Shake, Rattle & Rolling Into Modernity: ‘Black Canary’ #2 [Review]
Reading Black Canary wasn't just reading another comic book --- the character comes with a lot of baggage for me, so I felt bound to be more critical of it than I am of any other book. But by the time I finished issue #2, I felt like a character I'd loved for a long time had been given a new life. This is what we should want for our heroes.
I have strong feelings about Black Canary. It all started with the Justice League/Justice League Unlimited cartoons --- in particular with an episode called "Double Date." I just thought Dinah was awesome. She was highly trained, smart, and had a cool super power. It was because of Black Canary (and Gail Simone's writing of her) that I eventually picked up Birds of Prey --- not just my first comic with Black Canary in it, but the first DC book I ever read. It started me on a path that included at one point editing Birds of Prey and being in charge of Dinah's future.
When the announcement went out about the new Black Canary book, I was annoyed and worried based on surface impressions. I even expressed some of this annoyance on Twitter. Changes to Batgirl didn't bother me --- I hadn't even wanted Barbara to stop being Oracle, so I felt less invested in the character in her Batgirl persona. I could read Batgirl and enjoy it as something fun and new. But Black Canary was mine --- and the last touch of what I felt was my work at DC after Starling went down the drain.
I'd been iffy on the few Black Canary appearances that had happened in Batgirl, but enjoyed the book enough to pretend that she wasn't really Black Canary. My feelings on this new book, then, went far beyond simple fandom. So to say that any changes to the character make me anxious would be an understatement.
I met Brenden Fletcher at Emerald City Comicon this year and we talked about my feelings on the character, what aspects of her I cared about the most, and what he had planned for her. After this discussion, I felt way better about the possibilities for the character. My initial reaction had been to rock 'n' roll Dinah with lots of ripped fishnets and seemingly little of the gravity and skill that I feel the character should have. Fletcher's statements and Annie Wu's totally incredible art convinced me to give the book a chance.
Issue #1 of Black Canary was fun --- it set up some mysteries, but mostly seemed dedicated to establishing the conceit of this new series. In introducing the settings, characters, villains, and tone, while also trying to tell a fast-paced story, there wasn't a lot of depth to be found. It was a light-hearted, fun read. It wasn't exactly what I wanted out of a Black Canary story, but I really enjoyed it. There was a hook in it that was impossible to deny, although I knew immediately that it wasn't a book that everyone would like.
What a lot of comics folks don't know is that in my younger days I was a passionate follower of live music. I've seen shows in venues as varied as punk "frat" houses and mechanic shops-turned-apartments all the way up to huge arenas. I worked as a merch girl and promoted my friends' bands. I drove hours and hours to see bands all over the Midwest. The aesthetic of this book, then, is the aesthetic of another life I'd once had, but starring a character that helped push me into this life. It's not perfect, but it would be impossible for me not to want to read more.
Black Canary is a very different book from Batgirl, which is for the best for both books. Someone I know referred to BC as "more of that hipster bullshit," but I think that misses the point. Sure, there's a "Burnside Tofu" zine, which is a reference to Brooklyn Vegan, and the fashion of all of the Black Canary characters is interesting, modern, and edgy, but it's not overtly "hipster."
Just because both Batgirl and Black Canary are being approached in a new and slightly similar way doesn't mean that the characters are being presented the same --- or that the books are the same.
Black Canary has always been a more mature character than Batgirl in most ways. They're friends, sure, but Dinah has a strength that does not depend on control the way Barbara's often does. Dinah finds a way even in the messiest of situations, as in these new stories, and that way is a little more raw and out of control. That's evidenced in the general environment of touring and bands and venues --- these are not places where control reigns. Still, Dinah is Dinah, and these new circumstances do not diminish her power.
While issue #1 was light and quick, issue #2 gives a lot of the depth that I felt was missing previously. Black Canary the band is undergoing training to protect their youngest member, the mysterious Ditto. The training is hard and brutal because Dinah is a perfectionist with her martial arts in particular, but more importantly because she wants them to all be capable of protecting themselves and Ditto.
Dinah wants to keep her bandmates at a distance, but she can't because that's not who she is. At the core of the character are certain characteristics --- some based on her superheroics like her voice-based powers or her martial arts skills and others based on her personality like her internal strength and caring nature --- and these characteristics are still present. Above all, that is what makes the book good. This isn't the Black Canary that has come before, but the core characteristics are there. Issue #2 lets the creative team demonstrate many of those core characteristics, ranging from her martial arts to her concern for her bandmates.
Where issue #1 offered up the surface attributes that would draw in new readers looking for a good time and enough hints of depth to keep other readers engaged, issue #2 delivers on an understanding of what makes the character unique.
Wu's art is dynamic and beautiful, but with a punk aesthetic that fits the story incredibly well. There are some really creative layouts and ink effects, plus Lee Loughridge's colors are on point. The desert scenes in particular are colored really nicely, and there's a panel at the end of page 3 (see above) where DD and Ditto are walking in a panel and color is used to separate the different drawings of them in the same panel, rather than putting them in separate panels. Not every creative team could make that make sense, but Wu and Loughridge pull it off.
The lettering is also great, which is unsurprising given that Steve Wands has lettered Black Canary stories many times, including lettering Green Arrow/Black Canary and Birds of Prey for me and other editors (full disclosure: Wands also letters a story for me in Fresh Romance).
This may not be exactly "my" Black Canary, but I like her nonetheless. After all, for all that I spend time writing about the need for the comics industry to move on and embrace change, it would be hypocritical of me to demand my favorite characters remain the same. The character needed a refresh badly by the time the New 52 came along, but the refresh that came was flawed for a lot of reasons.
The current changes are further from the character I love in some ways, but in others much closer to her core characteristics than she has been for a while. Most importantly, though, she feels fresh and relatable in a way that is key for bringing in new audiences. I like this new Dinah, and even I want to see where she's going.