Sunday, November 12, 2006

Actually Essential Storylines: Black Canary

I make no secret of my love for DC’s 52 series. It’s probably my favorite comic book being published at the moment, and I love almost everything about it.

The one aspect of the book that seems to be the most consistent letdown, however, is the back-up feature, devoted to telling the origins of DC heroes. I can’t complain about the artists involved, as the editors have done a fantastic job of pairing the best possible artist with the character featured (often relying on the characters’ creators), and Mark Waid generally does a decent to awesome job of detailing the characters origins in just six to eight panels.

But what is the point of these stories? I was under the impression that they were re-introductions to the stars of the DC Universe; brand-new readers would get the skinny on who all these characters are, and long-time readers would get to see what, if anything, has changed about them as a result of the latest continuity-rejiggering multiverse crisis.

Granted, I may have been mistaken in that impression. It wouldn’t be the first time. I also thought the editors would pair the origin stories to issues in which the characters actually appear, and that they would make use of the “Essential Storylines” feature to point readers towards other stories worth reading.

In fact, I must be mistaken, judging by Black Canary’s origin in 52 #27. Black Canary is one of the characters whose personal history and place in DC continuity seemed to be most affected by Alex Luthor and Superboy-Prime’s messing with continuity in Infinite Crisis. One of the changes that was made completely explicit was that Wonder Woman was once again a founder of the Justice League.

This is how DC history was originally written, of course, but, during Crisis on Infinite Earths, when DC multiverse became streamlined into a single earth, that changed. Post-Crisis, Wonder Woman didn’t venture into Man’s World until after the Crisis, meaning she was a relative newcomer to the DCU and, as such, couldn’t have been around to help found the Justice League of America.

That was easily solved, however. Black Canary essentially took her place founding the League. This was a fix that seemed to serve both characters better. For Wonder Woman, it put her more on equal footing with Superman and Batman, who were always reserve members of the League, far too busy with their own adventures to make every single meeting (a fact which also gave the Leaguer’s a sort of also-ran vibe; they were the simply the biggest DC heroes who weren’t Superman, Batman or Robin). For Black Canary, suddenly she was one of the most important DC heroes and a founding Leaguer every bit as important as Martian Manhunter and Aquaman, not just Green Arrow’s girlfriend.

So I was a little confused with why IC reverted things back to how they were some 20 years ago, un-fixing a long established fix. What did this mean for the history of the JLA? Was Black Canary no longer a founder? Or was she there at the beginning in addition to Wonder Woman?

I still don’t know, and, increasingly, I wonder if anyone at DC really does. Because Black Canary’s 52 origin says exactly nothing on the subject. It’s also worth noting that JLA: Year One, one of the best Black Canary stories, isn’t included on the list of “Essential Storylines,” which may mean that it’s no longer considered canon (Along with George Perez’s run on Wonder Woman, that’s the storyline that seemed most in jeopardy of being wiped out by IC).

Dinah Laurel Lane was one of the very first legacy heroes in the DCU, adopting her JSA member mother’s name and costume to serve in the Justice League of America. She had one advantage over Black Canary the First, however—in addition to looking good in fishnet stockings and being a superb martial artist, she also had a meta-human sonic scream, which would come and go over the years (depending on how stridently the editors of the time were seeking gritty realism).

As a character, her motto might as well be “Always a Bridesmaid, Never a Bride,” as she’s been a long-time supporting character, but never a star of her own. She was a JLA member in the late Silver Age and during the “Sattelite Era,” she was Green Arrow’s girlfriend and, most recently, she was a JSA member, so she’d regularly appear in all of those titles. Aside from a few flirtations with solo miniseries, the closest she would ever come to a title of her own was Birds of Prey, which she shared first with Oracle, and then with Oracle, Huntress and other heroines.

These are the Black Canary stories that DC recommends:

Black Canary/Oracle: Birds of Prey: I’m not sure if this is referring to the original Birds of Prey team-up between Oracle and Black Canary, back when the BOP name was just the title of the book, not one they used themselves, and Canary didn’t know who Oracle was other than a voice feeding her info to act on. I think they’re referring to the story collected, along with others, in the original Birds of Prey trade paperback, which collects some of the original stories by Chuck Dixon and Jordan B. Gorfinkel, featuring art by Greg Land and others. And which, by the way DC, is out of print, according to your own website. D’oh!

Birds of Prey: Of Like Minds: This trade collects the first Birds of Prey story by Gail Simone, who would become the definitive BOP writer (and, in the process, the definitive Black Canary writer). Featuring art by Ed Benes, who is now drawing Canary in Justice League of America, it details Canary and Oracle’s battle against Savant, and their first steps at recruiting Huntress into the fold permanent like. Well worth tracking down.

Secret Origins #50: Okay, I have no idea what this is doing on the list, as it’s a 96-page single issue from 1990. Best of luck finding it somewhere. I don’t have it in my longboxes either, but according to some quick Internet searching, it includes “the definitive history of the Black Canary,” among other goodies (a prose story of the meeting between Dick Grayson and Batman by Denny O’Neil and George Perez, and a tale of the first meeting of the Flashes by some guy named Grant Morrison).

And here’s an overly-exhaustive list of what they missed:

Green Arrow’s Girlfriend, Black Canary: Canary’s relationship with Green Arrow Oliver Queen resulted in many of her most memorable appearances taking place in books starring the Emerald Archer. Canary was prominently featured in many of the classic Denny O’Neil/Neal Adams Green Arrow/Green Lantern stories, two volumes of which are currently available in trade. They’re from the ‘70s, and show their age, with Canary being referred to by the bad guys as a “frail,” and by O’Neil’s narration as “the Girl Gladiator.” When GA got his own series under Mike Grell, Queen and the Canary moved to Seattle, and their adventures took a very gritty, realistic turn, as the pair of former Justice Leaguers were re-invented as street-level heroines. Canary operated a flowershop called Sherwood Florist, told GA she didn’t ever want to have kids, and was brutally attacked (and maybe raped), and lost her sonic scream power. Very little of Grell’s stories have ever made it into trade paperback, excepting The Longbow Hunters, a highly recommended graphic novel which has since gone out of print (but isn’t impossible to find). A Green Arrow and Canary story from this period by Alan Moore and Klaus Janson is also collected in DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore.

After Queen died and his son Connor Hawke took on the name and starring role in the title, Canary disappeared from the pages of Green Arrow. When Kevin Smith relaunched the title with a new number one a few years later, however, Canary returned, helping Batman and Arsenal track down the mysteriously resurrected Oliver Queen in “Quiver,” and then later going on a date with Ollie that involved Hawkman, the Riddler and some strategically placed T-Sphere obscured nudity (These stories are collected in trade paperbacks Green Arrow: Quiver and Green Arrow: The Sounds of Violence). Smith’s run was followed by Brad Meltzer’s short one, collected in Green Arrow: The Archers’ Quest, which features an almost pivotal moment in GA and Black Canary’s relationship.

Green Arrow wasn’t the only man whose feelings for Canary would translate into an opportunity for guest appearances, however. In the ‘90s, she was courted by her biggest fan, Ray Terril, the light-powered legacy hero The Ray in the Christopher Priest-written, Howard Porter-drawn ongoing of the same name. Canary appeared in some of the earlier issues and shared an adventure or two with Ray. Sadly, none of the series has ever been collected, but it’s worth tracking down in back issue bins, which are often overflowing with issues of it.

Justice League of America: The 12-part maxi-series JLA: Year One tells the surprisingly emotional and character-driven tale of the League’s founding by Black Canary, Green Lantern Hal Jordan, Flash Barry Allen, Aquaman and Martian Manhunter, but it’s unclear how much if any of this story by Mark Waid and Barry Kitson counts anymore. Other recent League adventures set in the team’s past featuring Canary include the first three issues of JLA: Incarnations by John Ostrander and Val Smeiks (which DC should hurry up and collect already), the four-part “Zero Hour” cross-over story that introduced Triumph as a time-lost founder of the JLA, the Mark Waid masterminded event The Silver Age and Legends of the DC Universe #12 and #13 .

Canary would serve as a member of the re-constituted Justice League of America written by Keith Giffen and J. M. DeMatteis and penciled by Kevin Maguire, but she wouldn’t stay long (in fact, I think Canary’s entire tenure on this version of the League is covered in Justice League: A New Beginning, the sole collection of this beloved and influential era of League history. She was missing from the roster from then all the way up until the just-relaunched Justice League of America, but would show-up just about any time League reserves were called in, including intracompany crossovers, the Mark Millar-written battle against Amazo, JLA/Titans, JLA/Avengers and so on.

In Identity Crisis, it was revealed that Canary was culpable in hiding the darkest secret of Justice League history (the mind-altering and memory loss inflicted on Dr. Light, The Top and even Batman), after which point she was more or less a constant presence on the Watchtower, showing up in JLA: Syndicate Rules, JLA: Crisis of Conscience and JLA: World Without a Justice League, plus League appearances in The Flash and Wonder Woman.

Justice Society of America: When Golden Age Sandman Wesley Dodds dies a mysterious death and his funeral is attacked by undead warriors, a mixture of original JSA heroes and their children get embroiled in a struggle against the Dark Lord Mordru, a struggle that would give rise to a new incarnation of the JSA, one which would include Black Canary. She eventually left the line-up after 30 issues, all of which are available in trade (Basically, you’re looking at JSA: Justice Be Done through JSA: Fair Play.

If you’re looking for her JSA appearances in the back issue boxes, that’s #1 through #31, but you’ll also want to keep your eyes out for JSA Annual #1, in which the ladies of the team spend some time training together and meet Nemesis (don’t get too attached to her), and JSA: Our Worlds At War #1, which features the entire JSA reserves (essentially, the DCU of the time’s equivalent to the All-Star Squadron line-up) going on a mission of President Luthor, and sports a nice Jae Lee cover with a beautifully drawn Canary.

Other JSA stories featuring Canary can be found in the exemplary JLA/JSA: Virtue and Vice crossover, in which Canary teams up with her two ex-boyfriends Oliver Queen and Dr. Pieter Cross, the new Dr. Midnight, and the JSA tie-in to the Young Justice cross-over event, Sins of Youth: Starwoman & the JSA #1, in which Canary and the others are de-aged into toddlers.

Birds of Prey: This title hits #100 this coming Wednesday, and it prominently featured Black Canary for the first 99 issues (not to mention all of the miniseries and one-shot specials that preceded the launching of the monthly). It’s gone through several creative teams with varying strengths, but the strongest run to date has been the current one, thanks to Gail Simone’s smart, sharp writing, and her focus on the relationship between Black Canary and Barbara Gordon. Much of Simone’s run has been collected into trade, with more to come. Also of note are Nightwing: The Hunt For Oracle in which Oracle and Canary meet face to face for the first time in their current working arrangement, and Batgirl: Year One, in which neophyte heroine Barbara “Batgirl” Gordon has her first team-up with the Black Canary.

Other universes: Canary has fewer Elseworlds and alternate universe appearances than many of her more iconic peers. In the Ross-iverse, she’s a member in good standing of the Justice League and, naturally, banging Green Arrow. She appeared in JLA: Liberty and Justice and continues to appear in the ongoing Justice. In Kingdom Come, she joined Ted Kord, Oliver Queen and many of the other superpower-less superheroes on Batman’s side of the Batman versus Superman conflict. In the DKU, the original Black Canary didn’t make any appearances in The Dark Knight Strikes Back, but her codename and black bird motif was co-opted. Speaking of the DKU, she’s appeared in the glacially-paced ongoing All-Star Batman and Robin, The Boy Wonder as a bartender who just can’t take it anymore and decides to beat the hell out of all her patrons. In the Alan Davis and Mark Farmer’s goofy-ass (but beautifully drawn) Justice League of America: The Nail, Canary fights alongside the Outsiders. Fabian Nicieza and Kevin Maguire’s even goofier (but also nicely drawn) JLA: Created Equal, which features an earth where every single male except Superman has died due to a mysterious disease, Canary is, naturally enough, among the heroines who have to step up and take over protecting the earth.

Other media: I’m going to continue pretending like 1979 crime against taste Legends of the Superheroes didn’t exist, which limit’s Black Canary’s non-comics appearances to the short-lived (and pretty terrible) live action TV series Birds of Prey and Cartoon Network’s Justice League Unlimited. The former was set in the future, after Batman had quit crime fighting, and it was up to Oracle and teenage heroines Huntress and Black Canary to carry on his legacy—for 13 episodes. Smallville it wasn’t. The latter featured Canary, designed as a typical Bruce Timm cutie in her Silver Age outfit, in several episodes, including “The Cat and the Canary,” “Grudge Match” and “Double Date,” the latter of which was written by Gail Simone.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I was all set to post an indignant comment that you left out her awesome appearances in The Ray -- but then I saw you did talk about them! Yay!

I actually got a copy of Secret Origins #50 in the quarter bin a while back. It's worth hunting down.