Black Canary of the Birds of Prey has some of the most confusing origin stories in comic book history. Even ignoring her upcoming movie debut in Birds Of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation Of One Harley Quinn) Black Canary is probably the most frequently adapted of DC Comics’ heroines in live-action productions.
Two versions of the character appeared in the short-lived Birds of Prey TV series; a teenage psychic named Dinah Lance and her sonic-scream possessing mother, Carolyn Lance. Smallville had their own version of Black Canary who was a conservative talk show host in her secret identity. Finally, the cast of Arrow had three separate Canaries, not counting alternate universe doppelgangers or the many women making up the Canary Network in one alternate future of Star City. Regardless of the name of her secret identity, her occupation, or what Earth she is from, Black Canary’s personality has remained constant, even as her background has changed with the times.
Yet despite always being portrayed as a strong-willed, independently-minded woman determined to make her own way in the world, most of Black Canary’s origin stories have been strange and downright perplexing. Here’s a rundown of the long and wild history of Black Canary across seven decades of comics.
While this origin story was fairly straight-forward once the character’s heroism was confirmed, the Black Canary name was a notable source of confusion and its meaning is still debated by comic book historians. While “canary” was a slang term for a female singer in the 1940s, music would not feature into Black Canary’s backstory until the 21st century. The most popular theory is that she was a “canary” in the context of a police informant, as she posed as a supervillain and would “sing” to the police about the real criminals she spied upon.
Another likely source of inspiration for Black Canary was the 1946 film noir classic Blue Dhalia, The film starred Veronica Lake as the femme fatale, who (perhaps not coincidentally) was paired opposite a hapless dolt named Johnny (Alan Ladd) who was falsely accused of murder. Lake is believed by many to have served as the physical inspiration for Black Canary’s appearance. The color may also have been changed from blue to black to evoke memories of the then-current mystery of the Black Dhalia murder.
The two were eventually married and lived happily, with Larry supporting his wife’s career as a superhero. Larry ultimately sacrificed his life to save her from being hit with an energy blast unleashed by the villain Aquarius, during one crossover event where the Justice Society joined forces with the Justice League. Seeking a fresh start, Dinah elected to move to Earth-1 and started a new life as a member of the Justice League in the 1969 comic Justice League of America #74.
Due to the fact that every woman in American comics (with the exception of Peter Parker’s Aunt May) was drawn with the face and body of a twenty-something fitness model, it had completely escaped the notice of DC that Dinah Drake-Lance should have an AARP card. This left them scrambling for a sensible explanation beyond Black Canary taking phenomenally good care of herself or age just being a number to both her and Green Arrow. Then it was suggested, by Crisis on Infinite Earths writer Marv Wolfman, they could just write it off as all being the work of dark sorcery.
1983’s Justice League of America #220 revealed the true origin of Black Canary’s superpowers and that Larry Lance and Dinah Drake had a daughter, who was also named Dinah. The younger Dinah suffered a curse that was lain down by one her mother’s enemies; a magic-wielding criminal known as The Wizard. The curse caused the infant Dinah’s crying to become incredibly destructive. This led Black Canary to seek the assistance of her old friend Johnny Thunder and his Thunderbolt. While the genie was unable to break the curse, he did agree to place the younger Dinah into a magical sleep within his home dimension until a more permanent solution could be found.
The Thunderbolt used his power to transfer all of Dinah Drake-Lance’s memories into her daughter’s body, save the memories that she and Larry Lance had ever had a daughter. He also created a duplicate Black Canary costume that fit the younger Dinah’s body. Superman knew the truth of who she was (as did the Justice Society) but didn’t feel the need to clarify things when the rest of the Justice League just presumed she had magically developed her “Canary Cry” power. With the truth revealed, Dinah Laurel Lance was free to become her own woman and to try and figure out a way to explain all this to Oliver Queen. Sadly, the comic ended before that scene could occur.
The two found time to have a daughter named Dinah, who grew up knowing about her mother’s secret life when she wasn’t running a floral shop and spent many late nights waiting on both her parents to get home. She also became something of a mascot to the Justice Society of America, who doted on the younger Dinah and encouraged her dreams of following in her mother’s footsteps. The elder Dinah would hear nothing of it, however, even after Dinah developed a metahuman power as a teenager; a third-vocal chord that allowed her to vocalize ultra-sonic frequencies.
Dinah began to train in secret, turning to her favorite uncle, Ted “Wildcat” Grant to test her abilities as a combatant. She sought out other professional fighters, over her mother’s objections, honing her skills until she was one of the world’s greatest overall mixed martial arts fighters. Adopting her mother’s name and costume, Dinah would become one of the first legacy heroines of the new Age of Heroes and one of the founders of the age’s foremost superhero team; the Justice League of America.
Sadly, this sense of legacy and simplicity was abandoned in 2011 with the creation of The New 52 reality. Like Crisis on Infinite Earths before it, the Flashpoint storyline merged several Earths together; DC Comics’ New Earth, the Earth of Wildstorm Comics and the Earth of Milestone Comics. Unlike Crisis on Infinite Earths, this merge created more problems than it solved and was nowhere near as well-received by fans and critics.
Dinah attracted the attention of federal agent John Lynch during the Zero Year incident which devastated Gotham City. After watching Dinah hold her own against a group of League of Assassins ninjas, Lynch recruited her for a new covert team he was forming called Team 7. It was here that Dinah (now designated Codename: Canary) met a fellow agent named Kurt Lance and fell in love, with the two secretly marrying in defiance of military regulations. The two also became test subjects for a government super-soldier program that awakened their metagenes, with Dinah developing a sonic-scream and Kurt having the ability to negate, trigger and amplify that scream.
After Kurt died while on a mission due to his making contact with Dinah and accidentally amplifying her power, Dinah was forced to go on the run. Her teammate Amanda Waller warned her that Code Black orders have been given to bring Dinah in alive by any means necessary so she could be disappeared for further study. This prompted her to declare herself a Black Canary and led to her forming the Birds of Prey as a sort of all-female A-Team, devoted to helping only the most desperate people in the Gotham City underground.
With the cancellation of the Birds of Prey comic in 2014, Dinah became a supporting character in Batgirl. She was soon given a spin-off series as part of the DC You imprint, written by Batgirl co-writer Brenden Fletcher. One goal of the new series was to reconcile various conflicts involving Dinah’s background in Birds of Prey and Team 7 and the radically different portrayals of Amanda Waller in Team 7 and Suicide Squad. How successful it was is still a matter of debate.
The series was based around Dinah suddenly becoming the singer for a rock band called Ashes on Sunday (despite a lack of any kind of musical training or inclination to being a rock singer) and getting signed by A&B Records to go on tour fronting a new band. Dinah agreed to the tour, having a pressing need to get out of Gotham City since Amanda Waller (who had helped Dinah escape government custody in the first place) was now determined to get her back and had been using a catatonic and amnesiac Kurt Lance (who it turned out wasn’t dead) to make Dinah’s powers randomly go out of control. Adopting the alias DD, Dinah was stunned to find out that her new band had been given the name Black Canary.
Somehow, this pitiful disguise kept Dinah out of Waller’s clutches, presumably because she was now too public a figure to be disappeared easily. Over the course of 12 issues, Dinah came to learn the truth about her powers and how they had actually been given to her by a mute alien girl named Ditto, who was also the guitar player for her new band and also on the run from the government. She also discovered that she had been given false memories upon joining Team 7 and that her mother was actually a master martial artist and florist who was married to a private detective and gave her up to protect her. On top of everything else, Dinah also learned that the record company executive responsible for her big break was a time-displaced Kurt Lance, who was trying to make amends for the crimes of his younger self.
The Black Canary series came to an end shortly before DC Comics course-corrected the New 52 Universe in the summer of 2016 with DC Rebirth. It is suspected that Fletcher was pressured to restore as much of the classic Black Canary mythos as possible in a limited time. In either case, most of the revelations revealed in the Black Canary solo series were summarily ignored, except for the idea that Dinah Lance was now fronting a band called Black Canary while still fighting crime as a vigilante called Black Canary.
Despite being a part of the ensemble of Batgirl and the Birds of Prey, Green Arrow and Justice League of America, Dinah Lance was not given a formal new background as part of DC Rebirth. Instead, writers Benjamin Percy, Steve Orlando, Julie Benson, and Shawna Benson placed the emphasis in their stories on restoring Dinah’s character to whom she was meant to be as a person and not sweating the increasingly contradictory details of her past. All you needed to know was that she was a widow, a rock star and a martial artist, who had just found love with Green Arrow.
Despite this streamlined approach to the continuity, there were still some points of confusion in the new Black Canary backstory. It was unclear just how famous DD and Black Canary were, with some comics treating her like an underground sensation whose fame was limited to certain scenes and other comics treating her like the DC Universe’s version of Lady Gaga. Even now, with all three books canceled and Dinah largely in comic book limbo, Black Canary’s status is still unclear, though the Birds of Prey will be returning in a new series sometime in 2020.
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