Lost Voice: How The Canary Lost Her Cry

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“Amnesty International’s “16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence” is an annual campaign to raise awareness and donations to help fight gender-based violence worldwide. In support of this effort, a small group of comics bloggers (Modern Mythologies, Arousing Grammar, and The Speech Bubble) will be drawing attention to this social and humanitarian issue by highlighting some of the moments where comic books have failed to defend against gender violence. The campaign runs from November 25 (International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women) to December 10 (Human Rights Day). For more information on our comics-related support of the campaign, click HERE. To learn more about Amnesty International, how you can help, or to donate, please click HERE.”

As we arrive on the last day of the campaign, the time has come for my contribution. I racked my brain hard, mulling over the various topics I could cover but in the end I came to the conclusion to cover Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters. First up, I want to share with you the issue and then we’ll cover the aftermath. Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters was a three-issue prestige format comic book mini-series that was published in 1987. Written and drawn by Mike Grell, it featured the titular hero alongside his long-time love interest, the Black Canary. What occurred over the course of the series would irrevocably change the two characters but it is the damage inflicted on Black Canary in particular that I want to focus on. Be warned, that we are going to get a little graphic here as we broach this very serious subject. Now, onto the issue itself:

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Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters

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The two heroes were on different paths: Oliver Queen (Green Arrow) is after the slasher who had been murdering prostitutes while Dinah Lance (Black Canary) is on the trail of a drug cartel. Being a strong, independent woman, she refutes Oliver’s attempts to help her, wanting to see this through on her own.

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After a night of passion, Oliver reveals he’s thinking of more, thinking of marriage and having children but Dinah doesn’t want children. Why you ask?

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Because of the dangerous lives they live. In one of the best and most poignant lines in the mini she states that she’d love to make babies with him but she won’t make orphans.

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Oliver tells Dinah to take care of herself. She mentions always. If she only knew…

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Dinah is making headway and leaves Oliver a note asking for his understanding.

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Oliver still struggles with the notion, wanting to help her but understanding where she is coming from. She’ll be alright he says…

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But she isn’t. We start merely with a shot of her legs, blood dripping down them, puddling on the floor. Oliver has heard that the drug dealer she was on the trail of has had his body found by the authorities and races to find out what has happened to her.

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He finds this waiting for him: Dinah, bloodied, beaten, bruised, clothes torn, tied up. A gruesome shot.

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Then we have the one man ask the other if he would like to rape her before she is mutilated beyond recognition.

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Oliver erupts with rage and kills her torturer as she looks on.

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Oliver comes to her rescue, no remorse regarding the life he has taken.

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Oliver cradles her body, haven saved her, the line uttered from her lips breaking our hearts and his.

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Oliver relives the moment afterwards, the violence seen from another angle yet more sexualized in nature.

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Oliver waits by her bedside, the worse having passed. This harm to the woman he loves spurns him into action to find the head of the criminal empire.

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Shado lays it out plain and simple: both of them are here for vengeance of a different kind but vengeance yet the same.

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Her reply to Oliver is biting. He didn’t have to kill the man who was torturing Dinah but did so nonetheless.

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Eventually they catch up to boss and the deed is done by Shado.

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Dinah is looking better and eager to make the bad guys pay. Oliver informs her it is all over, he avenged her, depriving her of her own justice in the process.

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The mini-series ends on a somewhat upbeat note. Dinah says that one day she may reconsider having kids after she retires. The choice is still hers…or at least she thinks it still is.

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Aftermath

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The brutal and graphic scenes of Dinah found in the Longbow Hunters sought to accomplish one major idea: a return to a more grounded Green Arrow title. One way they did this was to push Oliver to the edge so that he was willing to kill someone, using the severe beating of Dinah to act as a motivating factor, a crutch that is used all to often in stories and movies whether it be the female character being beaten or even killed. The beating also resulted in Black Canary losing her Canary Cry, an iconic power of the character that she would be without for many years to come.

A big contention of debate is in regard to the matter of rape though. Some fans believe that she was indeed sexually violated and tortured while others think it was merely a beating so severe that she was on the verge of death. The writer of the series claimed it was never his intention to imply rape and that fans were simply making the leap there. This would have been all well and good but one of the other side effects besides the loss of her Cry was her inability to conceive children. That choice had been taken away from her. You can see why fans would think this. Here is a small sampling of thoughts I read from a forum discussion HERE on the topic. Some of the highlights follow:

“Even if they *never* intended to have Black Canary get raped, this still doesn’t contradict the argument that the treatment was misogynist:  the scene still has all the “advantages” of showing sexualized violence and implying rape, but the creators can’t be blamed for actually including a rape. Intentionally or not, it seems all the evidence points to the fact that the violence was sexually motivated and linked, and ultimately the words and pictures on the page are going to carry more weight than the  author’s later statements.  Intentional or not, a rape scene is a rape scene.”

“If the scene *is* heavily sexualized, and even you say that you picked that up the first time around, whereas GA’s torture had no implications of his sex being a factor at all, then it seems like sex and the abuse of a particular sex really do play into it. Honestly, I didn’t think of the scene as a “let’s beat up the girl” scene. I saw it as a “Let’s give Ollie a major shock and turn his character around” scene. It was a blatant plot device, but I didn’t think it was particularly sexist. I got the impression instead, that they’d have done the same thing to Ollie to force the same change on Dinah, had it been Dinah’s book. My point is, if the violence really *is* sexually linked, really is happening because BC is a woman, then the scene is still sexually charged and still misogynist, regardless of what Grell later said. Yes, but I don’t think it’s safe to say that it happened because Dinah is a woman. I think it’s safe to say that the “want a piece of this” comment was thrown in because she was a woman, but I definitely find the claim that the whole *scene* was just because Dinah is female to be suspect. A scene that implies rape unintentionally still implies it.  And when most readers pick up that implication, then I think it’s something you can meaningfully address as a specific part of the work.”

“Actually, the answer depends on what you are referring to. If you mean, in official DCU continuity, did Dinah get raped, then the answer is no. Grell and Gold said so, and that’s that. But if you ask, was Dinah raped in The Longbow Hunters, then the answer is yes. Whether intended or not, rape is implied in that scene. I doubt anyone can read the story and not infer that she was raped. It doesn’t matter what Grell said. If you saw something happen on panel and the author later said it didn’t happen, who is right? The author wrote it and denied it, but you SAW it, so it happened. Just like things that were retconned out of existence still happened, even though DC says they didn’t.”

Regardless of which side of the debate you are on the simple truth is that this moment defined both characters going forward. It was a shocking scene much like the infamous scene in Green Lantern when Kyle’s girlfriend was stuffed in a refrigerator. What makes this one standout even more for me (and not in a good way) is the amount of shots, the graphic realism, and the sexualization of the act. That Dinah was able to overcome such trauma speaks to the strength of the character but it is a harsh reality that many women cannot recover from without help. That is why I once again encourage you to visit Amnesty International and donate. It is a simple click away: http://www.amnesty.org/en/womens-rights/16-days.

11 thoughts on “Lost Voice: How The Canary Lost Her Cry

  1. All Oliver’s fans (me included) consider The Longbow Hunters as one of the best Green Arrow stories ever.
    As you wrote in your post, Mike Grell made Oliver a much darker and edgier character, and this new characterization led him to do some things he had never done before. I appreciated it, as I deeply appreciated what you wrote at the end of your post: as you stated, many women cannot overcome a trauma like the one Dinah suffered from without help, and that’s why it is so important not to leave them alone.

    • I have to admit that this was my first time actually reading the mini-series. I had a vague idea of what had happened to Black Canary thanks to issues much later in Birds of Prey dealing with her lack of Cry and knew it traced back to this mini. After reading it, I can see that the Longbow Hunters truly acted as a sort of jumping off point for the Arrow TV show, at least initially. It was a great read and I was fortunate that this great cause that Modern Mythologies championed led me to finally enjoying it. 🙂

  2. Sounds like a pretty brutal mini-series. It’s a subject that has to be very carefully handled in fiction and one of the few things that should never be used as a joke. I don’t even want to directly type the word and it disturbs me to think about how common sexual violence is in the real world. From the way you described this mini, it sounds like it actually treated the subject with respect and for the most part, its characters with dignity. At least it was handled much better than in that one Avengers anniversary issue which nobody should read.

  3. Great post for a great cause. My reaction to learning about this story line in your post you summed up perfectly ” is the amount of shots, the graphic realism, and the sexualization of the act”. Other elements in the story like Canary’s reasons for not having a baby also make this really memorable.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the feature. Also, I can’t stress enough how great Modern Mythologies was to not only organize but decide to shine a spotlight on a fantastic cause. Big props to him. 🙂

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  6. It’s honestly up there suffering from the same problem as Alan Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke. To a fan of Black Canary/Oracle: Birds of Prey, these were the “prestige-format” high-quality, “sophisticated” graphic novels (or in this case, just comics) that elevated the status and reputation of their respective titular male characters being grim and gritty, at the expense of showing the women as either targets of abuse or as you’ve pointed out, women in refrigerators. That Gail Simone picked up on this and later popularised BoP is a testament to just how prevalent misogyny and rape-culture was even in the so-called “modern” comics.

    However, Canary-cry loss or not, it’s also a good reminder that Alan Moore and Mike Grell were responding to the tropes and conventions of the superhero genre, and even going back to Gerry Conway’s handling of Gwen Stacy, all of this is there. For Black Canary’s sake, Moore also wrote this otherwise highly regarded (by Moore fans, if not popular in mainstream) short two-parter called “Green Arrow: Night Olympics” appearing in Detective Comics #549-550 (1985).

    The story is a deconstruction of masculine superheroics, where Oliver & Dinah stop a robbery and find that the criminals are too scared to fight — the mooks have smartened up, they know that it’s better to surrender than face costumed superheroes, even without a fight. One of them has this condition where the very sight of a costumed hero sends the criminal on a self head-beating frenzy (the cop making the arrest tells Green Arrow that “it’s a new syndrome or something” and this guy had it bad after an encounter with Metamorpho, and another by Firestorm). The two punks who surrender to Black Canary say how one of their mates was beaten up Batgirl and it was so embarrassing for the guy that he left town, so it’s better to just give up “we give up, Wonder Woman!” they tell her with a straight face. The readers laugh. Dinah and Ollie talk about how they don’t make ’em like they used to anymore, with BC saying how pathetic the criminals have become, “ordinary criminals can’t compete anymore,” she says. “It’s like Darwinism or something, we’re weeding out all the plain-average goons, gradually improving the strain until only the flat-out dangerous psychos are left…”

    True to form, the story’s antagonist is a mohawked punk who buys a arrow at a local supervillain underground garage, kills the guy, and is out to prove that he doesn’t need a silly name like “Arrow Man” or whatever, and that these superheroes are nothing compared to him. The kid is out to prove a point. He shoots Canary — “hey superhero, I hit your girlfriend didn’t I? Did I kill her? I thought it was tough killing super-people, they said you had to have a name and a suit! My name is ______ I’m just an ordinary person! … It’s easy!” Anyway, Canary wounded so Ollie races to him, shows off his superior arrow-skills, intimdates the punk to the point where he faints. Drags him to jail, saying “Dinah was right, they don’t make ’em like they used to.”

    In the epilogue, he visits Canary at the hospital (the mook with the new syndrome is there too and freaks out at the sight of GA walking past him in the hallway) and Dinah is healed. Story ends. It’s popular, it’s a commentary on how superheroes are more than just silly costumes. It’s written to a masterful skill as well, after all it’s written by Alan Moore, drawn by Klaus Jonson, and edited by Len Wein! The story is told in the form of an Olympics pageant, the commentary of athleticism and skill being juxtaposed with superheroics.

    You can see the problem already, Gail Simone readers will quickly point out that it’s Canary once again used as a plot-device. To say that these acts of violence are NOT due to her gender is ignorant of the story itself — of course she’s used as a target to push the hero, of course the violence is gendered. Even if it’s unintentional, that’s the point — the gendered violence is unconscious. Even when it’s written by such great veterans of comics-literature. The biases are endemic to the genre itself. Even when Grell and Moore were deconstructing the genre, they couldn’t get past it. The women in the refrigerators are older and more prevalent a trope than the kitchen sink drama (sorry).

    Was it because they were male writers and editors? I don’t know (Karen Berger was editing Black Orchid, Swamp Thing, Sandman, and Wonder Woman around those years I think, and despite there being similar scenarios, despite there being plenty of female “victims” in those books, it was always part of the character’s theme and story, never tossed around like a plot-device). A few years later in 1991 and 1993, after Grell was nearly finished with his Green Arrow v2 run (where Shado, incidentally “rapes” Oliver, but that’s a whole other discussion). For Black Canary fans, Dinah got her own solo mini-series written by Sarah Byam, and it’s clearly about how frustrated she is in her relationship with Ollie. It was post-CanaryCryloss.

    The mini-series depicts a more street-level undercover agent in Canary as she deals with the racism against Vietnamese and Asian, and even Native American ethnicities in Seattle, she busts a narcotics operation while teaming up with Asian-American blue-eyed Vietnamese supporting character Gan the radiojock. It’s honestly a pretty good book, depicting themes like generational emasculation (one of it’s poignant moments shows how one of the hitmen comes from a long line of soldiers — where the helmets of WWI, WWII, and Vietnam veterans are lined up in barbed wires. “traditions of freedom, of sacrificing…son after son… become traditions of protecting… property, sacrificing truth after truth because the only thing more TERRIFYING than the enemy is change” narrates the captions). Ollie makes a guest-appearance, but not only is he NOT used as a man-in-a-refrigerator, his bumbling idiocy isn’t even a big part of the story. It’s Canary’s world, it’s a street fighter solving street-level crime. Sarah Byam hasn’t written many comics but what little she did has garnered her quite the critical acclaim. I’d highly recommend it. She followed up the four-part mini-series with a 12-issue ongoing for Black Canary, where Dinah’s post-crisis origins are more fleshed out, but it wouldn’t be until Birds of Prey that Dinah really started moving past her trauma.

    Sorry about the long-ish post but I hope this gets through. It’s a wonderful article and I thought I’d add some of my own reading experiences on this issue. Cheers.

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