Black Canary #3 is a quiet story in a loud world. There’s a car chase that would cost several million dollars to execute in real life. People fight on top of a bus. There’s a rock concert. But you don’t feel any of this. Because you aren’t supposed to. One of the first times I remember internalizing just how much great comic art can achieve a visceral impact without gritty detail was Ben Templesmith’s work on Fell. Don’t ask me what issue or panel it was, but Templesmith was carrying on with his abstract curling line work as usual and Fell was beating on a dude, and the more it went on the less you could make out of the exact body positioning, but he used the colours, a deepening intensity of reds that really made you feel the impact of his blows. When I ran into Templesmith at a convention around that time at a con and told him what I thought of his work on Fell he shrugged and said “It’s a chance to work with Warren fuckin’ Ellis.” This, judging from what I’m seeing on the page in Black Canary, is probably a sentiment shared by the entire team about each other.
There’s a similar kind of thing to what I saw Templesmith achieve working on this issue, to an opposite end. It’s one thing to say that the highlight of the issue is an entire page with no text, but that’s less than half of how it works as well as it does. Annie Wu frames the action in such a cinematic way that she can easily communicate that silence. The first panel in the sequence is just masterful. The viewpoint is effectively from beside the wheel of one of the motorcycles attacking the tour bus pointed back up at Dinah standing on its roof. It’s a basic panel, but the throughline from the cycles to Dinah is magnificent, it guides the eye perfectly. From there the following panels move through a very clearly cinematic cross cut of Dinah free falling off the bus and onto one of the motorcycles and stage diving during the concert that took place shortly after, but they’re spaced out and arranged in a way that only works on a comic page. Fight Club #4 is going to have to do something big because Wu is challenging Fletcher’s Batgirl co-writer Cameron Stewart in a very serious way here.
I never get tired of talking about Lee Loughridge, which is good because he adapts to different titles so incredibly well. There’s a sense between Catwoman, Black Canary, and Wolf that a similar and perhaps the same intelligence is behind all three, but he adjusts his palettes and techniques enough that there’s no particular formula you can break him down to. Even within a singular title. The first three issues of his Catwoman work established some specific motifs and a pair of dominant colours, but by the time the current arc began he was slowly opening up to new colour choices as Selina’s world expanded and became more complex. Wolf is even moodier and more subdued, but Black Canary has the broadest and boldest colour choices of his current work, as it should.
Loughridge really comes out to play on the page mentioned above, continuing the sepia tones used to establish the mood and cinematic frame of reference for last issue on the panels where Dinah jumps from the bus, but where he really takes ownership is the crowd diving sequence, rendering Dinah in all pink against a sea of blue. It all comes together so beautifully and cleanly. When I listen to the Breaking Bad commentary tracks and they talk about what the colours of the characters’ clothes mean, that green means decay, for instance, I just kind of nod and say cool, but that’s not something I’m going to pick out or feel on my own. When Loughridge gives me Dinah swathed in pink diving into a crowd of supportive blue hands, well I get that. Things can be deep and open to unfathomable depths, but the broad strokes need to be easily visible.
We understand in the cleanest and clearest sense that Dinah feels free, relaxed, and utterly serene in freefall. Which is utterly inhuman and breathtaking. There’s a lot of ways that you can communicate that a character is badass, in terms of the scope and scale of the feats they accomplish. They can climb mountains, kick someone’s head off, pick up and throw a bus. Insert your own hyperbole, but all it took here was a sense of calm and serenity under circumstances where those impulses are the last response your average person would have. Thing is that most of the time female badassery comes with a teardown of other women like Ronda Rousey’s nauseating Do Nothing Bitch rhetoric, explored in depth here. “I’m not like other girls, I don’t hit/shoot/run/whatever like a girl.” You’ve heard it before.
Fletcher, Wu, and Loughridge deliver just how awe inspiring and frightening Dinah is by making the internal external. It’s that easy. They let us into her mind because she doesn’t need a foil, female or otherwise to justify her. All we need is a visual shorthand that lets us see the world through her eyes for a split second. It wouldn’t be particularly hard to achieve this with a male character either, but there’s a level of emotional accessibility that is both allowed and expected from women that makes a character like Dinah especially ripe for a take like this. Because on the other side, Dinah is laconic and inscrutable which is murderous for women in the public eye. “Smile more,” they tell Kristen Stewart. “Are you tired?” they prod Cara Delvigne.
This gets complicated in comics because emotion can’t be conveyed with the kind of subtlety and power that Edie Falco in Nurse Jackie or Aaron Paul in Breaking Bad could achieve shot on video. Emotions on the comic page are writ large to compensate, and in the right context that works, hence the enduring popularity of Kevin Maguire’s rubber faces or the never ending joy I get from most of a page taken up by Sophie Campbell’s Pizazz screaming out into the universe in Jem & The Holograms. That can’t work for a title like Black Canary that sets itself up to explore how we receive women who don’t adopt the public persona demanded of them, especially not when the intended message is something along the lines of “Google me, I’m not hiding.”
It helps, a lot, to have an artist who can achieve the kind of subtlety that Wu can, both in the details of Dinah’s face and how she frames Dinah in the panel, which I talked a bit about last issue. Note the flecks of eyeshadow around her eyes this issue. But this is ultimately where a comic will live or die by its colouring. Just as Dinah executes a trust fall by jumping off the stage and expects to be caught by the crowd, Fletcher and Wu need to trust Loughridge to carry it the distance. Which he does.
When I got to talk to Genevieve Valentine about Loughridge recently, I asked about the collaborative process that goes into his colours and the themes that he brings out in them, and the short answer was that it’s all him. He gets the inks and she gets back the pages when he’s through with them. His clashing reds and blues that defined Selina and Eiko’s early relationship that have recently melted into a synthesis of purples as Spoiler entered the fray were all the product of what he read into Garry Brown and now David Messina’s work. The bottom line is that however the process works on Black Canary, Loughridge has already established himself as being just as an adept storyteller in his own right as Brenden Fletcher and Annie Wu are. Which underscores the urgent need to re-evaluate the way we discuss the role of colourists in contemporary comics, especially as digital becomes a critical delivery method that offers a purity and fidelity that print can’t touch.
Annie Wu, though, is one of the most purely cinematic artists working today. I know, I know, people want to call this the Mad Max: Fury Road issue, but I want to kick and scream and drag my feet because I see it, it’s there, and maybe directly lampshaded in an exchange between Dinah and Paloma, but like I said above about defining Dinah by making her internal world external through Wu’s framing and Loughridge’s colours, I want to be able to judge this comic by exposing its internal structure instead of selling it based on something really popular that it has a couple points of commonality with. Which is why I want to be careful in how I discuss Wu’s work relative to film. Comics aren’t a derivative or a lesser to film. They can use a lot of the same vernacular and there’s been a lot of heated debate over the years about just how much of that should be borrowed from film and how much comics should strive to exist with as independent of a visual language as possible. I don’t really know where I fall in line on that one, but there’s a quality integral to Wu’s success on this title that roars of cinematic influence.
There’s a post going around Tumblr about drawing from film. It’s a dope post and an exercise I absolutely recommend to any artists who do sequentials or want to, not least because I suspect Wu has done something similar. There’s another great panel worth mentioning specifically this issue, and again, it’s a simple one. Dinah and Kurt drop through the roof of the bus to join the rest of the band. The way their bodies are dropping in tandem is just so spatially perfect, but again, the angle is very carefully chosen too. It’s funny because I was a kid in the 90s, and while I didn’t really read superhero comics back then, I have a visceral memory of a time when the big deal at the time, like when Image was still wet behind the ears, was to draw characters dropping down from a height with their knees drawn up. I’ve seen commentary about just how many times Rob Liefeld repeated that basic motif in Youngblood, but it was all over the place and I’m sure I copied it a few times as a kid. It’s actually in the Jill Thompson drawn Liefeld parody sequence in The Invisibles that I mentioned in my review of Young Terrorists #1. King Mob dropping through a skylight.
Shot recycling is a huge deal in film, because unlike comics, which are drawn from the ground up, you’re framing and recording something with a limited range of options for perspective. The rise of DSLR cameras that can shoot high definition video and small cameras like the GoPro line have opened things up a bit, but at the end of the day shooting movies is limited to places you can put a camera. Popular lore has it that The Seven Samurai has the most duplicated shot in film history, men on horseback cresting a ridge. Remember the warg riders ambushing the caravan headed to Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers? Bingo. Quentin Tarantino is big on recycling specific shots from specific movies to specific effect, and sometimes they get used in more than one of his films, like the overhead crane shot he used in Kill Bill Volume One and Inglorious Basterds. Annie Wu does something even cleverer this issue.
Another film term we use a lot when discussing the act of reading comics is keyframing, which comes from animation. The keyframe is the critical part in a sequence that gets fully rendered and then the inbetweeners or “tweeners” would extrapolate to fill in the full motion in hand drawn animation. When approaching comics from an animation mindset, it’s been frequently and not incorrectly said that comic panels are the keyframes and the reader is the tweener, filling the gaps between the panels with their imagination. What Wu does this issue is keyframe with the intent of hijacking our usual subconscious tweening.
She gives us panels that recall some of the most frequently used action movie chase sequences so that when we fill in the gaps, it’s the shots she wants us to think of when they play in our heads. One of the biggest examples of this is the sequence where Dinah uses her canary cry to blast the back of the bus off and knock the alien out into traffic. It’s such a pleasing sequence because your brain just gets it. The cut of the blast towards you and the aftermath away from you is an edit you’ve seen a million damn times. Maybe it was Mad Max: Fury Road. Could be it was The Matrix Reloaded or Terminator 2: Judgement Day.
Genre savvy is a term that’s been bandied about a lot since broadband Internet became widely available. It usually gets discussed like it’s a game of of one-upmanship between the audience and the writer on a scale approaching the oxygen starved heights of Light and L’s mind games in Death Note. “Oh shit,” the crusty old screenwriter exclaims, “cellphones have made writing slasher flicks so much harder.” Genre savviness doesn’t have to be a chess game or an exculpation for lazy writers. It can be exploited like what we see in this issue. Fletcher, Wu, and Loughridge know you saw MMFR and those other movies. You know they saw MMFR because you saw them tweet about it at the time. So why not look for ways to fold that shared experience into streamlining and strengthening the narrative instead of trying to swim upstream against it?
There was some story this issue too, now that I think of it. Some big important stuff, actually. We find out that Kurt came out of a coma with no knowledge of Dinah whatsoever, which explains her ambivalent feelings about him. We get the second great montage of serenity this issue when we see Kurt watching footage of them together, trying to understand what they had. It’s such an incredible follow up to how we have to approach Dinah externally and let the artwork provide the clues into her mind, because all Kurt has left of them is the the external view. In most comics, you would remark that we have so much more insight into Dinah because of the inner monologue we’re gifted with as captions. A concrete, solid internal view of who she is. But here we are watching Kurt watching himself and Dinah. Perhaps the most poignant part of all of this is that we don’t have that much more than him to go on. We could pity him if we knew the whole story, but what we have is brief glimpses and subjective readings of visual clues. So instead of pity, what Kurt evokes is an odd, metafictional kind of empathy.
Kurt has a history, a life, and a marriage with Dinah that he lost. The woman he sees before him is an impression, a sketch of someone he can’t remember. Which is were we arrive at how we intersect and finally merge with Kurt. This Dinah is new to us, as well. The irony is that it’s Kurt, it’s us, who have the amnesia and whose minds are viewed as Tabula Rasa by Dinah when it’s her whose life and history before 2011 were erased by Flashpoint. When I reviewed Batgirl #39 and saw Dinah and Babs sparring on that Burnside rooftop, we were gifted with the external, omniscient view. I got goosebumps because a cycle had been completed and the pair and found their way back to each other, inexorably linked to each other the way Sailor Moon‘s Inner Senshi gravitate to each other each time they die and are reborn. It was catharsis and vindication. This is a complete inversion of that sequence. This is the grieving process. This is our moment to catch ourselves and sit with Kurt, and speak of was and when, but ultimately come to the understanding that we don’t know the woman placed before us. This isn’t the Black Canary we fell in love with. “Who knows,” she shrugs to us. “Not me. I never lost control.”
Bringing things back around more specifically to Kurt and Dinah we need to rewind, again, to that first moment that crosscuts between her jumping off the bus and stage diving. You just got the cold water to the face, and now here comes the left hook from hell to complete the Rocky Punch. I talked about Lee Loughridge and his colour choices earlier, about Dinah -coloured pink- falling into a sea of blue. About how she feels most comfortable and at peace in freefall. No matter what Target did with their toy section, these colours still have important gendered resonance. What we’re getting here is that trust fall, that feeling of being in the air before gravity catches up, and the surrender to it, that’s what Dinah thinks love is. That’s what she had with Kurt before he lost his memory.
That’s how good Fletcher, Wu, and Loughridge are. It’s also why I’m incredibly resistant to the notion of a “Fletcherverse.” It was an early project of mine to tease his voice out of Batgirl and Gotham Academy, which is an itch I’ve since scratched. If I were to cop to the idea of a Fletcherverse, it’d have to have some kind of unifying flow or sensibility that ran through something like Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers of Victory or Warren Ellis’ Apparat work. Fletcher is too mercurial and the titles too distinct to be unified beyond descriptors like “good at processing trauma” or “things cool people like.” I wouldn’t say, especially in the same breath as discussing Warren Ellis, that there’s a value judgement attached to having an immediately identifiable narrative voice, but attempting to tie together the books Fletcher collaborates on based on his presence contradicts one of his greatest strengths as a writer: his versatility.
I could talk about the horrifying new origin of Dinah’s canary cry, but, and I say this as someone who’s read well over a hundred of Dinah’s appearances over the years, I have absolutely no idea where she got it from in the first place so I’m loving how it ties all the current pieces together, especially her and Ditto. Instead, I’m going to close with an excerpt from the introductory narration to Cream’s farewell concert and let you draw your conclusions about my feelings on this team on this book:
Cream have played together for only two years, but during that time have almost singlehandedly given rock a musical authority which only the deaf cannot acknowledge. Jack Bruce; lead singer, bass guitarist, and harmonica player, a twenty five year old Scot who once played for Manfred Mann. Eric Clapton, a twenty three year old ex stained glass window designer rated by most as the finest instrumentalist of his kind in the world. And Ginger Baker, a twenty nine year old Cockney, a legend, even among other drummers. Two years ago, each was the other’s favourite performer, so it was inevitable that they should join forces.
Written by Brenden Fletcher
Drawn by Annie Wu with colours by Lee Loughridge
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Emma Houxbois is a fiercely queer trans woman from the wilds of Canada, most recently spotted in the Pacific Northwest. She is a two time IWC Women’s World Champion and has written about comics for the web since 2005 for sites including Playboy, Bitch Media, and Graphic Policy.