worked out acceptably well for the character, at least through the 1970s. As long as Green Arrow was a co-star in Green Lantern, Black Canary could usually be found alongside him. Besides, with or without her bow-slinging beau (sorry), she appeared fairly regularly in JLA. She also showed up in the occasional backup feature, in books like Action Comics and World’s Finest.

Let’s take a brief pause, though, for some math. According to JLA #74, Larry Lance was born in 1920, and would have been around 27 at the time of Black Canary’s debut. If we assume Dinah was around 19 or 20 when she first donned wig and fishnets, she’d have been born in 1927 or 1928. Thus, when Larry died in 1969, he was 49 and Dinah was (hypothetically) 41 or 42. As it happens, we can probably assume the rest of the JSA was around 50, if not older -- for example, Jay “Flash” Garrick was in college in 1940, when he gained super-speed -- while the Justice Leaguers were in their mid-30s.**

So Black Canary was probably marginally older than Green Arrow. So what? Well, her aging wasn’t exactly part of Earth-One’s flexible timeline, but instead was tied to the real-time Earth-Two chronology. Put another way, she was always going to be born in the late 1920s, whereas GA was “always” going to be in his mid- to late 30s. Additionally, while the transition between worlds was apparently the source of her sonic Canary Cry, it didn’t do anything extra -- no suspended animation, no Vita-Rays or Infinity Formula -- to make her any younger. She didn’t even get the benefits of some age-defying radiation, like most of the rest of the JSA did in All-Star Squadron Annual #3. Therefore, by 1983 Dinah should have been in her mid- to late 50s, but instead was portrayed as being appreciably younger, in order to make her more believable as Ollie’s significant other.

Again, in hindsight this seems like a disservice to Black Canary. Why not just take a page from the Captain America playbook and explain that the trip from Earth-Two had in fact zapped her with anti-aging radiation? It might have been a fairly simple solution, but it’s not the one concocted for JLA issues #219-220 (October-November 1983). Regular JLA scribe Gerry Conway teamed up with Earth-Two maven (and All-Star Squadron writer) Roy Thomas to write this two-parter, with Chuck Patton pencilling and Romeo Tanghal inking. Here are the highlights:

  • Earth-Two’s villainous Wizard had cursed the infant Dinah Laurel Lance (Dinah and Larry Lance’s daughter) with an uncontrollable sonic cry.
  • As a last resort, Black Canary asked Johnny Thunder’s Thunderbolt to put little DLL into an eternal slumber in the “Thunderbolt Dimension.” Thunderbolt also altered Dinah Drake and Larry’s memories so they thought their daughter had died.
  • When Earth-One’s Superman took Dinah Drake across the dimensional barrier, she started succumbing to the aftereffects of Aquarius’ attack; so Superman and the Thunderbolt switched out Dinah Drake for Dinah Laurel, who by this time was old enough to pass for her mother.
  • After some more selective memory work from the Thunderbolt, Dinah Laurel landed on Earth-One believing she was her mother, and not knowing any differently for the next several years (which naturally included a spate of JLA/JSA team-ups).

Fortunately for all involved, Crisis on Infinite Earths wasn’t far away; and the singular timeline it facilitated would simplify both Canaries’ lives considerably. As explained in August 1990's Secret Origins #50 (written by Alan Brennert with “special thanks” to Mark Waid, penciled by Joe Staton and inked by Dick Giordano), Dinah Drake Lance was a Golden Age crime-fighter whose daughter Dinah Laurel grew up to be a Silver Age superhero. The former relied on her martial-arts skills, while the latter supplemented her own butt-kicking abilities with a sonic scream (which, this time, she could control). Brennert and company left the Canary Cry’s origins mysterious, noting only that the child had grown up around the mystic energies of Doctor Fate and the original Green Lantern, as well as Starman’s stellar-powered gadgetry.

However, the impetus for the story’s retelling was Dinah Drake Lance’s imminent death, and the focus of the story was on relationships. Upon learning about her mom’s failing health, Dinah Laurel needs to get across the country lickety-split, so Ollie swallows his pride and asks Hal “Green Lantern” Jordan for a power-ring lift. (Apparently in 1990 Ollie and Hal were on the outs.) What follows is not just a story about a mother passing on a crime-fighting legacy to her daughter, but also the extent to which each woman affected the lives of her colleagues, and from there the course of DC-Earth’s history.

For example, Brennert takes the fact that both Black Canary and the original Green Lantern (Alan Scott) lived in Gotham City, and ties it into the familiar macro-story about Gotham’s omnipresent corruption all but demanding costumed vigilantism. Using the Gotham of “Batman: Year One” also allows him to explain that the JSA came out of retirement to help Alan Scott take out the Reaper, the criminal-killing urban avenger from “Batman: Year Two.” Such details remind the reader that Black Canary’s story doesn’t take place in a vacuum, but as part of the larger DC timeline. Accordingly, when Superman, Batman, and the other second-generation superheroes start popping up, it supplies context for Dinah Laurel’s desire to join them. After all, she grew up with the Golden Age’s greatest champions as her uncles and aunts.***

Those Justice Society appearances, and those from more modern DC folk like Yolanda “Wildcat II” Montez and Roy “Not Arsenal Yet” Harper, help drive home the point that this story is about relationships. It begins with Dinah Laurel and Ollie in bed together, it brings in Ollie’s damaged relationship with Hal, and it reminds the reader that Dinah Laurel helped Roy get through his drug withdrawal. Most touchingly, it ends with the Spectre conducting Dinah Drake’s soul to her eternal reward. He reminds her that she’ll see friends who she never knew she missed -- clearly a reference to the characters and situations erased by Crisis on Infinite Earths.****

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In so doing, Brennert reminds the reader that an effective shared universe is built on those kinds of relationships. Black Canary started out as a street-fighting femme fatale who joined the world’s greatest super-team. Not long after she came out of retirement, though, her life got a lot more fantastic. She lost her husband to a cosmic monster and started over on a whole new Earth. There she gained a superpower and a new love, and threatened to be defined by both. Meanwhile, she palled around with omnipotent beings and traveled through time and space.

All that made her a fine utility player, but it also threatened to overwhelm her as a character. She was Green Arrow’s girlfriend, a widowed martial artist with a sonic scream. For a while she didn’t even have the scream, thanks to the brutalizations of Mike Grell’s Longbow Hunters miniseries. At least in the Giffen/DeMatteis/Maguire Justice League, she could be one of the grown-ups. Her rehabilitation began in earnest about where you’d expect, in the pages of Birds of Prey. Writer Chuck Dixon and his artistic collaborators (including Gary Frank, Matt Haley, Greg Land and Butch Guice) had Barbara Gordon give Dinah Laurel Lance a new purpose and -- yes -- another new relationship, but this time a more equal partnership. They also gave her back the Canary Cry, courtesy of a Lazarus Pit bath.

Of course, Dixon’s successor Gail Simone did even more for the character, showing the contrasts among Dinah and her colleagues, and generally balancing Dinah’s no-nonsense attitude with a deep underlying compassion. When Simone brought Black Canary into the New 52's Batgirl for three memorable issues, those qualities came through immediately. After starting off as part of Johnny Thunder’s strip, and spending decades with the JSA, JLA and Green Arrow, it took Birds of Prey’s ensemble to make Black Canary truly independent. Indeed, when Dinah and Ollie finally did get married (sort of) in 2007, the subsequent Green Arrow/Black Canary series (written by Judd Winick and drawn by Cliff Chiang) wisely put the focus on Dinah, by having her assemble a group of heroes to track down a missing Green Arrow.

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In the New 52, Black Canary is back to being Dinah Drake Lance, a widowed martial artist with a sonic scream. The relaunch wiped away all the Golden Age material and made the existence of Dinah Laurel Lance moot. Unless I’m missing something, it also erased her relationship with Green Arrow while making her the Birds of Prey’s founder. Meanwhile, Arrow has given viewers Laurel and Sara Lance, daughters of Detective Quentin Lance and Dinah Drake Lance. So far only Sara has seen any action as “the Canary,” but the show’s been dropping hints for a while that Laurel might follow suit.

These versions of the character are less complicated than their predecessors because they don’t have to deal with those Golden Age/Earth-Two stories. The 1983 revisions allowed Dinah Laurel Lance (who had never truly lived anywhere but Earth-One) to let go of her mother’s life and move on with her own. While it was a “let’s stop talking about this” sort of solution, it did provide a foundation for the 1990 Secret Origins account -- and more than anything else, I think that story solidified the Canaries’ collective place in the DC superhero lineup. They weren’t always at the center of big events, but they were connected to those events; and those events were memorialized in their various interpersonal relationships.

More to the point, by reminding readers about the Canaries’ connections, the Secret Origins story helped the current Black Canary keep a prominent place in DC’s books. When Dixon and Frank put together the first Birds Of Prey one-shot, they were saying that Black Canary might occasionally be down, but she’d never be out. (In a nice bit of juxtaposition, Dinah gets Oracle’s message just as the repo men are towing her car.) The fact that Birds of Prey was all about those relationships -- both in a shared-universe and interpersonal sense -- made it an ideal vehicle for the character.

Finally, I think Black Canary’s considerable history keeps those relationships resonant. Dinah Drake’s membership in the Justice Society both facilitates and gives weight to her friendships with Starman (Ted Knight) and Wildcat (Ted Grant). The same goes for Dinah Laurel’s relationships with Green Arrow, Green Lantern, and Speedy. Later, Dinah Laurel’s up-and-down superhero career informed greatly her early encounters with Oracle, because each of them had to learn to trust the other with their lives. Even though the New 52 has discarded most of that history, it still influences today’s treatment of Black Canary. Her history is an excellent example of how a shared-universe environment can give a character the tools she needs to thrive.

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* [Kurt Busiek and George Pérez riffed on this for a warped-reality JLA/Avengers gag, where they had Hawkeye leave Marvel-Earth for DC-Earth and fall in love with Black Canary.]

** [In 1969 the Earth-One Dick Grayson had just graduated from high school, presumably at around age 18. Assuming a 10-year Robin career, and that Bruce began his Batman career at around age 25, it would have made the latter at least 35.]

*** [Along those lines, it’s hard not to see a little Silk Spectre mother/daughter tension in the revised Black Canary mother/daughter origin. The initial Dinah Drake/Dinah Laurel revision preceded Watchmen, but obviously the latter turned out to be a lot more influential than the former.]

**** [Brennert did something similar in an equally effective Deadman story. For that matter, most of his DC work involved either the Multiverse, heroic legacies, heroes aging, or some combination thereof. I don’t think he ever wrote a bad DC superhero story, and he wrote so few that they’d make a dandy collection, hint-hint.]

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And here is the Futures Index for this week’s Issue 28.

  • Story pages: 20
  • Lois pages: 5
  • Las Vegas pages: 5
  • Batmen pages: 5
  • Firestorm pages: 5
  • Number of subplots featuring characters who share an identity: 3 (Lois/Red Tornado, Terry McGinniss/Bruce Wayne, Ronnie Raymond/Jason Rusch)
  • Number of x-ed out superhero portraits on Professor Yamazake’s wall: about 23
  • Number of those characters who are at least presumed dead: maybe 1 (Green Arrow)
  • Percent of the next issue spoiled by this issue’s previews: feels like 100
  • Odds on Cal Corcoran’s next business being a decadent hamburger franchise: sadly, too long to contemplate
  • Number of weeks past that joke’s expiration date: at least 20

NOTES: For the most part I thought this issue was a winner, and a lot of that has to do with artist Andy MacDonald. While his work isn’t too far away from Futures End’s standard Aaron Lopresti/Patrick Zircher/Jesus Merino aesthetic, his characters and layouts have some subtle, but immediately engaging, quirks. Check out the way Lois and her parachute crumple on page 1, panel 4, or her wide eyes on page 2, panel 2. His Fifty Sue also has a nice combination of defiance and vulnerability, as seen on pages 8 and 10; and I like the parallel structure of his layouts on page 10. His Bat-fight was a little hard to follow towards the end, and busy backgrounds made the Firestorm sequences feel kind of cluttered. Still, I think he’s a good fit for this miniseries.

Otherwise, I felt like this issue either advanced the plot or gave us character moments, but not both at the same time. Lois has landed on Cadmus Island and met her Earth-2 counterpart. King Faraday and company have discovered Slade’s treachery and (practically by default) gotten Fifty Sue on their side. Terry fought off Bruce and escaped with Plastique. Ronnie, Tim, and Jason are converging on Professor Yamazake’s lab in hopes of saving Madison. That’s not a lot for 20 pages, but I did enjoy the Las Vegas sequence, and the Firestorm sequence probably lasted as long as it needed to.

Speaking of which, at the risk of wearing out this topic, Professor Yamazake desperately needs some closure so he can get the heck out of Futures End. He’s gone waaay past the point of sympathy and full-on into the land of How Does He Keep His Day Job? I mean, really: why is the news video of his wife’s death playing on a continuous loop when he’s not even in his apartment? Is it on a flash drive? How long did it take him to assemble the Wall of Revenge? Do his friends ask about it? How does he make small talk at work? (“Hey, catch the game last night?” “No, watched the WGBS video again.” “Oh ... right.”) I’m surprised he didn’t build a section of railroad tracks into his teleportation gizmo just so he could tie Madison to it.

NEXT WEEK IN THE FUTURE: As Professor Yamazake learns a new meaning of “irony,” it’s all Firestorm, all the time!

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