Friday, December 26, 2014

Artist Spotlight: Alex Toth's Black Canary

By the time Alex Toth drew the 2-part Black Canary story in Adventure Comics #s 418-419 (April-May 1972), he was submitting only occasional work to DC.  His bread & butter at this time was working on character designs for the Hanna-Barbera animation studio - his many visual creations for H-B include Space Ghost, the Herculoids, and the Super-Friends.

When he did take on comics work, however, Toth's distinctive style always lent something special to the stories.  He had a dazzling sense of design, and his use of heavy outline let each character distinguish itself, yet still provided a fluid storytelling.  It's so easy to imagine an Alex Toth story as a storyboard for an animated feature - this Black Canary 2-parter is no exception.

Written by Denny O'Neill, this tale was a chance for Black Canary to shine.  It was rare for her to appear at this time without the entire Justice League (she was a member at the time) or as a guest star (or co-star) in a Green Arrow feature.

The story opens with a very bored Dinah Laurel Lance, who while thumbing through the help wanted ads, sees a listing for a Judo instructor for a feminist group called Women's Resistance League -  a job for which she is perfectly suited.

Right out of The CW - pining for Ollie
Applying for the job in person, AS THE BLACK CANARY (why not?), Dinah is immediately tested by her prospective boss, Bertha Kane.  Kane commands some thug to try to take down the Canary, who promptly demonstrates why that wasn't such a good idea.  This page is an excellent example of the dynamism Toth was so good at illustrating.  Also, O'Neill & Toth wisely stayed away from Dinah's super power (sonic scream) - a down-to-earth Judo ass-whupping, in this case, is much more visually appealing.

The dynamism of Alex Toth
Needless to say, Canary gets the job.  After a hard day's work whipping the Women's League into shape, Dinah stumbles across a couple of masked goons holding her students at gunpoint.  When she intervenes, she's clubbed from behind by none other than Bertha.  The whole thing was a set-up - and part 1 ends with Dinah unconscious at gun point.

Betrayed by Bertha
Part 2 in Adventure #419 opens with a fantastic 1/2 splash page illustration of the prone Black Canary and her assailants.  The page is divided into various crowded, overlapping panels, visualizing the senselessness into which The Canary has just been beaten.

Just before the gunwoman can put a bee in Dinah's bonnet, Bertha thinks better of the move and grants a last second reprieve - The Canary might be more valuable as a hostage, should the plan go awry.  The 'plan,' it seems, is to intercept the prison transfer of the Women's League's mysterious leader - Bertha's boss.  The idea is for the entire League to drive out somewhere into the sticks, block the road and wait for the guarded escort.  They'll put their newly learned Judo skills to the test - freeing their leader from the clutches of the law.

Taken along for insurance, The Canary immediately begins working on her restraints.  This sequence - Dinah tied up in a van - is illustrated with a series of extreme close-ups.  This effect really highlights the sense of claustrophobia one might feel in this tight situation.

Close-up claustrophobia
Aided by the bumps in the road, and a convenient jagged edge in the back of the van, B.C. manages to free herself just as Bertha's crew gets into position for their ambush.  B.C. makes short work of the lone gunwoman left to guard her, just in time for the fireworks.

The prison transfer vehicle makes its way up to the blockade and Bertha orders the attack - gas bombs and grenades go BOOM!  A great action sequence follows: Canary takes the wheel of the van blocking the road and drives the vehicle right into a ditch, before taking out the remaining do-no-gooders.

Dinah Lance - action hero
 At the finale, the mastermind orchestrating this prison break is revealed - no less a villain than The Catwoman was behind the whole caper.  The Black Canary saved the day, but still needs a job.

I'm not sure that Alex Toth ever worked on the character again, but this short, fun story provided a fantastic showcase for his talents, as well as Denny O'Neill's, and provided a nice solo tryout for our wig-wearing, ass-kicking 'Pretty Bird.'


JaredMithrandir said...

I think Catwoman's Costume in this may be a Continuity error. She was not in the Purple costume at this time in the actual Bat Books, or when Denny O'Niel used her in Wonder Woman.

Mark Sweeney said...

Interesting point! The familiar & iconic purple costume must have been at the forefront of Alex Toth's mind & pen - we didn't see too much of that red, blue & black outfit Selina sported in Wonder Woman!