Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Black Canary: Hero Worship Part II

Cover by Trevor von Eeden

Black Canary: Hero Worship Part II (February 2, 1993)
Writer: Sarah E. Byam
Penciller: Trevor von Eeden
Inker: Bob Smith
Letterer: Steve Haynie
Colorist: Julia Lacquement

Black Canary was one of my favorite discoveries while watching Justice League Unlimited and I have been sadly bereft of Black Canary-centered comics. I usually only get my fix from Birds of Prey, which is awesome but definitely not enough. You don’t read Birds of Prey for just Oracle or Huntress, but for the ensemble. Therefore, I’ve become very used to the idea of Black Canary/Dinah simply being a secondary character, a role I don’t think she deserves.

I was terribly excited, therefore, to get a hold of this issue and finally, FINALLY have a chance to engage solely with Black Canary (even her ~*~boyfriend~*~ Green Arrow was conspicuously absent).

 All of my previous experience with Black Canary featured her in a group or couple setting. She was either an important member of the Birds of Prey or the serious and rock steady girlfriend of Green Arrow. She was never particularly funny but she definitely played the “straight man” role a lot of the time. Therefore, I was surprised by how gritty this issue was. Byam emphasized the serious ramifications of being a superhero for Black Canary; she was troubled, not averse to violence and extremely serious about the job at hand. I liked it.

I’m still not sure how I feel about the way in which gender was handled in this issue. A part of me found it refreshing that Dinah was very much aware of her gender and yet did not dwell on a sense of Otherness. Yet I was also concerned by the very same fact that she DID draw attention to her identity as female. As a feminist comic book fan, I am still struggling with my own understandings of what it means to be equal or even taken totally seriously and also female in comic book worlds. Does equality = gender neutrality; a complete lack of attention paid to gender differences? Or, is it in fact found in an emphasis on difference and a corresponding empowerment through this? In other words, would Wonder Woman celebrate that fact that she is a woman or simply ignore it?

This is an issue that has plagued feminists for many, many years and we are no closer to an universal answer. If anything, the only answer we can seem to agree one is that there is no one correct way to achieve equality or be a feminist. What I find empowering, another woman may find demeaning and that’s all right. The important thing is that we have the choice to decide these things for ourselves.

It’s also difficult simply because in comic books, gender is so directly linked to identity. Look at the titles bestowed upon our heroes: Iron Man, Batgirl, The Huntress, She-Hulk, Superman. Gendered binaries are unavoidable in comic books. Of course, there are awesome characters that have completely neutral names and therefore, the titles can be taken on by multiple characters of different genders (The Question and even Robin in The Dark Knight Returns immediately come to mind).

Black Canary, however, will probably always be a woman because of the feminizing implications of the word canary. It’s a girly bird, apparently, unlike Hawkeye; who, interestingly enough, was also portrayed by a woman which then begs the question, is it more acceptable for a woman to emulate a man than for a man to emulate a woman?

What was especially interesting about this issue had nothing to do with the story itself. The fan letters at the end of the book were all focused on Black Canary’s role as a female superhero. Each letter, at one point or another, either praised DC for diversifying its heroes and giving more women their own books or lambasted DC for its ham-fisted representation of a woman. Also, one letter called Black Canary a “Rambitch.” I’m not sure what that is but the responding letter from DC told me I should be offended. It should also be noted that every single letter was written by a man. Furthermore, many of them commented on how great it is that more female characters are getting noticed and their time in the sun by DC. This sounded vaguely familiar to me, and then I remembered that I have read the same sort of comments on multiple comic book blogs and articles. Seriously, this comic is 18 years old, and we still haven’t gotten over our own congratulatory amazement that female comic book characters can be taken seriously and also just be plain awesome.

It seems that no matter what, we just can’t move on from the mere fact that female comic book characters EXIST.


  1. Since this comic is nearly 20 years old I'm thinking that "Rambitch" is a bitchy Rambo, hence ram-bitch. just a theory. Rambo was big at the time. :-)

  2. This is a subject where my studies on feminism and critical race theory intermingle a bit, though I don't have complete confidence in my understandings yet either (and I think that's a good thing), but I do not think it is a good idea to ignore or downplay a character's feminine background. The idea is that prejudice in any form all comes down to experience. Growing up as a white male, I'll be exposed to different stimuli than a black female and no matter how our progressive our society becomes this is inescapable. In treating an individual as inferior because of the color of their skin, sexual preference or genitals, one is assuming the same about their experience: that it doesn't matter, at least in light of their own experience. It doesn't matter if they perceive that experience as superior or just normal, it produces exactly the same consequences.

    You ever see that episode of South Park where Stan is trying to empathize with Token over the difficulties of growing up black, but no matter how many breakthroughs Stan makes Token never acknowledges his progress? The episode is resolved when Stan approaches Taken and says:
    "Dude, I get it. I don't get it. I'll never get it."
    To which Token responds:
    "Now you got it."
    It's the same idea. Token had a different experience than Stan growing up and experience is something you can only know by, you know, experiencing it. It doesn't make one superior to the other or inferior, just individuals. So, when it comes to writing I've always believed that the best policy is to always have characters acting at maximum capacity, and while that sounds self-evident that doesn't involve completely ignoring their childhood. However the major hurdle to overcome here is that I, a white male, did not grow up as a black female. "I don't get it. I'll never get it." That doesn't mean writing a proper character of a different background impossible for me, just very difficult, probably the most difficult thing to do. And, well, people, like water, tend to take the path of least resistance. I'm just saying I doubt many female super heroes were taken to their local McDonalds and had a Barbie doll thrust into their face and were told "THIS IS WHAT YOU NEED TO LIKE AND YOU ARE WEIRD FOR NOT LIKING IT." Nah, they got their choice, and they went with the monster truck with not so much as a glance at that doll, because hey, that would be weird.

  3. @Sergio J. A. Ragno III Kidding aside, nice and thoughtful comment. HOWEVER, your own dependence on gendered binaries totally peeked through (it happens) when you used the Happy Meals analogy. Why does a female superhero need to also, for example, like monster trucks? Why MUST she be masculinized? Can't she like so-called girly things such as Barbie dolls and also kick ass and be a strong, deadly vigilante? Why does feminine have to negate superhero?

    I'm not trying to pick on you or anything because clearly you've thought a lot about these issues; I'm merely pointing out how incredibly (and unfortunately) EASY it is for us to fall into and accept these binaries and stereotypes. A huge part of the solution is simply acknowledging this, though that is incredibly hard as well.

  4. @Ari Why'd he have to add the "bitch" to it then? Just call her Rambo. SEXISM!!!!

  5. Actually that was my point, with the Happy Meal thing. I kinda have a track record for being really bad at explaining myself. I was trying to use a little sarcasm to paint a picture of what has become acceptable for writers to do in order to appear progressive, although now that I think about it there may be more to it than that.

    P.S. when philosophy is involved be prepared for essays from me. Ahem.

    John Dewey once justified Art as an unspoken and dis-chronos form of communication between artist and appreciator, the artist creates with what the appreciator will see in mind, and the appreciator scrutinizes in order to understand why the artist created the piece and why they did it the way they did it. In the world of comics this is accepted as factual because of the high level of interpretation that is necessitated from simplifying drawings. Its a game of guessing what the audience will see and while I'm not saying that this is exclusive to comics I am saying that it has more of a looming presence.

    In short, I'm saying there's a lot of second guessing going on. If I write a story where my female protagonist goes for the Barbie I may be interpreted as agreeing with that established binary, however, if she goes for the monster truck than one could argue that I am expressing disrespect for elements of the female experience. They could be forced into this trend out of pragmatism, and in a industry led by editors that is especially likely.

    It's irritating because there is so much thin ice here, and we tend to end up with extremes as people clamor to the shore for safety.

  6. Okay, I'm going to give you an example of something that may be on the right track because if my comment length is already massive I may as well go gargantuan. I talked about this in my First Impression review of Final Fantasy XIII but when the game was announced I recall reading an interview where it was stated that the main character, Lightening, would be a "Female Cloud." JRPGs tend to be still stuck in the 1950s when it comes to gender and that didn't make me feel any better. Odds are they were just going to stick some boobies on an established tough guy archetype, throw it in a short skirt and call it a day, and for the most part that was the case with Lightening until a certain point in the game. It wasn't too original, there is a little kid who wants to get stronger, and asks the strongest person around, Lightning, to train him. Lighting's tone, however, changes in these scenes from cold and emotionless to slightly tender yet stern. It had kind of a maternal feel to it, which was not an approach I recall seeing with a JRPG. If I'm not reading too much into the scene, It was there to acknowledge an experience unique to Lightning brought on by appropriate stimuli: Lightening had a mother and identified with her because of her gender, therefore modifying her behavior. Her experience is recognized without any subtext of superiority, inferiority, or normalcy, it is just something that makes an individual.

    Again, I may be giving them too much credit, and I may be completely wrong on whether or not that shift is a good one, but for now that's one I agree with.

  7. But thanks for calling me out on that at any rate, this is one of those trees in the forest kind of things (or whatever the saying is, no I wont Google it) so without feedback its easy to slip up.

  8. @Sergio J. A. Ragno III I'll come up with a thoughtful response later but the first thing I noticed about these comments was the posting time. GO TO BED.

  9. Crime never sleeps Kerry, and neither must I.

  10. @Sergio J. A. Ragno III Okay, that was a funny response. And thanks for the clarification. It was really interesting and just what I had hoped to see on this blog sometime.