If you think about it, rock stars are pretty close analogues to super heroes. They like costumes, they have outsized personalities and they’re always bickering amongst themselves. So it’s a bit weird that there are so few rock star superheroes. There’s Dazzler, sure, but that character’s origin as a Casablanca Records promotion gone wrong makes her a decidedly unhip example. That leaves plenty of room for Brenden Fletcher and Annie Wu’s new rock band take on Black Canary to fill the void. Unfortunately, in its first issue, the Black Canary team struggles with the balance of rock star to superhero life, despite some excellent ideas and vivacious, heavily stylized artwork from Wu.
What Black Canary gets right out of the gate is the passion of fandom. Rather than a character, Black Canary is a midlevel indie band that has hit the road in support of a new EP and the opening segments set the framework of the narrative through excerpts from zines, video interviews and press clippings. Fletcher and Wu manage to create an obsessive fan mood through a combo of these mixed media elements and Wu’s poster-ready artwork, which capture Dinah Lance a.k.a “D.D.” in rock god poses and battle strikes, pushing back overeager fans and hired killers while looking great. D.D. may be a total asskicker, shoving stiletto heels into the faces of mercenaries and baddies as she belts out the hits, but she’s a total softie when it comes to the fans and her bandmates, Wu excelling at the harder job of making her superpowered heroine relateable. D.D. is a hero in a number of senses, from the traditional capes perspective to the lifesaver of bandmates to a near religious figure for fans to look up to, yet she’s never entirely out of reach– the story’s hook may as well be about this very trait, D.D.’s love for the people around her also the thing that’s endangering them as she is set on a quest to rebuild after events in her enigmatic past.
Every legendary band has a mythology and in Black Canary, that comes in the form of the violent D.D. essentially saving and disrupting the lives of Black Canary while remaining vague about the path she went down before getting contractually hitched to them. Black Canary seems to have some Black Flag element to it where D.D. is revealed to be a singer that was hired by their new label to front the band, meaning she’s a corporate Henry Rollins to some unknown Keith Morris. And to complicate matters further, no one in the band knows anything about her past, leading some of Black Canary’s personnel irritated at this unwanted intrusion. There’s plenty of room for entertaining conflict within the band, to say nothing of the conflict waged from the outside, and the bulk of the first issue is devoted to that, as incidents occur that force D.D. to open up.
Where Black Canary struggles is when we leave the tour bus and witness D.D.’s fights with unknown forces. The band is apparently being pursued by some amalgamation of Kingdom Hearts’ Heartless and They Live‘s aliens, shadowy skeletal figures disguised as humans who are only revealed when Black Canary’s guitarist Ditto plays some riffs at them. In order to fight them off and save themselves, Black Canary have to wreck a bunch of venues, leaving irate managers and sound guys to clean up in their wake and maybe also pay them their guarantee. Metalocalypse made a point of Dethklok’s fans buying tickets with the express hope of being maimed or killed at one of their shows, but Fletcher makes the curious decision of portraying Black Canary as fan saviors, a band that deserves not to be hit with clean-up fees because they were merely saving their fans and thus the venue from a lawsuit…never mind the fact that Black Canary were the ones who put everyone in harm’s way in the process.
Worse than that sticking point over responsibility and musical ethics is the problem of the flatness of the action itself. Wu may excel at depicting incredible D.D. poses and at utilizing stark colors to bring to life stage lights and give everything an intriguingly bright saturation but the fight choreography is often sloppy and confusing. A fight with the not-Heartless towards the end has some nice moments where D.D. uses her mic and cable like a whip and mace but the rest of the fight is clunky and haphazard, building up to an anti-climactic freezeframe and a lot of empty space. It’s a pity because the behind the scenes “action,” that of a band grumpily getting on each other’s cases while also clearly having a lot of affection for each other and their art, is great stuff, fascinating and relatively unique, closer to The Stains than Josie and the Pussycats.
First issues in decidedly unfamiliar terrain are of course exceptionally hard to pull off and Fletcher and Wu deserve credit for at least creating a viable atmosphere and hook. Black Canary offers a great cast of characters and Wu’s art is addictive and engrossing even at its lowest points, but the series still needs to find its footing and make its action scenes as interesting as its “band hanging out in a cramped space” moments. Black Canary could specifically use some of the brilliant chaos of its spiritual ancestor FLCL, where a space ranger wielding a modified Rickenbacker bass as a weapon is one of the main characters and all the action is rubbery and kinetic rather than awkwardly posed and still. As it stands, consider Black Canary to be a promising 7″ from a band with a lot of potential once it hones its sound.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover