The Black Canary was more than just the last Forties member of the Justice Society, more even than their first and only official female member: the Black Canary was the last hero, the last new costumed character to appear before the Golden Age would come to an end. And she started out as a villainess.
Black Canary was created by Robert Kanigher and artist Carmine Infantino, for the Johnny Thunder series in Flash Comics 87, although given his contempt for the character, what Kanigher was doing writing Johnny Thunder in the first place is in itself a mystery. (Less of a mystery if you read his Wonder Woman, which is riddled with contempt for everybody, the reader not least).
The Canary was introduced as a beautiful blonde jewel thief, in a haltered evening dress and black domino mask, whose USP was that she stole from other crooks.
Naturally, Johnny was as much infatuated as eager to defeat the Canary who, equally naturally, got away to fight another day. That other day was the following issue, the character having gone down so well at National that Kanigher brought her back immediately, with an explanation that she had been misunderstood: she was a hero who was stealing crook’s ill-gotten gains in order to return them to their rightful owners. On that basis, she was installed as Johnny’s co-star in the name of the series.
The Canary’s real identity was dark-haired florist Dinah Drake. She was the only daughter of Gotham City Police Sergeant Richard Drake, who’d wanted a son to succeed him in the Police. When he had a daughter, he trained her for the Police, only to see her rejected for one of the few female posts available, after which he died of a broken heart.
This story has subsequently been retconned to make Sergeant Drake one of the few honest policemen on the pre-Commissioner Gordon Gotham Police, and Dinah’s rejection a matter of the force not wanting a second honest Drake around.
Dinah seemed to take her rejection calmly, giving up her Police ambitions and opening a florist’s shop. However, secretly she used her skills as the Black Canary. Her costume consisted of a dark-blue bathing suit, a lighter blue short jacket, fishnet tights and dark-blue boots, ith her dark hair concealed under a long blonde wig. The domino mask was dropped after only a couple of appearances.
It was the beginning of the end for Johnny: with Flash Comics 92, the Canary’s only cover appearance, she took over the series in her own name, until Flash was cancelled a year later, with issue 104.
Black Canary first appeared with the JSA as a guest in All-Star 38, discovering the dying Johnny Thunder in time to get life-saving aid for him from Wonder Woman, then turning up at the end to belt the improbable villain round the back of the head and save the JSA. The Canary would leave, hesitantly expressing the faint hope of maybe one day being invited into the Justice Society, but there wasn’t a vacancy until after the next issue (in which she turned up again), when Johnny Thunder stepped down.
Even then, though Black Canary spent the whole of issue 40 alongside the JSA, as an equal, it wasn’t until the next issue, in which she’s very clearly a guest and an outsider, that she’s eventually rewarded by officially gaining membership.
This lasted only until All-Star 57 and the Justice Society’s retirement.
She returned in the cameo JSA flashbacks in The Flash 129 but, as the JSA’s only female representative, Black Canary was featured in the 1963, 1964, 1966 and 1968 team-ups. She also took part in two issues of Brave & Bold, teamed with Starman, with whom she’d never worked before the 1964 team-up. Then things changed dramatically in the 1969 team-up.
Denny O’Neill’s tenure on the Justice League came with a mandate for change. This included having both the Martian Manhunter and Wonder Woman resign (the latter because she had lost her powers), but it left the JLA without a female member. There weren’t any credible Earth-1 heroines lined up to replace her, so it was decided to poach Black Canary from the Justice Society.
This was also the year that O’Neill tried to combat the ever-growing age-gap between the War-tied Society and the perpetual Cinderellas of the League by the notion that Earth-2’s different vibration rate caused it to run slightly slower than Earth-1: twenty years to be precise, putting the JSA back into their prime. So Black Canary ended up trapped in the face of a lethal ball of energy from the villainous star, Aquarius, her brain-washed husband Larry Lance was on the point of killing Green Arrow, but love won over his conditioning and he sacrificed himself to save Dinah.
And Black Canary asked to be taken back to Earth-1, to avoid a world filled with memories of her dead husband.
The next issue, whilst some of the JLAers (I’m looking at you, Hawkman) argued that the Canary shouldn’t be allowed in because all she brings to a team that regularly faces cosmic menaces is a jolly good judo throw, Dinah demonstrated for the first time an ability to generate an ultra-sonic and highly debilitating ‘Canary Cry’. It’s an instant mutation, caused by Aquarius’s radiation, but it’s a superpower nonetheless.
For the next dozen years, that was the new status quo. Black Canary quickly mastered her new power. She started a romantic relationship with Green Arrow that has lasted forty years, give or take the odd time or two off. And, with the exception of a couple of solo series and mini-series, the Canary has always been seen in the context of various teams – mostly the Justice League but, in later years, the Birds of Prey and the revived Justice Society.
Black Canary has undergone two major reboots in that time, both coming within a few years of each other in the early to mid-Eighties. The first of these was carried out by Roy Thomas (who else?), though via the medium of the 1982 JLA/JSA team-up, rather than Infinity, Inc, and was a response to the ongoing Black Canary/Green Arrow relationship.
It had begun as a relationship of roughly age-equals, though the Canary was obviously much older than the Archer. But Gerry Conway (implicitly) and Paul Levitz (explicitly) had rejected O’Neill’s differently-flowing timestreams theory in the All-Star revival, and pinned the Justice Society like butterflies to a real calendar. By 1982, Dinah Drake Lance was in her mid-fifties and getting increasingly implausible as either a superhero or a lover to a hero twenty years or so her junior.
For the 1982 team-up, Thomas brought back the Earth-1 Johnny Thunder for an adventure that was a complete travesty, except that, for its cliffhanger, the Thunderbolt took Black Canary to an interdimensional pocket, where she discovered her own body lying in a glass case.
What followed was the revelation that, since 1969 and Justice League of America 75, we had been following the adventures of Black Canary 2, of Dinah Laurel Lance, daughter of Dinah Senior.
It appeared that, when Dinah Junior was still a baby in her pram, she had been hit by a revenge spell from the former Injustice Society leader, the Wizard, who cursed her with the ‘Canary Cry’, a power that the months-old baby was incapable of controlling. The effect was devastating, and the distraught parents were forced into the hateful necessity of putting baby Dinah into the aforesaid interdimensional pocket, courtesy of Johnny Thunder’s Thunderbolt, where she could grow with her powers causing disasters. Seeing the distress it caused, the Thunderbolt removed Dinah Junior from the memories of her parents and the JSA.
Now, as Superman prepared to take her into Earth-2, Dinah Senior suffered crippling pains. The radiation from Aquarius was killing her. The Thunderbolt led them to Dinah Junior’s hiding place, where she had grown to adulthood, the spitting image of her mother. Dinah Senior’s final wish was that her daughter should be able to have a real life, so the ‘Bolt transferred all of Dinah Senior’s knowledge, memories and emotions to her daughter who, believing herself still to be the original Black Canary, had arrived on Earth-1 with a new body and a new life.
The reboot held for a bit more than three years until it required rebooting itself as a consequence of Crisis on Infinite Earths. The basis of the story remained the same: the current Black Canary was still Dinah Laurel Lance, and she was still the daughter of Dinah Drake Lance, the heroine whose career had begun in 1948, but there was no crossover between Earths, no Aquarius, no dead mother. Instead, Dinah Junior was a child who grew up with two loving parents, and a set of magical Uncles in the rest of the Justice Society. Dinah Junior assumed she would grow up to inherit her mother’s role, only to find Dinah Senior forbidding it. The elder Canary, especially after Larry’s death, believed the world had become too dangerous and dark for a Black Canary.
But Dinah’s ‘Uncles’ – especially Wildcat – agreed to train her behind Dinah Senior’s back, and eventually Dinah Junior stole her mother’s costume in a moment of frustration, and became the new Black Canary (as well as taking over the Florists’ business). She would even replace Wonder Woman as a founder member of the Justice League.
In this story, Dinah Junior’s powers developed later in her life, with no apparent cause to them, but her insistence on taking over as Black Canary drove a wedge between the two women, a rift that was only healed on Dinah Senior’s deathbed, from a cancer brought on by Aquarius’s radiation.
In the early days post-Crisis, Black Canary, in a much-revised, far less sexist costume, was a founder member of the Justice League International, a frequently-irreverent series, from which she disappeared, abruptly, after about eighteen months.
This was to facilitate the next phase of her career, in Mike Grell’s The Longbow Hunters, a three-issue Prestige series rebooting Green Arrow and taking him, and Black Canary, out of the mainstream DC superhero universe. The couple established themselves in Seattle, Washington, for a series of down-to-earth, non-heroic adventures until, with Oliver (Green Arrow) Queen beginning to show a roving eye, he and Dinah broke up, leaving the Canary in a very unhappy situation.
But the most controversial aspect of this period came upfront. In a reversal of their original age-relationship, Ollie was now by far the elder, having turned forty whilst Dinah was still only in her mid-twenties. Dinah was adamant that, whilst she loved Ollie, she would not make babies with him because she would not risk making orphans. Grell then removed that very option: Black Canary was caught (offstage) during an underground operation, was tortured and (impliedly) raped and had to be rescued by Green Arrow, who shot to kill. The outcome for Dinah was that she lost her ‘Canary Cry’ and became incapable of conceiving. Many people loathed the casual way this had been forced upon one of DC’s few strong female characters.
By the time Green Arrow died (temporarily, at least, replaced by his son in an ironic echo of Black Canary’s past), the two were completely estranged. Black Canary found herself going into partnership with Barbara Gordon in the new series Birds of Prey. Barbara, Commissioner Gordon’s niece, had been operative as Batgirl 2 from 1967 to 1988, before being crippled when the Joker put a bullet through her spine. Confined to a wheelchair, she had created a new role for herself as Oracle, the DC Universe’s premier information broker and computer genius. Birds of Prey started as a team-up with Black Canary, with the latter as field agent, but it has gone on to develop into a team of female operatives.
The new series featured another change of costume for the Canary, this time going to a more streamlined variation on her original costume, and with died blonde hair instead of a wig. This was carried over into the revived JSA series, with Black Canary a stalwart in the early days, and even starting a relationship with Doctor Mid-Nite 3, until Green Arrow returned from the dead, and Dinah was editorially reclaimed for various combinations of his new series, the JLA and the Birds of Prey. Dinah and Ollie resumed their relationship and, after Infinite Crisis, even got engaged and, whisper it after so many years, married.
The marriage didn’t last. It didn’t get off to the best of starts, with Ollie attacking Dinah on their wedding night and Dinah killing him, but of course that wasn’t the real Ollie. The first case of the new Green Arrow/Black Canary series was therefore Dinah tracking down her kidnapped husband.
These days, with mainstream superhero comics being dominated by editorially driven events, it’s impossible to say whether the marriage was actually intended as a long-term status, but in real life it wasn’t. A Justice League story featured Star City being devastated (again) by the villain Prometheus, but this time the victims included Ollie’s adoptive granddaughter. Green Arrow went after Prometheus without talking to Dinah, and killed him in cold blood. She in turn helped to persuade him to turn himself in but, given his refusal to talk, she divorced herself from him by taking off her wedding ring.
Since then, the Canary has operated away from Green Arrow, serving as Justice League chairman at one point and reforming the Birds of Prey at another. She’s now regarded as a master tactician, and one of the greatest martial artists in the world.
Most of this has been swept away by the New 52, but Black Canary continues in the newest Universe, in much the same form as she was, although she’s now the only Black Canary and there is not nor ever has been any Dinah Drake Lance. How that leaves Dinah Laurel Lance’s background, I do not know, nor do I intend to inquire.