Transmyscira: BLACK CANARY Volume 1: KICKING AND SCREAMING

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BLACK CANARY Volume 1: KICKING AND SCREAMING
Written by Brenden Fletcher
Art by Annie Wu, Pia Guerra, and Lee Loughridge
Published by DC Comics
Release Date: March 2, 2016

Comics, and more specifically the section of the industry that primarily deals with the direct market, is at a crossroads.

It’s been a constant refrain for nearly two years now, recently highlighted by a speech given by Image publisher Eric Stephenson to retailers with an eye towards its near immediate dissemination on social media. He called on them to read a broader range of comics and to take risks on new voices, while also highlighting industry practices that everyone — himself and Image included — are complicit in resulting in pushing short term gains to the detriment of long term health.

Appearing at the cusp of a major creative realignment at DC, the first volume of Black Canary, aptly named “Kicking and Screaming,” presents a near perfect opportunity to discuss where the mainstream is now, where it appears to be going, and where it could go.

Be aware. Spoilers may follow.

There’s no question that Black Canary is a singular achievement. In matters of craft, cohesion, and broad appeal, it’s the most important comic to come out of DC since Batwoman: Elegy. “Elegy,” the likely apotheosis of Kate Kane as Batwoman, was lightning in a bottle. It captured a moment in the medium and outside world that can never be duplicated. This was punctuated in the Forward by journalist Rachel Maddow describing how she’s used Greg Rucka’s work to explain complex issues of foreign policy — awarding him a rare level of authoritativeness, but one roughly on par with that ascribed to his collaborator J.H. Williams III. What they achieved together cannot be duplicated.

Black Canary isn’t the next Batwoman: Elegy because there’s no such thing. It’s critical to understand that before peeling back the layers and examining what makes Black Canary so unique and powerful. It’s that it can’t be repeated and we shouldn’t expect it to be.

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My close friend Richard Jones — who not only guided my first steps in the works of not just Morrison, Moore, and Ellis, but also introduced me to the budding careers of Kieron Gillen and Matt Fraction a decade ago — opened his review of the first issue of Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl by situating himself in music criticism, the heart of that particular narrative. He went on to relay an anecdote about the late English DJ John Peel. Peel was famous for introducing mainstream UK audiences to the cutting edge of music through the BBC across several decades, hosting live recordings known collectively as the Peel Sessions. When asked why he’d relentlessly pursued new musical genres and artists across his professional career near the end of his life, Peel replied that he was trying to find something that would make him respond the same way that he did to Elvis for the first time, which is a particularly famous episode in his life.

“”It may not sound like much today, but ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ had the effect on me of a naked extraterrestrial walking through the door and announcing that he/she was going to live with me for the rest of my life. As Elvis walked in, Frankie Laine and Johnny Ray tiptoed out and nothing was the same again. There was something frightening, something lewd, something seriously out of control about ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ and alarmed though I was by Elvis, I knew I wanted more. And I got it. I could still sing you every note of every song on that classic first eponymous LP and maybe one day I will.”

As Richard rightly put it, Peel was a rare bird, and that most of us will spend our lives following our own Elvis moments trying to understand them and find replicas of them instead of living in the moment of change.

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Boiled down to its essence, that’s what Eric Stephenson was asking of retailers, to challenge themselves to stop falling back on their own Elvis moments or what the publishers are hawking as such and to embrace the spirit of Peel. But just as we need retailers to position themselves to introduce their customers to Junji Ito, Emily Carroll, Reina Telgemeier, Stjepan Sejic, or Ron Wimberly, so too do we need critics willing to stretch beyond the well worn paths to find, embrace, and nurture emerging talent.

Black Canary is by no means among the most overlooked comics on the market, but it is a comic that demands attention and is specifically engineered to invite the reader to live in the moment of discovery by placing its most important moments in liminal spaces.

Black Canary is billed as a loud, aggressive, and visually dynamic spin off of Brenden Fletcher, Cameron Stewart, and Babs Tarr’s reimagining of Batgirl, springboarding Dinah off Babs’ couch and onto the road with a brand new band and a mysterious record deal. It’s not wrong, but nor is it particularly right. It does no justice to the wellspring of creativity on display to offer up witticisms like “Remember the time when Dick Grayson was a spy, Catwoman was a gangster, Batgirl lived in Williamsburg, and Black Canary was in a rock band?”  Black Canary is a comic about a rock band that does the things that a rock band does in the key of a superhero comic, but it’s fundamentally a story about harmony whose most powerful moments are expressed in stillness.

The trade opens with a high energy comedic brawl, the free preview that rolled out with all of the DCYou titles, but the first issue and story proper open with no dialogue or inner monologue, just press clippings. The closest thing a comics page can achieve to silence.

The Dinah we see in front of us is a far cry from Babs Tarr’s big haired cranky bird. Annie Wu reintroduces her in a moment of quiet contemplation, drinking from a water bottle and preparing to go out on stage set to cool blue and purple Lee Loughridge flats. It’s the eye of the storm, a place that Brenden Fletcher brings her back to throughout the arc until we come to understand it as her home.

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It’s kind of a shame that the preview isn’t stuck at the back of the trade with the library of gorgeous variant covers and process work from Wu, because the true opening is a study in economy and visual storytelling that immediately establishes the cohesion of Fletcher, Wu, Loughridge and letterer Steve Wands.

Dinah’s quiet contemplation of her hands, covered in gaffer’s tape beneath the fingerless gloves, the close ups of the band aids that dot her legs through her signature fishnets, and the contrast of her battered boots with sagging uppers and the sleek angular heels she wears on stage tell us everything we need to know about her performance of identity. This is the internal, intimate view of Dinah, while the clippings that Wands intersperses throughout the page are the exterior, public image of her.

Even so, they serve a strong narrative purpose that shape the way we view the page. Loughridge bathes all but the final panel in cool blues and purples, using a hot pink to hint at the noise of the crowd that lies just out of view, but her hands taped under fingerless gloves like an MMA fighter, her feathered cape that recalls Ric Flair as much as it does Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and the caption suggesting she’s more comfortable in combat than music creates an uncertainty about what lies beyond in that hot pink swirling outside the cool blue refuge: a stage or a ring. The answer is both, as performative violence becomes intertwined with the performance of music.

Public perception versus personal truth is a key aspect of Fletcher’s work with co-writer Cameron Stewart on Batgirl, but the contrast that immediately emerges is that Babs’ identity is written in wet cement and Dinah’s is carved from marble. At several points in the first arc of their Batgirl work, Babs finds herself twisting in the winds of public perception, chasing an image she can’t possibly hope to control.

Dinah, in contrast, lets the stories about her, both real and imagined, proliferate. It’s a very specific and daunting challenge to execute a deeply personal story about an intensely private protagonist, especially if the intent is for that reticence to be felt by the reader.

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That’s where the deeply cinematic elements of Annie Wu’s work begin to appear, framing Dinah’s world by the external details similar to the pre-fight rituals documented in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler and Ryan Coogler’s Creed (united by cinematographer Maryse Alberti). But Wu’s fluency in the visual language of film remains adaptable to the needs of the story and becomes most apparent in the arc’s third issue in which the band get caught up in a car chase surrounding their tour bus that delivers an affectionate wink to Max Max: Fury Road.

Despite the clearly intentional set up of one big vehicle ferrying relative innocents watched over by a stern protector being harried by a swarm of smaller ones and a particular visual cue, Wu and Fletcher don’t break down the action in a way that resembles that film, instead drawing on a panoply of sources in a spirit much more reminiscent of the late Sally Menke, who collaborated on all of Quentin Tarantino’s feature films until her death following the completion of Inglorious Basterds.

Tarantino and Menke are particularly relevant to comics given that at various times they’ve both challenged the prevailing director as auteur narrative in film by defining their work as a collaboration that blurs the lines between their roles. “I write by myself but when it comes to the editing, I write with Sally. It’s the true epitome, I guess, of a collaboration because I don’t remember what was her idea, what was my idea. We’re just there together.”

It’s something to bear in mind as the popular discourse still ascribes auteur status to writers in comics, especially when approaching a comic that rests as heavily on the nuances of the art and coloring as Black Canary, but more pertinent is the signature aspect of Tarantino and Menke’s collaborations: the pointed reuse of easily recognized shots from classic films.

Shot recycling, while rarely candidly discussed in view of the general public, is an ubiquitous aspect of filmmaking. Popular lore has it that the most duplicated shot in film history is the invading army cresting the hill in The Seven Samurai, but Tarantino and Menke have drawn attention and criticism for foregrounding the practice in their style.

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“Our style is to mimic, not homage, but it’s all about recontextualising the film language to make it fresh within the new genre,” Menke explained, which illuminates how Wu breaks down the language of film for the comics page. What makes Wu’s work so effective on the issue begins at positioning individual frames like fixed perspective cameras on a film set then mimics how a common shot begins and ends to create keyframes that the reader’s mind naturally fills in due to their familiarity with the visual progression. It’s a rarely exploited technique, but it isn’t difficult to employ. There’s actually a well circulated exercise in drawing from film geared towards teaching cartoonists the subtleties of camera work to improve their storytelling for anyone looking to duplicate the effect in their own work.

The same issue highlights the essential synesthesia of Loughridge’s colours in an especially cinematic execution. Light, shadow, and color can have very specific and idiosyncratic importance in film and contemporary coloring in comics can frequently be primarily about rendering and creating form, but Loughridge’s work here is very specifically geared towards bringing out the emotional and thematic subtext that defines greatness in film scores.

Over the last year on titles including Black Canary, Catwoman, and Wolf, he’s begun his work on ongoing titles by introducing limited palettes that define the broadest spaces and themes, then builds incrementally to flesh out a broader understanding of the world the story takes place in and the roles that its major players occupy.

On Catwoman, he established clashing warm reds and cool blues that defined Selina’s inner conflict over her transformation into a crime boss as well as the simmering tensions with Eiko Hasigawa. As they drew closer together and Stephanie Brown entered the narrative as a mitigating influence, purple creeped in as a major element of the palette, before retreating back to those extremes as the murder of the Hasigawa patriarch ruptured their collaboration. In Black Canary, cool blues and bright pinks emerge as the initial dominant colors, used on the opening page as expressions of tranquility and extreme activity.

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In the third issue, as Wu crosscuts between Dinah fighting on top of the tour bus and her dance choreography in the concert afterwards, Loughridge shifts between purely setting based colors — desaturated sepias for the fight — and purely emotionally driven colors for the concert. The result situates the fight as having the sense of urgency and belonging to the present with the crosscut concert panels existing to reveal fresh insight into Dinah, which it does in spades.

Wu begins the page by setting the perspective level with the tire of one of the motorcycles in pursuit of the bus, moving in close on Dinah’s eye as she sizes up the gap, then shows her leap level with the first panel before moving to a full row of Dinah leaping into the crowd at the show, taking the place of her in freefall, returning to the present as she lands on one of the attacker’s bikes.

What’s made explicit by Loughridge’s colors in the sequence is that Dinah is at peace in freefall, coloring her the bright pink of agitated motion falling into a sea of serene blue. It’s a profound and jarring insight into her character that’s delivered without so much as a crack appearing in her outward stoicness. We’re effectively told that Dinah is at peace in freefall, that she finds serenity in the roiling mass of her fans and the rushing air as she plummets towards a motorcycle ridden by a masked enemy. This dynamic becomes fodder for further revelations later in the issue as we see Kurt, robbed of his memory of their marriage by amnesia, watching a video of them together.

The framing of the sequence shifts significantly from difficult to identify action shots to a decidedly Lynchian vibe that recalls Twin Peaks (and possibly Lost Highway) as Kurt gazes at the screen watching scenes from a life he can’t remember, moving closer and closer in until just his eyes and theirs in the recording are visible.

Just like how a film score will work in a specific instrument like a flute or a particular percussion to represent a specific character, Loughridge broadens the palette to bathe the sequence in a pale turquoise to give Kurt a sense of unease struggling towards the blue that represents serenity. That blue is present on the page, however, barely perceptible except for where it dominates the screen that Kurt is watching. The turquoise frames Kurt’s detachment, but the blue also works, in tandem with its presence throughout the issue, to paint a vivid portrait of what he and Dinah had together.

You can cleanly intuit that despite the relative normativity of the scene Kurt is wrapped up in, the dynamic that he and Dinah had is likely anything but banal considering what’s coded as serenity from her viewpoint is crowd surfing and jumping off moving buses, but it’s a level of insight that only comes across through the coloring, highlighting just how imperative all the creative roles are to communicating the intricacies of the story.

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For all the talk of cinematic storytelling, it’s important to distinguish between what the Black Canary team does and the trend of “widescreen” decompressed storytelling that was more or less brought to the forefront by Bryan Hitch’s work with Warren Ellis and Mark Millar on The Authority, carried through to The Ultimates, and that Millar continued with in his Marvel work, most notably with Steve McNiven for the Civil War event.

The object was to create the look and feel of a Hollywood film by duplicating the aspect ratio of a theatrical film and pushing the level of representationalism in the art to achieve as true to life of an image as possible. Interestingly enough, Jack Kirby used similar compositions as early as 1964, but the key difference is that Kirby was never invested in making comics look like movies.

Kirby, like Team Black Canary, was interested in leveraging the language of film onto the comics page to enrich the medium instead of presenting it as a simulacrum of something else. That’s a spirit, especially given how deeply saturated the mainstream is with superhero films that are striving from the other side to look as much like the hyperrealist comics that wanted to be them, that’s critical in defining greatness in contemporary comics. Going back to Batwoman: Elegy as the last great boutique DC title, J.H. Williams III definitely works in a baseline style that pursues a similar level of realism to Hitch or McNiven, but instead of pursuing hyperrealism or trying to close the gap between film and the printed page, he moves towards surreality, pushing the page to do things that cannot translate elsewhere.

The most obvious example that bears this out is the compositions he and Alan Moore plotted out for Promethea, most notably having characters carry on a looping conversation while walking along the edge of a moebius strip. It’s just as evident in Batwoman: Elegy or even Desolation Jones, where — between the two — he built layouts using panels shaped like teeth using diseased gums as gutters and folded Kate Kane changing into Batwoman into the sections of a bat’s wings. In the latter two examples, the message is clear that not only is this an image that can only appear on the printed page, but the narrative and form are tied together in a way that can’t be chiseled apart. “Jog on,” these pages urge Hollywood.

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Black Canary doesn’t do that, and doesn’t seem to have any anxieties about either trying to escape or weld itself to the comics page. When it spreads its wings to push at what the page can do, it doesn’t pursue the postmodern avenue of drawing attention to its construction. As already discussed, the third issue draws on the visual language of film, but also chops up the page in a way that doesn’t read like the way film is presented, but the palpable film influence begins to subside when veterans Pia Guerra and Sandy Jarrell step in for Wu and it disappears completely when she returns to finish the arc.

Tellingly, one of the final major instances of film mimicry comes from a series of afterimages trailing Dinah’s mysterious attacker as she moves in a fight, calling to mind the goofy shoo-shoo-shoo sound effect from Shaw Brothers kung fu movies (also used by Tarantino in Kill Bill Volume One). The same issue shifts to multiple exposure still photography as an influence to dissect each movement in a flip, but as Ditto’s true nature is revealed and the critical importance of sound to the narrative becomes apparent, it’s the language of music that controls the page.

Black Canary’s closest contemporary for challenging the limits of the comics page is Chuck Palahniuk and Cameron Stewart’s Fight Club 2, which goes in the exact opposite direction. They arrived at the comic knowing that, despite Palahniuk being the original author behind the novel, they would be working in the shadow of the film and embraced that reality by studying how director David Fincher and his crew tied it just as tightly to the construction and presentation of film as a J.H. Williams III page layout. Fincher utilized “cigarette burns,” spliced single frames of Pitt as Tyler Durden into scenes prior to his first appearance, and simulated the film itself nearly jumping the reel at the close of the second act, and following through with it at the film’s close.

Palahniuk, Stewart, and colorist Dave Stewart mimicked it by finding the next nearest comic book page equivalent to repeatedly draw the reader’s attention to the fact that the narrative is elapsing across a printed page. They began by inserting thematically relevant, hyperrealistically rendered objects over panels and dialogue, a motif that has held steady across the whole of the series so far.

The most effective instance, and the one that recalls the same mentality in the film, occurs in the sequence where the comic revisits the most violent and memorable scene of the film to enact a bloody beating, the blows landing so hard that the colors and inks begin separating from the pencils, escalating until the panels were knocked loose like picture frames in an earthquake, collecting at the bottom of the page.

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Instead of doing something that self aware, in the climax of the arc, Dinah chases the ultimate villain onto a page of sheet music where they fight until they push, and ultimately tumble through, the lines in a sequence that is somehow both the exact same and the exact opposite of Ultraman’s struggle to escape the comic page in Animal Man. What’s so utterly unique and engaging about Black Canary is that it utilizes ideas that have driven some of the most idiosyncratic and best loved work in the medium, but executes them in a way that has never been seen before.

Which cuts to the heart of what John Peel felt when he heard Elvis for the first time and chased for the rest of his life. I didn’t actually know who John Peel was until I read that Phonogram review, but none the less Peel exerted a curious influence on me. Thanks to a budding interest in Grant Morrison, I have a disturbingly complete collection of The Smiths on my computer that includes three separate recordings of What Difference Does it Make? One opens with a long note that builds through the guitar opening until the drums pick up. The other two simply begin with the guitar riff, but one is atrociously tinny, as if someone had shut the bass off entirely, but the final one has a rich depth and clarity that makes it my favourite version.

The first, the one with the unique opening, is the best known, the studio version recorded with producer John Porter. The tinny one was the original recording with Troy Tate that was so hated by the band it was scrapped along with all their recording with Tate and prompted the hiring of Porter. It can only be found in the wild as a bootleg.

The third, my favorite, was recorded as part of the Peel sessions for his BBC show in 1983. I have no idea how Smiths fans generally regard the Peel sessions, but from my perspective at least, Peel created a space in which to showcase the best and most transformative work of the moment. It must have felt like a fleeting moment to witness in person or listen to from home, but it was immortalized for me to find decades later and after Peel’s death, besides.

It ought to serve as a reminder that no matter what the future holds, what rough beast slouches towards WonderCon to deliver the announcement of the DC Rebirth line up, comics are not mandalas scattered by the winds. Black Canary won’t continue on to reach the same landmark achievements as Harley Quinn’s two year and counting reign of terror or Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s four year journey together on Batman, and it doesn’t have to.

“Kicking and Screaming” achieved in seven issues what no one in recent memory has been able to do in twelve. Super-groups burn hot and fast, which is what Fletcher, Wu, Guerra, Jarrell, Loughridge, and Wands clearly represent. They did the work and showed us a vision of what the future of the medium could look like. If that’s what we want, it’s up to us to celebrate it, share it, and drag the industry into that future, well, the title says it all.

The Verdict: 10/10

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