Reviews and commentary by Tony Isabella
"America's Most Beloved Comic-Book Writer & Columnist"
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From COMICS BUYER'S GUIDE #1432 (04/27/01)
"Champions small with midnight wing,
"Foe of every evil thing,
"Heed my call and arise to flight,
"Prove the BLACK CANARY'S might!"
Black Canary, COMICS CAVALCADE #25, 1958
You've been here with me before. DC Comics publishes one of their spiffy keen Archives Editions and I get all melty and swoony when I review it here. I'm just a fool for love, and what's not to love about the big goofy fun that is BLACK CANARY ARCHIVES VOLUME 1 ($49.95)?
Black Canary made her debut in the waning years of the First Heroic Era. Her first venue was the Johnny Thunder strip in FLASH COMICS where she was introduced as a maybe-criminal who preyed on no-doubt-about-it criminals. She won the goofy Johnny's heart and soon thereafter kicked him out of his own strip. She even took his spot in the Justice Society of America. She did, however, let him keep his green suit and his magic Thunderbolt. The luckless Johnny would later lose the suit to Jimmy Olsen in a poker game.
BLACK CANARY ARCHIVES, like all the volumes in this series, is a wonderfully-made tome. The design work, within and without, is first-rate.
Even were I not enamored of the historical treasures to be found inside the package, the quality of their presentation would still rate favorable mention.
Of course, the truth of the matter is that I am most certainly and certifiably ga-ga for the Golden Age delights reprinted in this book, impressed by the 1965 team-ups with Starman, and intrigued by the clearly uncomfortable 1972 collaboration between two legendary talents. Virtually my only disappointment stems from the too-brief foreword by the original Black Canary penciler Carmine Infantino, and that only because it didn't answer *my* questions about how and why this character was created and so quickly elevated to relative prominence. It is all about me, isn't it?
As to the above questions, my best guess would be that editor Julius Schwartz and writer Robert Kanigher thought Johnny Thunder needed a romantic interest of sorts, what with his crime-fighting partner zapping around sans clothing all the time. Since Kanigher was also writing the successful WONDER WOMAN for DC, they may have also hoped to attract some of the Amazon's avid fans.
While the Canary was making her first appearances, Joe Simon's and Jack Kirby's YOUNG ROMANCE was a big hit for a rival publisher. Bumping Johnny for a solo strip featuring a costumed heroine might have well been an attempt to hold the interest of the young female readers of FLASH COMICS, readers who were an important part of the comics market in those golden days.
The foreword is followed by 22 Johnny Thunder and Black Canary stories by Kanigher, Infantino, and, mostly, inker Joe Giella. Two of these stories, which remained unpublished until 1969 and 1970, were inked by Bernard Sachs. These, in turn, are followed by those Starman/Black Canary team-ups from THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD, and the Denny O'Neil/Alex Toth serial from ADVENTURE COMICS.
The Golden Age stories, the longest of which is 10 pages, tend to share a simple formula: a crime, often strange, that the heroes stumble upon; a deadly peril for the heroes to overcome; and some moderately clever resolution. What makes the stories so delightful are the frequently amusing character bits and the often outlandish resourcefulness of the heroes.
In the story that introduces the Black Canary, the Thunderbolt complains because he has to interrupt his reading of FLASH COMICS to rescue Johnny. At the end of the story, he cautions his newly-smitten young master thus
"No, you don't! I'm tired of heroes in comic books falling in love with beautiful villainesses! You're not much of a hero, m'lad, but you DON'T fall in love...not in THIS story!"
Though Johnny isn't incapable of cleverness and coolness-in one story, he saves himself and the Canary by using his Boy Scout knife-he mostly gets by on sheer dumb luck. Thrown from a moving car and off a cliff, he hits some branches and bounces back up to the roof of the car. Trapped in an automobile pit, facing certain carbon monoxide suffocation from the car of the story's villains, he is rescued when a cat bumps into a lift control lever and flips the vehicle over. When his leap at a gun-toting thug falls short, he lands on a crate of light bulbs which explode and blind/confuse the killer. I'd groan if I saw any of these bits in a modern-day comic, but, in this context, they work for me.
Once the Black Canary took over the strip, Johnny was replaced by the somewhat-more-competent-but-equally-down-on-his-luck Larry Lance, a private detective who set up his office in the flower shop of Dinah Drake. This young businesswoman was, of course, secretly the Black Canary.
In addition to learning the Canary's true identity, her solo stories also revealed to discerning readers that she was...a witch! I mean, even if one wished to attribute her mystical summoning of and subsequent rescue by a host of black canaries-see this week's opening quote and the COMICS CAVALCADE tale--to the desperation of a writer who had written her into too deadly of a peril, there's no getting around the fact that, at the very least, the Canary had to have possessed psychic powers.
Starting with the Canary's first solo tale in FLASH COMICS #92 (February, 1948), and in virtually every 40s adventure thereafter, our gal wears a special locket. When she presses her chin against it, it snaps open and materializes whatever she needs to get out of whatever jam she's in. If she needs a tiny knife to cut the ropes that hold her to a log heading for a waterfall, then out comes the knife. If she needs a smoke bomb to distract some other captors, she gets a smoke bomb. If she needs a mirror to deflect a deadly photon ray, then the locket opens to reveal a mirror. Whatever she needs, that's what's in the locket when she needs it.
Either the Canary was a super-psychic and knew ahead of time what device she should put inside the locket for her next case...or this locket of hers was a supernatural artifact in the same league as Doc Strange's amulet. And don't even ask me to explain how she could utilize her little devices while her hands were tied. We're better off not knowing.
If I mock these 50-year-old stories, it's because I honestly love them. The relationship between Dinah/Canary and Larry leans more toward the madcap romantic comedies of the movies than to the typical comic-book romances of the day and plays well to Kanigher's strengths as a writer. There are some truly clever criminal plots and sinister villainesses in the stories. Dare I say, Kanigher and Infantino brought a subtle sophistication to what, in lesser hands, would have been just another back-up strip.
The Starman and Black Canary team-ups from THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD aren't as humorous as the Canary's earlier exploits, but they definitely play up the sophistication. Here we see a happily-wed and more mature Dinah, sharing adventures with her husband Larry, as well as with her old friends Ted Knight and Ted "Wildcat" Grant. This is also a far more determined Black Canary, a heroine not to be trifled with.
When she discovers she's been an unwitting pawn of the Mist, her expression is downright scary. Given a miniature cosmic rod by Starman, she prefers to use her own methods in battling the Mist's henchmen. In the second story, she uses her martial arts skills to toss the Sportsmaster around like the proverbial sack of potatoes. Not even in the current and excellent BIRDS OF PREY series has the Canary been portrayed as competent and as strong as she is in these two Silver Age thrillers.
Writer Gardner Fox was really on his game for these stories. The heroes are inspiring without being infallible, the villains are menacing without being maniacal. The action sequences are clever and well-choreographed, due in no small way to the amazing artistry of Murphy Anderson, who also brings the characters to vibrant life in every panel.
As in the earlier stories, there are wonderful character bits throughout these Silver Age classics. The playful romance of Dinah and Larry grows into a marriage of mutual affection and respect, a relationship quite remarkably mirrored in that of the Huntress and the Sportsmaster. Starman's rather ostentatious hobby of building scale models of famous observatories on his estate is surprisingly eccentric for the veteran super-hero, while Wildcat's eagerness for a rematch with the villains is equal parts gumption and immaturity, a not uncommon characteristic of athletes. I'd rank these two B&B stories as among the best of the Silver Age.
The final story in this collection is definitely the "odd man out" of the contents, a Black Canary solo adventure by Denny O'Neil and Alex Toth. A jobless Canary hires on as a martial arts teacher for a group of women whose bad intentions should have been obvious from the start, though the "start" is obscured by the first chapter opening in media res and bouncing back to the beginning before it lurches to the cliffhanger ending.
The second and final chapter is equally disappointing with a last-panel surprise so badly executed that, when I first read this story in 1972, I wondered if the editor had left out a page or two. What seems obvious to me, albeit in retrospect, is that the writer didn't write the story the artist wanted to draw...and the artist didn't draw the story the writer wanted to write. The result was disappointing then and has become more so with the passage of time, the solitary collaboration of legendary talents who could have done some amazing comic books together.
Fortunately, if I want to get over my dismay over the two that got away, I need only flip back to the beginning of BLACK CANARY ARCHIVES and reread the choice bits, or, instead, pick up another one of the 50-plus Archives editions published by DC since it began this magnificent series. With new volumes coming out almost every
month, DC is making it easy for me to remain a fool for love...the love of old comic books.
They had me from "up, up, and away."
Comments on or review items for this column should be sent to: Tony's Tips, P.O. Box 1502, Medina, OH 44258. You can also e-mail Tony at.
Let's see what's been on your minds lately, starting with this note from CARL HENDERSON
I don't know if you knew, but EL DIABLO has already been updated once. In 1989, Gerard Jones and the late Mike Parobeck did an version of EL DIABLO set in a modern-day southwestern city. It was quite good, and as good comics often are, canceled in less than a year.
You are correct, sir. I didn't remember the series until your note, but, now that you have jogged my memory, I not only remember it, I remember liking it quite a bit. In fact, when I was working on my second BLACK LIGHTNING series, I once remarked that Lightning and Diablo could probably become great pals if they ever met, but that they would probably never meet because each of them was more concerned with and connected to their respective cities than they were to the larger DC Universe.
Next up is this note from RON GIVEN, which a more modest soul than I would probably not share with you
I find it almost surreal that I might actually be able to impart a message to you. First, your website is excellent, nice graphics, but more importantly, articles and essays of substance. I'm sure you are a very busy man so I'll try to be the soul of wit here.
Thank you for all the cool comics over the years. I'm 34 now and still read comics as life permits. I'm not articulating this well, but I remember a time when I was a teen and I used to publish a little magazine with some friends. The bull sessions disguised as "editorial meetings," and how we talked for hours with passion and conviction about comics and the whole process...and how your name amongst others was used to drive a particular point home.
I'm not sure what I wanted to say here. Maybe just that you were part of a group of people that inspired us to act as well as think. We had so much fun reading comics and a passion for the genre. You, sir, were a part of my childhood. Thanks for being there whether you knew it or not.
Thank you for the kind words, Ron. The nature of the current comics market gives "veterans" like me a lot of reasons to throw in the towel and abandon the industry to those who have brought it so low. But, letters like yours go a long way towards giving us that boost we need to get back in the fight.
Finally, CBG reader JEFFREY PLACKEMEIER checked in with some thoughts on the column reprinted above
I just read your review of the BLACK CANARY ARCHIVES and I agree that the O'Neil/Toth story was out of place. Had it been me, I would have rounded out the volume with the two-part JLA/JSA story in which Larry was killed and Dinah crossed over to Earth-1. I imagine DC included the story that they did in order to showcase Toth's distinctive style, reasoning the story would not likely be reprinted elsewhere and the "crossover" story will be reprinted in a future JLA ARCHIVES volume.
Still, I think Larry Lance's death would've provided a greater sense of closure since it dealt with the "mother" Canary, whereas O'Neil's story clearly dealt with the "daughter," despite the fact she refers to herself as a "widow lady."
In another bit of DC retcon, the "third Black Canary/Starman team-up" as revealed in the modern-day STARMAN series leads to some interesting "between the panels" reading of the BRAVE & THE BOLD stories.
With STARMAN coming to a conclusion, I think it's high time I caught up on that title. It was once one of my favorite DC books and, through no fault of the book itself, it's been at least two or three years since I've read it.
WHERE ELSE CAN YOU FIND TONY?
First and foremost, TONY'S ONLINE TIPS is now appearing three times a week (Monday, Wednesday, and Friday) at Norman Barth's fine PERPETUAL COMICS website
These are all-new columns, supported by online retailer Barth and, of course, your patronage of his services.
Although this website reprints my TONY'S TIPS columns from CBG every week, the weekly newspaper of the comics industry also offers great features by Peter David, Mark Evanier, Bob Ingersoll, Craig Shutt, and others. You can get subscription information from the CBG website at.
This month, I've written introductions for comics collections by two of the most consistently entertaining creators in the small press field. My pal PAM BLISS will be publishing her DOG AND PONY SHOW anthology any day now. It's packed with suitable-for-all ages stories and features of all kinds. I don't believe it's going to be offered through Diamond, so your best chance of getting a copy is by ordering one directly from Pam's own Paradise Valley Comics.
Her website is located at
The second introduction is for STARDUST AND THOR: HEROIC TAILS by George Broderick Jr., the same mad genius who does CHASE VILLENS here at World Famous Comics. To quote from said intro
"The heroic Stardust is a man of few words. The playful Thor is a dog of many yips and barks. The witty George Broderick, Jr., their creator, can be found somewhere betwixt the two, telling his (and their) stories with a smidgen of text and an amazing command of the comics art form. I love all three of them."
STARDUST AND THOR: HEROIC TALES ($12.95; 128 pages) will be published in May by Comic Library International. It was listed in the March PREVIEWS catalog.
I'm working on some other stuff as well, but none of it is far enough along for me to want to talk about it. Just keep watching this website for updates.
I'll be back next week with more stuff.
<< 04/20/2001 | 04/27/2001 | 05/04/2001 >>
Discuss this column with me at my Message Board. Also, read Heroes and Villains: Real and Imagined.
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THE "TONY" SCALE
ZERO: Burn your money before buying any comic receiving this rating. It doesn't *necessarily* mean there's absolutely nothing of value here - though it *could* - but whatever value it might possess shrinks into insignificance before its overall awfulness.
ONE: Buy something else. Maybe I found something which wasn't completely dreadful in the item, but not enough for me to recommend it when there are better comics available. I only want what's best for you, my children.
TWO: Basic judgment call. I found some value, but not enough to recommend it. My review should give you enough info to decide if you want to take a chance on it. Are you feeling lucky today, punk? Well, are you?
THREE: This denotes something I find perfectly respectable. There are better books out there, but I wouldn't regret buying this item. Based on my review, you should be able to determine if it's of interest to you. Let the Force guide you.
FOUR: I recommend anything earning this rating. Unless you don't like the genre, subject matter, or past work of the creators, I believe you'll enjoy this item. Isn't it uncanny how I can look right into your soul that way?
FIVE: Anything getting this rating is among the best comicdom has to offer. You should buy/read this, even if the genre/subject matter doesn't appeal to you. It's for your own good. Me, I live for comics and books this good...but not in a pathetic "Comic-Book Guy" sort of way.
Please send material you would like me to review to:
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