Planting The Seeds
Tripwire continues its 100 Graphic Novels You Should Read While Stuck Inside with its sixty-seventh choice, Black Orchid by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, published by Vertigo/DC and reviewed by Tripwire’s contributing writer Laurence Boyce…
Writer: Neil Gaiman
Artist: Dave McKean
Letters: Todd Klein
When the world of comics supposedly ‘became respectable’ in the mid-80s, it is titles such as Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns that are often cited. While these are undoubtedly major milestones not only of how the medium of comic books could be used to their best advantage but also how they were perceived by the general public, the history of the medium sometimes forgets there are other equally influential works. Neil Gaiman’s Black Orchid is perhaps one of these works. Here Gaiman did much of what his contemporaries were doing: taking established characters and continuity and setting about deconstructing them to build them into something more interesting. Within this he manages to explore much more deep ideas and emotions than was the norm in mainstream comics. But, whilst the likes of Moore and Miller delighted in pulling apart their icons and archetypes through bombast and melodrama, Gaiman takes an altogether more subtle approach.
Black Orchid – originally introduced as a minor DC character in 1973 – begins with the death of our titular hero. Even reading the story more than 30 years since it was first released, replete with the knowledge that death in comic books is cheap at the best of times, the opening sequence is still disturbingly striking. “I’ve read all the comics. .. I’m not going to set up some kind of complicated laser beam deathtrap then leave you alone to escape… I’m going to kill you. Now,” says the villain of the piece who then proceeds to shoot Black Orchid in the head and burn her to death. The narrative immediately sets up the stall that the normal rules of the comic book world don’t apply here. The safe world in which we are used to inhabiting is immediately thrown off its axis.
We then are introduced to a new protagonist, Flora who awakens in a greenhouse with no memories. She soon meets Philip Sylvian, who reveals she is a plant / human hybrid and talks of his past with Susan Linden, the Black Orchid who met her demise in the opening scenes. After growing up together, Linden and Sylvian were forced apart with Linden becoming married to abusive petty criminal Carl Thorne. Sylvian becomes a botanist and biochemist working with familiar DC names such as Jason Woodrue, Pamela Isley, and Alec Holland.
As Flora tries to discover her connection to all that is going on, and find out exactly what she is, Linden’s ex returns after years of being incarcerated after botching a job for Lex Luthor. Flora is soon forced to flee with another mysterious hybrid Suzy, who seems to have some of Linden’s memories. With both Thorne and the resources of Luthor chasing them, Flora and Suzy discover the history of Black Orchid and themselves.
This is full of the traditional trappings of a traditional DC story with numerous cameos from familiar faces from the DC Universe and a plot that would seem to be an extended origin story to allow a new crime fighter to burst on the scene. But Gaiman reflects the usual grandiose melodrama of comic book narrative through the prism of petty human (and non-human) frailty. Lex Luthor is not an overpowered megalomaniac, just a corporate criminal who uses his wealth to get what he wants. Thorne is not a super villain, just an abusive – and possibly mentally ill – sociopath who metes out inelegant violence whilst being curiously ineffective in achieving his goals. This is a world not of primary colours and plots to take over the planet. This is a world of cruel and venal people with equally cruel and venal agendas. In the comic book, violence is usually a source of visceral pleasure: a chance to see our heroes balletically punch and kick their way to victory. Here violence is ugly and empty, creating despair and chaos – a pointed rebuke to the usual way problems are solved in both the world of comics and real life.
This sense of human frailty is emphasised by McKean’s famously photorealistic artwork. With that, and his scratchy pencils and gloomy colours, everything feels slightly haunted and surreal as the comic book and real worlds intersect. But for all its darkness, it is often achingly beautiful with McKean managing to illustrate moments of wonder amongst the despair.
‘Wonder amongst the despair’ is perhaps a good way to describe Gaiman’s story as a whole. For all of its introspection and mostly dour view of the world, there still manages to be a message of hope. A final denunciation of violence (albeit with certain caveats) feels oddly satisfying, a reminder amongst death and anguish that there will be people who make the right choice. And, even amongst its darkest moments, Gaiman manages to get a few moments of subtle humour (such as Swamp Thing irking his significant other).
Whilst Black Orchid could be easily described as dark (both literally and figuratively) this is not the ‘dark age of comic book’ dark in which every character is given thinly explored psychological problems and everyone just punches that much harder. This is a thoughtful and introspective work, a clever and compelling examination of human amorality and comic book tropes that still has a unique power today.
Gaiman would of course go on to explore these issues, and much more, in greater depth in The Sandman, another transformative work in the world of comics. But it would be a mistake to ignore the genius of Black Orchid and its seismic impact on the world of comics.
Here’s links to the other graphic novels reviewed so far