How Meg Cabot's Black Canary: Ignite brings more feminist representation to comic books
Meg Cabot knows what makes a teenage girl’s mind tick. The New York Times best-selling author has penned more than 50 books for teens centered on female protagonists of all kinds (not including her books aimed at adults, of which she’s written more than two dozen). Some of her books are standalone stories, while others make up beloved franchises like The Princess Diaries, The Mediator, and 1-800-Where-R-You? series. For the past 20 years, she’s tapped into the inner thoughts, desires, and struggles that women growing up today face. Set in both big cities and small towns, from high-concept sci-fi fantasies to the microcosms of summer jobs and high school romance, there’s a Cabot character and story for anyone and everyone.
And now she’s dipping her pen into a different kind of ink for DC Comics’ youth-oriented DC Zoom imprint with Black Canary: Ignite, a graphic novel aimed at young girls. The comic introduces a new origin story for iconic DC superhero Dinah Lance, a.k.a. Black Canary, but what makes this retelling unique is that Dinah is 13 years old — younger than any previous version of the character, who first appeared in 1947. In Black Canary: Ignite, Dinah has ditched her black leather leotard for more sensible jean shorts, and instead of fighting crime under the cover of darkness, she’s focused on normal teenage girl problems like winning the battle of the bands with her two best friends and convincing her cop dad that joining the Gotham City Junior Police Academy is a great dream to have (and not at all dangerous). But when a mysterious villain and Dinah’s own blossoming superpowers threaten everything she holds dear, she’ll have to learn important lessons about not only finding her voice but also how to use it responsibly. Maybe one day, she’ll even save the world. But first, she’s just trying to get through junior high in one piece — which is especially difficult when the principal seems to hate her.
While Cabot’s fans might be surprised to see her take on the comic book world, it’s actually a medium that’s close to her heart. “It’s not something I ever expected either, so it’s been a really exciting opportunity,” she tells EW. “I’ve been reading comic books ever since I was a little kid.” Her introduction to comics came via Betty and Veronica from Archie Comics issues, but when she was “old enough to buy [her] own comic books,” her true passions emerged.
“I was super into this character called Isis, who was a DC character,” Cabot says. “She’s a super-goddess, an Egyptian goddess who can fly. And I have to admit, I loved some Marvel characters, like Spider-Man. But my favorite character was Princess Leia, from the Star Wars comic book line. I’ve been reading comic books for a long time, so when I heard that DC was looking to start a line of comic books for younger readers and particularly looking to empower girls and do some girl-oriented superheroines, I immediately jumped on that and started looking through their back catalogs to see which superheroine I would be interested in writing.”
Black Canary was her first choice, and she was shocked that the character hadn’t been claimed yet. “Her superpower is a super-loud voice, and I have a super-loud voice!” Cabot says with a laugh.
Below, EW speaks with Cabot about bringing more feminist representation to comic books, what she hopes young readers (especially girls) take away from her new Black Canary origin story, looking back on the past two decades of her career, and more. You can also get an exclusive sneak peek at Black Canary: Ignite.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: DC’s introduction of the DC Zoom and DC Ink imprints aimed at younger female audiences is such an exciting direction for a medium that’s historically been dominated by male voices, sometimes even toxically so. What has it been to bring more female stories to the comic book world?
MEG CABOT: It means a lot to me, especially with a character like Black Canary because she has been around since the 1940s and she’s always been a great feminist character, but she’s been super-hyper-sexualized over the years. Which, that’s fine, because she uses her voice to fight crime. But for me what really drew me to her was the fact that when I was a kid, I was always being told that I was too loud and I needed to be quiet. In fact, my middle school principal even told me that: I was the loudest girl in the entire school and [they] literally told me to “shut up” in the cafeteria one day. I think that’s a horrifying message to send to any child, but especially a girl because traditionally girls have always been told to be quiet and let the boys take the lead. I was really excited to take a pass at Black Canary as a young girl so we could have the same thing happen to her, but the problem is she really has the loudest voice in the world — she has this supersonic canary cry, and she has to make that decision of what she’s going to do with it. Is she going to keep quiet, or is she going to use it to help make the world a better place? That’s something I think that all girls and boys today are thinking about and need to see characters doing: using their voice to make the world a better place.
That’s definitely an overarching theme throughout the book — how you shouldn’t silence your voice but rather learn how to use it responsibly. What do you hope young readers take away from that lesson in the story?
It’s exactly that: Go ahead and use your voice, but use it responsibly. We see Dinah trying all these different ways, she really wants to make a difference. Her father is a police officer, so she desperately wants to be a police officer like him, but the reality of being a police officer in Gotham City, the most dangerous city in the world, he is not super-excited about her following in his footsteps. My brother is actually a police officer and he has two teenage daughters who want to be police officers, and he’s just horrified! I think that’s something that a lot of kids have to deal with, their parents being a little bit of helicopter parents and worrying about them and kids trying to figure out what their special gift is, what they’re going to contribute to the world. Dinah discovers hers after trying different things like trying out for cheerleading, she goes out for choir; of course her voice doesn’t work out too well for those things because everything around her is exploding. Finally she realizes she should be a super-vigilante because that is where her actual talent is going to work out best. That’s probably not going to work out for most regular kids [laughs], but like most comic books, it’s an exaggerated look at adolescence. It’s a great coming-of-age story about finding out who you are and what your place is in the world.
You’re no stranger to genre themes as you’ve explored them in some of your previous books, but how has tackling the a comic book compared to what you’ve written about in the past?
It’s been very educational! Thankfully DC has been really helpful, they have classes for us newbies. I really didn’t know that much about comic book writing until I got myself into it with this. For instance, I did not know the writer describes every single panel in the graphic novel or comic book. I thought they just write the words and design the plot, but no! That’s not at all what happens. Even the angles to a certain degree at which the characters are standing and sometimes even what they’re wearing, but I got very lucky because my artist, Cara McGee, is super-fashion-savvy and came up with really great costumes for everybody. She was able to tackle the problem of how do we un-sexy Black Canary for a younger audience, because she was the one who came up with the idea that kids are going to want to dress up like her and these readers are going to want to do cosplay as Black Canary, and the way Black Canary as an adult is dressed is not something that’s going to go over too well at school or with parents because she was wearing fishnet stockings with a really high-cut leotard and thigh-high boots.
You’re right, historically she has been one of the more sexualized characters in comics, so how did you go about making that more appropriate for a younger female audience?
She still has the fishnet stockings, but now she has bicycle shorts on and some cutoff jeans, and she’s got a regular T-shirt with a black leather jacket. She still has captured the look of Black Canary, but it’s an age-appropriate look that won’t freak your mom out when she sees you walk out of the house wearing it for Halloween, or even just a normal day! It was great working in tandem with somebody who really had such a good grasp on that.
Was that the most important aspect you wanted to get right with this book?
Yeah, it was really important. And a big part of Black Canary’s character is that she learns self-defense techniques, krav maga, so we show that as well, her becoming an extremely good fighter as well as honing her canary cry. She’s strong in so many ways. And I’ve already seen my first Instagram post of a young girl wearing a Black Canary outfit based on our version, so that’s been very exciting. I’m hoping when Halloween comes around we’re going to see a lot more! And you don’t even need the excuse of Halloween to dress up as her — I think any day can be Black Canary day. Why not?
You have been a renowned author for two decades, consistently staying current with each new book and series you write. How have you evolved your teen heroines over the past two decades to keep them modern/progressive?
I don’t have kids of my own, but I have 13 nieces and nephews so I’m often around young people, and I ask a lot of questions but mostly I just keep my mouth shut and I listen when I’m around young people. I guess I’m a spy in a way, so that I can hear what they’re talking about and what they’re interested in and what they’re doing so I can then report on it [laughs] in my books, for good or for bad! I really don’t think that kids change that much; the technology definitely changes. The Princess Diaries’ Mia, she was just longing for a beeper in one book! [Laughs] That’s hilarious, and I don’t even know if kids today would even know what that is. At one point she buys her boyfriend at the time a TV/VCR [laughs] as a present! So the technology has changed but the actual problems that kids have, for the most part, stay the same.
On the flip side, looking back on your earliest books, published around the year 2000, is there anything you feel has become dated that you wish you could update now?
Oh my God, yes! Yes! There is so much. The Princess Diaries is about to have its 20th anniversary so we’ve been going through and updating, not the technology but there’s words that we used in the ’90s that bled out into in the early ’00s that definitely are considered very, very politically incorrect now. Princess Mia referred to herself as a “spaz” a great deal and that was considered totally funny and normal then, but you wouldn’t say that now, even about yourself. And there are more examples that I won’t mention, but yeah, there is stuff we need to update because read today, people would be aghast by it. And young people reading it today, they would be horrified by it. There are transgender characters in that book that could have been treated a little more gently. Back then, living in New York City with neighbors who were transgendered, that was how they referred to themselves so it was how we referred to them, and it was probably completely wrong, so going back now into those books we have changed all that. It’s slightly changed but a little more sensitive because times have changed, for the better!
And what’s next for you after Black Canary: Ignite debuts?
I have another adult book coming out, a rom-com, next year called No Offense. I have a book out right now called No Judgment, and it’s kind of a sequel but about different characters set on the same tropical island. I’m working on that right now.
Black Canary Ignite publishes Oct. 29, but you can check out EW’s exclusive excerpt below.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.