Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Canary in a timeline

As I've noted here, the official editorial technique for keeping comic book characters 'contemporary' with the world outside the comics is to, essentially, 'roll up' history behind the characters as the present continues to advance. This is for, essentially, two intertwined reasons -- comic book companies perceive that their audience wants to mostly read comics books that are set in a reasonable approximation of the world they see around them every day, and, that same audience will not welcome characters that are elderly.

This means the monthly (or less regular) titles must continue to be written as if the stories are taking place in the contemporary world of their audience... a fancy way of saying, if a comic book appears on the racks for initial purchase in 1986, the background, characters, and plot elements should all be consistent with that particular year in the particular social setting that the target audience is part of. A comic appearing this month, in late 2006, should exhibit characteristics consistent with the world the readers know.

There should be nothing anachronistic in it; the characters should not be inexplicably driving around in 1920s Model Ts, nor should they be speaking to each other on hologram-projecting wrist devices (unless some explanation is offered as to why such jarringly out of place devices are present). The characters should not speak or behave in any manner that belies the contemporary setting, their clothing should fit the time, as should the details of the background presented.

Comic book characters continue to exist as long as their publication is profitable, though, and some of the most profitable comics characters have now been in more or less continuous publication since the 1940s. In the year 2006, this would mean such characters are at least 60 years old, plus however many years they may have seemed to be of age in their first appearances (generally, at least 10 to 20).

Nobody wants to buy the adventures of an 85 year old Superman or Batman, though. Therefore, comics companies have to somehow reconcile this. They tend to do this one of two ways:

(a) somehow, the character retains extended youth to all appearances and functional requirements, despite the fact that he or she is actually established, within the fictional context, to be of a very advanced age

(b) the character, and the established events of the character's past, are continually repositioned in space-time so as to remain credibly close to the ever advancing present day.

An example of the first is, well, pretty much all of the members of the original Justice Society of America, and specifically, the Golden Age Green Lantern. The JSA are all date-stamped; their early crime fighting careers took place in or around WWII, and WWII is an event of such overwhelmingly charismatic and heroic social significance to our culture that DC does not want to give it up, by redefining the members of the JSA as having had early careers that took place during, say, the Vietnam War, instead.

Thus, the Golden Age Green Lantern is known to have been a young man in the 1940s. We can jigger with his age a bit within those somewhat loose parameters, as suits us, but still, we can't plausibly make his date of birth be much later than 1925 (in which case, he would have been in his late teens for much of WWII, and even that seems somewhat difficult to believe). Assume he was actually born in a rather more likely 1920, or even 1918, and he's closing in on being 90 years old as of this year... and he'll continue to age year for year, as long as he remains in publication, and the character isn't revised to eliminate his involvement in historical events with specific date stamps that cannot be modified for the emotional convenience of the character's target audience.

The JSA is also date stamped by the well established historical fact that the team originally disbanded in response to HUAC hearings – and while you can play with this timeline to some extent, also, as HUAC was effectively blacklisting Hollywood personnel from 1947 to 1954 here in the real world, that 1954 date remains solid as being the last year that McCarthyism could have been reasonably expected to be powerful enough to force the JSA to retire en masse, rather than publicly unmask.

In point of fact, it was Roy Thomas who first came up with the idea that the JSA could have been forced to disband due to investigation by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee on Earth-2. Here in the real world, HUAC mostly limited itself to ruining the careers of suspect film stars and other workers in the film industry, due to its members' fanatical insistence that Hollywood had been 'infiltrated by the Reds' and was therefore making 'subversive movies' that were undermining American values. However, on Earth-2, Joe McCarthy apparently decided to flex his muscles against the post WWII 'mystery men' community as well, with the result that the JSA disbanded... in 1951, the actual year that All Star Comics originally discontinued publishing the JSA's adventures. Thus, all the original members of the JSA, from the Golden Age of comics, are 'date stamped' with the year 1951, as well.

When a character that is still appearing in contemporary adventures has been portrayed as being present, and involved, in two such prominent historical episodes as World War II and the House UnAmerican Activities Committee hearings, there is no real way you can ‘roll up’ the timeline behind them to keep them young. They have to be the age they would logically be, if they were involved with such events and are still alive today; which means, you have to find some way to keep them cosmetically and functionally youthful – otherwise, pragmatically, they are too old to reasonably fight crime, and even more pragmatically, your target demographic won’t buy their adventures, because they're 'geezers'.

This is true of the Golden Age Green Lantern, Wildcat, Dr. Fate, the Spectre, the Golden Age Flash, Hawkman, and other DC characters, as well as Marvel’s Captain America and Sub-Mariner. With all of these characters, the various editors and writers in charge have contrived various different mechanisms to retard their apparent aging – GL is a mystic entity whose physical body is composed entirely of some sort of unknown energy; Dr. Fate and the Spectre are pretty much the same, in addition to which, both represent a sort of cosmic office that keeps being passed down from one generation to the next, and, anyway, each of them are nearly all powerful supernatural beings, so their physical bodies need not age if it’s not convenient; the Golden Age Flash ages more slowly than normal humans due to a serendepitious accident that occurred to the entire JLA back in the 1940s, Hawkman… don’t even get me started on Hawkman.

Over at Marvel, the Sub-Mariner simply has a mutant metabolism granting him vastly extended youthful vigor, and Captain America was frozen in an ice floe for a period that keeps growing longer and longer with each passing year, measured from the end of WWII up to about ten years prior to whatever the current present day in the Marvel Universe may be.

But what about Black Canary?

An obviously youthful female martial artist and costumed crimebuster, Dinah “Black Canary” Drake first appeared in FLASH COMICS #86 in 1947. As with most comics characters, and especially female comics characters, no definitive age was established for her at that time, but it seems safe to assume she couldn’t have been younger than, say, 17, at the outset. This would give her a birthyear of 1930.

Black Canary joined the Justice Society within a year or so of her first appearance, in ALL STAR COMICS #38, which is noted to have taken place on or around October 25, 1947. The JSA ceased appearing in ALL STAR COMICS in 1951, so let’s say that this was the year HUAC forced them to disband rather than publicly unmask. This would mean Black Canary was only active for four years during the Golden Age of comics before retiring. Again, if we assume a birthyear of 1930, she would have reached a ripe old age of 21 at the point she hung up her fishnets and blonde wig alongside the hoods, capes, helmets, cowls, and nth metal wings of her comrades in arms.

In real time, Black Canary stayed out of the limelight, presumably, in retirement, until Justice League of America issues 21, August-September 1963, and 22, October-December 1963. When her husband, Larry Lance, was killed in JLA #74, (September, 1969), Black Canary switched universes and teams, joining the JLA at the age of, by this particular timeline, 39 or thereabouts.

Various ret-cons over the years have established that when Canary went into retirement, she married Larry Lance, her long time paramour, and had one daughter, also named Dinah, at some point in this interval. Prior to Crisis on Infinite Earths removing multiple timelines from DC continuity, it was established that this daughter grew to physical maturity while in a mystically induced coma, and when her mother was dying of radiation poisoning from the same event that had killed her father, Johnny Thunder’s Badenisian Thunderbolt transferred the original Dinah Drake-Lance’s memories and persona into the daughter’s physically mature, but otherwise mindless, body.

Keeping to the established timeline, this story primarily requires that Dinah the Younger be physically mature – let’s say, at least 16 years old – prior to the story in which it was later ret-conned her mother’s original body died of radiation poisoning. If we continue to set this story in its original appearance year (1969), then young Dinah needs to have been born in 1953 – which works, since it’s two years into her mother’s initial retirement.

All of this is simply by way of finding a place to put our feet. The whole Earth 1/Earth 2 dichotomy, and all such subsequent ret-conning based on it, was wiped out by 1985’s Crisis On Infinite Earths. In Secret Origins #50, Alan Brennert established what has remained as the template for the Black Canary’s history and origins in the new, post Crisis, single timeline – namely, that the modern day Black Canary, currently fighting crime in the Birds of Prey series along with teammates Huntress and Oracle, is the daughter of the original Black Canary, who fought crime during or just after WWII, and retired from her brief career as a masked mystery woman in 1951.

My mighty Google powers are, at this moment, inadequate to pin down exactly what year Secret Origins #50 appeared in. However, it couldn’t have been any later than 1988. In 1988, a contemporary female martial artist/member of the JLA born in 1953 would have been 35 – and if we assume that Brennert didn’t feel bound to the timeline I’m laying out here (as he most likely didn’t) he could very well have pushed all the Justice League Black Canary appearances to much later along (to, say, the early 80s) and could have set the birthyear of the second Canary as late as, say, 1963. This would have given us a Black Canary, in 1988, in her mid 20s, which would have been perfectly acceptable.

We should also understand that, by dividing the events of Black Canary’s life up into two separate lifetimes – those of the mother, and those of the daughter – we have to decide which events (stories) happened to (featured) which version of the character. The easiest way to do it is to accept the original, pre Crisis division point (which is why I’ve been at such pains to establish it) – the Golden Age stuff happened to the mother, Dinah Drake, prior to 1951; the Silver Age stuff, and onward, happened to the daughter, Dinah Drake Lance… sometime well after 1951.

There are a few problems evolving out of all this, and I’m sure you can see the shape of them… but let’s toss into the mix this… a little comic called Green Arrow – 1975 – The Wonder Year.

While a quick Googling shows that all actual references to the year ‘1975’ have since been removed, at least, on all the cover reproductions of reprint editions currently available, I remember this series distinctly from when it came out, mostly because of editor Mike Gold’s obnoxious assertion, in a first issue editorial, that ‘ignoring continuity is always a pretty cool idea, when the fans will let you get away with it’. In this particular issue, the Green Arrow/Black Canary romance, a staple of the Silver Age all through my formative years, is going strong. Therefore, I'm throwing the date out there as yet another marker in the Black Canary timeline, this one labeled 'period when Dinah and Ollie were involved as a couple'.

Various other Black Canary fans have done hero's work trying to reconcile all of this with the current Canary appearing in current DC Comics -- a pretty good attempt at which can be found here. However, when you get to a certain point, well, most people just have to give up, as you can see from these passages I’ve excerpted:

At this point, the history of the Black Canary becomes particularly tortuous. Pre-Crisis, Black Canary decided to move to Earth-1 to overcome her grief over her lost husband. En route, she was revealed to be dying of radiation poisoning and transferred her memories to her comatose recently recalled daughter. The daughter then spent many years under the assumption that she was her mother and moved onto Earth-1 (revealed in Justice League of America #219-220).

Post-Crisis, Black Canary did not die shortly after her exposure to the radiation that killed her husband, and her daughter was neither comatose nor unrevealed. At some point in the past, both Black Canaries had active crime-fighting careers simultaneously. After the death of Larry Lance, Black Canary became less active and eventually retired altogether. She developed cancer as a result of her exposure to Aquarius's radiation in later years and died while her JSA comrades were in limbo (revealed in Secret Origins vol. 2 #50 and Green Lantern Corps Quarterly #3).

Post-Zero Hour, the history of the Black Canary is uncertain. The JLA was formed in 1986, nearly 40 years after the Black Canary joined the JSA; therefore, the tale of Larry Lance's death must be greatly altered. Also, since Black Canary was not among those who received the long-prolonging effects of Ian Karkull's radiation, there is some question as to the relation of ages between mother and daughter Black Canary; the original must have been in her 40s or 50s when the second was born. These and other questions will need to be answered before Black Canary's revised history can be fully understood.

Yeah. To say the least.

So, here’s the problem – the original Black Canary was born in or around 1930, started fighting crime in or around 1947, retired as a crimefighter in 1951. She had a daughter, who is currently in her mid 20s (she can’t be any older than that; for one thing, she doesn’t seem to be, and for another, her fan base won’t accept it).

That daughter is currently fighting crime in a contemporary setting in the DC Universe on a monthly basis. This means that (right now) the current Black Canary can’t have been born any earlier than 1982. Which means her mother, the original Black Canary, was around 52 years old when she was born.

Not impossible, but, well, hardly very likely.

If we stick to the date stamps we’ve been thrown like bones over the years, then we also have to factor in here that the current Black Canary was having a well established, long term monogamous relationship with Green Arrow in 1975 or thereabouts. Which is hard, since this would have had to take place around seven years before she was born. (The fact that Green Arrow stated that he was 50 years old in the original Wonder Year miniseries, which would make him 81 now, doesn’t much matter, as he’s died and been mystically resurrected at least once during this time period, and I have no difficulty believing that his resurrection had the beneficial side effect of rejuvenating him to a more youthful physical state, as well.)

Now, obviously, we can just accept what DC has done in abstracting the date stamp from the “Wonder Year” Green Arrow arc, and assume that it actually took place much, much later on in the timeline… probably in the late 80s or early 90s. Still, to fit in a romace with Dinah that lasted at least a few years, and that doesn’t end up giving us a Green Arrow our contemporary society would be forced to revile as a child molester, and to keep Black Canary young enough to suit her fans, well, she and Ollie must have started dating maybe six years ago and broken up maybe four years ago… meaning ‘the Wonder Year’ was 2000. And will continue to be shifted forward, as our own calendar continues to roll inexorably onward.

Here’s what I’m going to propose – let’s add another Canary to the mix.

We keep the original, Golden Age Black Canary. She retires in 1951, has a child in 1953 – which is all in accord with the original, pre Crisis timeline. Her daughter grows up and, against her mother’s wishes, takes up the Black Canary mantle in, say, 1971, at the age of 18. She fights crime in the 1970s, and while I know the contemporary DC Universe timeline will never allow the Justice League to have appeared this early on, still, I find it pleasant to contemplate that the whole ‘Satellite Era’ actually took place when I remember it taking place, in the late 60s to late 70s, and there was a Black Canary who was a part of it.

Even leaving the JLA out, we can keep the Black Canary/Green Arrow romance, and allow Green Arrow to be 50 years old in 1975, which would mean he was born in 1925, and could very well have had a Golden Age career with the original Seven Soldiers of Victory, and had all those goofy Golden Age adventures (or something vaguely like them).

Again, this is all made possible for GA by the fact that he’s died and come back to life at least once, and thus, his contemporary biological age doesn’t have to reflect the reality that it should.

Hal Jordan has recently had a similar mystical resurrection, so, under this theory, the classic O’Neil/Adams Green Lantern/Green Arrow stories could still have taken place in the 1970s, and Black Canary could very much have been a part of them. Of course, if Roy Harper was a teenage sidekick hooked on heroin during this time period, then he himself has to be getting rather longer in the tooth by now than his own fan base is going to want to accept – in fact, he’d be just about my age (nearing 45). But, you know, one ongoing timeline problem at a time. Maybe the current Roy is the son of the first Speedy. (In fact, if we assume that the current Green Arrow is the original Green Arrow as well, he must have had several sidekicks named Speedy over the past several decades… hmmm… food for thought, there.)

Anyway, so we have the second Black Canary, born in 1953, taking on her heroic role in 1971, fighting crime throughout the 1970s and perhaps into the 1980s. Sometime prior to 1988, she retires, for some as yet unknown reason – maybe because she’s pregnant? And has a daughter she names Dinah, also. Who is the current, contemporary Black Canary appearing in JSA and Birds of Prey.

I like the idea for a lot of reasons. One, it preserves a lot of the continuity I am familiar with, in the era where that continuity originally took place. Second, it gives us an entirely new Black Canary to speculate about. We know the details of many of her adventures, but – why did she retire? Who is the current Black Canary’s father? The obvious guess would be Green Arrow, but what if the obvious guess is incorrect? What if the reason she and Green Arrow broke up is that the current BC’s father was someone else? If so, who could it be?

Obviously, this would require some quickly ret-conned explanations – any Black Canary who has appeared in the last decade or so and been romantically linked to Green Arrow would have had to have been the second BC, not the current one. The current one may well have some kind of relationship with GA – but does he think he’s her father? Or is he angry with her because he knows he’s not? Is the current BC angry with him, because she assumes he is, and he abandoned her mother?

There are, I have no doubt, endless reasons from endless Black Canary, Green Arrow, and related character appearances over the past three decades that this couldn’t work, but I suspect worse continuity implants have been put into place before.

Me, I really like the idea of ‘Black Canary’ being a generational identity, rather like The Phantom, with each Black Canary raising a successor to the role.


Anonymous Josh G. said...

I think Black Canary was dunked in a Lazarus Pit on Gail Simone's run of Birds of Prey a couple years back.

6:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good old Gail Simone. Not only overrated but of course the equivalent of MOM from Mom's Friendly Robot Company for the good folks at Warner comics.

5:44 AM  
Blogger Doc Nebula said...

I missed the Lazarus Pit thingie. I suppose that makes more sense than the Roy Thomas nightmare...

I've got nothing against Gail Simone; I always enjoyed her writing, except on the New Atom, where it seemed like she was just saddled with a bad character concept all the way around.

1:43 PM  
Blogger Darci said...

Google? You don't need Google for these kinds of questions. Just go to the ever-fan-friendly Grand Comics Database (at comics.org). Secret Origins (1986 series) #50 was cover-dated Aug 1990, and Green Lantern Corps Quarterly #3 was dated Winter 1992. (I'm thinking the latter was referenced for the "Old Friends" story about the Golden Age Green Lantern? I've not seen it.)
The Lazarus Pit was used in Birds of Prey (1999 series) #34, cover-dated Oct 2001. This was the event when Dinah's canary-cry was restored as well.

I like the idea that the Black Canary role has been passed down through the years. Maybe someday DC will come to its senses and use your conjectures. They had a similar opportunity with the Carolyn Lance character in the 2002 Birds of Prey TV series, but I don't think they thought it through as well as you did.

6:41 PM  
Blogger DA Madigan said...

Darci, would you believe I'm only now seeing your wonderfully helpful and insightful comment? Thanks for the references! Sorry I'm so slow.

8:12 AM  

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