Comics, Feminism

Dinah Drake: Martial Arts Maven or Musical Menace?

Black CanaryBlack Canary #1

Brenden Fletcher (writer); Annie Wu (artist); Lee Loughridge (coloring)
DC Comics
June 17, 2015

As the increasing number of new and rebooted comic series being made for women are still viewed as a threat to a not-insignificant number of fanboys, it makes perfect sense that the all-woman band Black Canary is dubbed “the most dangerous band in America,” and that a woman’s voice, Dinah Drake Lance’s signature “Canary Cry,” is considered the most dangerous weapon of all.

This new reboot of DC’s iconic superheroine kills two boys clubs with one microphone, positioning Dinah (or “D.D.” in this issue) as the frontwoman of upcoming four-piece rock band, Black Canary. Drawn by Annie Wu in a gritty style that feels like a photocopied, hand-lettered flyer for a basement punk show, the comic is even framed as a zine called Burnside Tofu. The first few pages give us a mysterious narrator deliberately trying to discount Dinah’s ability as a musician, calling her “more comfortable in combat than on the stage,” an obvious reference to Dinah’s martial arts training (which makes many faithful appearances later in the issue). Dinah is criticized for the way she moves onstage because it is so similar to the way she moves in combat, which only reinforces her physicality both onstage and off, and, more importantly, underscores the fact that a brazenly intimidating or aggressive frontwoman is still quite polarizing to a lot of music fans. To complete Dinah’s killer stage presence, Wu updates the superheroine’s fishnets and corset with biker boots and a studded leather jacket, lending Black Canary’s frontwoman a look that could give the Misfits’ Pizzaz a run for her money.

From Dinah’s combative stage presence, one would infer that she doesn’t really care about her audience at all. However, she gets Black Canary banned from a venue for starting a brawl (and coming out on the winning end, looks like) with a group of men who we find out were actually harassing the band’s female fans during a show.

Black Canary

Though the fans are grateful, everyone else involved seems to be annoyed that a band full of women could actually be a physical threat to their public, highlighting the overlooked fact that said women are putting themselves at risk just by being in a position to interact with that very public. Also made cleverly obvious in this scene is the implication that a man who defends women from other men is a hero, but a woman who does so is obviously a dangerous, unhinged misandrist.

As the central question directed at Dinah is “why is there always so much violence around you?” the singer’s supposedly violent nature also points to the obvious trap of victim-blaming as we see that Dinah is rarely the one who incites said violence, and does not usually even respond violently without a good reason to do so.

Black Canary Also noteworthy is the way in which Brenden Fletcher (of Batgirl and Gotham Academy fame) deftly handles Dinah’s backstory without actually providing us with any concrete details. Fletcher gives us a blonde badass in ripped fishnets and smeared lipstick, constantly brawling and being dismissed as a musician by the same press who instead harasses her for personal information about how she used to be married (this will hold even more weight to those who remember that Dinah was—albeit briefly— a widow in previous incarnations). Dinah admits that she’s lived hard and made a lot of enemies, and Fletcher doesn’t have to flesh this out for us any further in part because we already know this story (for extra nerd points, guess the name of Dinah’s deceased husband; it’s too good).

That Dinah is constantly vilified for what she once was instead of what she currently is (again, we know this story) also fits with Fletcher’s portrayal of an “outsider” woman who refuses to make herself likeable by being accessible and non-threatening, and who instead chooses to remain unknowable while still in the public eye. Dinah’s guilty conscience also points to the complicated feelings that her deliberate unknowability must cause for her.  Though Dinah has every right to keep her past to herself, choosing to do so is made that much harder when most only see her as a volatile physical menace.  Explaining herself would mean opening up, and Dinah seems pretty sure that she doesn’t want to do either of these things.

Though this is obviously Dinah’s story, Fletcher also takes care with Black Canary’s supporting cast, mostly as a means to reinforce how much we actually don’t know about Dinah, and how much of her life she is still trying to figure out. Meek tour manager Heathcliff (self-liberated from Gotham Academy though still sporting his scarf and Morrissey haircut) ends up being the only one brave enough to ask Dinah if this lifestyle is even what she really wants. Feels ensue. Really complicated feels, in fact, because didn’t Heathcliff used to be a MOC? Not cool, guys, not cool.

Black Canary

The only consolation for the glaring Heathcliff blunder is no-nonsense WOC drummer and confidant Lord Byron, and her even-handed dialogue with Dinah. Badass as any Bird of Prey, Byron makes it obvious that she only has Black Canary’s best interest at heart. It is also through Byron that we learn that Dinah is actually new to the band, and is as mysterious to her bandmates as she is to us.

The most interesting member of Black Canary, though, is wunderkind guitarist Ditto, a tiny girl whose superpower is literally music–as she appears to be mute, she communicates solely through her guitar (people even wonder how she gets those tones without any effects pedals). I feel like Ditto will be really important later on, especially since she already seems to be in high demand—when Black Canary is attacked at a show by some caliber of alien spies that only Dinah can see, she has no choice but to start (and finish) another fight, especially when it becomes clear that Ditto is in danger.

Black Canary

Dinah’s protectiveness towards Ditto in particular is interesting considering the heroine’s otherwise standoffish nature; despite her status as an outsider, Dinah is still a compassionate person. Funny that Wu has compared Black Canary to Mad Max: Fury Road, because that’s where my mind went as well, as there are definitely some parallels between Dinah and Furiosa as protectors of women. True to Black Canary-form, Dinah wants to defend and protect those around her, and the way she goes about this is particularly fantastic; instead of taking it solely upon herself to defend her band, the comic ends with Dinah insisting on combat training for everyone. Besides putting all involved in a better position to defend both themselves and each other, Dinah’s offer of combat training also demonstrates that she is willing to share at least one part of her past with her band. Plus, women teaching their skills to other women is one of my favourite things to see, so I’m glad that this was included here not just as an aside, but as a clear way to move the plot forward while also sneaking in some character development for our heroine.

Black CanaryUltimately, Dinah’s depiction as an angry, guarded, ass-kicking character who is not at all degendered (as you can see, she is still unabashedly femme) interrogates both “how should a frontwoman be?” and “how should a superheroine be?” That the complicated expectations surrounding these two identities dovetail in this comic is especially great, both within the story itself and considering the cultural spaces available for women in both superhero and rock n’roll culture. How many times have we seen the words “enigmatic frontman” written as a music journalist’s compliment, while those same journalists feel that it’s just fine to women musicians personal questions about work-life balance, or whether or not they would like to raise a family? How many “cool” male superheroes get to play the loner (Batman, or if you’re a Marvel diehard, Wolverine, I’m looking at y’all) while a cagey woman like Dinah, without any long-standing pals or a knowable past is seen as either a threat, a liability, or both? Fletcher does a fantastic job of portraying Dinah’s struggles with both of these identities, and I really hope this thread continues throughout the series. As it stands, I’ll definitely be picking up the second issue to see what happens at Black Canary’s next show.