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End of Summer
 

The Black Canary Archives Volume 1

by Robert Doucette

A Review

First a small confession. I am not a life long fanboy. Once a voracious reader of comics, sometime in the mid-sixties my family moved and my comic book days ended -- and only started again a few years ago. But during my early active years I read some great stories. The origins and early tales of the Silver Age Atom and the Elongated Man. Barbara Gordon's debut as Batgirl. Flash's discovery of Earth 2. One character I didn't discover until years later, however, was the Black Canary.

I first saw her in a book on the history of comic heroes. There she was. Two pages of full color action. Black bolero jacket, fishnet stockings, pirate boots, silken leotard top and black velvet choker. Wow! The author was making some point about the role of comic heroines and how they were treated as lesser characters and sex objects. And I'm thinking, "Wahoo! Where was this girl when I was thirteen?" Did I mention the fishnet stockings?

Later, I read about Black Canary in some of the Green Arrow stories, and quite a lot in stories in Fanzing. And I liked what I saw and read. She was smart, complicated and real. But, still, I really didn't know much about her at all. (And what I thought I knew is not completely coherent -- what with DC retconning the Universe every second Tuesday. How did she get involved with Green Arrow? Who was Larry Lance and what happened to him?)

Then I discovered DC Comics' Black Canary Archives, and I thought, "Here is where I will get the full definitive version. This will tell me EVERYTHING I want to know about the Black Canary."

Wrong again, bolero breath

What I found was a lot of horrible, horrible stories.

I may be too critical. The early stories were written for a different time and a different audience. And I suppose from an almost archeological standpoint, they are interesting as examples of 1940's story telling. But, from the perspective of a modern adult reader, these Golden Age stories stink.

But let me describe them.

From her introduction in August 1947 as a feature in Flash #86 until February 1948, Black Canary was paired with Johnny Thunder and the Archives has them in six mind-numbingly repetitive stories. In each story, Johnny accidentally gets tangled up with Black Canary who is chasing or being chased by some criminals. (She is described as a thief who steals from other criminals.) They get captured. They escape. They get captured again. They escape again. They beat up the villains. Justice triumphs. There are lots of fistfights and bad dialogue.

These first stories are only six pages long which doesn't leave a lot of room for character development especially when you have to share them with Johnny Thunder. Johnny Thunder of this time is a cheerful moron who generally captures criminals by tripping and falling on top of them. And although Johnny has a mystical thunderbolt whom he can summon by merely saying "Cei U" or "Say you", Johnny often forgets about this. In one of the stories, the thunderbolt doesn't even make an appearance. Meanwhile, Johnny goes through requisite capture, imprisonment, and threats of bodily harm, never thinking to call his thunderbolt.

Now that I think about it, not only is the thunderbolt missing from that story, but so is Black Canary, which is an odd thing in an archive of Black Canary stories.

When I say there is a lack of character development for Black Canary during this time, I mean no development at all. She is a complete cipher. She appears and disappears. It isn't until she gets her own feature that we even learn her real name.

Starting with Flash #92 in February 1948, Black Canary receives her own stories and gets to say goodbye to Johnny Thunder. Finally, Black Canary gets her florist shop and an identity, Dinah Drake. Larry Lance, PI, is also introduced, giving Dinah an excuse to stumble over criminals. In stories that appeared in the Flash over the next year, Black Canary and Larry Lance make wisecracks and fight crimes. But again there is no mention of family or friends or hobbies. No introspection or motivation. No emotional anguish or character growth. Pointedly, there is no reason given for why this dark haired florist should decide to become a blonde costumed crime fighter.

I suppose these stories are adequate for their time, but as a modern reader used to sub-plots, story arcs and evolving characters, these get a little boring after awhile. For those who complain modern comics are inaccessible to new readers because of massive backstories and yearlong plots, here is the opposite extreme. These stories are completely interchangeable and can be read in any order. Like old episodes of Barnaby Jones or Mannix, they are very accessible and very boring.

Like in those old TV shows, there must be a rule that the major characters get beaten up and knocked unconscious at least once per story. Coincidence and luck solve mysteries more often than clever detective work, but that is probably pretty standard for the era. So, Dinah and Larry talk like Scooby Doo characters while sleep walking through Nancy Drew plots.

Even worse, they cheat.

By cheat, I mean the heroes escape the villains' dumb, deadly traps not through skill or guile but because the writers allow them to pull some device out of thin air. In these stories the device is usually hidden in a black canary broach worn on Dinah's choker. Over the course of some fourteen stories from the Golden Age, this ornamental pin is found to contain a knife, smoke bombs, a signaling mirror, a magnifying glass, a diamond glass cutter, and, my favorite, a flint and steel for starting fires. And probably an aqua-lung and a row boat. And she manipulates all of this with her chin. (How do you strike flint and steel using only your chin? My chin skills are limited to holding the pillow when I make the bed.)

In one story, the writers give Black Canary a meta-human power never seen before -- or since -- control over an armada of black canaries. She and Larry are thrown off of a tall building to certain doom. And then, quoting from the story,

As the Black Canary falls, she utters

"Champions small with midnight wing, foe of every evil thing, heed my call and arise to flight, prove the Black Canary's might."

Suddenly a host of black canaries dive to her assistance!

Interlocking their wings, the birds form a carpet beneath the falling figures....

And Dinah and Larry safely land on the ground, where the birds peck through the ropes and distract the villains.

Right.

Ok, that's the worst of it. After these Golden Age stories, we jump to the Silver Age with a couple of Gardner Fox stories, two 1965 Brave and the Bold issues pairing Black Canary with Starman. I actually like these stories. The artwork by Murphy Anderson is cleaner than Carmen Infantino's work from the 1940's. And the villains are more worthy of Ms. Drake-Lance's concern. In the 1940's stories, Black Canary fought run-of-the-mill burglars and embezzlers. Now she is fighting the Mist, the Huntress and Sportsmaster. All corny to be sure, but at least powerful enough that the average cop on the beat couldn't stop them.

Gardner Fox spices his writing with science trivia and a guest appearance by Wildcat but they don't overwhelm the story. For the first time, characters have human emotions. Dinah is pissed when she discovers the Mist is using her florist shop to commit crimes. Wildcat is frustrated when Starman and Black Canary leave him behind to "guard the fort" while they capture the Huntress and Sportsmaster. And the emotions are shown by action, dialogue and illustration, not told in the narrative. In the 1940s Larry Lance and Dinah Drake are cardboard characters going through the motions. In the sixties, they come across as flesh and blood. Much better story telling.

The final story in the Archives was a two-parter written by Dennis O'Neil in 1972 and takes place after Black Canary became involved with Green Arrow. Alex Toth's artwork is imprecise but attractive. His Black Canary is more voluptuous than Infantino's or Anderson's and he makes interesting use of panels.

In the story, Oliver Queen is "off chasing an injustice ...or ..a dream." Dinah is between florist shops and needing a job she falls in with evil-doers. Again, it is the 1940's pattern of stumbling on to bad guys, capture, escape, and the triumph of justice. But with fourteen pages, there is plenty of time for reflection and flashbacks so even with a lame plot, it's an adequate read.

There is no mention, however, about how she got from being married to Larry Lance to being involved with Green Arrow. I now understand that THIS Black Canary is the daughter of Dinah and Larry Lance, but that fact is never mentioned in the Archives.

So, here we are. Twenty-two Golden Age stories that all read the same. Two snappy Silver Age stories. And a final story where Dinah has a life, but is still an accidental protagonist.

Fortunately, I was able to find the Archives in my local public library; otherwise I would have been most upset to spend $50 on this mediocre collection. Which bring me to another point. Exactly what is the purpose of these Archive Editions, anyway? How can they justify a price of $50 for a hardbound re-issue of comics that have been in their vaults for decades? What were the editorial criteria for choosing these twenty-four stories? I hope the original artists and writers get a good chunk of this loot, but I think DC has missed a great opportunity to give the reader so much more.

Why didn't they include stories that discuss the pivotal transitions in her life? How about what happened in the time between Larry Lance and Oliver Queen? How about between Oliver Queen and Barbara Gordon? Would it have killed them to put in a timeline or history og Black Canary?

If the DC editors wanted to devote most of the book to 1940 stories, they could have included articles where the writers and artists tell us about the characters and how and why they changed. What did they want Black Canary to be when they worked on these comics? Could they tell us why she disappeared for a decade or so? Why was she brought back? I'd be interested in knowing about the editorial and publishing decisions as well has the Black Canary storyline.

This is one reason I read Fanzing. Here is one place I can find clear, lucid and succinct histories of these heroes and their sidekicks. And I get it here for free. I am disappointed DC couldn't do as much for a reader willing to spend some significant cash.

My final thoughts...the Black Canary DC Archives faithfully reproduces a collection of Black Canary stories primarily from the late 1940's with a few from the Silver Age thrown in. If you are interested in what the early Black Canary looked like, this is the book for you. However, if you are interested reading an exciting collection of adventures which taken together tell the story of the Black Canary, keep looking. These stories are not very interesting and after reading them I didn't know much more above her than I did before.

So, can anyone tell me why Dinah Drake decided she needed to wear a blonde wig and a sexy black costume and spend her spare time fighting crime? (OK, anyone besides John Wells who compiled the excellent Black Canary timeline for Fanzing?)

 
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This piece is © 2002 by Robert Doucette
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