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.


  1. I can't tell you how much I have been enjoying this blog. It really is such a testament to your love of the character. This sort of coverage is what I strive for on my site, showing people all the dimensions of my favorite character.

    I have always been a Dinah fan, but you have been showing me things about her that I simply didn't know existed. Covering all this stuff just gives me an understanding of the breadth of her character.

    I love Von Eeden's style, especially for street level stuff, so he does really shine here.

    Keep up the excellent work!

  2. Thanks very much for saying that! I feel like I'm finally in a place where I have lots of BC material from different eras showing her in different lights. I want to post about all of it, all of the time, but unfortunately, time and scheduling interfere. But I'll keep at it!

    And I follow you Supergirl blog every day, too. It's how I keep up-to-date with the current DC comics that I'm not reading.