Let’s call this one the Canary Effect: Sometimes when researching the possible inspirations for comic book characters, the historical connections can be complicated and hard to decipher. Like chasing down the butterfly whose flapping wings eventually lead to something greater, and trying to make sense of it. Other times, even the smallest inspiration can be unmistakable, and can still lead to surprising and legendary comic book consequences. Such is the case with a now-legendary character which debuted in Flash Comics #86 in 1947. When I started researching historical elements that might have nudged Robert Kanigher and Carmine Infantino towards creating that first Black Canary story, and found newspaper headlines across the country about “The First Black Canary”, at just the right time, I knew this would be no butterfly hunt.
The first Black Canary is still quite elusive, however. In mid-1945, Mrs H.B. McElwain of Baltimore made the AP newswire with her quest to create the first black canary hybrid bird. Perhaps it was a welcome distraction for a world worn down by the grim realities of World War II, because the journalists who put together this little burst of newspaper stories that year leaned into it with a vengeance:
Mrs. H.B. McElwain, wife of a Baltimore surgeon, loves canaries, but a canary is not enough. As the alchemists wanted gold from base metals, she wants a black canary.
Just how the aristocratic hybrid will look is conjecture. It may be totally black. Or it may have yellow or green wing markings. Hard-working Mrs. McElwain is far from annoyed by this uncertainty, however.
“That’s the beauty of it,” she says. “You never know what to expect. It’s just like alchemy.”
Though news of Mrs McElwain’s progress was scarce over the next two years, she’d managed to capture the public’s imagination with her endeavor. “Black Canary” briefly became a fabric color alongside the likes of “Canary Yellow”. By 1946, Mrs McElwain had competition from around the world in her quest for the Black Canary. And despite seemingly little reported progress, people didn’t give up hope. In 1947, around the time that Flash Comics #86 was hitting the newsstands, the Indianapolis Star noted that members of the Greater Indianapolis Bird Club were still anxiously awaiting the arrival of a Black Canary hybrid. It appears that such bird clubs had become a serious matter in the U.S. by this time, as the Greater Indianapolis Bird Club was preparing for some sort of Bird-centric comicon. Or Birdcon, I guess, for which they expected to attract exhibitors from around the country. And just like some comic book collector awaiting that fabled back issue dealer who had found a fresh copy of Action Comics #1 in somebody’s grandfather’s attic, the Bird Club still held out hope that someone would arrive at their event in Indianapolis that year and unveil a Black Canary hybrid to the world at last.
DC’s Black Canary soared to unexpected prominence from obscure and elusive beginnings as well. Her debut in Flash Comics #86 is not just a back-pages story in this anthology, but she is also not the star of the feature — more a likeable villain in a Johnny Thunder story. The Comic Connect description from tonite’s session elaborates:
When Robert Kanigher and Carmine Infantino created Black Canary, who made her debut in this very issue, they probably didn’t expect the character to become a long-lasting heroine in the DC lexicon, but, over seventy years later, she continues to be a popular heroine, and one of the first to ever appear in the publisher’s output. Did we happen to mention the super-cool Lee Elias dinosaur cover? Dinosaurs are awesome…
But like Mrs McElwain’s quest for a bird so unique and unusual that she didn’t know what to expect, DC Comics’ Black Canary would quickly capture comic fandom’s imagination — at least enough to join the Justice Society of America with issue #38 just a few months later, followed by her own solo feature beginning in Flash Comics #92, with that iconic cover.
The record is surprisingly silent about Mrs McElwain’s quest after 1947, and other efforts over the next few years seem vague and unverified. Flash Comics #86 and Flash Comics #92 are likewise elusive and sought after, but you can still catch a glimpse at tonite’s Comic Connection session.