Over the decades since her first appearance, Black Canary has grown into one of the most interesting and intelligent characters of the DC Universe. She has maintained a tremendous amount of integrity while approaching her job with a sense of true, hard-fought individuality. She is as determined to fight the good fight and succeed as any hero in the history of comics. Maybe even more so.
Over the years she has become part of the Justice League and also spent some time teaching Green Arrow about life and love. As the years have passed, her continuity got a little scrambled and she acquired a superpower. However, today, she is in her perfect element as a Bird of Prey.
With all that modern success, her history can get overlooked. Thanks to the respective talents of Robert Kanigher and Carmine Infantino, two of comic history's best, her early days are among the finest of her career. What makes her early years so interesting is that she accomplished everything with absolutely no superpowers.
The funny thing is that many people forget that she started out on the other side of the law. In her first story, appearing as guest in the Johnny Thunder story from Flash Comics #86 (AUG 1947), she convinces a love-struck Johnny to try and steel a mask for her. If Johnny Thunder had known what the Black Canary was going to do to his career, we doubt that he would have let her in his strip at all.
The splash page of that first appearance shows a domino-masked Canary walking straight towards the reader with a posture and expression that says she knows exactly what she is doing and she has no problem doing it. Behind her a swooning Johnny Thunder sits, unable to move, totally seduced by her charms. Behind Johnny are two crooks, one wielding a blackjack, the other a tommy gun. Even with this strange mixture of love and terror right behind her, Black Canary walks forcefully towards the reader. She could care less about the men behind her. Their threatening actions mean absolutely nothing to her.
It is this inherent strength that still makes her so interesting all these years later.
She was the creation of writer-editor Robert Kanigher and artist Carmine Infantino. Her introduction may be tied into a small trend that had developed inside comics. As the forties were starting to come to an end, superheroes were beginning to fade. Comic companies were anxious to hold onto their readership and no one knew for certain which the direction the industry would be moving.
The year before Canary's first appearance, Timely had introduced the Blonde Phantom in issue #11 of All-Select Comics. The Phantom was the first of several female heroes that the company would introduce over the next year or so. This included Namora, the Sub-Mariner's cousin, in 1947 and Sun-Girl, a friend of the Human Torch, in 1948. When you are loosing readers, it never hurts to open the door to sex-appeal to help flagging sales.
Timely was not the only company that brought out a female hero during this time. After years of appearances as a back-up in Speed Comics, Harvey gave the Black Cat her own title in 1946. The same month that Canary debuted, The Phantom Lady came back from Quality's stable of heroes. In November 1947, Nedor put Miss Masque showed up for the first time in Fighting Yank #22.
Canary's introduction was part of this trend towards female superheroes during this small window of comic history. Whether she was intentionally created as part of this trend by Kanigher and Infantino is a matter of speculation. Given the track record of incredible creativity on the part of both men, it is highly unlikely that they would ever need more than a hint from an editor for anything. Also, outside of the Black Canary, none of the heroes discussed above are still active today. That speaks volumes for the strength of their initial concept and execution.
In that first story, Canary feels more like a Catwoman type of antagonist for Johnny Thunder. Except that unlike Batman, Thunder openly acknowledges his attraction to her the minute he sees her. The first story ends on a slightly absurd note as Johnny's Thunderbolt says "...I'm tired of heroes in comic books falling in love with the Villainess!" In one sentence, the scene is set for future encounters.
On an interesting side note, the Thunderbolt has openly acknowledged that both he and Johnny are aware that they are appearing in a comic book. This is a wonderful note from Kanigher. Infantino gives Johnny the perfect reaction, he stick his lower lip and in response the what the Thunderbolt has to say can only say, "Aw!"
Canary appears in the next issue and the story opens with Johnny reading from a newspaper that the Black Canary has committed another crime. Luckily, she is running by his window at the very moment he is reading this out loud. She throws sees him and throws the stolen goods that she has been carrying right in his window. She also takes a quick second to state her innocence.
The crooks that have been chasing her now jump on Johnny and take the loot. Infantino constructs a nice little action sequence as Johnny takes flight after the crooks. He hits a skate and rolls downhill. Next, he is seen riding the bumper of the car that the crooks are in. It is a wonderful piece of very tiny cinema.
By the end of this second story, Canary has established her innocence and Johnny is head over heals in love. This sets the pattern for the next few issues of Flash Comics as Canary and Johnny start to work as a team. By issue #90, Canary and Thunder share billing. Some thing is beginning to smell funny in Johnny Thunder land.
At the end of the story that appears in Flash Comics #91, there is a small blurb that quietly spells the end for Johnny Thunder. The reader is told to "watch for the Black Canary in her own feature next month!" With the next issue, Flash Comics #92, Black Canary moves into the big time and never looks back.
This is a cover that DC needs to pay serious tribute to. The cover to Flash #92 may be Infantino's finest hour. Considering what was yet to come from his pen that is saying a lot. This includes his including his work on the Silver Age Flash, (and we are thinking of his incredible feel for cityscapes), the Strange Sports Stories and everything else. The cover is one of the rarest of comic covers; it is perfect in every part of its execution.
With the Flash and Hawkman holding a paper covered circle, like one commonly used at the beginning of sports event, Canary bursts forth into the readers consciousness and also the DC Universe. Like her first panel almost a dozen issues earlier, she is not looking back. She greats us with a wave and a smile, she is here for good.
Just as she displaced Johnny Thunder from his own feature, she did the same to him in the Justice Society. In issue #38 of All-Star Comics, Johnny Thunder makes the career-killing decision to send his Thunderbolt in search of Black Canary during a time of great peril. She comes through in flying colors, rescuing the entire Justice Society.
The cover of that issue is dated December1947/January 1948. The story was written by Canary's creator, Robert Kanigher. Her appearance singles the effective end of Johnny Thunder's career during the Golden Age of comics.
Three issues later, in All-Star Comics #41, Canary is made a full time member of the JSA and Thunder is no where to be found. The cover, by Alex Toth, places the Canary front and center as she is seen dangling form the actual title of the book. She remained active with the JSA until their last appearance in All-Star Comics #57.
Concurrent with her run with the JSA, her place in Flash Comics was secure until that title folded with issue #104 (February 1949). She is not seen again until the Silver Age is in full swing.
In the late fifties and early sixties, DC started to update Golden Age heroes such as the Flash and Green Lantern for the more modern time of the Cold War and Space Age. Black Canary finally shows up in 1963. However, unlike previous Silver Age success stories such as the Flash and Green Lantern she shows up in her original incarnation.
With the success of the Justice League of America, the editors at DC decided to bring back the Justice Society of America. They are featured on the cover of Justice League of America #21. Right smack dab in the middle of the group is the Black Canary.
The success of this introduction of Golden Age heroes set the stage for several of them to get their own stories or books over the next few years. What was extraordinary about this was that their continuity had been kept alive through the introduction of the parallel earth concepts. All the heroes of WWII were now alive on Earth-Two. This concept had come to light a few years earlier when the Silver Age Flash met the Golden Age Flash in Flash #123 (September 1961) in a story titled Flash of Two Worlds.
In issue #61 of Brave and Bold Comics, Black Canary was teamed with the Starman. Along for the ride was the same husband she had during the Golden Age as well as the rest of the same continuity she had during her run in the Golden Age Flash Comics. She was given a second appearance in the follow up issue, Brave and Bold #62. She again shared the cover with Starman and there was a special appearance by the Golden Age boxer, Wildcat.
From these appearances, she began her long run as a stalwart of the DC Universe. She joined the Justice League, met Green Arrow, teamed with Batman in the Brave and the Bold, had a mini-series and eventually became a Bird of Prey. Among her most impressive accomplishments is her appearance in the Cartoon Network Justice League series. She was recently showcased in a half-hour episode where she works hard to save Wildcat from himself.
It has been a long journey for Black Canary (including many recent adventures with Green Arrow). If you are interested in her early days, consider picking up the DC Archive collections.