For many people, Wonder Woman is the prime female superhero in the DC Comics Universe. For others, it might be Batgirl. But there are also many who would tell you that the lady who truly stands out in the DCU is Dinah Lance, the Black Canary.
Introduced as a recurring character, the Black Canary quickly became a star. She was an early member of the Justice League of America (even a founding member in some versions of its history) and even served as leader of the powerful team. With Barbara Gordon (the original Batgirl), Dinah helped form the kick-ass team of women heroes known as the Birds of Prey. Armed with martial arts skills and her sonic “Canary Cry” (which can stun an enemy or shatter concrete), the Black Canary is a formidable force. Now let’s see how her style has evolved over the years.
The Black Canary first appeared in Flash Comics #86 in 1947. In her first few stories, we knew nothing about her, really. No origin or real name was given. We didn't even know that her blond hair was actually a wig. All of this may sound strange until you consider that she wasn’t the star of the story. She was introduced as a supporting character in the adventures of Johnny Thunder, a young 1940s hero who was not always the smartest of guys but had been blessed with ownership of a thunderbolt genie. Johnny wasn’t a superhero per se but he often found himself fighting for justice and challenging those he considered bullies. He was even a founder (or sorts) of the Justice Society of America, history’s first superhero team.
When first introduced, the Black Canary was seemingly a criminal herself. But Johnny discovered that the Canary was stealing from criminals, not innocent, hard-working people, and that she often tricked gangs into warring with each other. Happy to meet such a pretty crime-fighter, Johnny befriended her and the two began teaming up on.
You'll notice that, along with the mask, another difference between this first appearance and the classic Black Canary costume is that she is wearing culottes. And while the fishnets, boots and outfit are all notably feminine, the leather jacket and all-dark coloring were not things you saw decorating most women in comics and television of the era (not unless they were a criminal of sorts).
Black Canary’s mask was dropped after just two adventures and very quickly the main outfit was tweaked as well. Now the Black Canary had a more form-fitting outfit. Some have argued that the lack of a mask makes the Canary seem like neither superhero nor super-villain and more like a civilian woman off to host a sexy party. It’s also interesting to note that this outfit didn’t really fit her personality in these early stories. Canary occasionally flirted with guys to manipulate them into revealing information she needed, but she wasn't someone who embraced sexual power like Catwoman and certain others. She mainly was there to fight and solve crimes.
The Black Canary was so popular with readers that, by Flash Comics #92, she had completely replaced Johnny Thunder and gotten her own feature (which is just hilariously cool). She was given the name Dinah Drake and she eventually joined the Justice Society. FUN GEEK FACT: did you know that the Black Canary briefly used her own Green Lantern-style oath? Speaking it aloud let her summon and command birds. However, the idea that she had any supernatural command over avian life was very quickly dropped and never used again.
As the Golden Age of Comics came to a close and superheroes began to fall from popularity, the Black Canary vanished as well. Later on, the Silver Age of Comics began in 1956 and introduced a new generation of heroes, some of whom later joined the Justice League of America. This was considered a reboot. Previous stories were eventually said to have taken place on the parallel world of Earth-2.
Eventually, the modern-day mainstream universe heroes of the Justice League of America breached the barrier between worlds and met their counterparts the Justice Society, which included the Canary among its ranks still. Regular team-ups started happening between the JLA and the JSA. Later, when her husband Larry Drake died, Dinah moved to the mainstream DC Universe for a new start, becoming a member of the Justice League of America. Around this time, she started exhibiting a superpower: a sonic-blast called the "Canary Cry," which was apparently the result of radiation exposure.
Initially during her time with the JLA, Dinah was a very professional, no-nonsense hero (despite one weirdly emotional scene during which she and Batman kissed). As time went on, Dinah was portrayed as a much more aggressive girl and more flirty, eventually having an on-again, off-again romance with Ollie Queen AKA Green Arrow. It also became increasingly emphasized that she was a skilled martial artist and boxer.
Some comic writers later realized that the Black Canary was being drawn as if she were still in her early 20s, despite the fact that she had been around since the 1940s and that the rest of the JSA had been allowed to age (at least partially). A complicated story retroactively altered history to reveal to us that the current Black Canary was actually the daughter of the original 1940s character and not literally the same person. It turned out that a curse from an enemy had given Dinah’s daughter a devastating sonic cry and the girl had been placed in suspended animation until this power could be stabilized. After Larry had died, Dinah discovered she was dying of radiation exposure. By this time, Dinah’s daughter was now a young adult, her sonic powers stabilized. As Dinah died, her mind was transferred to her daughter thanks to the magic of Johnny Thunder's thunderbolt, allowing her to live on through her daughter.
Yeah, I think it’s weird, too.
WELCOME TO THE 1980S
In the 1980s, DC Comics had another reboot and attempted to simplify its history by saying that the Justice Society and Justice League were all inhabitants of the same universe and that one group had inspired the other to form decades later. The new history stated that there have been Dinah Drake, the original Black Canary, who got married to Larry Lance and then retired. Many years later, she had a daughter named Dinah Laurel Lance who eventually became the new Black Canary. No magic mind transference involved. Simple. The 1980s also brought forth a new costume for Dinah.
Where do I begin? The sleeves and boots now make her look too much like Mockingbird at Marvel Comics. The looseness of the top and the headband are supposed to symbolize she's a martial artist and at the time this costume was made that isn’t a bad idea. Today, however, it seems very dated.
The bird symbol on the shirt isn't a bad idea, but extending it into shoulder pads is a bit silly and it looks as if they'd inhibit movement, not a good thing when your character is a martial artist. Her previous outfit was sexual, but we've now gone too far in the other direction. This looks like a workout suit rather than a uniform or costume.
Of course, worse outfits can always come along the way. In this outfit that she sported in the late 80s, Dinah looks like a cast member from The Warriors. If you're too young to know what The Warriors was, don’t tell me, just keep that to yourself. But, I will forgive you as well. Point being, this outfit, especially with that necklace, screams: "I'm an 80s street fighter." And not in a good way.
She was briefly put in an all black that also wasn’t great. As with the previous outfit, there was nothing martial arts or super heroic about this look at all.
Starting in the late 1980s, artists experimented with putting Dinah in her classic outfit but losing the wig. It definitely gave off a very different impression of the character who had once been nicknamed "the Blonde Bombshell.” As we entered the 90s, Dinah briefly joined the ever-growing idea that every hero needs to carry a lot of stuff on their person in order to look cool. It was a darker era for her, having been seriously injured by enemies, losing her powers, and dealing with Green Arrow not being the man she wanted him to be.
This was also during the time when she was starring as a supporting character in Mike Grell’s Green Arrow series, a title that emphasized a grounded, non-superpowered reality and where (with one issue’s exception) the hero was never actually referred to as “Green Arrow” by other characters.
SUPERHERO STYLE IS BACK
In the mid 1990s, Dinah adopted a new superhero look and dyed her short hair blond rather than returning to the wig, just in time for her and Barbara Gordon to begin their adventures as the "Birds of Prey."
This costume is actually pretty fun. It maintains a lot of the sex appeal of the classic outfit but is more utilitarian. A padded outfit meant for combat, bare legs rather than fishnets that would be sure to tear during combat anyway. This lady is a fighter, no doubt about it.
Dinah sometimes wore variations of this outfit. Sometimes she'd toss on a leather jacket, making this more akin to her classic costume. The new lines on the jacket make it complement the rest of the uniform rather than appearing as if it were a separate piece she just threw on.
Dinah also sometimes wore a trousers-version of the same suit. I like the idea that Dinah would sometimes wear different versions of her outfit depending on the mission or, frankly, the climate she's heading into. I bet this outfit wouldn’t look bad in a live-action film either.
RETRO IS IN
Eventually, Dinah decided to go back to her more classic style. But now she utilized minor elements from her initial Birds of Prey outfit. The boots and gloves now have yellow padding. Sometimes she’d wear a simply jacket, sometimes it would be the more stylized version with yellow pads. And notice the aforementioned zipper that goes all the way to the neck. This is now a black leather outfit, implying a protective quality rather than just a black top or swimsuit. These small touches definitely help Dinah, showing that she's wearing some kind of uniform.
In a few adventures, Dinah added a long coat to her ensemble. I love this long coat. At times, it is loose. At times it is closed with a golden clasp. Either way, it works. It looks serious and classy and the gold clasp version gave her a stronger air of authority to my mind.
In 2011, DC Comics rebooted the majority of its superhero universe yet again. In the new reality, a lot of Dinah’s history is still up for grabs. She was apparently a member of the military group Team 7 before later becoming a vigilante called Black Canary. When she was 16, she apparently had an adventurer with 11-year-old sorceress Zatanna (as will be seen in the graphic novel Bloodspell). She did apparently work in a team called the Birds of Prey which later split up.
In the new Birds of Prey series, which premiered along with 51 other titles of the new reality (labeled “the New 52”), Black Canary reformed the Birds of Prey while she avoided police, since she was also wanted for murder. Since then, she and the new team have been doing their best to fight crime and take names.
Like most of the DC superheroes, Dinah sported a new design when the New 52 premiered. This is now clearly body armor, in the same vein as Batman’s armor. It makes sense that Dinah, a person who has no powers beyond her Canary Cry, would want to protect herself, but I wonder if there are too many colored lines and visible pads here. The fishnets on the arms and legs recall the classic look but are now colored as they were pre 1980s, which tones down the sexuality.
Some of Dinah’s past will be revealed in the upcoming Team 7 comic. Time will tell if she gets around to changing her look again. In the meantime, you should all be reading Birds of Prey. Not just the new title, either. Go pick up old trades. And write to Warner Bros. that you want to see a Black Canary and/or Birds of Prey movie already.
We hope you enjoyed this as we continue our countdown to the end of Agent of S.T.Y.L.E. Until next time, this is Alan Kistler, signing off.
[Alan Sizzler Kistler is an actor and writer who regularly jumps between New York City and Los Angeles. He is the author of The Unofficial Batman Trivia Challenge, The Unofficial Spider-Man Trivia Challenge and The Unofficial Game of Thrones Cookbook. He believes Isaac Asimov should be required reading in schools and misses seeing Stephanie Brown in comic books.]