Where the Wonder Women Are #1: Black Canary

Golden Age Black Canary: Dinah Drake.

One of the all-time greats, Black Canary is one of those characters whose brilliance might not be evident to people based on her appearance.

Like Superman with his underpants on the outside, Dinah Drake/Lance is hampered by the fact that she is “the one with fishnets” which does mean that as soon as someone starts drawing or dressing like her, it’s amazingly easy to make her look like a stripper.

But Dinah is a badass. While she does occasionally (on and off) display the superpower of the “canary cry,” a sonic boom to fell her enemies, her main abilities come from intense martial arts training. She was the character called in to “sub” for Wonder Woman as the token female founder of the Justice League when the characters were rebooted after the mid-80’s Crisis (and Wonder Woman was deemed too young/new to have had such an honour). Later, she really was a founding member of the most iconic all-female superhero team of all time, Birds of Prey – twice, thanks to the New 52. Oh, and she rides a motorbike like you wouldn’t believe.

Dinah’s story begins back in the 40’s where she was Dinah Drake, a black-haired florist by day and blonde crime fighter by night, member of the Justice Society, the first superhero team. She romanced and eventually married police detective Larry Lance, and the two of them were brought back in the 60’s as Earth 2 characters, when it was decided that the Justice Society was a parallel earth version of the Earth 1 Justice League rather than its predecessor (one of those problems that has to be dealt with in comics when characters are apparently ageless for decades).

In 1969, Larry Lance was killed of radiation after a battle, and Dinah Lance responded to this grief by switching universes, joining the Justice League, developing the ultrasonic Canary Cry, and romancing Oliver Queen AKA Green Arrow, he of the pointy beard and Robin Hood costume.

But in 1983, one of DC’s best and most bonkers plot twists was revealed, and it still remains one of my favourite comics moments of all time. Black Canary was not actually Dinah Drake-Lance. Larry and Dinah had a daughter in the 50’s, called Dinah Laurel Lance, who was cursed by one of the Justice Society villains with an uncontrollable ‘canary cry’. She had been kept in suspended animation for twenty years, only the kind of suspended animation that allows you to grow to adulthood and look just like your mother, including a blonde wig.

After Larry Lance was killed, Dinah Drake-Lance discovered she was dying of the same radiation, and arranged for her memories to be downloaded into the body of her daughter. When Dinah Laurel Lance discovered this truth about her mother, her first thought was that she no longer had to feel guilty about falling in love with Green Arrow so soon after the death of her “husband” and not the alarm that she has a whole lot of memories of in fact BEING IN LOVE WITH HER FATHER.

Ahem. The whole thing was retconned away three years later when Crisis hit the DC universe, Black Canary was just the daughter of a cop and her mother was the former Black Canary who passed the baton on to her and then died of cancer. Kind of boring by comparison, and I was outraged about this for years, though I must admit that now I come to actually explain it, I can see their point.

Laurie Juspeczyk as Silk Spectre, in Watchmen

It’s worth noting at this point that Black Canary was one of two characters that Alan Moore used as the model for his Silk Spectre I & II in Watchmen, in which he explored the dark side of a daughter inheriting a superhero name from her mother, and threw in a bunch of rape and daddy issues to go with it. I adore Laurie (omg I just realised the significance of her name) but she has a whole lot less agency in Watchmen than her DC counterpart. The design of the Silk Spectre costumes for both Laurie and her mother Sally address the issues of the fishnet tights: Sally wears actual suspender stockings and appears to relish the sexuality expressed through her costume; Laurie has bare legs and usually looks uncomfortable with her own body.

The new Dinah Laurel Lance, I have to admit, is a far more empowered character than she was pre-Crisis. Her training is something she chose to take on herself, against her mother’s wishes, choosing a variety of trainers (including her mother’s former colleagues from the Justice Society) to build her skills.

Sadly in the post-Crisis world, Dinah Drake herself retrospectively becomes something of a horrid nagging mother as opposed to a figure of inspiration… an worth considering in comparison to the portrayal of Sally & Laurie Jupiter in both Watchmen and the new Before Watchmen series by Darwyn Cooke in which the relationship is just as toxic but opposite: Sally pressures Laurie to follow in her footsteps, forcing her through an obsessive training regime.

Why is it that whenever the superheroines are given pants, they are ugly pants?

In any case, the only active Black Canary post-Crisis is Dinah Laurel Lance. She briefly lost the fishnets & blue/black jacket combo in the late 80’s, taking on instead an outfit which defied ugliness even for a superhero costume designed in the 80’s, and appeared in the revamped, comedic version of the Justice League as the first and only female member, only to bow out later after the team went “international” – after which there was always multiple female characters in the team, right up to the point where the Justice League was reinvented in the mid 90’s by Grant Morrison, who reinstated Wonder Woman as the only woman in a sea of male muscle. Yes, I’m still bitter.

Dinah remained on the Justice League books as an occasional member, dropping in to help out from time to time. Meanwhile, Black Canary suffered as a character – both literally and figuratively – mostly being relegated to the role of supporting character in Green Arrow’s book. Even her new florist shop, ‘Sherwood Florist,’ reflects his character and not her own. She was put through the physical wringer in a quite awful mini-series called The Longbow Hunters, which can be seen as an example of the women in refrigerators trope, though Dinah wasn’t killed – and according to the writer later, was not raped, though this was assumed to be the case by many readers.
In any case, she was tortured badly enough to lose her canary cry, which suggests a certain degree of trauma. As a supporting character of an increasingly grim and gritty Green Arrow, she also dealt with his cheating on her, and other unpleasantness. After Green Arrow was killed off, Dinah then discovered that he had a son, Connor Hawke, she had never known about.

The issue in which Connor brings the news to Dinah is an example of how badly Dinah has been treated over the years, particularly by writers and artists who saw her as a Green Arrow appendage, and who couldn’t see past the fishnets. I’m all for the fishnets as part of her classic costume, because it’s a classic costume, and because they can be drawn so as to make her look cute and fun, not as a burlesque act. But in this case, she is shown off duty, with her short black Dinah hair, STILL WEARING THE FISHNETS as a young man she doesn’t know comes to her house and talks to her. She is shown to grieve for her lover while wearing fishnets and little else. It made no sense, and showed an utter lack of respect. Yes, I can buy someone wearing fishnets instead of trousers to fight crime, but no, I can’t buy them answering the door while wearing them (and little else) casually around the house.

Dinah burns her late 80’s costume. It’s hard to argue with her.

Which goes some way to expressing how complex the issues are surrounding superhero costumes, especially for women. They are ridiculous. I mean, they’re ALL ridiculous. Nothing shows this as easily as the live action movies where they try to put the actors in anything even resembling what the characters wear in the comics. But the fact is, a costume like Black Canary’s puts her at the mercy of the artist… but if they steer too far away from the original look, then she might as well be some other character, and as with Wonder Woman herself, no other costume has ever stuck around long enough to provide an alternative.

Yes, the fishnets are camp. But as soon as the artist gets either self-conscious or over excited by the implications of the fishnets, disaster ensues. The best way to draw Black Canary is with a ‘what, you don’t think I’m fully dressed? Screw you,’ attitude. Because as soon as she’s drawn as if she’s posing seductively for the male gaze, she doesn’t look like Dinah any more.

At least things were looking up, writing-wise. With Green Arrow dead, there was a chance for Dinah to be her own character again, in a more significant title than the occasional short mini-series. She formed a partnership with Oracle, AKA Barbara Gordon, who had risen through her own lengthy “crap they put female superheroes through” and was now a wheelchair-awesome computer guru. With Babs as the brains and Dinah as the brawn, they fought crime as the Birds of Prey, adding all manner of mostly-female combatants to their team over the many, many years they were a successful comic.

Created by Chuck Dixon, the team was at its creative height under the pen of Gail Simone, whose reputation as a writer for DC Comics is largely built on the success of Birds of Prey – though her Secret Six and Wonder Woman runs were also hugely popular, and more recently she has helped to relaunch Barbara Gordon as a post-wheelchair Batgirl.

Through Birds of Prey, a variety of different, more modern costumes were tried for Dinah, including different ways of wearing her blonde hair (no longer a wig) and elements of the old costume, but funnily enough, the more ‘contemporary’ they went with her, the sillier the fishnets looked.

I adore the partnership of Green Arrow and Black Canary when it’s written well, as they can be a fun, action-packed couple. Still, it was hard not to resent it when Oliver Queen came back from the dead, and Dinah left the Birds of Prey to team up with him again. At least this run was billed as Green Arrow/Black Canary (shared billing!) and featured such marvels as the Amanda Conner designed tongue-in-cheek Dinah Lance wedding dress, an all white extravaganza of fishnets and corset which somehow worked, because Dinah and Ollie couldn’t possibly have a normal wedding, in any case. And this time around, gratuitous fake deaths aside, they had a whole lot more fun together.

More recently, in the new 52, there is a new Birds of Prey, with Dinah as its leader. I’ll confess I haven’t been reading it – Batgirl might be involved, but the team didn’t make sense to me in its first issue without Oracle at the heart of it, and I missed the old version too much to keep trying. I can forgive the new Batgirl for all the changes, but I couldn’t make the leap to Birds of Prey. This makes me sad.

Meanwhile, Black Canary, with a design owing more to the original 1940’s costume than anything else, appeared several times in the series Justice League Universe, notably starting the Green Arrow relationship all over again, but also forming an alliance if not quite friendship with Huntress, one of the Birds of Prey regulars. All the best elements of Dinah – her martial arts training, her canary cry, her motorbike fixation, her iconic look and her snarky tone, are right there on the screen. She has also appeared in various of the Batman series, notably Batman: the Brave and the Bold, and I was excited to hear that she appears on Young Justice, training a new generation of superheroes in the art of the judo throw.

It’s certainly better than the shortlived Birds of Prey TV series, which had a fairly credible Oracle and Huntress, but chose for some strange reason to change Dinah to a nervous teenager, losing pretty much all the cool elements of her character from the comics, so that she was unrecognisable to fans.

While Green Arrow/Oliver Queen was a regular character on Smallville for several years, notably not wearing his silly beard, Dinah herself only appeared occasionally, in a costume that really didn’t convince anyone that wearing fishnets while fighting crime was a good idea, and Oliver is paired up romantically with Chloe. [edit: sorry for disappointing anyone with this sentence as previously written where it implied Dinah/Chloe were canon in Smallville. I would TOTALLY go back and watch that…] I wasn’t watching any more by the time she came along, so feel free to correct me on this! Apparently there was a nod to the existence of her mother, Dinah Drake, as an original member of the Justice League.

Rumour has it that the new Green Arrow TV series, “Arrow,” owes a lot more to the Smallville version of Ollie than anything out of the comic books, but rumour also has it that Dinah Lance, at least, is a character cast in the show. No confirmation yet as to whether this Dinah is our girl Black Canary, or just some brunette florist.

But I really hope she rides a motorbike.

Where the Wonder Women Are:
0: Introduction
1: Black Canary
2: Rogue
3: Hawkgirl/Hawkwoman
4: Black Widow

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4 replies on “Where the Wonder Women Are #1: Black Canary”

  1. Hi Tansy,

    I love this idea for a series of blog posts, and what a great start.

    In Smallville, you didn’t mean Dinah was paired romantically with Chloe did you? Because SPOILER

    Choloe and Ollie are the item and in fact…well I won’t give away too much

    I loved Black Canary in Justice League, especially the episodes “The Cat and the Canary (where we see the depth of her relationship with WildCat and a great pairing with GA), Grudge Match (because, aside from Huntress and BC being awesome, we really see how WW is one of the true powerhouses of the JL and the equal of any of the other big hitters) and Double Date (because of the great chemistry with the couples – absolutely hilarious in parts).

    Can’t wait for the next post 🙂

  2. tansyrr says:

    Hahaha I totally meant Ollie and Chloe. Will edit that sentence HEAVILY.

    I would love to hear from you the Dinah highlights of Smallville, though, as I quit the show round about the time that Oliver started and have been meaning to go back to at least watch the Justice League bits, but the friend who wants to watch it with me wants to start from the beginning, and I don’t know if I can face season 1 again…

  3. Well, I *loved* Smallville (it’s up there in my top five TV shows) so I would certainly encourage you to finish it. It definitely started out as a “monster of the week” show crossed with a teen soapie, but if you get through that it found its feet and started to do some really interesting things (and experimented with a lot of different styles, and gave the main actors a chance to do some different things with their characters). The last scene was one of those TV moments that makes you jump out of your chair.

    I’ll have to have a think about some of the Dinah highlights. The fact that I can’t reel them off the top of my head probably attests to the fact she wasn’t one of the main characters, ask me about Lois or Chloe and I would be here all day. She was also a fairly loose adaptation of the comic book character, I thought. But, she did have some cool moments.

  4. Grant says:

    My number #1 issue with Smallville was that Clark should have been Superman by the end of Season 4. It felt like it was twisting itself into knots trying to avoid the inevitable and keep the thing rolling on one year at a time.

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