Welcome to the inaugural post on Hippo Planet, my brand-new blog!
If you’re familiar with my former blogging outpost, Holy Comics, Batman!, you know that I have a
massive slight girl-crush on Black Canary. She’s one of my favorite female superheroes, and may even outrank Wonder Woman on my list. I’ve praised her kick-ass attitude in comics, and even dressed up as her for Halloween. She’s the perfect blend of ferocity and kindness, and her stories always draw me in.
Having tasked myself with reading all 434 trades from my boyfriend’s DC continuity collection, my reading habits were pretty structured for the longest time. I read everything in order of continuity, sticking to the trades he already owned and rarely branching out beyond that. Now that I’ve finished, I’m able to go back and fill in any gaps that might exist in his collection, or flesh out character stories that I want to dive into more heavily. Black Canary was at the top of that list, so when I was gifted a copy of The Black Canary Archives-Volume One, I knew it would be one of the first trades I reached for.
These archive collections are pretty great. They collect the earliest appearances of various DC characters, and they seem to exist for just about every Golden Age hero you can think of. I had already read Superman, Batman, Flash, and Green Lantern trades of this type, but Black Canary was noticeably absent. I wanted to know more about her backstory and earliest appearances, so I eagerly began reading.
Black Canary, real name Dinah Drake, first appeared alongside Johnny Thunder in Flash Comics #86 in August of 1947. She’s tagged on the title page as “the most fascinating crook of all time”, but of course that’s a misnomer to throw the reader off. She steals, but only to take back from thieves who have already stolen something. It’s pretty standard Golden Age storytelling, with The Black Canary (the “The” wouldn’t be dropped until later) and Johnny Thunder teaming up to defeat a gang of forgettable thugs.
The trade continues in much the same vein for the next few issues. Canary continues teaming up with Johnny Thunder, with the latter shamelessly chasing after the crime-fighting heroine, smitten beyond a doubt. This continued for only a few months, until February 1948 when Black Canary was given a feature in Flash Comics all her own. Johnny Thunder was gone, to be replaced by private detective (and future husband) Larry Lance. The two bicker constantly as Larry and Dinah, while Larry obsesses over chasing down Black Canary, oblivious to the fact that she and Dinah are the same person.
Many of the stories in this trade are from the late 1940s, meaning they subscribe to the common tropes of the period. Gangsters run rampant in the tales, with Canary and Larry inevitably winding up in an elaborate and ridiculous death trap that they manage to escape each time with only a second to spare. The format is fairly repetitive, but then the same can be said for just about every comic written at this time. They’re not bad by any means, but when compared to comics of today they certainly lack a certain panache. Then again, I didn’t pick up this trade looking to have my socks knocked off.
My interest in the stories lies instead with the characterization of Black Canary. For most superheroes, their styles and perception may have changed over the years, with some traits falling by the wayside, but certain key tenants of the character remain the same. Black Canary is no different. Her iconic outfit is virtually unchanged from her first appearance in Flash Comics #86, a fact that continues to surprise me (fishnets and short shorts don’t exactly scream the 1940s). In fact, her stylization remained fairly consistent until her fitness-Barbie look of the 80s. Given how frequently other characters’ appearances change, I’m pleasantly surprised to see that Canary’s was maintained for quite some time.
Then again, it is a pretty spectacular look.
In addition to her overall look, her personality likewise remained pretty true to form. Even in the earliest issues, she’s shown as being intelligent and self-sufficient, exchanging quips with gangsters who think they can take her down easily. Her judo skills are flaunted early on, proving that she’s more than just a pretty face; she’s also a skilled fighter.
Although much of her core characterization remains the same, some details have seemed to drift off into comics obscurity (or at least, I haven’t come across many references to them). The first being Black Canary’s Mary Poppins-style locket. We all laugh and joke that Batman’s utility belt holds anything and everything he might need – well, he’s got nothing on Golden Age Black Canary. While Batman’s belt at least has innumerable compartments for all of his gadgets and devices, Black Canary has nothing but a single small locket that she wears around her neck. What’s more, she always seems to have the one specific item stored in there that she needs to escape whatever immediate danger she’s found herself. Be it a mirror, a pocketknife, or smoke bomb, Canary always has the perfect weapon at her disposal (and disguised as a lovely accessory, to boot).
The most surprising “lost” detail of her character only appeared once in this trade though: in one issue, Black Canary can actually control real black canaries. She calls to them (the first appearance of any semblance of a canary cry, though it doesn’t involve screaming) and they catch her during a fall. Honestly I’m perfectly fine with this particular character element having been dropped; having actual canary powers just feels a little too forced for the character, and the later-adopted canary cry is much more satisfying of a power. It’s more unique than “I can communicate with/control animals”, given how many other characters have that ability.
Reading these stories helped shed light on Black Canary’s earliest characterization, many elements of which have been carried over to this day. Her strength and determination have shone through from the very beginning, and it’s a pleasant surprise to see that she doesn’t suffer fools or spend her time mooning over a guy. She’s incredibly self-sufficient, acting alone or, when paired with Larry Lance, serving as the hero who rescues the both of them from imminent danger. Reading these has only helped further cement Canary as one of my favorite DC heroines. Sure, these earlier stories share the same short-comings as others from the era, but they are nevertheless an important part of the character’s lore. It’s nice to see that she was written so well to start that little had to change over the years. She was almost just as progressive then as she is now. Given how stereotypically women have been portrayed in comics at certain points in time, this is incredibly surprising, only helping to strengthen her place among DC’s heavy hitters. I still prefer the more recent Black Canary comics simply for their more modern take on her character, but these original stories remain a respectable and thoroughly entertaining example of her roots.