Ever since Babs moved to Burnside, our intrepid team of Sam LeBas and Will Brooker have been digging deep into “Batgirl,” providing annotations for Brenden Fletcher, Cameron Stewart, and Babs Tarr’s new take on a classic character. Well, co-writer Fletcher has launched “Black Canary,” and Will and Sam have decided to tackle this book in the same way. Welcome, friends, to the HOOQ-Up on Tour!
Will Brooker: Here we are again, Sam, what seems like several months after the end of the first Batgirl of Burnside arc that saw Dinah Drake performing live and then leaving the title for her own solo comic. The “Batgirl” hardcover is now out and we are reviewing that shortly, but let’s now take a look at this new departure.
Sam LeBas: Dinah’s run away with the circus, it seems. Joined a band and hit the road, as ya do.
WB: Some time has passed, because they’ve had seven shows. This is not the band she was in at the end of Batgirl, we should note — that was Ashes on Sunday, right? She’s signed a new contract.
SL: Right, now she’s fronting the aptly named “Black Canary” band. Whose members seem to have no idea that DD is actually their namesake, but okay, sure.
WB: Just to get this out of the way, then, while I enjoyed reading the comic — more than you did I think — there’s a fundamental issue I have with it
SL: What’s that, Will?
WB: Now, no comic book is really ‘necessary’, but this one makes me wonder what the actual reason for it was. Where is it coming from? What was the driving idea?
I doubt I would be asking this if it was Geoff Johns and Jim Lee, but we have a sense of Brenden Fletcher and the people he works with as more alternative and indie. In a positive reflection on him, there’s a sense that these creative teams are more genuine, with more integrity. People trying to do something different and fresh.
His interview with The Mary Sue this week [link] http://www.themarysue.com/interview-fletcher-wu-black-canary/ just confirms my sense that, enjoyable as it is, the whole concept, story and supporting cast of “Black Canary” emerged from the editorial idea that it would be good to have a “Black Canary” book. Simple as that, because “Batgirl” was working, and selling, and because Dinah Drake was a supporting character in that story, and Brenden was asked to do it because he has that indie magic. My understanding is that it was editorial, not the writers and artists, who wanted Dinah to join the Batgirl of Burnside cast, and wedged her in there – so I can’t help wondering whether the whole idea of a Black Canary title comes from above, rather than emerging more organically.
All this is with the proviso that I have no idea what happened behind the scenes, and of course I accept that new books are introduced because their sister title is selling well. DC has to make money.
However, this doesn’t quite hang together for me conceptually, despite the fact that it’s enjoyable, attractive, fresh looking and deftly written from scene to scene, and I wonder if that’s because of a dynamic between the editorial demand for a Black Canary book, and Brenden Fletcher’s idea for what he could do with that book, which don’t quite fit at this point.
SL: On several levels, the motivation is unclear throughout, and with that hanging over it, the more successful moments are more challenging to spot.
WB: You already hinted at one of the most glaring problems here. Black Canary is an established costumed vigilante in the New 52.
In this comic, Dinah Drake refuses to give her real name or any details about her past… but she’s joined a band and presumably either renamed it “Black Canary”, or in some weird coincidence, joined a band called “Black Canary”.
SL: And yet, no one makes the connection between this blonde with an amazing voice from the city where BC was active, and the vigilante who does not wear a mask.
WB: Despite Wu’s more indie take on the art, the lead singer in Black Canary looks a lot like Black Canary, in terms of costume, hair… not to mention the exceptional martial arts and the sonic bird call.Continued below
WB: OK, so, that’s the first thing it’s really hard for me to overcome.
She seems to be undercover, hiding her past, but this feels like… Bruce Wayne joining a band called The Batman, and having fights every gig that demonstrate his high tech weaponry and OIympic-level athleticism, while wearing a cape and cowl. I’m sorry but it’s hard not to be snarky about this.
SL: No one is piecing it together. I think it could be argued that they are in other cities, and the people there are less familiar with Black Canary.
WB: This Black Canary/DD was in the Justice League. The Justice League is known not just globally, but across the universe.
SL: Right, she was in JL for like a minute, she says
WB: For half a mission. OK, but the creators can’t have that fun little nod to the JLA and equally have us ignore its implications. I’ve seen people tweet that panel and it’s cute, but you can’t have it both ways.
SL: I agree. She’s either high profile or she’s not.
WB: Not to mention… Aliens kind of expand the ‘universe’ we were used to in “Batgirl”, don’t they? I don’t think we could conceive of Babs with aliens, although it looks like she may be dealing with more metahuman powers in the next issue – and she did fight zombies in the “Endgame” crossover.
SL: The entire ethos of that take on BG was very grounded. This is more like sci fi? Or horror? We don’t know what they are for sure, yet, do we?
WB: That’s all just DCU flexibility though, so, I think we have to accept that. I think we have to just accept that Dagger Type exists in the same universe as Martian Manhunter, and some stories focus on different aspects of the DCU.
The feel of this story is, weirdly, for me, quite a lot like something from 2000AD rather than the DCU. It’s a quirky, indie, spiky, rock and roll with aliens story. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing… it just takes some getting used to.
SL: All right, I trust them. Aliens, I want to believe.
WB: Did you get a clearer sense about whether DD named the band, or renamed the band?
SL: Well. She signed a contract with them for a limited number of shows. I hardly think that would give her that much creative control. Seems likely they already had the name?
WB: She already had that name herself, though, as a crimefighter. It’s very hard to wrestle these ideas into anything that fits, somehow. There was a band called Black Canary, which was joined by Black Canary, and she dresses and acts like Black Canary, and yet nobody including the band members know she is Dinah Drake, the Black Canary?
SL: Yes, that’s the general idea.
WB: ‘You’ve handled this kind of thing BEFORE, haven’t you?’ asks Byron, clearly not knowing who she is or what she’s been doing previously.
She starts talking about hand to hand combat and weapons…
Black Canary in the New 52 was in the JLA, formed the Birds of Prey, hung out with Poison Ivy and Batgirl… and the press don’t put these things together. So OK it’s the local zine press… if we wanted to be generous, we could imagine they might be slower to make those connections.
SL: Is this not the same tech savvy youth culture we saw in Batgirl?
WB: True. In Burnside they are all over smart phones, and wherever they are now, it’s all mimeographed pamphlets. Maybe there’s a cultural, geographical difference. I’m trying to come up with a rationale that isn’t really there in the comic. They’re currently touring through Detroit and Central City, and they’re a ‘Gotham-based band’, so they’re moving West. The Burnside Tofu zine reports on their gigs at Central City. They’re interviewed on YouTube or whatever the DCU equivalent is. They gig at the Wizards Wand, Detroit, promoting their EP…
SL: When did they record an EP? How are they making money?
WB Hold on. Central City is approximately Missouri, according to current DCU continuity. They went from Gotham to Missouri to Michigan, which makes sense. It’s not ridiculous doubling back, it’s all generally West.Continued below
OK, I am going to ignore the lack of Wikipedia because the creators want to go for a 1970s punk/new wave feel, but even in the 1970s people in Detroit knew, for instance…Mohammed Ali, Bert and Ernie, Henry Winkler,Telly Savalas, Robin Williams, who might be equivalent-level celebrities to a costumed vigilante from the Justice League.
So, I think we have a problem with the credibility of the whole ‘undercover but in a band with your superhero name’ premise, big time, and I think we both struggle with that a little.
SL: That’s fair to say.
WB: Especially as DD was just in a comic book that was all about information and the visibility of personal identity, and the impossibility of concealing who you are, and so on. It’s like outside Gotham is a step back in time.
SL: I can’t see anything that justifies it either; any reason it had to be that way.
WB: What justifies it is the cute idea that Black Canary, the comic book title, is now the name of the band not the superheroine. I can believe that the creative team wanted to do a comic book about a costumed heroine fronting a new wave/punk band, and here it is. Everything bends to fit that central concept.
SL: Maybe it will all make sense in future issues. There were issues like this in Batgirl that ended up sorting themselves out in the long game.
WB: So, the comic book is now named after the band, neat surprise, nice little twist, I like it but it really undermines credibility in some ways
SL: It’s hardly about the experience of being in a band though is it?
WB: Right, and here’s my second fundamental problem, I’m afraid. Dinah has a ‘new job’. She has signed a contract. She admits she doesn’t know how to ‘move on stage’. She’s basically a superheroine, a martial artist, with a sonic cry, which we can accept I guess makes her an amazing singer. I can accept she auditioned and blew it away, even if nobody said oh hey you’re the one superheroine with a sonic bird cry.
But she’s joined an established band – we see in the solicits for later issues that she replaced their existing singer, who was kicked out — she’s got an EP out already, despite just joining it. She says pretty explicitly she doesn’t LIKE being in a band, or she doesn’t deny that when she’s challenged. It’s either confusing, or deliberately enigmatic.
SL: I have no problem with Dinah as a singer, I liked the Ashes subplot, but this could have been “Almost Famous” with better fight scenes. Instead, being a rock star is treated like being a barista, just something Dinah is doing until she gets back on her feet.
WB: She’s in a band with two really committed musicians, at least one of whom resents her just dipping into this music scene, understandably.
SL: So, with her attitude we lose a little of the fun of the ‘band’ idea.
WB: ‘We busted our butts to make this band happen… and then you show up and put it all at risk. You’ve got a killer voice, but…’ says Byron. She just showed up? Maybe there’s a plot point here we’re not just being shown yet.
SL: It’s a job, she’s just punching a time clock until she can afford to do the thing she really wants to do.
WB Did the JLA buy her way into this band or something?
SL: Seems like they could have put that money to better use rebuilding her dojo.
WB: Maybe someone is funding it. They might have a wealthy manager and finances and deals which haven’t been made clear to us, which would explain them having an EP so quickly. Maybe there’s a backstory still to come, which will explain this.
We are told this is the only way DD can make money. By fulfilling a band contract for a specific period of time. By fulfilling a contract… and yet they get paid by individuals, on the basis of whether the bar manager is intimidated or not. So they’re paid by local venues, and yet she has a contract she signed, and she has to perform a certain number of dates before ‘they pay me.’ I’ll have to just be generous and suppose there is a bigger scheme in play here. A six-issue arc with more of a conspiracy behind it.Continued below
SL: She’s being held hostage.
No, but really if she keeps ruining every show with some display of martial arts skill, how is she supposed to earn any money?
WB: Well, I thought you were serious there. It’s possible she is being forced somehow to fulfil this contract. I can’t see signs of it as she seems motivated by the Ditto plot, but if she was being held hostage or blackmailed, that would make more sense.
Instead, we learn that she is on a contract with ‘the record label’ and until then she’s ‘penniless’. Even though there are rolls of notes being passed around. Maybe I just don’t understand yet what kind of band this is, what the deal is, what situation is going down.
SL: I would love a book about a creatively inclined superheroine. I would love to see someone try to balance their art with their duties as a vigilante. I don’t think that’s what Dinah is doing here.
WB: She isn’t actually a singer or performer.
SL: No, she doesn’t write music, she doesn’t play an instrument.
WB: I could think of a dozen other ways she could earn money quickly and more enjoyably. She doesn’t even understand amplifiers and equipment. She likes fighting.
SL: But then we wouldn’t have that badass feather cape.
WB: She really lights up when she gets to train them in fighting. That’s what we saw she loves in “Batgirl,” too. Maybe the plot will now be more about fighting aliens, and less about the performing.
Oh, I just thought of a plot arc here. I’m just going to make one of my predictions here and then we can move onto stuff we liked about the book, OK?
So, tremble mortals because here is one of my predictions for the story arc, which I imagine is 6 issues long.
SL: Oh, this is my favorite part.
WB: First, I don’t think this is going to intersect with the DCU in any major way, at all. I imagine the aliens, the big bad, are new inventions. That is what Brenden does. He builds his own little worlds with their own secondary casts and villains.
So I think the arc is all personal development, slightly soapy, ‘finding yourself’ stuff, because that is also what Brenden does, and the main point of the story will be as follows:
Dinah doesn’t ultimately need the money from the record company to rebuild her dojo and buy her team. Because she’s found it where she was least expecting it. Paloma, Byron, Ditto… YOU’RE MY TEAM. I have my dojo right here. She trains them up in this arc and they become a new superhero team.
SL: Oh, that’s fabulous, and that is also why the band is called Black Canary. It’s going to be a book about the band, not just DD.
WB: Maybe the record company is screwing them, because Brenden has expressed a scepticism toward big companies in Batgirl, and that would fit his authorial impulse. What he does, I feel, is take something from continuity and redo it, like he did with the new Oracle. So, the big ‘twist’ here, like Frankie and Oracle, and like Dinah not actually being called Black Canary at any point, is that this arc is about the launch of a new team which is called Black Canary, which comprises Dinah, Paloma, Ditto, Byron and Heathcliff.
Don’t tell me Ditto’s powers can’t be weaponized. We’ve already seen a hint of that.
SL: Getting back to the stuff we enjoyed, I really did like the art, though I found the choppy action, the small panels focusing on various details of an event, difficult to read in some sequences. Visually it was interesting, just didn’t add a lot to the clarity.
You have to wonder if Wu’s time on “Hawkeye” affected her pacing choices here. The primary difference between what Aja did in his action sequences and Wu is doing here is the heavily saturated palette and the tightly packed environments.
WB: I didn’t read Hawkeye so the way I approached this was Wu doing a Brenden script. I saw it in comparison to Cameron Stewart’s action storytelling, Babs Tarr’s cute character designs and Maris Wicks colors: I think you can recognise the Brenden Fletcher writing style here, but it’s articulated through different creators.Continued below
So, what I could identify was the consistency that came from the same writer on both books, despite the different artist and colorist Lee Loughridge.
SL That does make sense. You’re right, there is something very Maris Wicks about the colors Lee’s using. They are applied quite differently, more uniform in value, I think. To me, it’s like they are working with the same set of paints, but Loughridge is not tampering with the colors by adding white or black. This is straight from the bottle, full impact color.
WB There’s the fact that scenes in the past are signaled with a different color. Flashbacks to the previous night when DD beat up those goons in striped trousers and leather vests. Which by the way, I couldn’t quite process…These guys were hassling some girls at the gig, but they look like some sort of third-rate supervillain gang, like Riddler’s henchmen from the 60s TV show.
SL: Yeah, those goons at the gig. I love that they show up in uniform to cause trouble.
WB: Yeah, those guys also messed with my credibility levels a little. They show up like ‘pack of goons for bar fight’, like a special deal on extras in costume. Plus they look like, I don’t know, Lou Reed in 1970 crossed with Beetlejuice, and one of them has an eyepatch?
On the other hand I keep thinking about how much I like Ditto sleeping in a tiger onesie.
Now, Ditto in her onesie is cute on its own, but isn’t she maybe watching Atomina on her screen? That would be a typical Burnside-universe reference.
SL: Scanning through the issue again, I really do love Wu’s art.
WB: Wu is a match for Stewart and Tarr in terms of facial expressions, and there’s some great dynamic action, even if the choreography of the big fight wasn’t always clear to me.
SL: Even her character’s gestures are fantastically expressive.
WB: By the way, Lee, the colorist, is also responsible for the way we experience Ditto’s powers, and the reveal of the aliens, so that’s important in terms of storytelling. This is at least as interesting and significant as ‘detective vision’ in Batgirl. So credit to the writer, artist and colorist there for pulling off a new idea that works instantly.
SL: I agree, and I think Ditto is a very successful aspect of the book overall. Reminds me a bit of Maps from GA, actually.
WB This is probably accidental, but just before we see Ditto for the first time there’s something tucked behind the driver in the tour bus, it says MAP? Just saying, but it’s an interesting coincidence.
SL: I love the way the little creatures look in people form. That POV shot from the stage where the spotlight is half on them? Love that. In fact they look like David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve from The Hunger, which makes me love it more.
WB: I agree, Wu has a fresh look to her work like Tarr did on “Batgirl,” and Brenden Fletcher is so lucky to have these artists because they really add a huge chunk of his books’ charm. They simply would not work with inferior, or even more conventional, art styles.
Brenden now has his specific ‘thing’ he seems to be working within the DCU, on Black Canary, Batgirl and perhaps also Gotham Academy — indie, hip, charming, quirky, soapy superheroes with new and interesting villains in each episode, twists on established continuity and at least one funky fight scene per issue.
He’s doing a kind of, I don’t know exactly how to describe it, Richard Linklater approach to the DCU, building his own little subcultural, hip universe within the larger continuity; but the fact that the art is both excellent technically and distinctive and fresh is a huge part of these three books’ brand.
SL: Less distinct art would be like casting bad actors. So much of his story depends on characters interactions, and without capturing the emotion and tension of those moments, a lot would be lost.
WB: Plus the whole ‘feel’, the alternative scene would be lost.Continued below
Having said that, we’re not sure how he works with artists, and perhaps it’s also credit to the great relationship he has with each art team. We get the sense on Batgirl that it’s a hip little gang. He’s a very interesting talent and I think he’s undoubtedly one of DC’s biggest assets right now. I bet they are treasuring him. I wonder if in a year or so they might move him to Batman or a bigger title like that. After all, Scott Snyder came from quite experimental, edgy stories in Black Mirror, straight onto Batman.
SL: I believe there is now a group of people who want to do mainstream comics differently, I’m talking about anyone working on a book with Brenden, and several others at DC right now. They’ve embraced the idea that the formula that was used for so long has nothing to do with making a successful book. This wave of titles is almost a direct response to the way things are ‘supposed’ to be done, and I think it’s working for them. Simply by being different, they accomplish something, and let readers know there is a place for them with the big 2.
WB: Although, to play devil’s advocate and be cynical for a moment, this is a niche given to them by Geoff Johns, Dan DiDio, Jim Lee or whoever makes the decisions.
This is a token little corner in a universe still dominated by pretty shiny, mainstream stuff. These guys have their little world, but it’s only because they’re being allowed to keep it for now, and I think we have to remember that for DC, the motivation is sales. This indie, hipster corner of the DCU is being cultivated because it makes good press and enables the bosses to say, look, we’re doing alternative stuff, encouraging minority and diverse casts, supporting new creators. I think it would be optimistic to believe the DC editorial stance is anything but profit-driven.
SL: A corner is more than there was.
WB: Sure, and that’s good, but if we’re being brutally honest, a book with an ‘indie’ feel within DC is not exactly like a creator-owned independent coffee shop or a funky little boutique. It’s like a Starbucks or a Hot Topic in a mall. It’s still making money for The Man, and The Man can close it down.
SL: But the fact that DC saw the need for it (or the market for it, more pessimistically) is a good thing, I would think.
WB: DC saw a way to make money and good press from it
SL: You’re right. I am trying to say a nice thing, here.
WB: If it wasn’t for Batgirl, I would barely be reading the DCU. Batgirl is the one comic I have loved from DC all year. So I appreciate it very much, as you know. We have spent hours studying it. But I think we should recognise the way these books work within a corporate structure.
SL: Okay fine. Sure, this is a part of a big ugly machine that lives on money and perpetuating status quo, yes, but I can’t help but think the people behind the books actually believe in the broader changes the titles represent.
WB: I agree, they do.
SL: With Gotham Academy they made sure fans were heard when the book was in trouble. Think of the way the Batgirl team has responded when fans have had negative reactions. The #41 Joker variant and the Dagger Type issue, #37, for example.
WB: I agree and that is something we’ll discuss when we look at the “Batgirl” hardcover. I want to note another point before going onto an issue related to diversity.
So, I think Cam Stewart is one of the best action choreographers in the business, and Wu doesn’t do such a clear and successful job here. Where DD bounces her mic off the stage and it rebounds off into space, that’s dynamic and bold. But then she’s doing some kind of … zen stretching the mic flex, a couple of panels later, and then the mic itself swings into an alien’s head in the next panel. I didn’t get a sense of joined-up, coherent action.Continued below
SL: No, that’s what I was referring to earlier, actually. That is kind of Aja style, small panel storytelling.
WB: Next page after that, there’s a sequence that fails for me, where DD is sailing down with an outstretched boot, and the alien does this feeble ‘flipping the arms’ movement, then D is … flung back into space?
SL: The action in this issue is like a photo collage of stills from a fight scene, rather than a recording of the event. It puts space between the reader and the action, like time has passed.
WB it shows how action is hard to choreograph, or how even when it’s well scripted, it’s easy to mess up, or not communicate it successfully.
So, going back to that point about diversity, could we discuss Byron a moment? I wondered if this character was deliberately left ambiguous in their gender presentation.
SL: I’m not sure there is much to discuss. I think he is in a rock band, and Dinah wears a feather cape, and he wears eyeliner.
WB: OK, at the gig, I thought Byron was wearing a bra top. So it all seemed a bit gender non-conformist.
SL: I don’t think that’s a bra; I think it’s a cut up t-shirt. I think he is more glam rock than gender fluid, at least at this point. He’s called Lord Byron at one point.
WB: OK but I took that as possibly similar to Lord Fanny in Invisibles. I read Byron as … interestingly ambiguous in their gender presentation. In fact, I was wondering whether this wasn’t an attempt to try another take on the Dagger Type role, and to do that kind of character more successfully, this time around.
Anyway, let’s conclude on a happy note because I think there is one thing we can agree was worth the price of the comic book, and we can end on that.
SL: That sounds good to me.
WB: OK, see if you agree the image which was worth the price.
I would almost have it as a signed poster. In fact, I am giving them this idea for free: redo that frame as a large poster, sign it, and sell it at cons.
SL: The page of blue and yellow with the band, where Dinah is taking off her cape.
WB: Right. The colors are amazing, the pose is amazing, the light and shade, the elegance of the few lines used.
SL: Everything about it works.
WB: The costume! I mean you think Batman looks good in a cape? Here’s a cape shot better than any Batman pin-up, the feathers flying off it subtly.
SL: The bottom four panels are fantastic. I love Dinah here.
WB: That panel makes me forgive the flaws in this comic.
SL: The whole page is incredible, really.
WB: The whole page, yeah, with the text. When it comes together, they really do come together. And because you knew instantly what panel I was talking about, you are my new favorite person to talk about Black Canary with.