Black Canary is the name used by two different women in the DC Universe, a mother & daughter, the partial inspiration for the Silk Spectre in Alan Moore’s Watchmen. She was one of DC Comics’ earliest super-heroines introduced post-World War II. In the New 52 reboot, elements of both mother & daughter were combined into a single version. Black Canary has been part of the Golden Age Justice Society, the Justice League, partnered with Green Arrow and been part of the all-female Birds of Prey. Four different actresses have portrayed her in film & television thus far with some markedly different interpretations. Let’s learn more about Black Canary.
Black Canary was created by Robert Kanigher and Carmine Infantino in Flash Comics #86 (August 1947). She was intended to be a female version of the street level mystery men crimefighters of the era. Her original gimmick is that she would infiltrate criminal organizations and destroy them from within. Canary was very sexualized in her early appearances, with some aspects like her fishnet stockings playing into kinks of the day. The same sort of sexuality was imbued into Wonder Woman through elements like bondage. It’s an aspect that separates the female characters from the male ones, the latter of whom didn’t get objectified as much. There is still some latent homoeroticism in the pulp fiction of this time, but that’s a conversation for another time.
Dinah Drake was the secret identity of Black Canary, and she debuted as a supporting character in a different character’s feature, Johnny Thunder. Thunder was a sort of dumb luck everyman who came into the possession of a pink lightning-shaped genie named Thunderbolt. Thunder thinks she is a villain as she’s posing as a member of an organized crime cartel but eventually reveals herself to be an ally. Her popularity outshined Thunder’s, and his feature in Flash Comics was canceled in favor of a Black Canary one.
In this solo feature, we learn that Dinah Drake is actually a dark-haired florist who wears a wig when in her guise as Black Canary. She falls in love with police detective Larry Lance who becomes her partner in crime, and eventually, they marry. By the end of 1947, Black Canary met the Justice Society and joined their ranks. When DC Comics attempted revitalizing the Golden Age characters in the 1960s, they retroactively transplanted them to Earth-2, a parallel world where the mystery men and World War II-era heroes hailed from. This meant you had the standard Superman you knew, but the stories from the 1930s and 40s were an older separate version of the character. Dinah Drake was a resident of Earth-2.
In the 1960s, there were numerous crossovers between the Justice League of Earth-1 and the Justice Society of Earth-2. During one of these events, they battled a creature named Aquarius that resulted in Larry Lance’s death saving Dinah. She was grief-stricken and crossed to Earth-1 to start a new life as a member of the JLA. This also began her romance with Green Arrow. During this time, Dinah developed a superpower, her “canary cry,” a sonic scream that could be weaponized. For twelve years, she was a regular presence on Earth-1 until 1983’s Justice League of America #219-220, where writer Roy Thomas (a legendary fan of the Golden Age characters) decided to tweak Black Canary’s identity.
It was established that during the 1950s on Earth-2, Dinah and Larry Lance had a daughter, Dinah Laurel Lance. The JSA villain The Wizard cursed the child with a sonic scream, and the elder Dinah sought help from Johnny Thunder & the Thunderbolt to cure her daughter. The Thunderbolt genie could only do so much and put young Dinah Laurel in suspended animation, erasing her memory from everyone in the girl’s life. Dinah Drake learns she is dying from radiation poisoning due to her battle with Aquarius and remembers her child. Her dying wish is to see her daughter one last time, who has continued growing and is now an adult still in stasis.
Superman and Thunderbolt create a plan where the dying Drake can have her memories transferred into the body of Dinah Lance so she could continue fighting as Black Canary. This means the Black Canary readers had been following in the pages of Justice League and who romanced Green Arrow was the daughter the whole time. Yep, this era was full of convoluted continuity like this that ended up making things more confusing than clearing anything up. Thankfully this explanation did not last long, and after 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths, the solution was much clearer.
Dinah Lance was now the daughter of Dinah Drake, a deceased Golden Age hero. She simply inherited the mantle when she came of age and kept fighting in her mother’s name. Lance was still involved with Green Arrow, and so those stories were kept more or less intact. In this new timeline, Lance grew up surrounded by the fantastic heroes that made up the Justice Society, and they had a part in training her for a life of crimefighting. The boxing masked man Wildcat served as a sort of doting uncle over the young woman. Lance’s mother disapproved of her becoming Black Canary before she passed. The Black Canaries were also both established in Gotham City in the new reality.
The new timeline also made Dinah Laurel Lance one of the founding Justice League members alongside Aquaman, The Martian Manhunter, The Flash (Barry Allen), and Green Lantern (Hal Jordan). During this time, she meets Oliver Queen (Green Arrow), who is now quite a bit older than her, and they start their relationship. After she leaves the League, Lance relocates to Seattle, living with Queen as they become a crimefighting duo. For most of the 1980s, Canary was a supporting character, mainly a member of the Justice League International and the on-again-off-again lover of Green Arrow.
In the 1990s, Dinah joined the new JSA and the Birds of Prey. This was a team of semi-street level female crimefighters. The core trio was Black Canary, The Huntress, and Oracle (formerly known as Batgirl). There was some tension between Canary and Oracle, but they eventually earn each other’s respect and become fantastic partners. This series started as several one-shots and then an ongoing written by Chuck Dixon. The comic really took off when writer Gail Simone came onboard. She understood the voice of each character and knew how to play them off each other. After a hundred issues, Black Canary bows out to pursue her solo career.
2006’s Infinite Crisis brought another series of timeline shifts and resulted in Canary losing her spot as a founding Justice League member. Instead, she and Green Arrow joined a few adventures into the original team’s tenure. The most significant event in Canary’s life around this time was her marriage to Oliver Queen. After so many years of dating and fighting crime together, they tied the knot. Of course, no superhero wedding goes off without a hitch. The Injustice League, a group of supervillains, attacks, but due to the overwhelming guest list of superheroes, the plan is foiled.
It didn’t take long for another reboot this time in the form of 2011’s New 52. This was a radical reshuffling of characters and timelines, especially for Black Canary. This time the entire Golden Age was erased from existence, meaning there never was a Black Canary in the 1940s. Instead, Dinah Drake is a contemporary character and street-level crimefighter. She founds the Birds of Prey whose membership includes Katana, Batgirl and Poison Ivy. She’s brought into the Justice League as a reserve member but doesn’t make regular appearances in that title. There was an attempt to integrate Canary’s past with characters from the Wildstorm Universe whom DC Comics was trying to blend with the DCU during the New 52. There was a solo series featuring this version, which had her become the lead singer in a band. It was weird.
As is standard operating procedures, in 2015, DC got cold feet, which led to Rebirth, an attempt to walk back some of the wild changes of the New 52. One of them was finally getting Green Arrow and Black Canary back together. They meet in the pages of the Green Arrow Rebirth one-shot, and from there, a playful combative relationship is developed. The Birds of Prey reform, closer to the classic line-up of Canary, Huntress, and Batgirl. Basically, DC tired to return Canary to the character she was pre-New 52. She’s sort of been lost in the shuffle as of late in the comic books. This contrasts to her prominence in the Birds of Prey movie, a radical reimagining of the character.
I would say DC Comics has dropped the ball with Canary and is definitely not using her to the full extent of the character. The Justice Society was reintroduced, their erasure part of a sinister plot detailed in Geoff John’s Doomsday Clock. It doesn’t appear that a Golden Age Canary has been reintroduced, and that’s probably for the best with as confusing as Dinah’s history has been as of late. The movie version of Black Canary has appeared in some outside of continuity stories, so it’s a bit unsure what direction they will go with her in the future. I worry that with the recent streamlining of operations via the AT&T take over Canary will be seen as a character without a secure IP and therefore forgotten.