Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Black Canary: New Wings #2

Previously in Black Canary...

Black Canary: New Wings #2 - "Home is Where Ya' Live" is written by Sarah Byam, with pencil art by Trevor Von Eeden and inks by Dick Giordano.  Mike Gold edited the issue with Steve Haynie providing letters and Julie Lacquement colors.

We pick up with Dinah having a sort of picnic date with her new friend, Gan Nguyen, a passionate and danger-prone talk-radio host.  They eat takeout and enjoy a beautiful Pacific Northwest sunset while Gan tells Dinah about his history.  His father served in Air Force Intelligence during the War in Vietnam and promptly disappeared after getting his mother pregnant.  Gan's mother put him on a refugee boat bound for America to spare him the harsh treatment of half-American children growing up in Vietnam after the war.

Gan faces the same violence and discrimination in Seattle, but not because of his ethnicity.  It's because he challenges the system.  In addition to picking fights with street-level drug dealers, Gan is highly critical of Senator Loren Garrenger's hypocritical drug policies.

In the sleepy nearby town of Sandbar, a teenage boy named Chad Brennan narrates the social and economic troubles that have fallen on his father and the rest of the community.  Sgt. Brennan was a Marine sniper, but with no war to fight, he has started drinking heavily and seeing enemies in the government, and the faces of immigrants, and other social castes he views as infringing on his freedom.

The Brennans are paid a visit by Loren Garrenger, Jr., the senator's son.

Back in Seattle, Dinah tends to her daytime business, Sherwood Florist.  She grumbles and curses about Oliver Queen's inattentiveness while listening to Gan's radio interview with Senator Garrenger. Gan points out the inadequacies in Garrenger's drug policies, citing that there are no treatments and avenues for assistance targeting non-English speakers.

Dinah recalls something she heard in the news some time ago and heads to the local library to do a little research.  She finds an article about Loren Junior getting arrested in a drug bust.  The newspaper named Garrenger, but Junior was later released with all charges against him dropped.  Dinah calls the paper to speak to the journalist who wrote the article, but he's been transferred and nobody knows where.  Dinah smells cover-up.

Dinah goes to Gan's apartment and shuts down his flirting with a stack of notes pointing to corruption in Senator Garrenger's office and family.  Gan looks over her findings but deems them speculation, not evidence; he thinks she's too quick to see conspiracy that she's not being an objective detective.

Dinah spends the night at Gan's place, and the next morning he leaves her sleeping so that he can go start another fight.  He parks a radio sound-truck outside a local drug den and announces his plan to "Adopt a Crack House" for the community.  His timing is either great or terrible, because a local pusher inside the building is meeting with his supplier.

A crowd gathers around outside, including police trying to maintain order while Gan stirs them up.  Inside the crack den, the well-dressed supplier, Drake, argues with the local pusher, Sooner, about the severity of the situation and why Gan wasn't killed off earlier.  Dinah wakes and recognizes the trouble brewing.  She dons her Black Canary costume and rushes to help Gan.  Unbeknownst to her, Sgt. Brennan has taken position in a tree down the street and taken aim against Gan.

Black Canary's appearance causes enough of a commotion that Brennan's shot strikes Gan but not fatally.  The shot causes the crowd on the street to explode in panic.  Pedestrians run every which way while the cops exchange gunfire with the drug dealers inside the apartment.

Black Canary runs to the apartment to take down the drug dealers, and the wounded Gan follows her.

Seemingly boxed in, Drake kills Sooner and his accomplices and plants a gun with a stoned junkie who won't be able to explain the situation to the police.  Then Drake sneaks into the sewers beneath the apartment as the police storm the den.

Black Canary and Gan find more dead dealers, but Dinah is more concerned with the junkies who lost themselves to the drugs before the violence was set off.

The action in this issue isn't as clean or exciting as the previous chapter, but the story has grown a little more substantive.  The conspiracy between the Senator, his son, this rogue Marine sniper, and the drug trade in Seattle is a worthy opponent for Black Canary.  It's both street-level and systematic with wealthy or governmental connections; exactly what a good crime noir should have.

I enjoy the mention of Dinah's mom as the previous Black Canary, and the oblique references to Canary's torture in Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters, but I wonder how new user-friendly these references are.  There is a bit of prerequisite knowledge in this story if you want to really understand how frustrated Dinah feels when faced with a powerful adversary like Senator Garrenger.  It's clear that she wants to strike back because of the victimization she felt before.  But the whys and wherefores are kept from the reader, and I'm not sure if that hurts Byam's storytelling.

Come back next Wednesday for my review of Black Canary: New Wings #3.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Birds of Prey #3 (Mar 1999)

Previously in Birds of Prey...

Black Canary has been captured by forced to work in a slave labor camp in Rheelasia.  While Oracle looks for a way to free her partner, Canary is looking for her own means of escape... with an old boyfriend of Oracle's named Jason Bard.

Birds of Prey #3: "Hounded" is written by Chuck Dixon with pencils by Greg Land, inks by Drew Geraci, and colors by Gloria Vasquez.  The cover by Land is doubly strange, not for Black Canary's contorted pose, allowing the viewer to see both her front and back parts, but also because it appears that Dinah and Hellhound are locked at the crotch.  I'm not sure if they're supposed to be fighting, dancing, or something untoward, but I've never seen two figures positioned in such a way.  Also, Black Canary never appears in that costume within the issue.

This issue opens with a splash page of Hellhound and his savage-looking pack of killer dogs.  Hellhound is practically salivating with anticipation over Black Canary's inclusion at the slave camp. He can't wait to test his fighting skills against hers.

After Hellhound walks off, Dinah is left alone with Jason Bard, who was blinded by muzzle fire from a gunshot by one of Jackie Pajamas' guards.  Dinah returns to the subject of escaping the compound, noticing that the area isn't secured by a fence; all they'd need to is slip by the armed sentries.  But Jason tells her they would never get through the jungle with Hellhound's dogs chasing them.

Jason maintains that he's too helpless, too much of a liability to help Dinah escape, but she swears she won't leave without him.  He was blinded, after all, saving her life.

Meanwhile, Oracle has called the second most computer savvy hero in Gotham City: current Robin, Tim Drake.  They meet in Barbara Gordon's apartment, where they huddle over satellite maps of Rheelasia, looking for the slave compound.  Barbara reveals that she's already paid the ransom for proof that Jackie has Black Canary.

Who's bank account is paying Black Canary's ransom?  Is it billionaire Bruce Wayne, perhaps...?

Nope.  It's Roland Desmond, better known as the villainous Blockbuster!  And he's none too happy about a cyber-hacker transferring illicit funds from his accounts and using it to pay another criminal.  No, he's mad enough to crush a computer with his bare hands.

That night in Rheelasia, Dinah goes to Jason Bard's barracks and wakes him so they can make their escape.  As she ties a rope around his waist so she can guide him, he once more pleads for her to leave him behind.  Dinah refuses.  Jackie will have Bard killed once he figures out that no one will pay him a fortune for Jason's release.  On top of that, Jason saved Dinah's life, and he was once Oracle's lover.  No way is she going to leave him behind.

As they're slipping out of the barracks, they run into a random sentry.  Dinah knocks the guard unconscious before he can sound an alarm, but her escape does not go unnoticed.  Hellhound watches her and Jason run into the jungle.

The next morning, after Dinah and Jason been running for a couple hours, Hellhound tells Jackie Pajamas about the escape.

In the jungle, Dinah does her best Lara Croft, Tomb Raider impression, by traipsing through dense foliage in sweaty, clingy, khaki shorts and shirt.  She asks Jason who he came to Rheelasia looking for, and he tells her about Brendan and Daria, the couple that Hellhound tracked down and killed in the first issue.

Jason asks Dinah about their "mutual friend" and she characterizes Oracle as her best friend in the world, even though she doesn't know the identity of the woman behind the computer.  Before she can explain any more, they hear Hellhound's dogs catching up to them.

Over the course of two days, Oracle and Robin have narrowed their search to half a dozen locations on Rheelasia that might house the slave labor compound.  Now all they can do is scan more recent satellite pictures in the hopes of spotting a familiar face.

Back in Rheelasia, Dinah gets herself and Jason out of the rushing river and back on the land.  Their clothing is basically tatters now covering about as much as a bathing suit.  For the time being, they've escaped from the hunting dogs.  But there are crocodiles on the river bank, so they have to head back into the deep jungle to stay ahead of their captors.

In Gotham, Oracle shows Robin a sat-pick of Dinah and Jason making their way to the coast.  Robin, though, shows Barbara a picture of armed goons less than a mile behind Dinah and Jason.

Dinah and Jason make it to the coast, coming out of the jungle near a Rheelasian Coast Guard base.  But just as they're breaking cover, the armed goons open fire on them.  Dinah and Jason duck down, avoiding the bullets.  The goons have orders to kill Jason, but spare Dinah.

Dinah takes out most of the goons, and Jason manages to club the last one before he gets the drop on Dinah.

Then Hellhound appears, cutting them off from the beach.  His dogs come racing out of the tree-line. Jason tells Dinah to take care of Hellhound while he fends off the dogs.  Jason picks up one of the assault rifles and blindly sprays the ground in front of the dogs.  Mercifully, he doesn't hit either of them, but it's enough to scare them away.

That leaves the two warriors to test their skills, just as Hellhound hoped they would.

It looks and sounds as if Hellhound messes up his knee when he falls back with his foot pinned down by the sai.  (I have some experience with this type of injury, minus the sai, of course.)  By the time Hellhounds slumps over in agony, the Rheelasian army has been alerted to their presence and drives up the beach to save Dinah and Jason.

Later, Dinah calls Oracle to debrief the mission: the Army moved in on the camp, liberating all of the hostages, but Jackie Pajamas escaped.  She says Jason will likely need surgery, and Oracle insists that he'll get the best.  In her apartment, Barbara looks at a picture on her computer desktop of her and Jason together, thinking about what could have been.

This was a very fast-paced issue, but that's okay, because it was the climax and it had some good action beats.  For pure adventure genre fun and cheesecake, I enjoy seeing Dinah marching through the jungle in wet, ripped-up khakis.

Canary's battle with Hellhound could have been better.  It wasn't bad, but it seemed to lack some intensity.  For that, I blame Greg Land.  His art is more picturesque, his figures more posed.  Fluidity and motion are not his strong suits.

Still, though, I really like Hellhound as a villain for Black Canary.  Yeah, his costume is a little ridiculous, but is it really any worse than most Silver Age super villains?  I wish he could have been established as a major, recurring foe for the Birds and Black Canary.

Maybe the most interesting part of this story is that Oracle's part was superfluous; she effectively did nothing to help Black Canary in this chapter.  Dinah and Jason escaped on their own, unless somehow Oracle got the Rheelasian Army to show up at the end, but that's not made clear.

Come back next Tuesday for a review of Birds of Prey #3.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Birds of Prey Sketch by Chris Samnee

Chris Samnee is one of the best artists working in comics today.  If you don't know about him, check out his work on recent issues of Marvel's Daredevil.  You can see more at his official webpage.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Golden Oldie: FLASH COMICS #100

Black Canary's ongoing adventures continue with seven thrilling pages of mystery and suspense in the milestone 100th issue of Flash Comics.  Hmm... I would've expected something a little bit more milestone-y for the cover.

"The Circle Terror!" is written by Robert Kanigher and drawn by Carmine Infantino.

Bizarrely, the Pierrette model on the music box raises a gun and appears to shoot Pierrot.  Dinah Drake and Larry Lance go inside the music store, where a surly looking man passes them on his way out.  At once, Dinah and Larry notice that the store clerk looks just like the Pierrot figurine on the music box.  Then they notice he's fallen down dead, almost as if the figurine's death was replicated in real life.

Suddenly, the skylight gives way and Black Canary falls down into the bad guy's hideout.  But the ever-graceful Mistress of Judo lands on her feet.  She scoops up some diamonds and throws them at the henchmen.  Then Black Canary corners the bad guy leader, but he doses her with a gas from the flower on his lapel.

Black Canary wakes up tied to a post on a giant music box.  And she's not alone; Larry Lance is tied up, too, having tracked the music box back to the enemy hideout.  The bad guy starts the music box, telling them that when the posts spin to the point where they face each other, the box will explode, killing them.

After freeing themselves, Black Canary and Larry Lance trace the bad guy back to a jewelry store he's in the process of robbing.

That's a hint, Larry.  Dinah is the Black Canary!

Come back next Sunday for another Golden Age adventure of Black Canary in Flash Comics #101.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Pretty Bird: GREEN LANTERN #78

Not long after writer Denny O'Neill brought Black Canary to Earth 1 and made her part of the Justice League, he partnered Green Lantern with Green Arrow for a road trip across not just America's terrain but its social consciousness.  Oliver Queen had recently lost his fortune, turning from fat cat capitalist to bleeding heart liberal.  Hal Jordan had recently, um, discovered racism, turning from daredevil of the skies to... lame guy.  Their bromance kicked off in Green Lantern #76, wherein the book was unofficially retitled Green Lantern/Green Arrow.  By this time, O'Neill had also established a flirtatious but hesitant romance between Ollie and Black Canary in the pages of Justice League of America.

Green Lantern #78: "A Kind of Loving, A Way of Death" comes from the legendary team of writer Dennis O'Neill and artist Neal Adams.  It was published in July, 1970, right around the time Charles Manson was going to trial for the murders he and his "family" perpetrated in the '60s.  That's not an irrelevant historical fact, as we'll see in this story.

Other than one or two JLA covers,  Adams hadn't really drawn Black Canary until this issue, but the opening sequence cemented his place as one of the greatest Black Canary artists of all time.  "A Kind of Loving..." begins with Black Canary riding her motorcycle through the Pacific Northwest when she's stopped by a violent biker gang.

One of the bikers demands that Dinah surrender her bike, the custom bike that Superman made just for her.  When she refuses, the biker attacks.  Naturally, puts the guy on his ass.  His gang respond and angrily close in on her whilst calling her a frail, because, y'know, that's how women were referred to back in the day.

The leader, though, makes it clear that they're only going to beat and rob Dinah as a matter of pride.  Because she embarrassed one of them and they have a responsibility to stick together and show unity.  Even though their plan is to rob and possibly rape and murder Black Canary, it's just an unfortunate cost of doing business; this is how they demonstrate that they aren't victims.

Then Adams delivers one of the most recognizable pages in his storied career, as Black Canary systematically takes down the gang.

The first biker she put down, who goes by the name of Snake Eyes (though definitely not that Snake Eyes), crawls over to his motorcycle, enraged that his gang's reputation will be ruined because a woman kicked their butts.

The gang rides off with Canary's bike, leaving her on the side of the road.  As the sun goes down, a stranger comes around and picks up her unconscious body, carrying her away.

Two weeks later, Hal Jordan and Oliver Queen drive their pickup truck through an Indian Reservation near where Black Canary was attacked.  With Hal and Ollie is one of the immortal Guardians of Oa, though he has taken on the guise of an elderly human so that he can learn more about life on Earth.  The heroes stop for food and have talk with a young Native American who uses words like "paleface" and "redskins".  The dialogue is a little cringe-worthy in a modern context and makes it hard to root for Washington, D.C.'s football team without rolling your eyes a little.

Soon after the guys eat their beans, the familiar Demon biker gang barges into the restaurant.  They beat on the proprietor and threaten Hal and Ollie... which is when Hal speaks the Oath of the Green Lantern Corps and he and Ollie change into their costumed alternate identities.

Green Lantern and Green Arrow disarm the gang without breaking a sweat.  One of the bikers makes a run for it and jumps on a motorcycle.  He doesn't get far, though, as Green Arrow fires a net arrow that wraps up the punk and his bike, causing them to crash and roll over.  But as the heroes approach their captive prey, Ollie and Hal recognize the motorcycle the punk was riding.

After another awkward encounter with the Native American, Green Arrow and Green Lantern set out to search the surrounding area for Black Canary.  And conveniently, it seems, they find her right away just wandering around the mountainside.

I'm sure O'Neill and Adams had this dramatic effect in mind when Joshua introduces himself, but bereft of any other context it just seems a little weird.  I think you need to understand or at least be cognizant of the biblical context of the name Joshua to get the full force and effect of this encounter.  Knowing that Jesus Christ's real name translates into English as Joshua, combined with the character's somewhat ambiguous ethnicity, help emphasize the spiritual, almost supernatural power Joshua conveys.

Ollie cares little for Joshua or his followers, except for Dinah.

Black Canary has clearly been brainwashed, but for the moment, there's nothing the emerald-clad heroes can do about it.  Hal leads a reluctant Ollie away, but as they walk off, Dinah's memories begin to come back.

Joshua snaps Dinah out of her daydreams with a special gift.  Opening the present, she sees that Joshua has brought her a gun, which he claims will help them fulfill their mission.  She instinctually resists, not wanting to use a weapon such as this, but Joshua has a great and terrible power over her.  She looks into his amber-colored eyes and becomes transfixed, hypnotized, completely enthralled by Joshua's power.

Elsewhere, Green Arrow and Green Lantern argue about what to do with Black Canary.  Hal elects to leave her be.  She's a free woman; she can make her own life choices.  Ollie doesn't think she's so free, though; he suspects she's being manipulated by Joshua.  When Hal suggests that maybe Dinah simply doesn't share Ollie's feelings, the archer punches his friend and storms off into the woods.

Ollie hasn't gone far when a series of gunshots ring out through the wilderness.  He rushes in the direction of the sound where he finds Black Canary and the rest of Joshua's "enlightened" followers practicing with their firearms.  And then the leader makes his impassioned speech.

It's clear that Denny O'Neill had been following the news coverage of the Manson Family Murders and Charles Manson's trial, because Joshua is a obviously depicted as a cult leader bent on starting a race war.  But where Manson used drugs and other forms of psychological manipulation to control and direct his followers on his bloody agenda, O'Neill gives Joshua a more comic-booky ability to control people's minds.

Green Arrow fires off a signal flare arrow to bring reinforcements in the form of Green Lantern, but the light from the flare gives away Ollie's position and Joshua orders his family to open fire on the intruder.  Green Arrow dashes through the woods, but a bullet grazes his head, knocking him out.

Joshua's followers rush out of the woods to attack the Indian Reservation town nearby, but Green Lantern stand in their way.  Using the awesome power of his ring, he deflects their bullets, removes their guns, and leaves them trapped in a ditch, unable to cause any more damage or harm.  But he didn't capture everybody.  Joshua and Black Canary managed to escape and backtrack through the woods to Green Arrow's position.

Dinah still holds her gun.  Joshua makes her aim the weapon at Green Arrow and orders her to pull the trigger.

In a last, desperate act of resistance, Black Canary drops the gun, unwilling to shoot Green Arrow.  Enraged, Joshua picks up the revolver and takes aim, but Green Arrow smacks him with a projected fist.  Joshua falls to the ground, rolling over and accidentally discharging the gun.  The bullet hits his heart and kills him almost instantly.  For their part, none of the heroes seem to care that much.

A problem I've always had with this sequence is we don't know why Black Canary refuses to shoot.  Is it because she loved Green Arrow and couldn't murder him?  Or is it because she was resisting Joshua's control and she knew that killing an innocent was wrong?  Adams expertly shows the agony and struggle on her face, but O'Neill doesn't let us inside her mind.  What if it were Green Lantern on the other side of the barrel, or some random person from the town, would she still have dropped the gun?

Dinah asks Ollie to help her remember herself, who she was and who she is.

Well, that was a bit of a depressing twist at the end of an already dark story.  I mentioned how Joshua manipulated Black Canary and his other followers through the supernatural means of his crazy eyes, but Ollie robs them of that excuse.  He tells Dinah there must have been some part of her that was weak enough and hateful enough to respond to a psycho like Joshua.  That's nice, Ollie, way to go.  She'll definitely love you now.

"A Kind of Loving, A Way of Death" is from an era when comics publishers like DC and Marvel experimented with telling "important stories", stories about real world problems and events.  Green Lantern/Green Arrow was the primary vehicle for this exploration of hyper-reality in a fantasy medium, which is why it was so successful at the time and continues to be referenced as one of the most influential runs in comic books.

Unfortunately, these types of stories that take a focused look at part of society are instantly dated because society changes.  This type of story couldn't have been told in any other era, so while it is most certainly historic, it fails to be timeless.  But I don't want to dwell anymore on relations between "palefaces" and "redskins" or Charles Manson's cult.  I want to talk about Green Arrow and Black Canary.

The Emerald Archer and the Blonde Bombshell had exchanged long, meaningful glances up to this point, but this was probably the first serious confirmation that they were a couple, or at least that they were going to be.  O'Neill states in Dinah's memory montage that she fell in love with Ollie and took off on her motorcycle to join his road trip.  And given Green Arrow's willingness to deck his best friend for insinuating that Dinah's heart might belong to a creep like Joshua, it's pretty clear that Ollie loves her as much as she loves him.

Black Canary would spend a couple issues recovering from the psychological trauma of this issue, but from here on she was a fairly constant supporting character in Green Lantern/Green Arrow.  Their relationship was more-or-less official within the pages of Justice League of America, but this is where it began.

Between bringing her aboard the Justice League and then making her part of the Hard Travelin' Heroes and pairing her up with Green Arrow, Denny O'Neill is one of the most influential writers on Black Canary's history.  And Neal Adams draws a better looking Black Canary than maybe any other artist in the field.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Black Canary: New Wings #1 - Editor's Note

At the back of Black Canary's first solo comic book, editor Mike Gold offered his thoughts on female superheroes in general and Black Canary in specific.  He describes her history and her importance as an icon, but also emphasizes that none of the best intentions or skills of the creators will mean anything if people don't buy the comic.  Female superheroes don't sell as well as male superheroes; they never had before, they still don't today, and it's hard to imagine a time when they will.  Gold flat-out tells the readers that DC has little faith in Black Canary's ability to sustain a monthly title, but that they're willing to give it a shot.

We can talk more about that in sixteen or seventeen weeks maybe.

Anyway, check out Gold's letter.  It's an interesting read.

[Unless you can read very small or have freakishly good vision, I suggest opening the images below in another window and zooming in.]

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Black Canary: New Wings #1

More than four decades after she debuted in Flash Comics, DC finally published the first issue of a Black Canary solo book in November, 1991.  After the continuity-smashing event known as Crisis on Infinite Earths changed damn near every character's history, Black Canary continued to pop up in various books throughout the late '80s.  She hung around Justice League International for about a year.  The Dinah Drake version appeared in a Justice Society of America miniseries set in the past.  She had two serial features published in Action Comics Weekly.  But her most frequent appearances were as a love interest and (mostly) supporting character in the pages of Mike Grell's Green Arrow.

Unfortunately, she didn't always receive the most flattering characterization in that book, and she hardly ever appeared in her classic superhero costume.  But in '91, Green Arrow's editor, Mike Gold, got the go-ahead to publish a four-issue Black Canary miniseries that would put Dinah Laurel Lance front and center, fishnets and all.

Black Canary: New Wings #1 - "Domestic Troubles" is written by Sarah Byam, with pencil art by Trevor Von Eeden and inks by Dick Giordano.  Byam and Giordano had previously told a tale of two Canaries back in Green Arrow Annual #2, and Von Eeden was well versed in drawing Black Canary from older issues of World's Finest Comics.  Steve Haynie and Julie Lacquement provided letters and colors for the issue respectively, and Mike Gold was the editor.

The cover design has a distinguished--almost prestigious--look, as if they want this book to be taken more seriously.  Graphic novel was a high art form in this era, and tons of superhero comics aspired to that level of classiness.  The design and color scheme (the green hued background of Seattle's cityscape) is also reminiscent of Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters, for which "New Wings" could almost be viewed as a sister title.

Black Canary's first solo issue begins not with Black Canary, but with a radio host taking calls about Asian integration in Seattle, gang violence, and drugs.  The radio host is Gan Nguyen, a Vietnamese-American, with zero tolerance for racism or bigotry, even (or especially) when it comes from within different Asian cultures.  Gan is also quite outspoken against the influx of drugs and gangs on Seattle's youth, calling for his listeners to stand up and fight for their streets.

During his show, Gan takes a call from an older man who describes how his grandson died playing with his father's war souvenirs.

The story moves Gan and underlines one of the themes of "New Wings", that being violence against children and the unintended consequences of gun ownership.  Like Green Arrow and plenty of other comics from the '80s and '90s, this series is clearly going to have a message.

As Gan leaves the KYKO station after his show, he comes across a drug dealer selling to a kid.  Not afraid to put his money where his mouth is, Gan beats down the dealer and scares off the kid before he can score.  It seems this radio host isn't just all talk, because later the dealer calls his boss and it sounds like this is the third time Gan has broken up one of their drug sales.

The boss, unseen but for a swastika tattoo on his hand, tells the dealer not to act; that Gan will be dealt with at a higher level.

Across the street, Dinah Laurel Lance wakes up in her apartment above Sherwood Florist.  She's having trouble sleeping, and reading isn't helping, so she decides to exercise in the costume of her superhero secret identity, the Black Canary.

This page devoted to her workout routine establishes Canary's physical strength and training, but it's also a nice way of allowing Von Eeden and Giordano to show Black Canary in action before diving too deep into the plot of the story.  Von Eeden draws Dinah a little bigger--not overly muscled, but toned (pay attention, Alex Ross)--while Giordano's old school inks harken back to her early days with the Justice League of America.

After her workout, Dinah goes downstairs to do some bookkeeping for the flower shop, but her calculations reveal she's almost nine-hundred dollars in debt.  And that's when her boyfriend, Green Arrow, shows up sporting a fancy and expensive new bow that he bought with money from her account.

I don't want to knock Mike Grell because he told some amazing stories with Black Canary and Green Arrow, but way, waaaay too often, Dinah came across as the nagging wife who kept cramping Ollie's style.  He just wanted to save the world and do his righteous thing and Dinah was always on him about work and responsibility.  So lame, right?

It's refreshing to see this scene play out from the other perspective.  Ollie does seem childish, and selfish, and patronizing to think that all Dinah needs is some good lovin' and then she can calm down and let him play with his new toy.

So Dinah goes hiking up the mountains in the Quinault Indian Reservation with Aunty Wren, a character previously mentioned Sarah Byam's story, "Do Black Canaries Sing?" and a woman I think showed up in some Green Arrow comics, but I can't think of the context or who she is at the moment.  In any event, she's seventy and Native American, so you know she's got to be wise.  Wren calls Dinah "Noisy Crow", which doesn't sound as sweet as Ollie's pet name for her, "Pretty Bird", but a little nicer than "Siu Jerk Jai", what her Sensei called her in Hong Kong.  "Noisy Crow" is a reference to back when Black Canary had a sonic scream, a metahuman power that she lost during The Longbow Hunters.

During the hike, Dinah meets Gan, who Wren introduces as the Quinault's Asian language translator. Gan tells Dinah she can call him "Duke" and she notices a bruise on his face.  Gan and Wren talk business and development deals concerning the tribal land, while Dinah enjoys the tranquility of the sunset.

After the hike, it starts to rain (because Seattle, duh!) and Gan asks Dinah for a ride to the ferry so he doesn't have to ride his bike through the storm.  Dinah obliges and they drive off, not knowing that a pair of hoodlums are staked out looking for a guy riding his bike.  Dejected about missing their target, the two hoodlums drive off and get on the ferry, the same vessel carrying Dinah and Gan across the sound.

Gan wrongly suspects Dinah of being a cop, but that's not too far off.  She is a crime fighter, after all, and both her father and grandfather were cops and her mother tried to be a cop before inventing the identity of the first Black Canary.  For a guy who makes his living talking on the radio, Gan is very observant.  He knows exactly what type of woman Dinah is, what's in her nature, even if he doesn't tag her specific Justice League codename.

Dinah excuses herself to the ladies room where she lets her guard down.  She likes Gan.  Maybe not in a romantic way... not yet... but she's certainly fond of him already, and given how pissed she was at Ollie earlier, it's not outlandish to assume she might pursue some form of relationship with "Duke".

While she's in the bathroom, though, Gan is caught by the hoodlums, one of whom being the dealer that Gan smacked around in the beginning of the story.  For the second time, the dealer mistakes Gan for Chinese, but that offense seems slight after they club him in the head with the butt of a shotgun and drag him to the side of the ferry.

Dinah witnesses the hoods carrying Gan's unconscious body, and she darts back into the bathroom.  As quick as Dinah Laurel Lance vanishes... the Black Canary appears!

If every artist could draw Canary as gorgeously as Trevor Von Eeden does in this page...!

Surprising the first punk with her strength, Black Canary tugs on the chain and throws the hood over the ledge.  He crashes in the water below, screaming for help.  The second hood draws his gun on her, but she trips the lever that sends the life raft dropping down into the water on top of the bad guy.  When Hoodlum #2 looks overboard to see his pal, Black Canary kicks him in the head, taking him out.  Below, Hoodlum #1 climbs aboard the life raft.

Once the fight is over, the captain comes down and Black Canary more-or-less hands the hoods over to his [Port] authority.  Black Canary sneaks back to the bathroom and changes outfits, slipping back to her car as Dinah Lance.  Gan, meanwhile, is questioned by the captain, but volunteer many helpful answers.

Gan returns to Dinah's car where she pretended to be asleep.  He calls her on it instantly.  Again, his powers of observation are not to be taken lightly.

In the issue's epilogue, we venture to the quiet seaside town of Sandbar.  It's a super-conservative town, where people are big on tradition and old-timey values.  Generations of fighting men who have seen too much death and poverty in life, and blame their suffering on what other members of society would call progress.

Within one of these houses, we find a former Marine sniper who has been hired to kill Gan Nguyen.  The Marine's son doesn't sound too thrilled about his dad murdering an innocent man.  Naturally, we'll get to know these players a little better in the next issue.

I first read this issue about a year ago.  At the time, I remember being a little underwhelmed; I don't know what I was expecting but I thought the story seemed too small.  Now, I don't think so.  I've read this issue three times and I like it more with each read.

First of all, Sarah Byam's story is anything but small.  It's not an adventure story, and it's not high-concept superhero fantasy, no, but it ain't small in scope.  It's closer to the street-level private investigator genre that Black Canary excels at, except in this first issue, we don't really have much of a mystery.  What we have plenty of is cultural and societal themes: racial discrimination, urban violence, drugs, gangs, economics, kids playing with daddy's weapons, gender roles and reversals.

And Byam throws most of these themes at us in a way that doesn't feel forced, because they're all relevant experiences to the characters, either Dinah or Gan.  But Byam's finest storytelling moments are the conversational dialogue scenes between Dinah and Ollie in her apartment, and between Dinah and Gan in the woods and on the ferry.  The characters feel right when they're talking to each other, even though her treatment of Green Arrow makes him out to be kind of a douche bag.  I guess that's deserved given how Dinah has been presented in Ollie's book.  If she can avoid the pitfalls of making this book needlessly preachy and "about something" Sarah Byam might just tell one helluva Black Canary story.

As for the art, Black Canary has hardly ever looked stronger or sexier.  There's a weight and shapeliness to Canary that Trevor Von Eeden really grasps in these issues; her power and combat prowess doesn't feel miraculous or superhuman, because you can almost see the muscles under her fishnets.  Dick Giordano's inks keep him in check, though, keep him from going too big.  In later issues of Black Canary's ongoing series where Von Eeden is inked by someone else, Dinah kind of balloons up like something out of Art Adams fused with Rob Liefeld.  Von Eeden and Giordano were a knockout art team, one of the best to ever work on Black Canary.

As a first issue, this story hits just about every major button it needs.  It looks good and it sounds good.  The heroine gets more than one action beat.  We get a cameo by Green Arrow, so there's some familiarity with the greater DC Universe.  We get a new character who serves as the lens and the voice for the reader, addressing the themes that affect both the world of the story and the characters.  We don't get much in the way of big, looming crisis--just the last page, really--but the plot is driven by character, and that's really nice to see and often ignored in superhero comics.

If I had picked up this book when it first came out in November, 1989, I definitely would have come back again for the second issue.  And you can come back next Wednesday for my review of Black Canary: New Wings #2.

As a bonus: Tomorrow I will post editor Mike Gold's history of and comments about Black Canary that appeared in the back matter of "New Wings" #1.  Some interesting insights in his essay.  Come back and check it out.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Birds of Prey #2 (Feb 1999)

Previously in Birds of Prey

In the first issue of the Birds' ongoing series, cyberspace info-merchant, Oracle, sent her field agent, Black Canary, to investigate some missing persons in a third-world country called Rheelasia.  Canary checks out the mansion estate of a gangster named Jackie Pajamas and discovers a room full of personal artifacts like watches and necklaces, as well as jars full of ears, eyes, and fingers.  Just as Canary is making her way out, Jackie comes home, acting very chummy with Jason Bard, a former Gotham cop and close friend of Oracle's alias, Barbara Gordon.

Birds of Prey #2: "One of Those Days" is written by Chuck Dixon and drawn by Greg Land, with inks by Drew Geraci and colors by Gloria Vasquez.  Land's cover depicts Oracle's sense of frustration and helplessness at her partner being tortured, while the text over the title declares the party's over.  The party's over?  This is just the second issue; that was quick!

The issue opens with Black Canary fighting Jackie Pajamas' security guards while Oracle can do nothing but listen in.  Dixon and Land make the opening fight sequence splashy in that they only have four panels in the first three pages.  Dinah gives a decent account for herself by taking out the first couple armed guards, but when she drops onto the helipad, there isn't much she can do to get away from Jackie and half a dozen men with automatic weapons trained on her.

Jackie wants to know who she is and for whom she's working, so he has the guard drag her inside for interrogation and torture while he chats with Jason Bard, who Jackie believes is a Triad bagman named Reed Montel.  The guards leave Dinah alone, but Oracle still has an audio connection and asks if she's okay and then feeds her a cover story for when Jackie's people question and ransom her.

We learn that Black Canary wasn't just thrown into a cell, but tied down to a chair.  Then Jason/Reed comes in with his threats of torture or worse.  Dinah feeds him the story that she works for TransGlobal Insurance, and Bard reveals that Jackie kidnaps people and sells them back to their families or employers "one piece at a time".  Oracle, to her horror, realizes that's what the jars full of small body parts were.

He continues to threaten her while Barbara gets more and more disgusted that a man she once loved could turn so hideous.  But when Jason gets close to Canary, close enough that the armed guard can't hear what he whispers, he surprises both women.

Jason and Black Canary sneak out of the prison, and he reveals that he's working undercover to learn the whereabouts of a kidnapping victim.  She reveals to him that she knows his real identity, and then shares her own codename.

Before Black Canary and Jason make it to the helicopter, though, they're surrounded by Jackie and his armed guards... landing Dinah right back where she was about eight pages earlier.

Jason survives the gunshot, and Jackie orders his men to take both of their hostages to the compound, whatever that is.  They beat Dinah with the butt of a rifle until she's unconscious, but Oracle can still hear Jackie and the guards talking about what they're going to do.

Barbara collapses in front of her computer, half-certain that Black Canary will be killed or maimed beyond recognition.  She's shaken out of her fear and impotence by a message from Beeb, one of her online friends.  Beeb wants to flirt, but Oracle can only focus on the partner she sent into danger.  Beeb gives her some thoughtful advice and gets Oracle to admit something about her relationship with Black Canary that we might not have known.

Barbara tries to contact Dinah, but all of Canary's communications devices are locked away in Jackie's ransom room.

The next day, Dinah wakes up in dressed in khaki civilian clothes on a bed in what's essentially slave barracks.  The other "workers" on the compound are wealthy kidnapping victims, some of whom have had fingers or other parts surgically removed and sent back to family members for ransom.

Dinah is taken to Jackie who lays out his entire operation for her.  His plantation is full of workers who all come from super-rich families or companies.  Unlike a typical K&R, where the victim is  either released or killed after the ransom is paid, Jackie keeps milking the families for more money by sending bits and pieces of the victims back to them.

After Dinah is sent back to work the fields, Jackie meets with his chief enforcer, Hellhound.  The costumed, dog-themed villain knows exactly who Dinah is and how dangerous she is.  And that only excites him more.

When Dinah and the other slaves lineup for water, she sees Jason Bard.  He tells her to leave him alone, that he can't help her escape anymore.  He's helpless.

I was really worried about the pacing of this issue when Dixon and Land devoted only four panels to the first three pages.  And then Dinah's second capture is in the same place and situation as her first capture, except Jason was with her.  So the whole first half of the book really only accomplished one thing: revealing that Jason was still a good, noble guy working undercover.  That could have been done more efficiently.

The second half, too, feels very repetitive.  We hear Jackie's K&R scheme told from three different people, basically: Oracle figures it out, then Jackie explains it to Dinah and the readers, and then Carlita explains it again.  It feels a little wasted.

I'm also not at all scared of a gangster who's nickname is Pajamas.  And Dixon didn't spend anytime really developing the past history between Barbara and Jason, so his betrayal and then reversal doesn't feel as profound as it could have been.  Really, the only character other than the two stars that I'm interested in is Hellhound, and he's only in half a page.

The issue had some good character moments, but it felt like it took too long to get from Point B to Point C.

Come back next Tuesday for a review of Birds of Prey #3.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Golden Oldie: FLASH COMICS #99

Black Canary's ongoing adventures continue with seven thrilling pages of mystery and suspense in Flash Comics #99.

"Time Runs Out!" is written by Robert Kanigher and drawn by Carmine Infantino, who breaks up the title page layout with a splashy cover image that runs lengthwise rather than take up the top portion of the page.

Larry Lance, doing his best Dick Tracy impression with the yellow trench coat, tells Dinah Drake that he's working a case about stolen radioactive vinium, which not any kind of element or compound that I've ever heard of.  Dinah then is accosted by Danny Deake, the florist from across the street, who angrily takes his package from Larry Lance.

Just then, a car speeds up to the curb and two men in the car open fire on Deake.  The rival florist is shot dead, but Larry pushes Dinah into the cover of her own flower shop before challenging the gunmen himself.  Dinah sneaks into the back of her store and changed into the costume of her secret crime-fighting alias, Black Canary.  When she comes out of the store, though, Larry is being thrown into the car with the two gunmen, who also picked up the package that Deake wanted so badly.

The goons from the car take the package as well as the captives Black Canary and Larry Lance to the Modern Glass Company factory.  The evil boss wears a protective suit and hood while he works with the dangerous chemicals and elements.

The boss quickly dumps... something on the molten glass to make it harden instantly, trapping Canary and Lance.  The heroes are then knocked unconscious--not pistol-whipped this time, but still knocked out, so Dinah's still making her monthly brain damage quota.

Black Canary and Larry Lance wake up in the bottom part of a giant hourglass.  The villain tells them they have one hour--because that's how hourglasses work--before the sand from the top half fills their compartment and kills them.  But after the villain explains his deathtrap, he leaves the room assuming everything will go according to his plan and there's no reason at all to confirm the deaths of his foes.

Outside, the leader has his men load glass vases onto a truck.  He drops the vases off at flower shops which he plans to use as a front to distribute the illegal vinium.  But he and the rest of the crooks are shocked when Black Canary and Lance crawl out of two of the vases.  Black Canary explains that she used the diamond beak of her canary locket to cut through the glass of their hourglass prison.

Poor Larry.  So in love with Black Canary and oblivious to Dinah Drake standing right next to him.

Come back next Sunday for another Golden Age adventure of Black Canary in Flash Comics #100.