Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Black Canary Archives Vol.1 review:

 Sometimes less really is more. Of all the DC Archives, it’s this one which has been praised the most, with only one negative review that I know of, and even then that shows that more people are discussing it than is the norm for these books, which most average comic readers tend to regard as historical artifacts (which is a not unwise attitude to take sometimes) or paperweights. This is pretty funny, because the Golden Age stories that take up the bulk of this book are guilty of almost all the things that Golden Age comics get slammed for: Repetitive plots, little to no characterization, lousy humor and puns, unnecessary exposition, crude artwork, stupid logic, little continuity, and no supervillains. Not to mention that, when you really think about it, Black Canary is both an incredibly silly and mundane character in many ways (I’ll get to that).
 Yet somehow, it’s all incredibly readable.
 Granted, this could be because of the brevity of these tales, but there’s a genuine breeziness to them just the same. I almost read the whole volume in one night. Like I said, I guess less really is more.
 The earliest stories in the collection are the Johnny Thunder back-ups from Flash Comics, where the Canary debuted as a supporting character. DC had an explosion of female characters in the late 40s, and the Canary was just one of them. Johnny Thunder (not to be confused with DC’s awesome western hero who I just discovered in The Greatest 1950s Stories Ever Told) was a bumbling idiot who could call upon a magic thunderbolt (a genie) by saying “Say you” (Don’t look at me, I didn’t write this stuff). While he made for incredibly obnoxious “comedy relief” in the old JSA stories, I have to admit that I’ve enjoyed most of the Johnny Thunder solo stories that I’ve read. Maybe some characters just work better in their own environments. The Black Canary debuted in these stories as a somewhat typical femme fatale described by Johnny’s thunderbolt as a “beautiful villainess who the hero always falls in love with”. She functioned as sort of a female Robin Hood, only targeting crooks instead of rich people, which is an interesting gimmick, but one which the subsequent stories dropped in favor of her being a typical crime fighter. 
 I enjoyed these stories a lot more than I thought I would. Oh, they aren’t quite the laugh out loud funny misadventures the creators probably thought they were, but they aren’t tedious crap either. There’s a kind of demented logic to them, and you really do want to see Johnny succeed for once without his victory being a happy accident or having him being rescued by Black Canary or the Thunderbolt (actually, there are several stories where the Thunderbolt doesn’t appear and one story where the Black Canary doesn’t appear at all! Was this a mistake, or was DC testing the waters for a Johnny Thunder Archive?). As you may have guessed from my list of vintage films comics fans should see, and from my often mentioned affection for Cole’s Plastic Man and Eisner’s Spirit, I have a weakness for 1930s and 40s screwball comedies (and yes, I will be seeing the upcoming Three Stooges movie, even though my brain tells me I shouldn’t) and noir, so these stories gave me my fix. I could totally see these stories having been made into a movie during the 40s, with say, Danny Kaye as Johnny and Veronica Lake as Canary.
 Apparently Black Canary was so popular that readers demanded she be given her own series, and she was soon given one, with Johnny Thunder’s series soon being cancelled, although the new all-Canary stories did feature a similarly bumbling private eye named Larry Lance. Black Canary was also given a secret identity as Dinah Drake, an uptight brunette who worked as a florist and wore a wig in combat. I’m going to chalk up her ability to keep that thing on as her superpower.

 While the stories are very formulaic and the mysteries are often baffling for all the wrong reasons, it’s quite fun, with a surprising amount of story being told without seeming rushed. Larry Lance is also an amusing character; although always depicted as needing Canary’s help, he’s never depicted as being as incompetent or stalker-ish as say, Steve Trevor. If someone like Gail Simone was writing these stories today, she’d probably make the poor guy out to be a total idiot and have him get castrated or something. Instead, Larry’s mooching off of Dinah Drake comes off as oddly endearing and makes for a few well-timed moments of humor; he’s sort of like Kramer from Seinfeld if Kramer decided to become a private eye.
 Black Canary herself is also interesting, making some genuinely funny Damon Runyon-style quips during combat. I was also surprised to see that she used her special “Canary choker” around her neck quite sparingly, when in the 60’s, she seemed to have almost as many gadgets in that damn thing as Batman has in his utility belt! It’s also amusing how much of a ball buster she is in her Dinah Drake identity, like if Iris West or Carol Ferris were the protagonists of their own series. Perhaps the hair/wig color is meant to be symbolism about how she becomes more fun when she’s a blonde. Is that sexist? A little, but not as much as some of the stuff I’ve seen in various modern X-Men books that are well-regarded for having strong female characters (“she’s a cold-hearted woman whose name is FROST! How clever!”).
 Also, even though comic book fans have long made jokes about all the times Hal Jordan has been hit in the head, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a character get conked on the head in as many consecutive stories as I have here!
 All in all, this stuff is more entertaining than it has any right to be, especially for a character, who, when you think about it, is both too low-key and too ridiculous. She doesn’t have any superpowers (except for one anomalous incident in one story where she summons birds with a Green Lantern-like oath), but she really doesn’t have much of a costume either to make much of an impression, especially when the mask she wears in the first two stories is ditched. Oh, her outfit is sexy all right (just look at all the fan-art online of BC), but it doesn’t scream “superhero” or even “thief” so much as it does “mildly risqué pinup girl”. Even the canary motif is downplayed, with only the Canary symbol on her choker bearing any clue to her gimmick, and even it just looks like a duck that just got back from doing an Al Jolson impression, with the art often being too indistinct for it to even be noticeable.
 Speaking of the art, while it often does screw up details like the choker, it more than makes up for it because of the fun it offers in watching a young Carmine Infantino experiment. Infantino's art here is crude, sketchy and sometimes excessively derivative of Milton Caniff, but it has a vigorous, simplistic power with more attention to layout than was the norm. Infantino manages to balance both the humor and the noir quite well, often giving things a grimy, but attractive look. It displays hints of the greatness Infantino would later reach in the 50s and 60s. At the same time, it also occasionally shows early signs of the bad habits Infantino would later come to exacerbate in the 70s and onward, with sketchy and contorted limbs, too much negative space, and hideous facial expressions.
 After the stories from Flash Comics end, we cut to the 1960s when Black Canary was featured in Brave and the Bold with Starman. Despite the gross mismatch in their powers, they have some decent chemistry together (with plenty of scenes that support the retcon that they had an affair). The first story is slight, and pretty silly, but enjoyable. I reviewed it here. The other B&B story pits the two against the Wildcat villainess called the Huntress and the Green Lantern villain Sportsmaster, who have married. This one is pretty dull, with Wildcat and the two villains coming off as far more interesting and likeable characters. Murphy Anderson does draw a very pretty Canary though.
 The last two stories are taken from Canary’s short-lived solo feature in Adventure Comics, and feature our heroine teaching judo at a gym for women that is actually a front for some female criminals. It’s pretty dated and silly, with stupid plot holes, although I must admit that the identity of the leader came as a surprise. The masks the villains wear also bear a rather striking resemblance to Cillian Murphy’s Scarecrow mask in Batman Begins. The real interest in the story though, lies in that it’s illustrated by Alex Toth. As usual with Toth, it’s far, far better work than the story deserves. The guy really was a genius.
 Although there are no standout stories, Black Canary Archives is a perfectly enjoyable collection which, if you can get it for cheap, is a perfect litmus test for those of you wanting to get into Golden Age comics. The very simplicity makes it all palatable. Even though something tells me I really shouldn’t, I give the book a 4/5.

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