Thoughts on the Black Canary Archives
By Ray Tate
It's not often I learn something about the history of comic books. While hardly an old fogey with fond memories of watching mastodon roam the plains, I simply have a thirst for research and have gained much knowledge over the years.
Somewhere along the line I missed the fact Black Canary debuted as a femme fatale in Johnny Thunder's back-up strip in The Flash. She was a jewel thief who suckered Johnny into aiding and abetting her crimes.
Johnny and the Canary certainly were not Batman and the Cat. The Canary portrayed the competent straight man next to Johnny's amiable goof. While Johnny was quite enamored by the sexy ne'er do-well, she simply liked him as a pet. In a way they anticipate the relationship between Seven of Nine and Harry Kim on Star Trek:Voyager.
Their first meeting is caged in The Black Canary Archives, and this first story is a delight. Johnny is as dumb Jill Sobule's box of hammers, but he's likable. His heart's in the right place, and while he's gifted with the most powerful magical entity next to the Spectre on the planet, he does not abuse that power. He comes off as a nice, normal guy who tries very hard to do the right thing. His love for the Canary is unwavering, and it's very easy to see why the Canary saves Johnny's life.
The Black Canary must have been very popular among readers. Easy to see why. Intelligent and tough, the Canary also was very loyal. Maybe she did not feel the same way Johnny felt for her, but she would not just use and discard him. That's a trait of heroism.
The Canary's tradition from crook to hero occurs in the second team-up with Johnny Thunder. What's fascinating is that the writer Robert Khaniger didn't simply hope the reader would forget. He subtly shifts the Canary's role from bona fide jewel thief to misunderstood vigilante. Easing the change is the serendipity of her stealing from crooks from the last issue.
By their third meeting, just the Thunderbolt considers the Canary a crook who means trouble for his master. The third meeting is a hilarious comedy of errors. The Black Canary has enough faith in Johnny that she believes he is capable of rescuing her. Instead, he accidentally gets captured, and both require the aid of the testy Thunderbolt who does not let them live down their helplessness.
The Canary is finally cleared after she and Johnny are framed for murder. This is yet another story that displays the loyalty of these characters for each other. He refuses to believe the Canary is capable of murder, and the Canary once again saves Johnny when the he most rational thing to do would be to cut losses and leave him behind. They're a winning combination and share a natural, easy partnership.
While comedy and lightness are themes, the fourth team-up becomes a little more serious. The crooks--in a brilliant twist--use Johnny as a hostage to force the Canary to become a jewel thief. Being criminals, they promptly toss Johnny out of the plane and strafe the Canary. I'll let you discover how they extricate themselves from these predicaments.
The Johnny Thunder/Black Canary stories are a pure delight. The richly detailed characters like each other. The engrossing plots are brisk fun but they all make sense, and the artwork by Carmine Infantino and Joe Giella is a masterful lesson in comic timing mixed with a good-girl aesthetic. It's reminiscent cinematically of The Time of Their Lives starring Abbot and Costello opposite the beautiful Marjorie Reynolds.
The stories and artwork are more interesting than later Canary stories. Johnny in a fight can be like a bear obsessed with a picnic basket. He focuses on one thing, and the crooks knock themselves out. Because of the many klutzy ways Johnny defeats his foes, the humor never becomes tiresome and offers the reader a contrast to the Canary's style. Her aim is solid. She's sneaky. She doesn't have the martial skill she displays in later stories, but brother, you do not wish to cross her.
I used to believe Johnny Thunder was a waste of tree pulp. In reality it's Larry Lance who really deserves to be thrown into a wood chipper. Whereas Johnny is a well-meaning boob you wouldn't mind having about, Larry is smarmy. Whereas Johnny is nice, Larry is abusive. Whereas Johnny was loyal to the Canary and expected nothing in return, Larry was trying to bed her. They're not obvious about it but there's no doubt what he's really after is beneath the fishnets. That he eventually succeeds disgusts on many levels.
Clearly, the creators aimed for a Carry Grant/Rosalind Russell kind of chemistry between Larry Lance and Dinah Drake. Instead, they end up with a Leo Georcy/Rosalind Russell kind of mess. Larry consistently treats Dinah like dirt. Sure she returns his nastiness with nastiness, but he starts an oil/water relationship that's hard to stomach.
While these adventures do allow the Canary to display an impressive sense of martial prowess, we must endure Larry's treatment of Dinah, and it's simply not worth it.
Things improve when Starman enters the picture. Larry and Di are married at this point, and they finally seem to get along with each other. Larry acts human but rather blandly when compared to Johnny Thunder. At least you do not hope for his death.
James Robinson of course in Starman mucked up this relationship with the nauseating suggestion that Starman slept with Dinah. Nothing in the adventures themselves hints at such a betrayal. Starman for instance knows Larry Lance. Both men are friends, and Larry even invites Ted to dinner with he and Di. I can see Diana having an affair were she chained to the loathsome Larry from her "mid-season", but that Larry Lance is not present here. Both Starman/Canary adventures are classics and possibly encountered before by the reader. However, rereading a good story among obscurities is can never be considered a bad thing.
Rounding off this collection is an Alex Toth Black Canary story that's worth the price of the book. Allegedly the book was meant to emphasize the Canary's solo career, but in reality, it details her life away from Green Arrow. There are however two notable missing pieces. Black Canary guest-starred with Batman in two Brave and Bold issues, and one of those stories was a Jim Aparo masterwork with her in frenetic action and sonic scream facing down the Joker. The second was a Dave Cockrum piece which would have definitely appealed to her fans since she is bound in her underwear ala' Honey West by the Penguin's goons, saves Batman's life and in the end of the adventure shares a kiss with the Dark Knight. Hopefully, these will be included in the next Black Canary Archives.
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