Who is Black Canary? A Primer on DC’s First Bird of Prey

DC Animation Black Canary

Canary. Robin. Hawk. Dove. There are so many birds in the DC universe, you could make a team out of them. Oh, right – someone did: The Birds of Prey. And that team was started by some of DC’s longest-lived heroines. With the movie officially underway, it’s time to start talking about the primary players of the Birds of Prey. We begin with Black Canary.

With the monthly, serialized nature of comic books, it’s easy to forget how far back some of these characters go. We hear so often about how Flash is three-quarters of a century old, how Batman and Superman are old enough that they’ll be in the public domain in just a few short years. But we don’t often remember how long characters like Black Canary have been around.

Black Canary first appeared Flash Comics #86 way back in 1947, making her one of DC’s earliest heroines and putting her ahead of better-known characters like Supergirl and Batgirl. Since then, she’s been a staple character in the Justice League and Green Arrow comics and eventually picked up her own superhero team in the Birds of Prey. She’s also had more live-action appearances than most any DC characters short of Batman and Superman, with six actresses playing her in live action, counting Jurnee Smollett-Bell’s portrayal in the upcoming Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn).

Black Canary comes from humble beginnings. At first, she was simply a fighter in a leotard. A combination of pin-up fashion and serious fisticuffs. Dinah Drake was initially created by Carmine Infantino and Robert Kanigher to spice up a story about a character named Johnny Thunder. She immediately got a better response, designed to be “strong in character and sexy in form,” according to Infantino.

Since then, she’s woven in and out of DC comics, appearing in slightly altered forms, but always there. After a dormant period, Black Canary was revived in the late 1960s. The JLA and JSA were fighting a creature called Aquarius on Earth-2, and her husband, Larry Lance, died in the battle. Drake moved to Earth-1 (because you can just pick up and move between universes, of course), and developed her ultra-sonic canary cry in the process.

DC Comics Black Canary Green Arrow Proposal

The comics would go on to try to justify how Canary was still lookin’ good despite being active since the 1940s with a wild story that had her daughter, Dinah Laurel Lance, in suspended animation following a curse from DC villain The Wizard a.k.a. William Zard. That’s a real name from the comics, kids. WiZard. Dinah Drake’s memories were transferred into Dinah Lance’s mind. For all the times comics have kept heroes suspended in age since their first appearances, why make this the time to handle it in-narrative? Batman has been in his late 30s for most of a century. Anyway, that didn’t last because nothing lasts through a Crisis.

Following Crisis on Infinite Earths, the Black Canary mask simply became a legacy identity, one that Dinah Lance assumed from her mother, Dinah Drake. This is where a lot of her relationship with the Green Arrow starts to develop. At this point, Oliver was much older than Dinah. Sorry, CW, no Sexy Young Adults stories here. This is also when she moved to Seattle with Ollie to start the silliest and best business ever, the Sherwood Florist.

It was in 1996 that the Birds of Prey first took flight, though, and that’s when Canary started to come into her own as a leader. The initial duo of Black Canary and Oracle would later expand to include Huntress, and while the team has often been a more egalitarian outfit, Canary has acted as the leader at times. She also helped found the Justice League International in one continuity, and has acted as a founding member of the Justice League as well. She even started a band at one point.

One of the most interesting parts of Black Canary is that, despite being a decidedly B- or C-level hero in the DC universe, for the most part, she’s appeared in live-action over and over. Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) will be the second dedicated Birds of Prey live-action project, following the WB’s short-lived Birds of Prey TV series in 2002. Between then and now, we’ve seen her appear in Smallville, and be portrayed as four separate characters by three different actresses in the CW’s Arrow.

Rachel Skarsten portrayed the character in Birds of Prey, while Alaina Huffman took on the role in Smallville. Both of these came back when producers were terrified of comics, but in love with stuff like Blade that proved you could drop silly hero costumes in favor of some black leather. Over the course of Arrow, Black Canary has been portrayed by Caity Lotz as Sara Lance, Katie Cassidy as Laurel Lance of Earth-1 and a different Laurel Lance from Earth-2, and most recently by Juliana Harkavy as Dinah Drake.

Juliana Harkavy as Dinah Drake / Black Canary on The CW's Arrow

Another fascinating part of this is how steady her costume has stayed. While characters like Superman and Batman have their iconic jumpsuits, Canary has been built from what cosplayers call “closet cosplay.” You can build a believable Black Canary outfit from off-the-shelf parts. A leather jacket, boots, gloves, a corset (or black one-piece swimsuit) and, of course, fishnets or pantyhose.

Black Canary’s been wearing most of this right since the beginning and most of her appearances have kept very true to this, especially in comics and animation. The comics have tinkered a few times, but she always ends up back in the original. The live-action appearances have taken more liberties, but Lotz’ Canary donned the leather jacket, corset, boots, and gloves while going with a slightly more functional pair of pants in place of fishnets. It was a surprisingly true adaptation of the costume – moreso than Cassidy’s bondage-biker look or the tragic bird-inspired version on Smallville. Harkavy’s look hews closer to the superhero costume Canary was given for the New 52 incarnation, but does a nice callback to the diamond fishnets with the padding on her current garb.

DC Comics Birds of Prey Black Canary

Infantino’s “strong in character, sexy in form” seems to be the basis for this consistency. Canary was a butt-kicker right from the beginning with a classic mash-up of greaser and burlesque pin-up. The leather jacket gives the whole look a more imposing feel. She’s sexy, but it’s not the absurd, silly sexiness we saw from artists like Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld in the 90s.

Even this latest incarnation pulls from the original design from what we’ve seen so far, with Smollett-Bell donning the jacket, a top with a corset-like silhouette, and choker necklace.

I can’t think of many characters that have stood up as long as Black Canary, nor many that have been adapted as many times. That she’s been Dinah Drake, Dinah Lance, a fist fighter, a metahuman, a love interest, and a leader in her appearances, making her live-action history strangely comic-book like, and I love it.