For almost seventy-five years, DC Comics has been telling stories about Black Canary, a heroine whose story and career are different from those of comics. Armed with his martial arts – and in his later incarnations, the sonic superpower known as Canary Cry – the superhero of the Golden Age continues to excite many fans, both in his solo stories and as a member of groups such as the Justice Society of America, the Justice League and the Birds of Prey. This year she made her live film debut with Journey Smollett in Birds of Prey (and One Harley Quinn’s Fantabulous Emancipation), and early details have revealed that she will return to the Justice League when the Infinity Frontier publishing initiative begins in 2021. One of these steps is the release of Black Canary this week: Breaking the Silence, YA’s first novel revolving around a character.
Written by Alexandra Monir (The Final Six, Timeless) and part of the hit series DC Icons, Black Canary is : Breaking Silence reinterprets the story of seventeen-year-old Dinah Lance’s transition to adulthood by giving her superpowers a unique and powerful meaning. In an alternate world where the Owl Court has transformed Gotham City into a patriarchal dystopia, Dinah discovers the power of her own voice and has to juggle her instincts to become a vigilante and an advocate for women and girls with the safety of the people in her life. The novel is an incredibly creative and impressive take on decades of the canon of the Black Canary, combined with a sincere voice that seems incredibly unique to Monir.
In honor of Black Canary: Beginning of Breaking Silence, discussion with Monir (no spoilers!) about all YA’s novels. We talked about his personal connection with the Dinah story and the characters in his job, the development process of the book and the soundtrack of the original song, and what Monir fans will want to take away from the novel at this point. Read on to find out all about it and give us your feedback in the comments below!
of Alexandra Monir (Photo: Random Penguin House)
Dinah has such a long history, with so many different interpretations and leaps and bounds. Where did you first meet her?
Alexandra Monir: I wish I could remember the exact moment, but I grew up with an older brother who loved comic books – DC and Marvel equally, although I think he probably tended more to DC. I remember going to comic book stores with him all the time when I was a kid. I remember her from Birds of Prey. For me I was always looking for those female superheroes, and she was one of the superheroes who really impressed me and I remember that.
Then there was a time when I grew up and started reading more prose novels and YA – not that my love for it had changed or anything, but I didn’t read so many comics anymore. During my writing career I started to be sent to places like Comic-Con in Phoenix and Comic-Con and WonderCon in San Diego. I just remembered how much I loved comic books as a child, and when I was back in that world, I wanted to get back in. And, of course, I was watching the Arrow show when it came out. It’s come full circle for me.
When the idea of the Black Canary first came up: Is it time to break the silence? How did the development process go?
I owe this in large part to my book from 2018, a science fiction novel called The Final Six. This is the book that, although it’s my fifth book, has attracted the most attention. There was a film company around him. My editor was great and really encouraged him. I’ve been sent to many of these conventions and things.
Thanks to WonderCon, a fantastic convention in Anaheim, I got to know these two great editors and managers of DC Comics. In the beginning, when we met and they heard about my musical background because I had started my whole career as a teen pop singer, they said: Oh, wow. You write fiction and have a musical background? You should think about writing something about the Black Canary. I was like… Oh, my… It would be such a dream. I didn’t even think I’d make it. It sounds like a dream. But of course, once they got the idea in my head, I wouldn’t leave anyone alone. I was thinking: I have to do this. Originally, the people I spoke to were the publishers who ran the graphics department. I wrote a sentence, but when I wrote it, I realized it had to be a prosaic novel. My dream is of course that the circle will be complete and become a graphic novel.
As I thought about her and her power through her voice, I noticed how interesting it is that her superpower is in her voice, literally, but women have often been silenced in the past. It’s very, very personal to me because my family lives in Iran. My grandmother – who was actually the inspiration for the opera singer [a character in the book] who has a small but important role. It was based on my grandmother, who before the revolution was an icon and a singer in Iran. She was an opera star, but also someone who really opened a lot of doors for other women and opened the first mixed school of classical singing to teach children to sing like them. She was the border. Then, in a sudden mass revolution and regime change, women’s rights were completely suppressed. Even today in Iran, if you’re a woman, you can get into big trouble for singing in public. That’s where this idea came from, from my family background.
And also to see that – even if it seems very far-fetched – what I describe in the book is the way women are treated. The reality is that when I wrote this, there was so much in the news about women that I felt: Oh, my God. There are so many parallels with what happened to the women in my family and what I see here, where certain rights are taken away from them and so on.
What was the writing process of the Black Canary: Breaking the Silence, compared to your previous books?
First of all, it was much faster. It’s the fastest book I’ve ever had to write. With my own material, of course, you have a target date for release, and you really do your best to meet it. But if it’s one of my own books and I have a great new idea, it’s not the end of the world to tell my publisher: Can I place this brand new subplot or this brand new character? Maybe we’ll postpone it for a while for me. Not this one.
Even in the case of books for young adults, it usually takes two years from the moment you have an idea and sign it with a publisher until the book actually comes out. He was much faster with this one. I really had to learn to write faster than I used to, which was really great. It has taught me that I can spend a lot of time online or whatever I can shorten to keep writing.
The other thing is to realize that although I was building my own story in this world, I really wanted to be authentic in relation to these characters and the story. I think that was the most important thing. With my own stuff, we go like anything else. Whatever inspiration you get, you can follow it and see where it leads. With this book, I was certainly more… I don’t mean in a box. Honestly, it’s the best box I’ve ever been in. I just had to be much more careful. Thankfully, I had people in DC who kept me informed about the authenticity of the characters, the canon and everything else. Sometimes I had really cool ideas, but maybe this particular character didn’t fit the story I wanted to tell.
Given Dina’s seniority, there have been so many different interpretations of her person, with different parts of her characterization. What do you think are the most important qualities for her that led to the way you wrote it?
What I’ve always liked about her in comics – and even in other characters – is her challenging attitude and courage. When I say fearless, I don’t mean she’s not afraid of things, just that from the first chapter of the book she’s ready to defend what she knows is right. I feel the same way, even when I was much younger and first met her in the comic book, it was just a feeling I had of her.
I love the combination of his physical strength and the softness that comes from Oliver. I like many things about her, but I think the word that comes to mind is just the challenge and the fearlessness, combined with those understandable human emotions that we also see in her.
Ever since you mentioned Oliver… I really, really like the way you wrote that. He feels like such a compendium of all his eras. How did you find Dinah’s characterization and dynamics in the context of a great YA-romance?
One thing that was important to me – and very nice – is that while you and I know Dinah and Black Canary as superheroes of course, a lot of people unfortunately know her as the sidekick of Green Arrow. I think it’s because of the TV show. Even for Halloween this year, my husband and I played the Black Canary and the Green Arrow for fun. And I thought: Wait a minute, when I got my suit. There was a large image of [Stephen Amell’s] arrow on it. I was thinking: Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute. Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute. Yeah, there was also a picture of Katie Cassidy, but I thought my picture wasn’t on her costume, so why is her picture on my costume?
Again, I’m not saying this to Black Canary fans because we all know how great she is. But I can’t tell you how many people said when I told them I was writing this: Wait a minute, who’s that? I’d say so: Do you know Arrow? They said: Oh, yeah. I have tried to reverse the roles in terms of dynamics, where she is the hero and he is more of an apprentice, but really super loving and incredible.
And in terms of characterization, I really borrowed from a lot of people. I loved Arrow, the restless rich boy, this aspect, both in the series and in the comics. I was trying to understand what he would have been like if he had experienced many of the things we see – the island, that sort of thing – at a younger age. How would that affect his youth? He tries to reconcile what he has experienced with the need for convenience and the connection he finds with Dinah.
I also wanted to tell you about the dynamic between Larry and Dinah because it was so great and good. I could tell from the testimonies of appreciation that you somehow inspired him by your relationship with his father. And I like that, and I like that Larry is thriving, because I feel like people don’t appreciate him enough. What did you think of her characterization and dynamics with Dinah?
First of all, the fact that there are so many different versions of Dinah. First of all, she was that person. She was that person at the time. Then there were two different iterations. In fact, one nice thing about all these alternative stories is that I felt free to choose my own adventure and decide which version of Dinah I wanted to focus on? I loved the idea of Dinah Drake and Larry Lance, and that my Dinah was their daughter. I was inspired by the different alternative stories I had to choose from.
Part of me also wanted a father-daughter story. I just love her. I think there’s something special about the father-daughter bond. To be honest, I grew up with an incredibly loving Iranian father who was also very strict and protective. I know exactly what Larry means when he gets like this. I’m just trying to protect you. My father was always like that when I was young. My parents are so amazing that when I was a teenager and I decided to move to Los Angeles to make music because it was my first career, my father literally changed companies to be with me. My father was the only one who had all these ties to his work in San Francisco, where we lived. It’s the protection I had from my father. When you’re younger, you don’t always appreciate it. It wasn’t until I was 20 years old that I really began to understand, my God, it’s so great to have this super protective and extraordinary father. But when we’re younger, it’s often like I just want to do what I want to do. He’s the jerk.
The other reason why it was very important for me to write about the connection between Larry and Dinah is that many people have called this book feminist, and I am proud of that. But I also think that there are people who sometimes misunderstand the word and think that feminist drugs are anti-human, and that’s exactly the opposite. I’m a feminist who loves men. My father, my husband, my brother. These are my favorite people. I have a son. I have so many friends I love. I love men.
I really wanted to show in the book, with Larry and Oliver, and to a lesser extent with one of their good friends in the book, Ty, that if you live in this really strict patriarchy, as I’ve explored in Gotham City, it doesn’t mean all girls are good and all boys are bad. This means that girls are subject to very strict and rigid rules and boys are not, and this is a problem we have all had to deal with throughout history. But there are some incredible male allies, and I wanted Larry to be one for them.
Without getting into spoilers, I really liked the way you adapted Birds of Prey to the context of your story.
To be honest, those were some of my favourite scenes, especially because I feel that Birds of Prey also has such a rich history. There have been many different members, and over the years they have embodied it in different ways. To be honest, I chose characters who were my favorites and whose connection and relationship with Black Canary were the most interesting for me.
I also wanted them to be from a previous generation, like the lost generation of superheroes, because Dinah has no mother in our history. The two characters that make up Birds of Prey complete these two different facets of the maternal influence he lacks.
I really enjoyed the Black Canary songs: Breaking the silence. I could imagine them very clearly and hear them in my head as I read the book. How did the songwriting process go, apart from writing the novel itself?
Oh, my God, that was so much fun. There are so many aspects in this book that I feel like I’m in a dream and I’ve pinched myself. Turning on the music was special for me because it was my first love and my first job. It was so cool to get back to that first love with this project.
In fact, this song, one of the most important songs in The Black Canary Sings, was one of the first I wrote for him. Just when I was about to launch, I suddenly got this verse and choir in my head and started writing them. It’s actually quite funny – there’s a common room in my house, a sitting area where I used to write. I literally went to the bathroom and started singing in my iPhone because I didn’t want to forget the melody that came into my head. It was just one of those magical moments with that song.
Then two more came up when I went deeper into the manuscript. I was thinking: Okay, here’s the point of the song. One thing in particular is special – a song she writes that connects to Oliver in a moment of tears. It reminds me that years ago I invented a song of the same name. Then my husband and I broke up. I never did anything with the song because we clearly got back together and we got married and everything. But then I remembered that song and I thought: What if I changed it, wrote it differently and made this Dinah song instead? I rewrote it. It was very nice, because it was a tune I had in my head for a long time and I could finally use it.
What do you hope readers – both new Dinah fans and established fans – will get out of Black Canary? Break the silence?
I hope it’s a double-edged sword for both new and old fans. I hope it’s a much-needed escape from the real world, that it takes them on this fun journey, but also that it inspires them. My goal in writing was for you to enjoy reading it. But even if you go through difficult times in life, or if the state of the world brings you down and you feel helpless, there is a message that the only thing you really need is your voice. Not that you should have a canary cry like Dinah, but your own voice can move mountains, tell the truth and defend what is right.
For the established Black Canary fans it will hopefully feel like a return to the roots to get this story from one of their favourite characters. I hope that’s all you wanted. For new readers who don’t know Dinah or who only know her from the Arrow TV series, I would like it to arouse new readers’ interest in the character and encourage them to watch the comic again. It has an amazing history dating back to the 1940s. It would be great if this book would be the starting point for new fans to get involved in the canon.
The world of the black canary: Breaking the Silence seems so vast and established that there is more to discover. Is there a sequel or spin-off that might interest you?
Oh, God, I want it so bad. It’s all in the hands of DC and Random House. I hope many people will read this book and that there will be a demand to continue. I’d like to write one. When I wrote that epilogue, I really thought it could go on, and it could go on, but at some point I had to officially shorten it.
Absolutely. A lot more can happen. We certainly leave it in a much better place than at the beginning, but there are definitely things I want to keep looking at as events unfold.
Black canary: Breaking Silence comes out on Tuesday the 29th. December, wherever books are sold.