Today, Spencer and Mark are discussing Black Canary 4, originally released September 16th, 2015.
Marge: “You liked ‘Rashomon.'”
Homer: “That’s not how I remember it.”
The Simpsons — “Thirty Minutes Over Tokyo”
Spencer: By now, anybody with even the tiniest bit of pop culture-savvy is familiar with the concept of an unreliable narrator. Much like the various storytellers in “Rashomon,” an unreliable narrator believes their own personal version of the truth, even if it doesn’t necessarily jive with the experiences of everyone else present. Comics are a particularly fun medium through which to explore unreliable narrators, because the juxtaposition of words and images means that the creative team can explore two different versions of the truth at the same time. This seems to be Brenden Fletcher and Pia Guerra’s intention with Black Canary 4 as they recount Bo Maeve’s backstory, but unfortunately, the differences between Maeve’s version of the truth and reality are never quite clear enough to be effective.
Maeve has kidnapped Ditto, but finding herself charmed by the kid, starts filling her in on her backstory.
This is actually some rather effective and subtle work from Fletcher and Guerra; the second and third panels here show Maeve’s father as the one taking her to auditions and as the one who looks more frustrated than sad when she leaves. This is why Maeve’s “victory” over her father doesn’t come from proving her talent — which he already recognizes — but from proving that she can be a success all on her own, benefitting only herself, through her own hard work and nothing else. This is likely how Maeve became so narcissistic, as her belief that her every effort was her best quickly warped into the idea that her every effort was the best.
The slightly confusing thing about these opening pages, though, is how closely the art confirms Maeve’s story. It shows her father just as she describes him, and then shows the crowd going absolutely crazy during Alas Insane’s set, again, just as she described. This would seem to indicate that we’re seeing this flashback solely through Maeve’s eyes, but as it continues, the perspective seems to shift a bit. Maeve’s assertions that her handlers were unreasonably against her and her standards is contradicted by Maeve’s temper tantrum in-panel, and the scene where she first meets Dinah is just as unclear.
This is the one moment where the medium’s inability to fully depict sound or music is a disadvantage; is this a scene shown from Maeve’s perspective, where she witnesses a horrible performance unjustly rewarded with praise, or a moment where we see the truth, that Dinah was good and praised no matter how much Maeve tries to deny her talent? I legitimately can’t tell, and previous issues’ uncertainty about Dinah’s actual skill as a singer and performer certainly don’t help the situation.
Of course, it’s possible that this uncertainty is purposeful; that it’s meant to be an intrinsic part of Maeve’s character. After all, she ends the issue ruminating about how she’s a solo act who is determined to succeed on her own power, all while letting scientists give her a copy of Dinah’s Sonic Scream. That’s a contradiction if I’ve ever seen one. So I get the broad strokes of what Fletcher is going for here — Maeve is a character whose perception of herself and the world around her has been warped by her own overinflated ego — but his efforts are hampered by a lack of context. Is Dinah really a better singer/performer than Maeve, or were Byron and Paloma just tired of dealing with her antics? Is Maeve just a bit unhinged, or has she full-on disassociated from reality? I need more detail to fully understand the character, and we don’t get it in Black Canary 4.
Fortunately, fill-in artist Pia Guerra (of Y: The Last Man fame) fills her work with enough detail and structure to satisfy anyone. Her strong lines and clearly defined characters keep every scene instantly discernible even when colorist Lee Loughridge leans hard on the neons and pastels, and this is especially an asset during the fight scenes.
Guerra breaks this battle down to its most basic form, giving each move its own panel (or sometimes even more than one!) to play out in. It allows Dinah and this hooded figure to wow us with their flawless technique, while showing in considerable detail just how outmatched their poor opponents are. There’s something about seeing these techniques play out this way that makes them look easy — they’re not, of course, but seeing these combatants perform them so casually certainly goes a long way towards building up their skill levels. These fighters are not to be messed with.
Of course, these are far from the only tricks in Guerra’s arsenal. For all her skill in bringing to life serious battles, she’s just as proficient in capturing charming moments.
Seriously, I’d throw down $3.99 a month just so se Guerra draw 20 pages of Ditto being adorable. Guerra captures every emotion and nuance perfectly, and there’s nothing more you can ask of an artist, guest or otherwise.
By the end of Black Canary 4, Ditto has been reunited with the band, rescued by a white-clad ninja/Dinah lookalike. This is a super far-out theory based on nothing but wild speculation (and his brief appearance early in the issue), but I have to wonder if maybe this is Dinah’s ex, Kurt, trying to help in his own way. The ninja’s figure is androgynous enough to be either male or female, and although its face looks almost identical to Dinah’s, that could be a disguise of some sort (although I have no idea why Kurt would disguise himself as Dinah). Mark, do you have any theories about who this figure could be? Any guess is probably closer than mine. Also, do you have a clearer perspective on Fletcher’s take on Maeve than I? I’m definitely curious to see what you got out of this one.
Mark: That’s an interesting theory about Kurt, Spencer. And as far as economy of characters go it would make a lot of sense. But my money’s on the mysterious white ninja being an as-of-yet unrevealed player. Their similarity to Dinah makes me think it’s more than just a disguise, and, tossing my hat into the crazy theory ring, their seemingly superhuman strength and abilities makes me think maybe Ditto’s energy has imbued them as well.
And is Maeve really an unreliable narrator? I’m not so sure. The first time I read through the issue I didn’t pick up on that at all, and even going back through I don’t really see it. I think it’s certainly possible that Fletcher’s intention is for Maeve’s words and the reality to not match up, but if so there’s a fatal failure of execution somewhere along the line.
Perhaps the problem lies with Guerra’s art. Spencer, I know you’re really high on it, and there are many, many panels and pages that I think look fantastic, but overall it feels very inconsistent to me. For every Ditto/Maeve dance party, there’s a wonky face, an incomprehensible mash of limbs, or people and objects being way out of proportion. All that being said, I do think Lee Loughridge’s colors were on point throughout. Bathing the entire ninja fight sequence at the end of the book in a striking blue/green filter is just one example.
But honestly the whole issue feels a little bit off. For example, what’s with the strange interlude where Dinah beats up a would-be carjacker in the gas station parking lot? Is it there just to give Dinah a moment to be badass in an issue where she’s otherwise inert? Was there no way to integrate that into the plot so it didn’t feel so helicoptered in?
With a fill-in artist, ambiguity surrounding its (potential) central conceit, and weird pacing issues, this is the first issue of Black Canary that left me frustrated. I’m hoping next month is a return to form.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to DC’s website and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?