|Comic trade paperback, 155 pages|
Published 1991 (contents: 1989)
Borrowed from the library
Read June 2011
Written by Neil Gaiman
Illustrated by Dave McKean
Lettered by Todd Klein
I don't know who Mikal Gilmore is, but he wrote the introduction this collected edition of Black Orchid. Gilmore seems very impressed with all the "unanticipated" things that the book does-- so impressed, in fact, that he tells you what they all are before you get to read them yourself. Which is why I don't feel bad about discussing them, but it's not like you were going to read the book anyway. I don't even think Neil Gaiman fans read Black Orchid, even if my front cover does try to grab the dozens of people who watched MirrorMask. (Seriously, I forgot that film even existed until I saw it mentioned here.)
Gilmore cites Black Orchid as "one of those books that has helped break modern comics history in two and signalled the rise of a new courage and a new spirit of aspiration within the medium," placing it alongside Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, Alan Moore's Miracleman, and Alan Moore's Watchmen. Frankly, I never thought I'd see The Dark Knight Returns described as having "a new spirit of aspiration," but I think there's a reason we don't remember Black Orchid alongside the potent critique of fantasized superhero and state violence that is Watchmen. Gilmore says it's one of the only comic books that critiques violence without being forced to resort to violence anyway, like Watchmen is... but that's not true. Or rather, it's a very defanged critique.
One of the primary villains is Carl Thorne, a disgraced LexCorp employee who Luthor has dumped off the docks. But the Black Orchid saves him, saying "too many have died today." But she doesn't do anything with him, leaving the man free to go on to murder people up as he pleases. Huzzah for pacifism? And then, at the end, Lex Luthor dispatches a squad of bad guys to capture the Black Orchid so he can science her up or whatever. Black Orchid doesn't battle this squad... but she doesn't have to, since most of them are conveniently killed by Thorne, and they conveniently kill him. Sure, she lets the last three go and they let her go, but it's hardly a damning indictment of comics violence.
I don't think it has to be, though. In Black Orchid, Gaiman and McKean take an obscure DC character, providing her with a fascinating and strange origin story and killing her off. The Black Orchid we follow is not the original, but another plant-creature grown from the same source, with fragmentary versions of her memories-- plus there's another one, a little girl version of the same. We discover the Black Orchid's origin at the same time that she discovers it herself, but here I think is where Gaiman really shines. The Black Orchid learns her origin story... but that doesn't actually tell her anything. I mean, we all know where we come from, but none of us know who we are either, right? So the Black Orchid (I wish I could call her by her name, but she's a plant-lady-- she doesn't have one) makes her way through Metropolis, Gotham City, the Louisiana swamps, and the Amazon rainforest, trying to find someone who will tell her what she needs to know. But there's no one, and so she (and her miniature clone-self) have to find their own way in the world.
Of course, the own way turns out to be hanging out in the rainforest talking about how great plants are, but I suppose you can't have everything.
The book's plot is disjointed, but it should be, and though Gaiman's villains are a little too thuggish to be interesting (and even his Luthor isn't great), the rest of the characters-- all the Black Orchids, Phillip Sylvain (her sort-of-creator), Poison Ivy, Batman, the Mad Hatter-- feel real. Thankfully, since the story isn't going to get you to the end. And then there's Dave McKean's jarring, gorgeous, disconcerting, brutal, realistic art, a perfect match for Gaiman's similarly so writing. He either manipulates photos or traces them, I don't know, but he's an artist who really makes that work as a technique.
Black Orchid is an interesting and intriguing read, all the more so because it is not an origin story where someone ends up deciding to fight injustice at the end. Once the story's over, the Black Orchid still doesn't know what to do with herself other than that she misses people-- so she returns to civilization. I like that it's open-ended, because it works well with what Gaiman's been doing. The Black Orchid doesn't know what she's up to any more than the rest of us. Apparently, this miniseries spawned an ongoing (not by Gaiman) about the Black Orchid, but I can't see what it would actually be about that wouldn't be hugely disappointing.