Monday, June 2, 2014

Black Canary & Zatanna: Bloodspell Part 1

Know what sucks?  Knee surgery.  Know what else?  Back spasms.

The best remedy (other than Percocet and muscle relaxers) is good comics, and last month I got a very good comic.

If you search for Black Canary on Amazon or InStockTrades, you used to only find the Archive collection of her Golden Age stories from Flash Comics and a handful of trades collecting some less than awesome Green Arrow books from the time when she co-headlined the title.  Her original miniseries and the year-long ongoing that followed it in the 1990s have yet to be collected.  The Tony Bedard-written mini from 2007 that led to her eventual marriage to Oliver Queen was collected, but Green Arrow's name got top billing on the trade (and honestly, I can't fault that since that miniseries was as much about him as it was her).  Black Canary wouldn't take up much space at the local comic store's trades and hardcovers shelves.  But now, at least, she gets an original graphic novel to pad the shelf.  True, she shares the title yet again, but this time she gets top billing.

That book?  That balm for a post-operative leg and a bad back?

Black Canary and Zatanna: Bloodspell written by Paul Dini with art by Joe Quinones.

The book impressed me before I even got to the story.  DC didn't go cheap on this book.  The fact that they published it as a hardcover is one thing, but beneath the dust jacket, the front cover is embossed with a raised fishnet pattern around the title.

Rounding out Quinones' art are Dave McCaig and Sal Cipriano on colors and letters respectively.  The title page credits Zatanna's creators, Gardner Fox and Murphy Anderson, but not Black Canary's.  I'm not sure why, exactly, as she originally debuted in a Hawkman comic in 1964 so there oughtn't be any copyright or publication dispute.

Anyway, onto the story...

We open up fifteen years ago in the Himalayas with a young, short-haired Zatanna Zatara comparing her coming of age ritual to that of so-called normal kids.  Zatanna is ferried up Mount Everest in a carriage borne by figures in orange cloaks.  These are members of the Homo Magi, the innate magic-users of the DC Universe, and they count Zatanna's parents among them.

Zatanna utters the backwards spell, "Esir," and begins to rise up toward the summit of the mountain while musing about how different her childhood would be if she were, say, at a ballet recital.  Zatara and his wife bask in what I assume is pride--that's something parents feel, right?  Meanwhile, despite some hiccups, Young Zatanna levitates all the way up to the summit of Mount Everest.

If the magic and the heights hadn't unnerved her enough, she discovers she's not the first teenage girl to reach the mountain top that day.

Zatanna asks how this other girl got up there, to which Dinah replies simply that she climbed.  Dinah then mocks Zatanna's explanation of her magic.  When Zatanna defends the legitimate mental and physical exertion her spells require, Dinah hits her in the head with a snowball.

In retaliation, Z casts a spell that flips Dinah upside down and drops her on her butt.  And then they're friends, 'cuz that's how teenage girls do.

Dinah rolls over the subject of her parents and starts climbing back down the mountain, offering Zatanna use of her camp and teasingly warning her about yetis and snow leopards.

Alone, Zatanna begins to use her magic to descend back toward her parents.  But her brief encounter with the precocious Dinah has changed her.  Or perhaps challenged her is the more appropriate term.  Zatanna shucks her magic spells and decides to climb down the mountain using Dinah's ropes and rigging.  Doing it the hard way.

This prologue is as much as we get of Black Canary's backstory before the main story kicks off.  Paul Dini establishes that Dinah has been feisty and combative from the get-go.  There's obviously baggage between Dinah and her parents, but no mention of a previous Blonde Bombshell, so it's unclear whether this Dinah is the classic Dinah Drake or her daughter, Dinah Laurel Lance.  I'm inclined to believe the latter, but Dini never introduces the legacy hero concept, and I think that's a good idea.  This graphic novel could be some young (or old) reader's first exposure to Black Canary; why overwhelm him or her with the senseless and complex backstory that is Dinah's history?  All we need to know is that she's scrappy and she's willful.

Jump forward in time to last year in Las Vegas:

A thief named Tina Spettro leads a gang of five other women into the sewers beneath a new casino called Xanadu.  Before the job she pricks all of their fingers and makes them recite a loyalty oath in blood.  One of the girls in her gang isn't wild about this part of the plan, but goes along with it at Tina's insistence/threat.

While Xanadu's owner, a rich gangster named Dale Hollister addresses the crowd during the casino's grand opening, Tina Spettro moves herself into position...

Which includes tipping off casino security about the five ladies about to blow their way into the casino's vault from the sewer.  Tina doesn't care about the women in her gang; they were always sacrificial misdirection for the guards while she planned to steal some valuable Asian treasures on the main floor.  Tina's narration reveals her past connection to Hollister; this heist is less about the profit and more about hurting her ex-lover.

What Tina didn't count on, though, was being "triple-crossed" by a member of her own gang.  "Joy" shows up in the treasure room and removes a ginger-haired wig, revealing she was Black Canary in disguise (Note: Dinah, in this tale, is a natural blonde).  The real Joy, and the other members of the gang, predicted Tina's ambush and called in some help.

Tina recognizes Black Canary from the Justice League, but figures she's no Wonder Woman and takes her chance fighting her way out.

It's almost impossible to look at this page of fight choreography and not think Quinones was paying homage to this page from Adventure Comics #418 by Alex Toth.

Tina throws a knife that Black Canary dodges.  Knowing she can't win the fight, Tina makes use of her getaway plan: a jetpack stored in the ventilation system.

Tina detonates a set of explosive on Xanadu's roof, giving her an exit to the Las Vegas night.  She flies past hotels and casinos, trying to shake Black Canary off her back.  Canary, meanwhile, is trying to get them to the ground without so much velocity that it kills them both.

There's a fun little Easter Egg in this scene as Tina's jetpack carries them past Prosciutto's Casino, and there's a big neon clown lit up outside.  In the Batman: The Animated Series episode "Be A Clown" the Joker tells a hostage that he learned a trick from his mentor, the Great Prosciutto ("Now there was a ham! Hah!").

As Black Canary struggles to gain control of the jetpack, Tina Spettro makes it more and more obvious how perfectly fine she is with the prospect of dying.

At last Tina knocks Black Canary off her back.  As Dinah plummets to the street, Tina swears that she'll have revenge on Canary and the other treacherous women from her gang.  She recites the loyalty oath in Latin... and then crashes into the wall of a hotel, dying in a fiery explosion.

Black Canary, on the other hand, drops into the hotel's swimming pool and manages to survive the fall.  A little banged up but otherwise okay, she climbs out of the pool, towels herself off and takes somebody's margarita.  All in a day's work.

The next part of the story brings us to today, but I'll save that for tomorrow's installment.  This is a 90-something page story, so I'm breaking my review into three parts.  As such, I can't review much of the story since it's not complete at this point and it wasn't divided into chapters like a serialized story.

I will say that Paul Dini knows these character front ways and back.  He wrote Zatanna for a year in her own series, and before that he wrote both of these women marvelously in various incarnations of the DC Animated Universe.  The tone he sets is playful but too cartoonish.  There is a seriousness to the subject manner, but a loftiness, too, that feels not part of any particular era.  This isn't the modern New 52 but it's not the Bronze Age either.  This is the nostalgic era that never really existed but that comics fans look back on as the halcyon days of comics.

It's interesting that the best stories published by DC in the last year or so have been out-of-continuity tales like the digital first Batman '66, Legends of the Dark Knight, and Adventures of Superman, and now Black Canary and Zatanna: Bloodspell.  It certainly says something about how DC is managing its universe, but the fact is they are still putting out material that would appeal to fans who can no longer distinguish between the mainstream books and their dystopian video game tie-ins.


  1. I haven't read this yet as my comics delivery hasn't arrived [ggrrrrrrr] so your review is hotly-anticipated by me. This sounds a very inviting read, a bit Silver Age. Can I wait till I get it and come back with my take on it?
    By the way, glad youre back! Surgery is never good, is it but its over now. And GET WELL SOON!

  2. Given I just took a month off of posting and you're my most regular reader, by all means, karl, take all the time you need to read the book before returning with your feedback.

    As far as the Silver Age-ness of the book? Plot elements and Quinones' art certainly evoke the Silver and Bronze Age, but Dini's voice and the tone come off pretty modern at times.