More than 25 years ago - damn, I'm old - I read a multi-generational superhero story that showed how the identity of Black Canary moved from mother to daughter. Nowadays, I'm writing a project that is, in part, a multi-generational superhero story that shows how the mantle of Black Panther has been embodied across decades. And that little bit of DC lore is helping me shape the comic-book history I'm creating.
In 1986, right after the end of mega-crossover Crisis on Infinite Earths changed everything, DC Comics launched a new series called Secret Origins. The title was meant to serve two purposes: Let people see the beginnings of various characters' careers, and elucidate the new shape of the DC Universe's fictional history after Crisis on Infinite Earths. Over the course of four years, readers got to see either new origin stories or fresh angles on familiar events. The Black Canary story in Secret Origins #50, the series' final issue, was a bit of both.
"Unfinished Business" was written by Alan Brennert, with art by Joe Staton, Dick Giordano, Todd Klein and Julia Lacquement. Because DC Comics has paved over its continuity at least twice since the comic was published, "Unfinished Business" isn't relevant any more; you don't need to know it in order to understand Dinah Drake Lance or any of the characters who appear in it. As a piece of fictional superhero biography, it doesn't matter. But as a specific piece of craft, the sadly out-of-print story has long been an exemplar of how to handle the many demands of legacy superhero storytelling.
The story opens with Dinah Lance - AKA Black Canary - getting a phone call while in bed with Oliver Queen - AKA Green Arrow - telling her that her mother Dinah Drake has fallen into a coma. From there, it becomes a three-tiered narrative, showing the lives of two generations of Black Canary, as well as the history of crimefighting in Gotham City.
What amazes me about "Unfinished Business" is how deftly Brennert's script handles the heavy lifting of continuity exposition. Moreover, it grounds its dramatic tension in character dynamics and a larger sense of the changing lore and approaches to superhero fare, creating new connective tissue in the process. The story is filled with little touches that quickly tell you who the characters are to each other, even if your engagement of the DC Universe is casual. Take the end of the opening page, where Dinah worries about making it from Seattle to Gotham in time to see her mother before her imminent death. Ollie makes a call to an unnamed person…
...who we find out is Hal Jordan/Green Lantern on the next page. Ollie's single line of dialogue - "Even if I have to beg him…" - is all that's needed to communicate that there's estrangement between the three people. When Hal and Ollie talk, you learn that they have important history together. The details of that history aren't as important as where it left them in their emotional relationship to each other.
Part of what I have to do on Rise of the Black Panther is encapsulate known history and hint at what the reader doesn't know. I'm writing pages where I have to give enough of the flavour of past events' importance without getting bogged down, while also showing how those events affect the present. It's an crucial part of telling a story in a fictional universe where timelines are chock full of intricate, momentous happenings, and especially vital for a story concerned with inheriting a heroic legacy.
In sketching out Dinah Drake's life story, Brennert shows how her heroic pursuits grew out of something personal - her father's drive to make her Gotham's first policewoman - and grew into a legendary career. We then learn that the rift between mother and daughter comes from an inversion of the parental dynamic previously established in the last generation. The elder Dinah doesn't want her daughter to be a superhero but the younger Dinah is intensely drawn to it.
"Unfinished Business" reads like a smart extrapolation of superhero universe genre conventions, something that Brennert's infrequent comics work excelled at. One sequence shows Dinah Lance's childhood growing up with superheroes for aunts and uncles, channeling a feeling of awe that comes across as authentic. If you were a kid whose parents had friends with wings and magic rings, wouldn't you also want to grow up to have the same kind of life?
Another reason I love "Unfinished Business" is because it grapples head-on with the ways that superhero sensibilities changed over 50-plus years. It seeds small, clever genre mechanisms - like a doctor trusted with taking care of old heroes - and layers complication onto the simplicity of Golden Age superheroes of the 1940s. When it briefly touches on how the second Black Canary helped Green Arrow's partner get off heroin, it isn't just a continuity nod.
It's also a reminder of when cape comics went in for "serious" social commentary and an acknowledgement of creators who blazed those and other trails. In similar fashion, all the family tension and baggage makes those annual JLA/JSA team-ups become something more than an expected reunion. "Unfinished Business" is a new story that makes the old ones matter more, and in a different way.
Brennert also finds great story by asking questions about legacy and finding answers in seemingly unconnected places. Batman: Year Two was one of the more sombre projects that came out in a post-Dark Knight Returns landscape, showing the return of a hyperviolent killer vigilante from before Bruce Wayne's time. It was a Batman-only story, in that it didn't pull in any other characters from across the DC Universe. But it gets cannily invoked in "Unfinished Business", in panels that show Golden Age Green Lantern coming out of retirement to try and stop the Reaper.
There's a story-lore question behind that sequence: Would the Alan Scott Green Lantern have done nothing while a vigilante killed people in the name of justice? Brennert uses that question - and its answer - to make the DCU feel like a richer, more lived-in place.
And when Dinah Drake gets a last chance to talk to her daughter, that too happens because of a smart in-universe plot beat...
…which wraps up with some meta-commentary.
That last bit seems to foresee the obsolescence of the very story it's a part of, which is impressive in its accuracy. In the current version of DC history, the Justice Society never existed and Dinah Lance has a new backstory that's less family-centric. It's a story about how the history of individuals and institutions intertwine, showing how personal decisions push and pull the choices we make for ourselves and our children, all that while still fulfilling the mandate of creating awe and dramatic tension. These heroes feel more like actual people at the end of it all. It's a story about how people and things change, inside the text and metatextually. Reading "Unfinished Business", you learn about two women who called themselves Black Canary and the histories of superheroing and Gotham City all at the same time. It's an amazing feat - and one that I'll be lucky to replicate in the smallest of ways.