This guest piece was written by friend of the site Scott Susans, who is a fond reader of comics and works as a brass instrument production manager for Ssshmute in New Zealand. You can find him on twitter at @DuffmanMedic. (Special thanks goes to Courtney Hilden for her help with the piece.)
For those unaware, as of the past few months Dinah Lance (the Black Canary) has been on a new path in her life. Since the New52, her existence within the DCU has been somewhat in flux, with her previous history wiped away and her Birds of Prey book cancelled in 2014. As of mid-June though, after appearances in the revamped Batgirl of Burnside book, she has taken on new life under the hands of writer Brenden Fletcher and artist Annie Wu. Dinah has been on tour with a new band, Black Canary, as its lead singer.
The book (appropriately named Black Canary) is wonderfully stylistic with a gorgeously handled story. The new band members are all interesting and unique characters in their own right. Part of the story is about Dinah, as a superhero, having to adjust and learn this different skill set on the fly after the group is thrown together. Despite it being a book about a band, however, there are rarely any performance panels outside of those required for set-up. The style and feeling of the music is drawn completely from the art style and choices involved, and man, what a way of showing punk rock.
Punk as a genre has always been about rebellion. Its earliest proponents were those who crafted their own style and didn’t follow the rules that had been set out before. It’s rough and tumble, leather clad, iconoclastic and LOUD. Black Canary is a punk band and the comic makes you know it while making sure there’s a lot more to it than that.
Dinah’s powers have a very specific aesthetic: the artist uses bright, overblown colors to suggest the power being thrown about. The Canary Cry is drawn to invoke a train driving at a brick wall. It stands out, since its colors are different from nearly every other palate of the book, except when Black Canary is performing. The coloring (by Lee Loughridge) and lettering (Steve Wands) in these moments purposefully try to get us to draw the correlation between her power as a metahuman and her performance as a singer. As readers, we are meant to connect her performance’s raw emotions with her superpower cry (albeit her stage performances are more controlled and thus, muted in color). Both her musical and meta prowess is about power, how much she can give.
And yet, in this same comic where letting go and giving a full blast of punk rock power is often a solution, there is also a throwback in Black Canary #3 to perhaps the furthest away from punk you can reach: opera. Lentando, Accelerando and a tempo are terms associated with musical theory and composition; they’re meant to tell musicians how to interpret a piece, when it needs to slow down, or speed up over a series of bars. These terms pop up as narration in issue three of the book, during an extended fight/chase scene and then in the moments leading up to the band’s performance. Even their lettering runs against the more punk moments, seeming clean and soft compared to the Cry’s jagged edge. These softer, more traditional music theory moments happen when Dinah is figuring out how best to resolve this situation. Her fighting is not instigation, but reaction to others, responding along the way. It is akin to sight-reading; getting a piece of music without time to practice and playing as it appears on the page as best you can.
A member of a punk band is not usually someone who is supposed to know these terms, let alone how they apply. The way music is approached between the more formal classical theory and composition compared to the working class background of the punk movement creates two separate worlds of the same language. Where classical performance and understanding is about putting your own flair on a piece while playing within boundaries and is judged by specific merits, punk forgoes these ideas. You learn your instrument and songs through practicing chords, meaning a different understanding of how music works overall. But in using words like lentando, accelerando and a tempo in these circumstances, the writer establishes a clear dichotomy within her double life. The punk is the raw, dramatic, brute power, an uprising rebellion against their detractors, and more literally, her Cry and her performance on stage. The classical terms are connected to how she fights and articulates, her cleaner training style, her calculated planning that works in and goes beyond the moment. When the band arrive and have to set-up to play in less than five minutes, that struggle is underpinned by Accelerando, illustrating a growing level of comfort that Dinah has as she comes to in this newer role.
Which makes the final use of a tempo, which occurs simultaneously with the punk aesthetic, is also important. A tempo is not ‘stop’, but return to your previous tempo, ala to normal tempo. It is an acknowledgement of the two sides coming together, that all that has happened these past issues has shaped her into being both a rock star and a superhero in equal measures. The punk has found how to play in an opera, while still being itself. It’s a brilliant way to bring together Dinah’s musical and superhero journey at this stage of the comic.