Neil Gaiman Month!!! Part 3 – Reinvention of the Modern Super Hero – Black Orchid

I read somewhere online that said when Neil Gaiman was asked by DC Comics what character(s) he wanted to work with (after they rejected his initial idea to do a revival of the Golden Age Sandman character), editor Karen Berger misheard him through his British accent and thought he said, “Black Hawk Kid.”

I don’t know where I read that, or if it actually contains any truth… but it makes me laugh. And wonder. What if Neil Gaiman hadn’t done Black Orchid?  It was the first mainstream, US exposure for both Gaiman and Dave McKean and Gaiman has stated that it took a lot of work to get DC Comics to agree to partner him with Dave McKean.  Black Orchid‘s debut predates Sandman by about a year (as well as Dave McKean’s breakout artwork for Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth) and one wonders if Sandman would have even seen the light of day if it hadn’t been for the successes seen in Black Orchid.

Fortunately, the series did quite well.  But after nearly twenty-five years, does it still hold up?  Well… yes. Yes it does.

Black Orchid
Script: Neil Gaiman 
Art and Covers: Dave McKean
Lettering:  Todd Klein
DC Comics
160 Pages
September 1, 1991

Now I’m reading this in the trade format, not the original prestige format books, but it doesn’t seem to have lost anything in translation.  The art is beautiful and McKean’s attention to detail in fantastic.  There’s a full-page illustration (tri-panel) depicting the three major DC characters (besides Orchid) who have deep connections to the Green (think of it as a plant-based spirit world) that is breathtaking.  It shows full-on shots of Swamp Thing (Alec Holland), Poison Ivy (Pamela Isley), and The Floronic Man (Jason Woodrue) and is the only time I’ve seen McKean draw Swamp Thing (though I hope more exists because he does beautiful work!).

To speak further on McKean’s art… he is unafraid to change up the art style depending on the perspective, time-frame, or narration.  Much like Violent Cases and Mr Punch, McKean’s art transcends what we would normally see in comic books and it blows the mind to realize that he was so early in his career.

Gaiman’s writing is particularly strong as well and, given his intimate connection to Alan Mooreit isn’t particularly surprising that much of the style (both in the prose and panel transitions) comes from Alan Moore’s game-changing Swamp Thing run.  One character’s words in one panel are echoed by another in the next, Gaiman transposes song lyrics (Frank Sinatra’s American Beauty Rose) with ugly dialogue, and Gaiman and McKean mix it up in fun (if a bit derivative) ways.

The story remains a stand out today for many of the same reasons that Gaiman’s own Sandman and Alan Moore’s Watchmen still remain the pinnacle of comics storytelling… it takes something familiar (in this case, superhero tropes and cliches) and turns them slightly off-kilter.

For instance, at the start of the story, Orchid is caught attempting to infiltrate a crime organization and is tied to a chair.  The mob boss tells her that he knows all the bullshit ways criminals get caught in comics and movies, and proceeds to shoot her in the head, burn her alive, and blow up the top few floors of the building, leaving no room for error in the elimination of an enemy.  A James Bond villain, he ain’t.

Of course, this mobster (under the employ of known supervillain and all around douche-nozzle Lex Luthor) has no way of knowing that Orchid was one of many plant\human hybrids created by scientist Philip Sylvain.  When the original Orchid is killed, another awakens in a lab and begins a journey to attempt to understand who she is, what she is, and why she is.

Given that this is a DC title (not Vertigo, where it was later collected in Trade), Gaiman takes us throughout the DC Universe.  Orchid meets up with Batman and the inmates at Arkham Asylum (specifically The Mad Hatter and Poison Ivy, but a few others make guest appearances).  As cool and fun as this is, the best stuff for my money is the Swamp Thing section of the book.

Dave McKean portrays Swamp Thing better than almost anyone (Rich Veitch is still a personal favorite of mine) and Gaiman infuses the short scene with the right balance of gravity and humor and it comes off as one of the best scenes in the book.  Also interesting to note:  One of Neil Gaiman’s earliest scripts to DC Comics was a Swamp Thing tale called “Jack in the Green” that went unpublished until the fantastic collection Midnight Days hit around the turn of the century (Midnight Days? “Jack in the Green?”  I smell a second Bites of Bits post for Gaiman Month!!!).

Anyhow… Eventually, we end up in the South American rain forest for our final showdown between Orchid, Luthor’s men, and the wild card Carl Thorne.  Needless to say, McKean’s art continues to shine as he illustrates the lush greens of the rain forest and the conclusion?  Well… you’ll have to read it yourself.

The story is quite good. I’ll say that, unlike a lot of Gaiman’s work, it tends to play it safe at times.  And for as much as the book tries to distance itself from traditional comic stories, it does still feel at times like a superhero comic.

At the same time, though, Gaiman infuses his characters with life and humor, which is odd for any comic that was coming on the tails of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns.  He also gives a spark of humanity to Orchid, who begins the novel as an unrelatable enigma, which speaks to his strengths as an author.

McKean’s art, as I’ve said far, far too much already, is beautiful.  He jumps around style-wise, but most of the book is done in a semi-realistic style that fits the tone of the book quite well.

Gaiman and McKean’s strength shows in this, their… what, fourth or fifth pairing at this point?  Many of the DC mainstay characters go unnamed (who doesn’t know who Batman is, honestly?  Or The Joker?) and at times, the characters themselves are either completely hidden (Batman) or camouflaged (Swamp Thing, Poison Ivy).

For as violent as the book is, most of the actual violence occurs either off panel, or is done through suggestion.  You’ll get a flash of a knife, or see the start of the bottle’s arc to someone’s head, but the end result is obscured in some way.  Still, there’s plenty of blood and cursing, so… children, dig in!  Your mind can’t be warped worse than The Hunger Games and this… well this is funny too!

If you haven’t read superhero comics in a while, or if you haven’t read any Black Orchid is a good place to start.  The three issues are a bit longer than the standard comic book, but the pairing is stellar, the humor is subtle, and the use of the medium is just plain fantastic. Early as it is, Gaiman’s work shows a clever mind and a lot of promise… promise that would later be realized in works like Sandman and Neverwhere.  The book remains, even twenty years later, one of the finest examples of a superhero comic done right.

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