More than just fishnets: 'Black Canary and Zatanna: Bloodspell'

I think DC Comics missed a trick with the long-awaited, Paul Dini-written Black Canary/Zatanna original graphic novel, which finally arrived in this week. Why was there no special edition, fishnet stocking-covered incentive variant? Publishers did a lot of crazy things with covers in the 1990s, and they've been doing increasingly crazy things with them in this decade, but I'm pretty sure no one's ever published one draped in fishnet ...

Fishnets are, of course, the most immediate visual commonality between the two superheroines, and this long-in-the-works project, first announced in 2006, was once jokingly referred to as The Fishnet Brigade (a riff on Neil Gaiman's Books of Magic series, in which John Constantine referred to himself, The Phantom Stranger, Dr. Occult and Mister E as "The Trench Coat Brigade"). Dini and DC do acknowledge the importance of the heroines' legwear, as the cover under the dust jacket and end pages bears a fishnet design, and there's a scene in which the pair goes shopping for stockings together ("At the rate we go through these things, that place should give us a fifty percent discount," Zee tells Canary).

The two have a lot more in common than that, of course. They're also fan-favorite characters who have never been able to break out as stars in their own right (at least, not for long), generally appearing in team books and as supporting characters. And, of course, they're both among the longest-serving members of the Justice League who weren't founders, the characters being among the earlier additions to DC's premier super-team (Black Canary joined in 1969; Zatanna began appearing in the book in the '60s, and was finally offered full membership in 1978).

Oh, and they both appeared often on the Justice League cartoon, often times written by Dini, who is a fan of both characters.

The fact that the book has been in the works a while is evident in its storyline, which eschews the New 52 changes and is rooted quite firmly in the post-Crisis, pre-Flashpoint DC Universe: There's a decade-plus timeline, the pair have worked together for years, they share a group of (super)friends, Canary is dating a fabulously mustachioed and goateed Green Arrow, and so on. In fact, the story is quite dependent on the pair having a long-lasting working relationship and friendship. This is, after all, a fairly straightforward team-up tale, one not in the mighty Marvel manner, in which the heroes fight over a misunderstanding and then team-up, but rather in the old-school DC sense. These are two friendly colleagues calling on one another's various skill sets to save the day.

The book opens 15 years ago, revealing the first-ever meeting between the Zatanna Zatara and Dinah Lance, on Mount Everest. It then flashes forward to one year ago, to a time when Black Canary goes undercover to foil a casino robbery by an all-girl gang. Unknown to her at the time, she and the rest of the girls were tricked into performing a blood ritual of some sort by their secretly-a-witch leader Tina (no, not the best supervillain name). Upon Tina's death, the villain is  able to jump into and hijack the bodies of her former underlings, even that of Canary. Naturally, Black Canary turns to her sorceress colleague for help, and they spend the rest of the 90-page adventure trying to save the ladies from being forced to commit suicide one by one, and to keep Tina from taking over the bodies of Canary, Zatanna or any other superheroes.

Sure, that plot sounds pretty basic, even generic, but Bloodspell is elevated to something sorta special by two things: First, Dini's sharp dialogue and fun characterization of his characters and, second, the rather incredible artwork of Joe Quinones (colored by Dave McCaig).

In addition to our heroines, lots of familiar faces show up throughout the book, some for no more than a panel. Zatanna's dad Zatara, the late, great Golden Age magician/crimefighter from whom the character got her backward-talking spell shtick, appears in two scenes, one of which as a ghost. Green Arrow shares a few scenes with Canary, one in costume and one, um, out, during which Dini writes the pair like a screwball-comedy crimefighting team. There's a flashback to Zatanna's first day on the League satellite (Martian Manhunter! Elongated Man! Sue Dibny! Green Lantern Hal Jordan! The Key!), and another to an '80s adventure, which seems to be there mainly so Quinones can draw their costumes from that era. (Plus Wonder Woman! Plastic Man! Granny Goodness and The Female Furies!) Superman only gets one panel, and Batman is mentioned, but never shown (if you wanted to see Quinones draw the Dark Knight, he had a fine story in Batman: Black and White a few months back).

At one point in its development, this project was to have been drawn by Amanda Conner, and Dini's playfully sexy script demonstrates what a perfect comic it would have been for her. However, Quinones shares Conner's ability to draw sexy figures and fun, open, expressive faces. It may have been the tone and the cast as much as anything else, but in addition to Conner, the artist whose work Quinones' reminded me most of was that of Kevin Maguire, who is probably the best "actor" to have ever drawn a Justice League.

Not that Quinones' work is derivative of either of those artists. He retains a very singular sense of design, his characters all having individual faces and expressions and body language (his character design proved one of the greatest pleasures of his Wednesday Comics strip with Kurt Busiek), and he's splendid at rendering dynamic action scenes. The latter is perhaps nowhere more evident than during a scene in which Black Canary clings to Tina as she tries to escape on a jetpack, seeking to smash them to bits against various parts of the Las Vegas skyline, while Canary must EEEEEE apart various obstacles with her Sal Cipriano-lettered sonic scream.

At $23 for 90 pages of story, this hardcover is a pretty pricey package, but, perhaps to help salve the sting,  it does include some 45 pages of supplementary material, including Quinones' design work, character sheets and thumbnails, Dini's entire script and  original pitch, wherein an alternate, earlier title is revealed. If you think Bloodspell is a lame name, it could have been worse. It could have been Black Canary and Zatanna: Jumper.

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