‘Black Canary & Zatanna: Bloodspell’ Is The Finest Crossover To Ever Be Based Entirely Around Fishnet Stockings [Review]
As a fan, I have a pretty complicated relationship with Paul Dini. On the one hand, he's one of the creators of what might be my single favorite thing in the entire world, Batman: The Animated Series, and he's written comics that I genuinely love. That run on Detective Comics, where the Riddler was a Private Eye, where he introduced new characters like the Carpenter? That thing's great. But at the same time, he wrote that story where Hush literally steals Catwoman's heart and holds it for ransom while keeping her alive with a giant heart machine that he built in his garage. I mean, I love "Harley's Holiday" more than most members of my own family, but I also paid good money for Madame Mirage and I'm never getting that back, you know? It's a complicated relationship.
As a result, I approached Black Canary and Zatanna: Bloodspell, the new 152-page graphic novel he wrote with artwork by the always amazing Joe Quinones, with a certain amount of trepidation, because I wasn't really sure what I was going to get out of it.
Turns out, this much anticipated book might not be perfect, but it's definitely the kind of Paul Dini story I like and the kind I want to see more of.
Let's get this part out of the way first; Bloodspell is quite possibly the first, and certainly the most high profile, team-up story ever to be based entirely around hosiery. I heard that even Kenichi Sonada thought it was weird to team two characters up based on their mutual love of fishnet stockings, but to their credit, Quinones and Dini go out of their way to establish a longstanding relationship between the characters that makes sense. It's actually one of the first things that really stuck out to me about the story: This isn't a "New 52" book.
Instead, it's set in the "classic" DC Universe (or whatever we're calling it now), and it uses the core strength of that universe to form the structure of the book. There's a history here. These are characters who have interacted before, who have a camaraderie that may not have been explored on the page, but it's believable that it's there. It's easy to see these characters as friends who have been through a lot together in a way that goes well beyond just their choice of legwear, and in a lot of ways, it really makes the book work.
That said, the reason that I say it's one of the first things that stuck out to me was because the first thing that I noticed when I opened this book up was that underneath the dust jacket, the cover has literally been embossed with a fishnet pattern.
Regardless of content, that is some standing ovation-worthy book design from Louis Prandi.
Once that content begins to unfold, though, the book is on some pretty fragile ground. The strength of using DC history is there, and it plays out very well with a series of flashbacks that are intercut with the main story. Each one functions as a little spotlight story of Zatanna and Black Canary teaming up, and to be honest, for a reader like me, they're worth the price of admission alone. Seeing the Key show up on the Justice League satellite, or getting a glimpse of the League throwing down against Granny Goodness and the Female Furies in a book where I wasn't expecting anything of the sort? That's a huge bonus.
But the main plot, separate from the quite strong structure and relationships between the characters, is the weakest part of the book. Black Canary got involved in a magical hoodoo a while back when she went undercover, and now that people are dying, she needs to get Zatanna involved to stop it. It's all pretty standard, and it plays out exactly like you'd expect, right down to a nice resolution that's exactly as clever as you'd expect it to be. That's not bad at all -- it's no less clever than you expect -- but with art and character work that come through this strong, it doesn't feel like the story measures up.
There are also a few dodgy sex jokes thrown in there, too. It never gets to the point of that one issue of the Zatanna series where Dini opened a comic on a stage show with Zatanna tied up and about to get drilled (with an actual drill) from behind by Doctor Light (which actually happened in what is unquestionably the most bananas reference to Identity Crisis that was ever printed) but man, Black Canary has an entrance here in the form of shattering a vase with her sonic scream because she's having an orgasm.
I swear to you that I'm not a prude, even when it comes to superhero comics -- in fact, the sexual aspects of a lot of Dini's stories tend to be one of the things that makes them work so well -- but that is some Kevin Smith level nonsense, and that ain't a compliment.
However, other possibly risqué scenes play masterfully, and in large part because Quinones is incredible. I've always been a fan of his work, particularly his story in Batman '66 that introduced readers to the Joker's prison psychologist, Dr. Holly Quinn. But here he does some really incredible acting with the art, particularly the facial expressions.
Quinones also pulls of the pretty tough trick of making the characters seem sexy but not overly sexualized, which is even more difficult when you consider that they're, you know, in a book where fishnet stockings are a pretty overwhelming costume design choice. There are plenty of artists who would've gone into this one bent on emphasizing the pin-up stuff at the expense of action and character, but Quinones handles both in stride. There's never a moment here where the characters don't look like superheroes, and the action has as much energy to it as the Black Canary and Zatanna's expressions during a conversation.
I think the ultimate testament to this is that there's literally a scene in this comic where Canary grabs Zatanna and stuffs a gag in her mouth, and while that sounds like it's sketchy as hell (or, at best, Empowered-esque sex comedy), Quinones draws it in a way where your first thought is "oh, right, Zatanna needs to speak to cast her spells" and not "I really do not want to be caught reading this in public."
Even with a few missteps, Bloodspell is solid, and it's worth noting that there are some pretty great bonuses thrown in, too. In addition to pages and pages of designs, sketches and layouts from Quinones, Dini's full script is printed in the back. It's the sort of process stuff that I love seeing, and there's a ton of it.
In the end, even though it might look like a quick read, Bloodspell has more than enough going for it that it's worth the $23 cover price. It's one of the few recent titles that feels like a celebration of what makes DC work -- a fun and enjoyable adventure story with exquisite cartooning and really strong characters at the heart of it.