The Black Canary | Johnny Thunder | Impossible Crime Tales | Tune of Terror | The Solo Black Canary Tales | The Silver Age Revival
Classic Comic Books Home Page (with many articles on comics)
These best stories of the comic books are preceded by their issue number.
All the 1940's stories were written by Robert Kanigher, with art by Carmine Infantino. The complete solo appearances of the Black Canary through 1972 are collected in the book The Black Canary Archives Volume 1 (2001).
In this first tale, the Black Canary is a crook who preys on other crooks. Such characters were familiar in 1930's pulp magazine tales, such as Erle Stanley Gardner's Paul Pry and Lester Leith. In the tale immediately following, all of this was changed. The Black Canary became a 100% good gal, the sort of person who was a series hero in comic books. She retained her street smarts, underworld savvy and toughness, however. Here and later, she is a person who is an expert on the underworld.
Kanigher has a long tradition of woman heroes. He scripted Wonder Woman during the Silver Age, took on Lois Lane and Supergirl in the 1970's, and featured Ora in his Knights of the Galaxy tales. All of these series are enthusiastically feminist.
Johnny Thunder had been a long running character in Flash Comics. In five of his last six tales, he is teamed up with the new character of Black Canary. After this he disappears as a solo character, and his series is replaced by Black Canary solo adventures. The same Robert Kanigher - Carmine Infantino team did both the Johnny Thunder and Black Canary tales.
Most of the Johnny Thunder tales are comic romps. Disparate elements come together, all making up an exciting story. There is a unity of comic tone in these tales, which helps bind the varied plot episodes together. Their inventiveness makes them some of the best plotted of the Black Canary stories.
Johnny Thunder rather resembles Jimmy Olsen in stories to come. Both are very young men, both are essentially comic Everymen without super-powers, but who are the pals of super-beings, both need to be rescued frequently, both are fearless and rash, both are highly honest and determined, both are subject to romantic crushes on women who give them the brush off, and both dress alike in suits and bow ties. Johnny has a little bit of the middle class elegance of Infantino's heroes to come, however, unlike the more ungainly Jimmy.
Infantino does a great job with his gangsters. They are dressed to the nines in elegant tuxedos. Personally, they look like a bunch of gorillas, but they are very spiffily dressed.
Like several of the Black Canary tales to come, this one deals with the side of a building, near which people are ascending on a ladder or a staircase. Kanigher seemed to come up with suspense plots in such locales, and Infantino excelled at drawing the buildings.
The Black Canary looks a bit like the real life movie star Veronica Lake. This is an appropriate choice. Veronica Lake made a strong impression in such film noir works as This Gun for Hire (1942) and The Blue Dahlia (1946). Both Lake's characters and the Black Canary were dynamic women who could cope effortlessly with all sorts of crises and crime confrontations. They were cool, collected, energetic and always up to any sort of challenge. Both were complete good gals and heroines. Yet both knew their way around a tough urban world, and neither was intimidated by crooks or bad guys. Both also spent a lot of time helping out male heroes who were in trouble. Both Lake's perennial co-star Alan Ladd and Larry Lance were tough guys; Ladd helped make famous in This Gun for Hire the trench coat look that Larry Lance sported in the tales. But both Ladd and Lance played men who were in big trouble, who had personality weaknesses, and who frequently needed the support of the heroine. One should not push the analogy too far: Larry Lance was far more comic than any of Ladd's characters, often being a comic foil for the Black Canary.
The Black Canary does not appear in this tale. This is the only issue of Flash Comics from #86 to #104 in which she does not appear. Nor does the Thunderbolt. The tale is entirely non-science fictional. In this, it anticipates the solo Black Canary tales to come.
Kanigher liked to join several different plots in his Black Canary tales. Here the disappearance of the washer gets Johnny Thunder involved with solving a jewel robbery. This robbery subplot at first seems to be a separate story, although the two plots eventually connect up. Kanigher often had the hero get involved in one subplot through actions taken with another. The join often came at odd angles, with one subplot fitting into another in an unexpected or off trail way. Such joining up of subplots was a tradition in private eye fiction. In Raymond Chandler's prose private eye stories, for example, the hero will often be asked to perform some task, such as recovering jewels or protecting someone, and while doing it the apparently straightforward task is complicated by a murder mystery. This indicates that the situation was far more complex than he originally thought, plunging him into a complex case with many subplots and blind alleys. Kanigher uses a similar approach throughout many of the Black Canary tales. It allows him to create complicated stories full of exciting, unexpected events. It also allows him to give his work the flavor of prose private eye literature.
Triple Exposure (1947). A cameraman takes strange pictures of Johnny Thunder and the Black Canary when they happen to be near a bank robbery. Inventive tale with many surprising plot twists. The story is down right surreal in many of its events.
The photography here is part of a continuing interest in the series in the machines and technology of the 1940's. At the time, these were all up to date, high tech devices.
The Tumbling Trees (1948). Strange events in the woods attract the attention of Johnny Thunder and the Black Canary. The last of the Johnny Thunder feature stories. The next issue, the Black Canary will appear without him, and he will never return in the series. DC promptly reused the name Johnny Thunder for a cowboy hero in the comic book All-American Western. Despite the reuse of the name, the Western Johnny Thunder and the super-hero Johnny Thunder have nothing in common, and are completely separate characters. Robert Kanigher was involved with writing the Western Johnny Thunder character, too.
This story has a delightful opening, which shows links with the impossible crime story in prose mystery fiction. It also shows strong ties to Surrealism.
Although this tale was published a tiny bit after the Black Canary's first solo appearance in Flash Comics #92, there are signs that it was written before. It marks a transition from the comic tales teaming the Black Canary with Johnny Thunder, and her serious crime solo tales. Like the tales to come, this one is a serious-toned story featuring the Black Canary as a detective. Also like them, there is no sign of Johnny Thunder. Here the Black Canary helps out a handsome young man in trouble; he dresses in sharp 1940's clothes, like Larry Lance to come, although he is not as tough as Larry. Phil Martin also looks much like Lance, and one suspects he is a dry run for that character. Both men have wavy black hair.
A big difference between this tale and the solo appearances is the persistence of fantastic elements. Here, the Black Canary has the ability to summon birds to her aid. This power is used as a deus ex machina to rescue the Black Canary from crooks at the end of an otherwise realistic crime tale. This is precisely the way the Thunderbolt would rescue Johnny and the Black Canary at the end of their crime adventures. So these fantastic elements mark a continuation of the paradigm of the earlier stories.
This is the only adventure in which the Black Canary has super-powers of any sort. Otherwise, she is treated as a strictly non-super-powered sleuth in the Batman tradition. One suspects that her creators decided they had made a mistake in this tale, and did not repeat the characterization.
This is the first appearance in the stories of a gigantic trap. These elements recall Batman. The Black Canary, along with her male partner such as Phil Martin or Larry Lance, is often tied to a post or stake in such traps, and made to be part of a giant machine. She and her partner will often be in motion, as part of the operation of the machine. Many of the machines seem to involve figures of humans: the music boxes of "The Circle of Terror", the target range of "Crime on Her Hands". Getting real humans involved with these surrealistically confuses the borderline between humans and images of humans. So do the strange photographs of "Triple Exposure", which seem to have a life of their own. Similarly, the Western Johnny Thunder encounters images of himself in "Decoy at Canyon Pass" (All-Star Western #74, December 1953 - January 1954) and "Mystery of the Masked Menace" (All-Star Western #116, December 1960 - January 1961). The robots in Kanigher's Metal Men also frequently encounter duplicates of themselves. Many of Kanigher's tales also involve twins, and other duplicates of humans.
A good-looking cop in a sharp uniform makes fun of the hero, when the hero goes to him for help (page 2). The policeman's uniform is tightly belted, anticipating the belt Larry Lance wears with his suit in "The Huntress of the Highway". The cop makes a thumb gesture of dismissal, to the hero. See my list of Thumb Gestures in Comics.
This story is the first appearance and origin of the mythos of the Black Canary. Here she first gets her secret identity of florist Dinah Drake, her boyfriend private eye Larry Lance, and the brooch that contains so many useful technological devices, like Batman's utility belt. Both the secret identity and the brooch cast her into the Batman mold. So do the serious tone of the stories, and the many technological devices that appear in them.
The Black Canary did not start out as a Batman clone. Instead, she was an independent crime fighter in most of her earlier stories. Even after she gained Batman-like features, the stories still mainly emphasized her work as a fearless crime fighter. Her personality did not change much, nor did the feel of the stories.
Infantino usually dresses Larry Lance to the teeth in clothes that recall the heroes of 1940's film noir: hat, double-breasted pinstripe suits, trench coat. Such a private eye character suggests that comic books were already beginning to introduce a noir sensibility in 1948. Please see my list of Trench Coats in Comics. It specifies the six tales in which Larry Lance wore a trench coat. It also gives context, listing other tales of the era featuring trench coats.
Larry Lance and the Black Canary reverse the roles that often defined the sexes in their era. She is tough, competent, capable and level headed, and the person who solves the mystery; he is often captured by bad guys, and needs rescuing and help solving his cases. Larry Lance also has the same decorative role often played by women in movies, being good looking and beautifully dressed. The Black Canary has a crime fighting persona directly in the tradition of Batman, Green Arrow, and other male crime fighters in the Batman tradition. All of this suggests a conscious role reversal of gender norms.
Robert Kanigher often wrote about such gender identity themes. His characters Tin in the Metal Men, and his Western character Johnny Thunder (not to be confused with the super-hero Johnny Thunder here) are males who violate gender rules for men, and who have titanic struggles coping with these issues. Kanigher also did much writing and editing of comics with woman protagonists, such as Wonder Woman and romance comic books.
The Riddle of the Topaz Brooch (1948). The Black Canary and Larry chase crooks who are after a famous topaz brooch. Despite the word "riddle" in the title, this is not essentially a puzzle plot mystery tale. It is also not a story in which the crooks capture the Black Canary and Larry and put them in a trap. Instead, this is almost a pure chase story. The Black Canary and Larry chase the bad guys using many means of transportation: motorcycles, airplanes, parachutes. These exciting scenes have recently shown up in many action movies. Today's special effects technology and stunt work is finally catching up with the sort of spectacular scenes that Kanigher and Infantino created so effortlessly in the comics long ago.
Kanigher and Infantino like episodes that take place in the air. Infantino excels in his depiction of the parachute scenes.
Time Runs Out (1948). The Black Canary and Larry are trapped inside a giant hour glass at a glass factory.
Infantino makes excellent compositions out of the hour glass, and the numerous smaller vessels at the factory.
The Circle of Terror (1948). The Black Canary and Larry solve a mystery involving music boxes. This story invokes the full tilt surrealism of many of the Canary tales.
The Day That Wouldn't End (1948). The Black Canary and Larry help a millionaire who seems to be living the same day over again repeatedly.
This tale also invokes the Weird Menace tradition, of seeming fantastic events that are actually hoaxes. But here, the Black Canary, Larry and the reader see the events from inside. They know that the repeating day is not real, even if the millionaire doesn't. Strange things happening with time are part of Surrealist tradition. The millionaire is experiencing daily life, but experiencing it in a weird and transformed way. This sort of transformation of daily life is a key kind of surrealism.
The Riddle of the Roses (1948). An eccentric rich man orders every rose in Dinah Drake's flower shop.
Dinah Drake functions as a working florist, both here and in the rest of the series. Unlike Batman and Green Arrow, she is not a millionaire who takes up crime fighting. Instead, she is a working woman of obviously modest means. She is clearly dependent on her income from the florist shop to make ends meet. She seems like the most financially modest comics hero before Spider-Man. She never had an origin tale that explained why she took up crime fighting. However, it is clear that she is serious about her work both as the Black Canary and as Dinah Drake, florist. She seems to have a tremendous work ethic. The stories stress that she is a practical person, who knows how to get the job done. She is highly effective in the real world.
This story lacks the "giant object" traps of the immediately previous tales. Instead, the trap here is architectural, involving stairs at a beach house. The suburban setting makes a change of pace from the urban noir of much of the series.
This story shows Infantino's fascination with architecture at an early date. The beach house has corner windows made up of repeated small panes. Such windows will be a key feature of Infantino's future work, one aspect of Infantino's Art Deco style. Here, however, the rest of the beach house is not especially Deco. Instead, it looks vaguely Bauhaus in style, a very stripped down Modernism. Also notable: the overhead shots in this tale of various houses. Such aerial views of architecture had been a comic book staple since the Golden Age. They have always delighted me.
Mystery on Ice (#103, January 1949). The Black Canary and Larry try to prevent a professor from being kidnapped by gangsters, while he is ice skating on a frozen lake. Simple adventure story without mystery elements, ringing every possible change on an ice skating thriller. This tale is pretty minor, although a few of Infantino's snow and ice scenes have charm.
Crime on her Hands (1949). The Black Canary and Larry solve a mystery involving a criminology professor and his nephew. The last Black Canary tale to appear in Flash Comics during the 1940's. Uncle nephew pairs were frequent in the Black Canary tales; they also occur in "The Riddle of the Roses". Such family relationships recall not film noir, but movie whodunits, which frequently included extended relationships within a well to do family.
The Black Canary and Larry get involved with a lime kiln in this tale, recalling the glass factory of "Time Runs Out", and photo lab of "Triple Exposure". Such industrial locations frequently popped up in Batman and Green Arrow. They were part of the comic book tradition of such costumed crime fighters. They also recall the industrial sites that frequently appeared in the finales of semi-documentary crime films of the period. Kanigher's locations in the Black Canary often involve the processing of chemicals. They are productive places, places where high tech, sophisticated objects are manufactured, such as photographs or glass.
We learn that Dinah has a secret closet in back of the florist shop to change into the Black Canary. This is similar to the secret room in the loft of the school house used by Kanigher's cowboy hero to change into Johnny Thunder. Such rooms were especially important to non-super-powered crime fighters. Unlike Superman or the Flash, they could not use their powers to change identities in an instant.
Special Delivery Death (Created in the Golden Age, printed for the first time in DC Special #3, February 1969). The Black Canary, helps private eye Larry Lance crack a case involving an envelope he is holding for a shady character. Many of Kanigher's plots involve valuable objects or packages over which everyone is struggling. Among other things, such packages are both traditional parts of private eye thrillers, and non-violent objects that can be considered in good taste as children's entertainment. The classic example is the falcon statue in Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon (1929). They also allow Kanigher to thicken the plot: the progress of an envelope or package through the tale provides an independent plot thread, one that operates in counterpoint to the solving of the mystery, fights with bad guys, traps and so on. Kanigher's treatment of such packages conveys a strong feel of private eye literature. Larry Lance was a private eye, and most of these tales pay homage to the private eye works that were so popular in both books and film noir.
This story underlines the close links between Kanigher's works and the mystery films of the period. The tale is mainly action, unlike some of Kanigher's more plot oriented classics. The tale has much in common with the atmosphere of the King Faraday stories. It shows the respect with which Kanigher and Infantino treated their heroines, and the alliance between men and women in their work.
The publication did not make clear exactly when this tale was written. A plausible guess is that it was intended for Flash Comics, but was still unpublished when Black Canary's solo appearances came to an end in #104. Or, it could have been written sometime later for a hoped-for revival of Black Canary that never took place.
Television Told the Tale (Created in the Golden Age, printed for the first time in Adventure Comics #399, November 1970). The Black Canary chases crooks who steal gems during a TV broadcast. This minor tale is a pure adventure story, with no mystery and little plot; mainly it consists of a long fight scene on a boat during the crooks' getaway. The story also does little with its television aspects. The clothes here look slightly more modern than the earlier Golden Age Black Canary tales; otherwise, no information is available on when it was created.
The living room of the mansion is full of the U shaped chairs Infantino loved. He will still be including them in episodes of the Flash over fifteen years later. Infantino also includes two interesting exteriors of the mansion, and an intriguing panel showing the TV crew setting up to shoot in a room inside the mansion.
Mastermind of Menaces (1965). Writer: Gardner Fox. Art: Murphy Anderson. The Black Canary and Starman fight against Starman's old nemesis, the Mist. Revival tale that brings back two 1940's heroes, the Black Canary and Starman, showing us what has happened to them in the intervening years. The first of two revival tales, that appeared in 1965 in the tryout magazine, The Brave and the Bold. Had there been a huge outpouring of reader interest, both the Black Canary and Starman would have been revived as regular series characters. This did not happen, and the two revival stories lead to no more tales. One suspects that the DC editor (Julius Schwartz) guessed ahead of time that this might happen. DC had two tryout magazines, Showcase and The Brave and the Bold. The more commercially viable tryouts usually appeared in Showcase, and far more stories from Showcase became regular series than did tales from The Brave and the Bold. One suspects that the two Black Canary and Starman revivals were more done out of a love of the two characters, and a chance to see "what they are doing now", than from any real expectation that they would be a huge reader hit.
Gardner Fox had been heavily involved with Starman in the 1940's, but had never written any Black Canary solo tales before this, as far as I know. He pleasantly tries to include all her old mythos, including the flower shop and Larry Lance. He makes the characters be more middle class than the old urban noir characters of the 1940's. This is in keeping with the change in the American economy itself, and the huge rise in mass prosperity between 1948 and 1965.
Fox had always been quick to pick up on scientific advances. Here, the integration of the newly discovered quasars with Starman's mythos is notable.
The Big Superhero Hunt (The Brave and the Bold #62, November 1965). Writer: Gardner Fox. Art: Murphy Anderson. The Black Canary and Starman team up with another revived hero, Wildcat, to fight against two old villains: the Sportsmaster and the Huntress. After a good opening involving statues of athletes, this minor tale becomes a routine fight between good guys and bad guys. Its biggest merit is some good draftsmanship by Murphy Anderson.