Looking back on 70 years of Black Canary

Contributed by
Aug 16, 2017

In 1947, superhero comics were going strong. Superman had been around for the better part of a decade, Captain America had long been punching Nazis, Wonder Woman was navigating the world of men and Batman was bringing justice to the streets of Gotham. New heroes were popping up all over the place, as publishers rushed to capitalize on the growing craze and a young artist by the name of Carmine Infantino was working on Flash Comics over at DC when he was asked to help create a brand new female hero by the name of Black Canary. Now, 70 years later, the hero that was introduced as a supporting character in a backup story of Flash Comics #86 is still going strong, headlining stories, and cementing her place as one of DC Comics’ most important female heroes. Perhaps, even, one of their most important characters of any gender.

But the Black Canary we know and love today isn’t exactly a perfect replica of her 1940s self. In seven decades the character has gone through, not only a number of trials and tribulations, but several origins, and even several identities. According to Infantino, the very first iteration of the character was actually based on his idea of the perfect woman. Infantino has been quoted as saying, of the character’s creation, “When Kanigher gave me the script, I said, 'How do you want me to draw her?’ He said, 'What's your fantasy of a good-looking girl? That's what I want.' Isn't that a great line? So that's what I did. I made her strong in character and sexy in form.”

In many ways that initial conceit - strong in character and sexy in form - have been mainstays of Black Canary since her inception. While her look has been altered and updated many times throughout the years to correspond to the style of the times or her current situation, the core components generally remain. She is blonde (whether in a wig or not), gorgeous, and dressed in fishnet stockings, boots, and a bodysuit.

That first appearance of the character in a Johnny Thunder anthology story would prove surprisingly successful, and eventually, Dinah Drake as the Black Canary would push Johnny Thunder right out of the pages of Flash Comics, taking over as the monthly backup story before the decline of superhero comics in the 1950s. When the superhero resurgence of the 1960s arrived, Black Canary was brought back along with DC Comics' core cast of heroes with a few minor changes. This version of the character would finally get her sonic scream and readers would discover that she lived on Earth-2 with her husband, police officer Larry Lance. Lance’s death would prompt the character to move to Earth-1 and join the current version of the Justice League of America.

Strangely, while the character was popular enough to warrant her own stories and inclusion in the list of heroes who returned with the Silver Age of comics, Black Canary was only ever used sparingly. She appeared in a number of team ups with the Justice Society and fought alongside the likes of Batman and Superman and, of course, frequently teamed up with Green Arrow in his own adventures, but it would take nearly 40 years before the character really found her footing. By then, however, she would be a very different Canary, and a completely different person would don the fishnet stockings.

In the late 1980s, following the massive changes caused by the events of Crisis on Infinite Earths, a brand new Canary was born. Dinah Laurel Lance took on the mantle previously worn by her mother and dedicated herself to fighting crime with her own version of the Canary Cry. This version of the Black Canary was not so different from the Dinah Drake version, despite the new person under the name. Both Dinah and her mother fought crime in a blonde wig and blue and black costume and both had an affinity for Oliver Queen’s Green Arrow. But this new Canary would face something her mother never did: the bleak world of superhero comics in the 1980s.

Just as her mother was relegated to the panels of other heroes' adventures, so too was Dinah Lance trapped in the world of the Green Arrow. She came very close to breaking out on her own in the early 80s, but plans for a solo mini-series were derailed when DC decided to allow Mike Grell to use the character in a brand new prestige format comic called Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters. This three issue series would see Black Canary venturing off on her own in Seattle, attempting to stop a dangerous drug dealer, when her plan goes awry. Dinah is captured, strung up, tortured and sexually assaulted before being found and rescued by Oliver. As a result of the series, Dinah loses her ability to bear children and her trademark Canary Cry. Green Arrow, meanwhile, got his own ongoing series.

“Dinah was one of the victims of the female superhero trope in American superhero comics which is, well if we want to do something interesting with a woman, we have to have her physically maimed, right?” recalls Joseph Illidge, former editor of Birds of Prey. “So in the case of Dinah, being strung up and being sliced in Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters by a sadist, and then additionally having a failed relationship with Oliver Queen at the time and even having a failed relationship with The Ray at the time. Dinah was there when I think the transition began away from that trope.”

But it would be years before that transition would really start to come into effect. In the same year that saw the publication of Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters, Barbara Gordon was shot and paralyzed by the Joker in the pages of The Killing Joke. Eventually, she would be brought back by Suicide Squad writers John Ostrander and Kim Yale as the hero Oracle, a character who would have a great effect on the trajectory of one Dinah Lance.

“It was all a brainchild of Jordan Gorfinkel,” says Chuck Dixon, a longtime writer on Birds of Prey. “He told me the high concept and I didn’t see it working. Black Canary had just had a solo book canceled due to miserable sales. Oracle was still associated with Suicide Squad in readers’ minds. It took some convincing but he finally talked me into writing that first one shot. And he was right all along!”

Gorfinkel, a relatively new editor at DC Comics, wanted to team up two of the publisher’s female characters who had suffered the most in service of other characters’ stories. Along with Dixon and a series of artists, he worked to right the wrongs that had been done to Barbara Gordon and Dinah Lance, bringing them together to form a brand new team called the Birds of Prey. The series, which began as a stream of one shots before it was launched monthly, was immediately successful. Gorfinkel would leave the book after the first year of the monthly series, passing on the reins to his associate editor, Joseph Illidge.

“I loved the book,” recalled Illidge. “I actually met Jordan while I was an editor at Milestone and he had just finished the first Birds of Prey special that Chuck Dixon wrote and Gary Frank drew, so when I got to be a member of the Batman editorial office, I made it clear that I was a fan of the Birds of Prey and he knew that … The relaunch was happening after No Man's Land. I wanted to take over the Catwoman title and the executive editor of DC Comics at the time said I couldn't have both. I could have either Birds of Prey or Catwoman and I love Selina Kyle but I love Dinah and Babs more. So I made a choice to stay on that title, and I'm glad I did, but that really spoke to the affection that I have for those characters and the responsibility I felt about Birds of Prey because at the time it was the top selling female led superhero comic after Wonder Woman. And because of that, I felt that there was a responsibility to have that book properly represent those characters and represent women.”

Birds of Prey finally brought Black Canary into the spotlight, making her a main character in her own series, and unlike her failed series from the early 90s, it was one that captured an audience. Over the course of the first two years, the character would start the slow progress from a down on her luck, beaten and broken former hero to once again becoming a whole person. The series allowed Dinah to become more defined, and to find physical as well as emotional healing. In one issue, Dixon even went so far as to undo the physical damage that had been done to the character during Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters, returning her Canary Cry following a dip in Ra’s al Ghul’s Lazarus Pit. But even though she was made whole in that issue, Dinah has never been defined by her Canary Cry.

“One of my favorite issues of Birds of Prey that I edited was issue 15 and it was not about people in costumes fighting super villains,” says Illidge. “The crux of the story for Dinah was her next door neighbor was a woman who was being abused by her husband and Dinah was trying to help her and her neighbor refused her help, which unfortunately happens in abusive relationships. And Dinah ignores that. She goes over there, she sees these guys with guns in front of the door, she beats them up, she kicks the door down and the woman shot her husband dead. Dinah failed to save a life that day, and I feel like that's her edict. I feel like that's her goal when she gets up in the morning. She tried. And it wasn't about being in a costume. It was about being Dinah Laurel Lance and her natural instinct was just to help somebody else.”

Illidge would leave the Birds with issue #22, handing things over to another new editor. Dixon, meanwhile, stayed with the series for a couple more years, eventually turning over writing duties to a string of writers before DC found a one to take over telling the stories of Oracle and Black Canary for an ongoing run. That writer, a relative newcomer to the world of comics at the time, was Gail Simone. Gail was the first woman to write the Birds of Prey and she came to the series with an agenda all her own.

“It was really fitting that Gail Simone became probably the most impactful writer on the character,” explains Illidge, who kept up with the book after his departure. “Because Gail through her Women in Refrigerators, basically manifesto, really helped engineer the reduction of that trope in American superhero comics.”

“I just came at it from the point of, first of all, I’m sick and tired of Black Canary being a hostage,” recalled Simone during a Birds of Prey 20th Anniversary panel at San Diego Comic Con last year. “I had an agenda there that we have this kickass character that I love so I want to do a story where everyone is going to know she will never be a hostage. So I started out with her being a hostage and tied to a bed with two broken legs. And by the end of the story, she breaks her own thumbs, kicks everyone’s ass - even with two broken thumbs and two broken legs - and goes on to get herself trained to be the best martial artist in the DCU.”

Dinah’s skills as a fighter and her compassion for others were also the things that eventually pulled her away from the Birds. After the events of Infinite Crisis, Dinah trades places with Lady Shiva, an operative with the League of Assassins with whom she has a mutual respect. Over the course of several issues, Dinah trains with the League, meeting a young girl named Sin who, they tell her, has been chosen to be the next Lady Shiva, and who is being trained to kill even at her young age. Feeling for this young girl, Dinah takes her from the League and attempts to raise her, departing the Birds and sparking another attempt at giving the hero a short solo adventure.

Following her ill-fated attempts at motherhood, Dinah was given another role, this time as the leader of the newly formed Justice League, though she resigned only a short time later.

Several attempts have been made to give the Black Canary her own solo series, but so far, none of them have stuck. In 2011, following yet another universe altering crisis called Flashpoint, Dinah Lance once again had her character backstory rewritten, removing much of the character building that had been done in the preceding decades. Gone was her legacy, this Dinah’s mother having abandoned her when she was very young. Gone too was her natural Canary Cry, now replaced by one given as the result of military experimentation. The New 52 Canary was introduced to audiences as not only a founding member of the new Birds of Prey but also as a former member of a military black ops team known as Team 7.

In 2015, another new writer would take on the character. Brendan Fletcher, one-half of the writing team that took over Batgirl following the departure of Gail Simone, was offered the chance to take another stab at a solo series for Dinah.

“I think the Dinah that I inherited to write in the New 52 is a little more jaded,” explains Fletcher. “This is a Dinah who had her mother drop her off on the doorstep of a dojo, whose life was always shrouded in mystery, who didn’t have any straight answers about anything, who had one person who loved her who died of a disease and ran into the arms of a military black ops group to sort of fill that hole in herself. It’s a completely different type of person. At that point, she becomes kind of cosmetically the same. They look the same, they have outfits that kind of resemble each other and they have the sonic scream and use martial arts at a high level, but in terms of how they’ve grown up, I think that influences what you become and I think they’re completely different characters.”

Fletcher’s Dinah may have been more jaded, but there was something else that set her apart from previous versions of the character. This one had gone from military secret agent to lead singer of a rock band.

“The core of who Dinah is in every iteration of the character is very much the same,” says Fletcher. “The internal strength that she has - the sense of justice - that maintains from iteration to iteration of the character. For me what I found really interesting about this opportunity was to do something completely different with this version of Dinah and that was to drop her into a different set of circumstances than she’s ever been in. No version of Dinah has ever fronted a band before.”

But while a Dinah Lance singing her heart out on stage, once again donning her classic costume of fishnets and motorcycle jacket, might seem like a huge departure for a character whose entire existence up to that point had been taking down bad guys, Fletcher maintains that it was a more natural transition than it looked at the time.

“Because of the way the Birds of Prey series ended it put Dinah in a position where she was uncertain about her future,” says Fletcher. “Nothing could be the way it was. Her relationships were falling apart. We just pushed it a little further in the Batgirl series. Everything had collapsed and she had to find a new path and fronting a band was presented to her as a path and it was a path that she could take because it could lead her to something more comfortable. It was a thing that she discovered she could do with great ease and it was going to give her the ability to reestablish herself in Gotham City, to buy a new dojo, to buy a new home, to live the way that she wants to live. Maybe start mentoring young women and training them and trying to figure out how to be a superhero in this modern age. It was literally like the starting point in a new life for Dinah, for the character. It never felt like anything that she thought she could do for the rest of her life.”

Fletcher’s series was canceled after a year and shortly thereafter another DC Universe reboot took place. Rebirth was a softer reboot than any of the crises that came before. It was the first time Black Canary wouldn’t go through a massive re-imagining, maintaining her New 52 back story but reuniting her with Barbara Gordon and the Birds of Prey. This new version of the Birds is once again written by women, as Julie and Shauna Benson have taken it on since its initial launch. While the series is still in its infancy, especially compared to the decade of stories of its predecessor, it, like the books that have come before, has immediately re-established the dynamic of its characters, bringing back the close friendship between Dinah Lance and Barbara Gordon. With any luck, the Benson Sisters will be able to leave their own mark on the storied history of one of DC Comics' longest running heroines.

“I think now, more than ever, women are accepted as writers and artists, and Birds of Prey perfectly illustrates that message to me,” said Shauna Benson, during the Birds of Prey 20th Anniversary panel, just before their series launched. “That we are here to stay, we’re not going anywhere, and by the way, we’re super super awesome and can punch people.”