Some heroes are part of a legacy. It began with Dinah Drake, a girl with a talent for physical combat who had trained for years to be a fighter and a detective. It was her father’s hope that she would become a police detective like himself. But the Gotham City police force of the 1940s didn’t accept Dinah into its ranks and so, following the death of her father, she decided to pursue crime-fighting in a different way. By day, she ran a simple flower shop, but at night she donned a blond wig and black outfit to operate as the vigilante called Black Canary. After several of adventures, she wound up joining the Justice Society of America, history’s first superhero team.
Years later, Dinah Drake married her long-time boyfriend, Detective Larry Lance. Eventually, they had a daughter, young Dinah Laurel Lance. Growing up with two crime-fighting parents, surrounded by superhero “uncles”, young Dinah wanted nothing more than to be the new Black Canary. Her mother was against it, but young Dinah persisted, especially after she discovered she had been born with the ability to emit sonic blasts (a side effect of her mother’s repeated exposure to supernatural forces). After years of intensive physical training, Dinah Laurel Lance got her own wig and outfit and became the new Black Canary. Soon after she started her heroic career, she even became a founding member of the Justice League of America.
Dinah Laurel Lance has been through a lot, over the years. She discovered that her mother had an affair with one of her “uncles.” She suffered through the deaths of both her parents. She has had an rocky on-again, off-again relationship with Oliver Queen, the hero called Green Arrow. A case that involved her being tortured robbed her of her powers and damaged her health. Later on, she began working as a “Bird of Prey,” one of several agents organized by Barbara Gordon AKA Oracle to act as international trouble shooters. Having now regained her powers and reaffirmed her direction in life, Black Canary (who now simply dyes her hair) continues to take down criminals, war lords and super-villains and always looks good doing it.
So let’s examine her fashion choices over the years. As usual, we’ll be sticking with what is/was considered mainstream continuity or else this becomes a novel.
THE FEMALE ROBIN HOOD
The Black Canary first appeared in Flash Comics #86 in 1947. In her first few stories, we knew nothing about her, really. No origin or real name was given. We didn’t even know that her blond hair was actually a wig. And she wasn’t exactly a martial arts vigilante. In fact, she wasn’t even the star of her own story. She was introduced as a supporting character in the adventures of Johnny Thunder, the young JSA member who was not always the smartest of guys but had been blessed with ownership of a thunderbolt genie.
When first introduced, the Black Canary was seemingly a criminal herself and wore a mask. Despite part of her face being disguised, her beauty was pretty obvious, leading the thunderbolt to tell Johnny that he didn’t want to see the old cliche of a comic book hero falling in love with a villainess. But Johnny discovered that the Canary was stealing from criminals, not innocent, hard-working people, and that she enjoyed playing gangs into taking each other on. So the two began teaming up on adventures.
Now, you’ll notice that, along with the mask, another difference between this first appearance and the classic Black Canary costume is that she seems to be wearing short-cut culottes. This outfit is a strange combination of looking feminine and looking tough. The fishnets, boots and outfit all yell woman, but the leather jacket and all-dark coloring were not things you saw decorating most women in comics and television of the era.
The mask was dropped after just two adventures and very quickly the main outfit was tweaked as well. Now the Black Canary had a more form-fitting outfit. It looks better than the culottes but the loss of a mask makes the Black Canary seem less like a hero or villain. Now she could be the host of some burlesque show or simply a regular girl off to a very sexy party. Only the jacket lets us know that her intentions might be otherwise.
It’s a pretty sexy look. But in these early stories it seems to not really fit with Dinah’s personality. She occasionally flirted with guys, sometimes to manipulate them into revealing information she needed, but she wasn’t the sexually powerful person that Catwoman was. She mainly was there to fight and solve crimes. So in this early era, the outfit seems odd, even if she does look good in it.
Some folks have a stronger opinion about this look. I’ve met people who find this look sexy and powerful and I’ve met people who find it offensive. When I discussed Dinah’s classic look with my dear friend Tim Gunn (on this video), he pointed out that the larger you make the holes in fishnets, the more vulgar they seem.
I agree with this, but at the same time this is a comic book and so we have to take into account that if the artist were to draw tinier holes, it would take him exceedingly longer to draw every page that the Black Canary appears on. Coloring the fishnets blue also keeps it from being too vulgar, but at that point I wonder why the fishnet design wasn’t dropped and they didn’t just give her blue leggings instead. Not that I’m against fishnets with certain characters, if it fits their personality.
The Black Canary was so popular with readers that, by Flash Comics #92, she had completely replaced Johnny Thunder and gotten her own feature. Now that’s just hilariously cool. And hey, did you know that she briefly used her own Green Lantern-style oath? She used it to summon and command birds. However, the idea that she had any supernatural command over avian life was very quickly dropped and never used again. It seemed too much like Hawkman’s bird-communication trick and she worked just fine with combat skills and detective smarts, thank you very much.
As the Golden Age of Comics came to a close and superheroes began to fall from popularity, the Black Canary vanished as well. Later on, the Silver Age of Comics began and introduced a new generation of heroes, many of whom joined the Justice League of America. Later, it was revealed that the modern heroes, such as the Justice League, lived on the world known as Earth-1. And the JSA, as well as just about any character published before 1956, lived in a parallel universe, on a world designated Earth-2.
During the regular team-ups between the JLA and the JSA, the Black Canary showed up alongside her old Golden Age era buddies. Later, when her husband Larry died, she moved to Earth-1 for a new start and eventually started working with the Justice League of America. Around this time, she started exhibiting a superpower at last, a “Canary Cry” that apparently was the result of radiation exposure.
Some comic writers later realized that the Black Canary was being drawn as if she were still in her early 20s, unlike the rest of the JSA who had been allowed to age into their late 40s since their history was cemented in World War II. A complicated story retroactively altered history to reveal to us that the current Black Canary was actually the daughter of the original. A curse from an enemy had given her a devastating sonic cry and the girl had been placed in suspended animation until this power could be stabilized. After Larry had died, Dinah discovered she was dying of radiation she’d been exposed to. Her daughter was now a young adult and her sonic powers had stabilized. Dinah decided she would live on through her daughter and, as she died, her memories were transferred to her daughter thanks to the magic of Johnny Thunder’s thunderbolt.
This complicated story was later tossed out during the 80s. By then, the rest of the JSA had been around enough and now had to be much older than the middle-aged people they appeared to be. Why didn’t they look and move as if they were senior citizens? So a new story was created that revealed that the Justice Society (and some of their loved ones) were exposed to strange energies during an adventure in the 1940s, an energy that retarded their aging and kept them vital. Likewise, the 1980s involved large parts of DC Comics history being streamlined and revised. Now, it was said that the JSA and JLA had always lived in the same universe. The JSA had operated during the Golden Age and then retired and then years later, when new heroes emerged, they named themselves the Justice League in honor of the heroes who had paved the way for them.
With all this, it now seemed that Dinah’s history was too complicated. Her story was re-written so that there was no memory transference or moving to a parallel Earth. There had been the original Black Canary, Dinah Drake, then she married and retired. And many years later, she had a daughter Dinah Laurel who eventually became the new Black Canary. Simple.
Initially during her time with the JLA, Dinah was a very professional hero (despite one weirdly emotional scene during which she and Batman kissed). As time went on, Dinah was portrayed as a much more aggressive girl and more flirty, eventually having an on-again, off-again romance with Green Arrow. As she began behaving like this, her costume seems at last to match her personality and now seems more fitting to me. The fishnets I don’t mind, but the cut of her top and the boots actually bother me more now. By this point, she was emphasized as a martial artist. A low-cut top and heels for such a character just don’t make sense to me, even when I’m willing to suspend my disbelief for many things in comics.
I’ve complained about the 1990s a lot, but every era has its share of dated, badly designed outfits. This costume from the 1980s is certainly no exception. Where do I begin? The sleeves and boots now make her look too much like Mockingbird at Marvel Comics. The looseness of the top and the headband are supposed to symbolize she’s a martial artist, but they’re just making me concerned that she’s going to catch that fabric on something during a fight.
The bird symbol on the shirt isn’t a bad idea, but extending it into shoulder pads is a bit silly and makes it look as if they’d inhibit movement, not a good thing when your character is a martial artist. And while we may have lost any accusation of her outfit being too revealing, we’ve now gone too far and sacrificed Dinah’s great sex appeal. This looks like a work-out suit rather than a uniform or costume.
Of course, worse outfits can always come along the way. In this outfit that she sported in the late 80s, Dinah looks like a cast member from The Warriors. If you’re too young to know what The Warriors was, I kind of hate you. But, I will forgive you as well. Point being, this outfit, especially with that necklace, screams “I’m an 80s street fighter.” And not in a good way.
Altering it to an all black outfit doesn’t real help matters. This still seems off. I wasn’t sure about the fishnets before, but I am definitely sure that these trousers are not working for her. She’s now wearing too much black leather, frankly. There’s nothing martial arts or super heroic about this at all.
Starting in the late 1980s, artists would experiment with putting Dinah in her outfit but losing the wig. It definitely gave off a very different impression of the character who had once been nicknamed “the Blonde Bombshell.” When she went out like this WITHOUT the jacket, she lost all semblance of looking like a fighter and just resembled a streetwalker in cowboy boots.
As we entered the 90s, Dinah briefly joined the ever-growing idea that every hero needs to carry a lot of stuff on their person in order to look cool. It was a darker era for her, having been seriously injured by enemies and dealing with Green Arrow not being the man she wanted him to be.
This outfit may fit the reaction Dinah was having to the world around her at this time, but this isn’t a costume. This is a woman just wearing black clothing. Then again, it wasn’t meant to be a costume either. During this era of Green Arrow, the book tried to deal with things more “realistically” and not refer to anything resembling the superhero genre with bright outfits and impossible powers. In, fact, Oliver Queen was never referred to as “Green Arrow” within the pages of his own book. So that makes the outfit understandable, but it’s also a bit of a shame because it makes Dinah a supporting cast character to a modern-day Robin Hood rather than a superhero in her own right. Fortunately, this idea went away soon enough.
BIRDS OF PREY
In the mid 1990s, Dinah adopted a new superhero look and dyed her short hair blond rather than returning to the wig, just in time for her and Barbara Gordon to begin their adventures as the “Birds of Prey.” This costume is actually pretty fun. It maintains a lot of the sex appeal of the classic outfit but is more utilitarian. A padded outfit meant for combat, bare legs rather than fishnets that would be sure to tear during combat anyway. This girl is a warrior.
Dinah sometimes wore variations of this outfit. Sometimes she’d toss on a leather jacket, making this more akin to her classic costume. The new lines on the jacket make it complement the rest of the uniform rather than appearing as if it were a separate piece she just threw on. Dinah also sometimes wore a trousers-version of the same suit. I like the idea that Dinah would sometimes wear different versions of her outfit depending on the mission or, frankly, the climate she’s heading into.
By the way, if you are not reading Birds of Prey, you need to fix that. Go get the collected trades as well. Women heroes in comics need support. You want to one day see a seriously good and fun live-action TV series or film adaptation? Something that was better than what the WB gave us years back (which we will not be discussing here)? Then you’ve gotta show your support. Just saying.
Now, Dinah understands that sometimes a special occasion requires a special outfit. This winter gear is pretty fun. It references the Black Canary colors but is very much its own look. And it actually isn’t that far off from normal ski wear.
When Dinah finally got the Green Arrow to give her a wedding, she wore this outfit. On one hand, I can see this as being too much. It’s pretty damn sexual for a wedding dress (can we call it a dress?) and it seems odd that Dinah would wear something so close to her “work clothes” rather than deciding to wear something unique to the occasion.
On the other hand, I do love Amanda Conner’s art work and Dinah is definitely of the mind, “if you’ve got it, flaunt it.” And Dinah got to show that she was still capable of kicking ass while wearing this suit, so it occurs to me that it is a very smart superhero indeed who makes sure that she doesn’t have to change out of her outfit if a super-villain fight breaks out at her wedding (which happens quite often, you know). That’s just funny. And honestly, if the fishnets were always drawn in this fashion, I would have no real problem with them.
And for those who criticize that Dinah’s classic outfit is too sexual, keep in mind it could be a lot worse. Check out this (intentionally) hilarious outfit Dinah picked out for herself when she had to go undercover as a super-villain. Poor Wonder Woman (on the right) doesn’t realize she got off lucky with her own undercover outfit.
Eventually, Dinah decided to go back to her more classic style. But now she utilized minor elements from her initial Birds of Prey outfit. The boots and gloves now have yellow padding. But this outfit, without the jacket, looks more sexually overt to me and it’s harder to see her as a superhero.
With the jacket on again or the zipper pulled up, I take her more seriously. Sometimes this would be a simply jacket, sometimes it would be the more stylized version with yellow pads. And notice the aforementioned zipper that goes all the way to the neck. This is now a black leather outfit, implying a protective quality rather than just a black top or swimsuit. These small touches definitely help Dinah, showing that she’s wearing some kind of uniform rather than simple sexy party clothes.
Eventually, artists started drawing Dinah in something that was now much more akin to the classic look, dropping the yellow lines and pads. But again, there are some differences to notice. Along with the outfit that zips all the way up, and the gloves that she’s gotten into the habit of wearing, the Black Canary has replaced her classic swashbuckling heels with some serious boots. I love these boots. These immediately let you know this woman is not here to have a drink with you, she is here to kick a little ass.
In recent years, Dinah has added a long coat to her ensemble. I love this long coat. At times, it is loose. At times it is closed with a golden clasp. Either way, it works. It looks serious but also just comes off as classier than the leather biker jacket.
Black Canary looks more authoritative in this outfit and this, added with the boots and the zipper up to the collar, makes me forgive the fishnets and anything else. A great addition, she definitely needs to keep this.
And you know what? That brings us to a close, folks. I hope you enjoyed this week’s look at the Black Canary. We will be discussing her Smallville incarnation in an upcoming piece on that show’s interpretation of superhero costumes. So, until next time, this is Alan Kistler, Agent of S.T.Y.L.E., signing off.
Alan Kistler writes the comic book history/fashion column Agent of S.T.Y.L.E. He is an actor and freelance writer living in New York who has been recognized by Warner Bros. Films and major media/news outlets as a comic book historian. He is also the creator/host of the web-show “Crazy Sexy Geeks: The Series.” He knows entirely too much about the history of comics, Star Trek, Doctor Who, time travel, and vampires that don’t sparkle.