Women in Comics: Musings of a Grumpy Lesbian Comic Book Nerd / the Black Canary Problem


ISLAY
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I’m going to get stick for what I’m about to say, so I’m gonna back up both my ‘female comic book nerd desperate for greater representation in the medium’ cred and my ‘Mega Black Canary fangirl’ cred by crediting Gail Simone’s seminal Birds of Prey run with my first introduction to the genre.

 

The first time I found a Birds of Prey comic, I was a fat nerdy thirteen year old girl, I was already questioning my sexuality and my father would be dead in less than a year – I was in for a really fucking shit time over the next few years. And during what followed, Oracle, Huntress and Black Canary were an integral facet of my inner world, foundational members of a cohort of female characters that granted me both an escape and a creative outlet whilst I otherwise ground through my miserable adolescence.

Super gay kid that I turned out to be, the subtext between Babs and Dinah was my particular crime fighting flavoured jam. Both those characters became formative for me and something about Dinah in particular meant that I got my hands on and read almost every major arc she’s appeared in in the DC Canon. As I got older I came to appreciate the – at the time unique – two facets that the character had to offer: that her title was a legacy passed down from mother to daughter, where most inherited superhero titles go from father to son or male hero to male sidekick; and that Dinah’s best stories are inherently tied to her leaving Oliver Queen. She’s one of the few female superheroes out there who was initially introduced purely as a love interest and yet went on to become as iconic if not more so independently from him.

 

So when it was announced last year that there was, at last, to be a solo Black Canary comic I was excited.

 

And once I finally got my hands on it, I was far less so. And less so. And less so with every issue.

 

Guys, I’m sorry, but I really don’t like this sodding book. And I get wide-eyed looks at every female-related comic book discussion I end up in when I bring this up, like I’m single-handedly sending the cause of women in comics back to Silver Age by not managing to be unconditionally supportive.

 

But Jesus, this book is a waste. The entire first arc, recently concluded, and Dinah herself, are a huge missed opportunity and as someone who loves Dinah, it’s just depressing to see her own book fail to live up to her potential. Although its low readership – leading to its effective cancellation, given that it’s not going to be picked up again after the latest ‘Rebirth’ (ugh) this summer – would suggest that I’m not the only one disappointed by it.

 

I do want to give a shout out to Annie Wu, whose artwork is impeccable: the book looks gorgeous and Wu’s brilliant, live-wire style is highly appropriate for the character – but. That’s sort of all I’ve enjoyed about it, and if the story’s not there then the art feels – well, like another wasted opportunity.

 

 

I want to be clear I don’t really blame the team behind the comic for its failures, because its primary problem is out of their hands: Dinah’s N52 backstory (or lack thereof).

 

What’s in the N52 continuity for her is at best patchy and confusing. Until recently it’s not been clear which version of Black Canary we’re dealing with in her own solo title: Dinah Drake, the first Black Canary, or her daughter, Dinah Lance.

 

Fans wouldn’t be blamed for assuming this was Dinah Lance of the pre-N52 continuity, de-aged but otherwise basically the same character, because of her long association and friendship with Barbara Gordon, who is also still basically her pre-N52 self, just younger. Until the most recent issues of the solo Black Canary comic when it turned out that we’re apparently dealing with Dinah Drake. Which… makes no sense (why is she friends with Babs? How did they meet? What the hell?). The shift also immediately throws out a lot of potentially useful continuity.

 

And I wouldn’t mind moving on from Black Canary’s old backstory – a new one wouldn’t erase the old one, after all, all those comics still exist, and there have to be elements of change in a canon as extensive as DC’s otherwise stories stagnate. Audience tastes also evolve over time so it’s only sensible to evolve to meet them. But I would expect that backstory to be replaced with something better or more appropriate for Black Canary’s target readership.

And it hasn’t been.

 

Most relevantly, pre-N52 Dinah LANCE is the daughter of an older female superhero, Dinah DRAKE, whose title and legacy Dinah LANCE took on, against Dinah DRAKE’s wishes, which I think is an especially relevant thing if you’re trying to market a comic to teenage girls. What’s more relate-able to teenage girls than a dysfunctional mother-daughter bond?

 

This comic should have been about identity, it should have been a coming of age for the daughter of a superhero now seeking to take up the mantel. Look at the likes of Ms Marvel, which is very much an identity/coming of age story; the new Batgirl also tackled identity during its first arc, and even though I was iffier about that run, you can’t argue with the sales the title did, and is still doing.

 

DC chucked out a ready-made teen girl identity story, a tried and true formula for success at this point, disregarding an iconic legacy character like Dinah Lance in the process, essentially to replace her with a character who should be her mother but isn’t. It seems completely bizarre to me. What did we get instead?

 

A story about a band, and they’re on tour, and Dinah is in the band for some reason, surrounded by characters we know very little about and have no reason to be invested in, and… there’s a random kid who is… maybe an alien? And somehow made of sound?

Like. What. 

 

 

I need to investigate when the Black Canary solo was in development but it certainly feels like whoever was involved was trying to tap on the success of Jem and the Holograms, another comic for and about young women, set around a rock band where one member randomly has superpowers. But Jem is an exponentially better story because – shocker – it explores real issues that affect real teenagers/young women, using a slightly heightened sci-fi world to do it in an entertaining way. It’s charming, it’s relatable, for all it’s also about rockstars with a sentient AI pal.

 

The Black Canary solo doesn’t attempt to ground its characters the way Jem, Ms Marvel or Batgirl does; hell the Unbeatable Squirrel Girl offers readers a more relatable story (mostly set around college dorm life, occasional time travel arc aside) and she’s literally a squirrel girl. She has a tail, and a talking squirrel companion. And yet the story has me invested up to my ears in Doreen’s manic college hijinx, where Black Canary leaves me cold and confused by who Dinah’s even supposed to be anymore.

 

And I think Black Canary’s low sales make it clear that this failure to offer up a relatable story hasn’t worked out very well.

 

The Black Canary solo, though obviously it can be picked up by men and older women, is very much a comic that is being targeted at teen girls and 20-something women as a core readership. It was launched off the back of Batgirl which has exactly that demographic, and the tone of the book is deliberately very similar down to it having a writer in common. So failing to speak to that audience has spelled bad things for the future of the title, since it couldn’t coincidentally attract a different audience large enough to sustain it.

 

And I reckon that by chucking out a potentially useful backstory, and instead trying to create something brand new that looks cool (the frickin band) but without taking the trouble to think about what actually attracts the female audience it wants to cater to with this title, DC has failed that audience and the book itself. Because, shockingly female readers don’t just need a Cool Spunky Heroine in a Cool Spunky Outfit with a day job doing [inset cool spunky occupation here – anything from grad student to rockstar to journalist].

 

We, frankly, don’t need any of that – like any reader, we just want a good story, and the Black Canary solo doesn’t have one, even though a highly relevant one is right there in the character’s older continuity.

 

As a long-time fan deeply attached to Dinah, I’m frustrated that no one really took the time to dig into the character in order to offer readers a better experience; it feels like the team involved weren’t interested in the character, per se, but rather in trying to ‘fix’ Dinah to make her cool and hip for yoof, or something. It makes me sad because I think it’s emblematic of a mistake both Marvel and DC need to be wary of when rebooting characters and old titles for the female audience they’ve finally realised they have.

 

The drive to evolve to find new readers is one I applaud. As an audience member who has spent most of her reading life being completely ignored by comic publishers it’s refreshing to abruptly have them acknowledging my existence and trying to make books for me. But in shifting gears it’s important not to disregard the stuff that has already been drawing audiences, female and otherwise, in for generations, and it’s especially important not to underestimate how smart and well-read a female readership is and how quickly we can smell a shallow, boring attempt at a reboot that’s all style and no substance.

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