Truth be told, I was pretty much set on Black Canary being the best monthly title of 2015 by the third issue, but with Annie Wu’s return on interiors, there’s a very specific case to be made that no one but she, Brenden Fletcher, Lee Loughridge, and Steve Wands could have executed this issue. Pia Guerra kept the tone and energy of the title consistent in a way that I haven’t seen passed between two artists since probably Joe Quinones and Mike Allred on FF, but Wu settles back into the characters in a way that tells us no matter how cool the babysitter was and how much later than our bedtime she let us stay up, momma’s home. Bo Maeve’s posture and overall bearing on the second page is what truly begins to feel like Wu’s homecoming with flourishes like her spidery long fingers and the couple nicks to indicate her breastbone, and it’s at the top of that page that we first get a glimpse at just how integral Lee Loughridge’s color work is to the storytelling, as the colors begin to separate from the strength of Maeve’s Canary Cry in a similar effect to what Cameron and Dave Stewart executed in the climax of Fight Club 2 #4, but more punk because this is Black Canary.
What Kurt and Dinah belatedly realize thanks to Maeve and her band’s sudden appearance is that the gig is a trap set by Waller to recapture Ditto, which kicks Dinah’s Ellen Ripley instinct back into overdrive, ready to dump the gig and go back on the lam with her. Ditto, however, has plans of her own and refuses to go. In an incredibly inspired move, Ditto draws a waveform on the mirror that Paloma scans and plays back as Dinah’s voice describing what her new band came to mean to her last issue, a sentiment that Ditto is attempting to express through her trademark mimicry. So they stand and fight in what quickly escalates into a superpowered battle of the bands with just as many punches thrown as notes played, until Paloma steps in to zap Maeve’s guitarist. But they aren’t finished yet.
Maeve shows her hand by threatening to scream into the crowd if they don’t pick up their instruments again and it becomes clear that they’re attempting something specific with the frequency of Dinah and Maeve’s voices. Ditto steps, playing between the bands to absorb the energy. When Kurt realizes what’s happening he attempts to intervene, but the pair of them melt into a puddle and the performances collapses with Maeve clearly not understanding what it was she was being directed to do.
The entire sequence is the sharpest example of what kind of a tremendous impact on storytelling contemporary colorists can have. Loughridge has demonstrated again and again this past year on titles as disparate as Catwoman, Black Canary, and Wolf that he can draw out the major themes and unspoken subtext of a story in the same way that a film score functions. That’s typically been apparent in how he shaped the evolving relationship between Eiko and Selina in Catwoman with something as simple as hotly contrasting reds and blues that eventually merged into a synthesis of purple, but this issue in particular is illegible without his presence and fittingly, that presence focuses on translating sound into pictures.
Loughridge builds up to colors up to a swell and down again across the issues, making sure that the narrowing into two dominant, clashing tones is felt with the proper resonance by opening and closing the issue with subdued colors that are more or less under natural lighting. Once the bands hit the stage things are sharply divided between those trademark reds and blues, but he amplifies the hues much further than on Catwoman to cool the blues down to turquoise hints and rank the reds into a warm range that flirts with orange. Whether he turned the dials to eleven or just made ten louder is a matter of conjecture, but the visual impact of the clashing isn’t. As the bands line up and get ready to play, with Paloma yelling that her equipment is locked on a strange frequency, the hues get deeper and deeper as the animosity between the two sides builds and Wu’s panels get progressively more claustrophobic until they’re nothing more than jagged blocks of color.
When the two sides first meet directly in the same panel on the next page, it isn’t a synthesis that marks the collision, but intermingling halftones that express just how deep the divide is and bring the zine aesthetic of earlier issues back into the forefront as Steve Wands uses a shredded paper look and bleeding typewriter font to narrate the battle. But Loughridge levels off, integrating yellows and purples into the mix as the punches start to get thrown, then bridging back into the reds and blues for the real climax. While there aren’t as many swells and plateaus in the issue as the song, the overall ebb and flow of Loughridge’s colors work much like Nine Inch Nails’ Just Like You Imagined.
As Dinah and Maeve really dig in against each other the colors begin separating from the page like in the issue’s opening, but Loughridge takes special care to keep the effect localized to the bands in a great panel that subtly steps outside of the action to show the crowd under natural lighting while the singers are bathed in a single fractured tone each. But as the effect intensifies and Kurt attempts to intervene, the space that Ditto occupies between the two isn’t defined by purple, but the color of dried blood, the ultimate dull clashing as the antithesis of synthesis. There are certainly other colorists whose grasp of color theory could pull something like this off, but in the context of this series and the overall aesthetic, Loughridge is just at home here if not more so than Matthew Wilson is on The Wicked and the Divine.
As coloring techniques continue to become more complex and varied in their execution, exerting more influence over the narrative it will become quickly apparent what writers and artists are best able to find ways for their colorists to come into their full power. Lee Loughridge has done a lot of books this year, more than I’ve read even, but on the whole it isn’t difficult to point to Black Canary as his richest and idiosyncratic work this year. Which really ought to make the reader ponder what Brenden Fletcher brings to the team. A lot of high profile writers this year, and even in recent weeks, have described the honing of their craft as learning how to get out of the way of their artists. It makes sense to a point, and comes at a time when the pendulum has swung towards writers being more likely to be afforded auteur status than artists, which speaks to the fact that people like Kieron Gillen and Matt Fraction who are expressing this sentiment are also demurring slightly.
While Fraction riffed on it as an answer to a direct question about becoming a better writer, Gillen mused on it in his notes on the most recent issue of The Wicked and the Divine that featured Brandon Graham as a guest artist:
“I’m writing for Brandon Graham, who as well as being an artist is at least as acclaimed writer as me – and far more acclaimed in many highly credible circles. Working out how to write for him, to leave space for Brandon to do the Brandon-ness of things, and all of that was key. We wanted this to be a Brandon Graham issue of WicDiv, and I think it is. I think we were all pleased with the results. Sakhmet was pretty ideal for the sensuousness in Brandon’s work.”
The results of the issue speak for themselves, not least because the languid sensuousness of Graham’s work and the extremes of sex and violence that are always roiling just beneath the surface of it plays perfectly to Sakhmet as a character. Those are qualities that Gillen has to be able to recognize in both the character and, more critically, Graham’s body of work to be able to hire the right guy for the job, say nothing about write for him effectively, and as much as Gillen or Fraction can demur that they define their role almost by exclusion, the script that Graham got sure as shit wasn’t “do your thing around this bucket of words.” (That’s probably what Gillen gives McKelvie at this point, though). Writing comics is more than plotting and deciding what to get the characters to do on the way to the end goal of the story. Gillen had to know what to put in Graham’s path to bring out the qualities that made him desirable for the issue.
The same goes for Fletcher and Black Canary is particularly intriguing around these questions because it’s his only current book that isn’t co-written by a veteran artist. Were he so inclined, Fletcher really could fade into the background on Batgirl especially, where Babs Tarr and Serge LaPointe communicate through a shared dropbox account to hash out the colors, but the kind of cohesion apparent on the page in Black Canary doesn’t happen by accident or through lassitude. The results of the collaboration are incredibly different on Black Canary to those on Gotham Academy or Batgirl. The latter two are a very holistic product. You certainly know Babs Tarr, Karl Kerschl, and Serge LaPointe by sight, but they, and the writing, bleed neatly into each other to form a gestalt.
Which is one of the reasons why I reached to Cream as a point of comparison for the Black Canary team back on the third issue. A supergroup by definition is made up of artists whose individual voices have specific resonance and a cachet of their own and their product is engineered around enjoying their work in tandem rather than as a unit. You can certainly pick apart Beatles songs and figure out who was the dominant creative voice on a given song or pick out how a singular contribution works towards the whole, but when you’re listening to the Beatles, you’re listening to the Beatles. When you’re listening to Cream, you’re listening to Clapton, Baker, and Bruce. When you’re reading Batgirl, you’re reading a comic by Team Batgirl. When you’re reading Black Canary, you’re reading a comic by Fletcher, Wu, Loughridge, and Wands.
Annie Wu is most certainly the Clapton of the bunch, and as soon as she overlaid the frets that Bo M’s guitarist was playing over her figure, you just have to shrug and give the year up to her if you hadn’t already. Comics are for cartooning, for amplifying real life and expressing the abstract, not chasing the representational. It’s easy enough to point to Loughridge’s colors as being indicative of a unique and easily legible visual language, but there just isn’t the same veneration for actual cartooning in comics as many readers, critics, and even artists continue to chase hyperrealism. The ongoing, and seemingly indefinite, occupation of comics, or rather superhero fiction, by major television and film productions ought to interpreted as the tumbling of the walls of Jericho. Artists ought to feel more empowered than ever before to break out of the need to chase representationalism the same way that the invention of the photograph liberated painters to pursue the abstract.
Annie Wu’s jagged inks and exaggerated figures don’t just read as punk because she’s doing a comic about a band that is very much informed by the punk aesthetic, it’s because her cartooning also represents a solid break from and clear rejection of convention within the medium. Cartooning is certainly coming back into vogue in pockets as the rise of artists like Babs Tarr, Bengal, Paulina Ganucheau, and Brittney Williams seem to indicate, which is welcome indeed, but where Wu breaks from both is that she strays far from simple pleasing shapes and figures. Bo Maeve, for instance, has a very specifically gothic bearing with her bony frame and spindly fingers, but that isn’t to say they aren’t attractive in their own preternatural ways. Lord Byron achieves sensuousness in the angles that frame her face and the appeal of her Dinah lies in the interplay of sharp curves and jagged edges, which is a microcosm for the entire series.
What ultimately lifts Black Canary into being the best title of the year is that it isn’t just telling a story, or telling a great story in a novel way. It’s providing an experience, it’s a vehicle for capturing the energy and intimacy of a great concert experience. There’s a story being told, and it’s a good one, but that story is in service to the art in a way that no other book in the mainstream is right now. Black Canary #3 and #6, especially, are incredibly immersive experiences that force you to slow down, take them in, and repeat the experience the same way your favourite albums do.
Written by Brenden Fletcher
Drawn by Annie Wu with colors by Lee Loughridge
Letters by Steve Wands
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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.