Black Orchid, by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, begins with a twist that, while not entirely novel in comic books, is still shocking, especially as an opening scene – the death of the title character. In this graphic novel, Neil Gaiman is tasked with taking the titular niche DC Comics character, giving her an origin story and completely revamping her in the process.
Susan Linden, the Black Orchid, is a super-heroine who is captured and brutally murdered by a henchman of Lex Luthor. Unbeknownst to her murderers, elsewhere, a strange purple woman – a plant and human hybrid – is birthed from a large bulb in a secretive greenhouse lab. She is confused and curious, carrying the scattered and tattered remnants of Susan’s memories.
This strange new woman immediately meets Doctor Philip Sylvian, her creator. He begins to tell her more about herself, and her former self. How much of her is Susan, and how much of her is new? She begins a journey of self-discovery to learn more about herself – who and what she really is – in a journey that echoes those of the ancient Greek myths. At the same time, dark forces from Susan’s past, the previous Susans’ pasts, learn of her and seek to do her harm.
It may be written by the same author as Sandman, and it may star a superhero – or the shadow of one, but I think that the first and foremost audience who would enjoy Black Orchid would be fans of Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing (of course fans of Sandman would most likely enjoy it too!). Many of the themes and aesthetics are the same, and without spoiling too much, there are story connections between the characters of both books.
For readers completely new to the comic landscape of DC, this is a very dense read that might very well be too opaque. That is not to say that the uninitiated cannot find the story interesting, but there are references to characters and places that mean much more if you know what they are and what they represent.
For both familiar readers and new readers, an appreciation for dream-like and murky storytelling and the art is necessary. This is not a plot, nor is there a character, that builds off of action and excitement. Instead, the appeal is in the surrealism, the grim noir elements, and the dark wonder and atmosphere that Neil Gaiman creates.
One of the hallmarks of Neil Gaiman as a writer is the way he manages to blur the lines between the mundane or the ridiculous, and the mythic. In Black Orchid, he does that very thing yet again. He takes a fairly campy side character in the DC universe and reinvents them in such a way as to make it feel as at home in Greek myth as it is among the tights and capes of modern superheroes, perhaps even more so. The story borrows elements of Frankenstein, mixes it with noir, and lays the mixture out across a journey not unlike those taken by epic heroes like Odysseus and Orpheus. It’s a strange, but somehow seamless blend. I know we’re talking about the author of Sandman and the artist who produced that work’s iconic covers, but I hope it’s not too on the nose to say that the whole thing feels like a dream.
That isn’t to say that this is anywhere near as good as that seminal work. Sandman’s ideas and imagery felt more complete and fleshed out. Both Black Orchid and Sandman had intelligence and wit behind them, but Sandman felt like it had more heart and love for its characters and world, whereas Black Orchid felt much more cynical of humanity in general.
Black Orchid’s strengths lie in the atmosphere of the plot and the beautiful murkiness of the art. It lies with the core ideas and mythic tropes. It does not lie in emotional investment with its characters, or relatability. This isn’t a story meant to make you cry or laugh. It isn’t a story meant to take you on a rollercoaster of emotions and thrills, nor is it a story to make you think about heartfelt reality. Instead, it is a story that works its way under your skin and makes you feel both uncomfortably grim and yet full of wonder. Not a childlike wonder, but rather the kind of wonder one one feels when they are lost in a beautiful jungle – the kind of wonder one gets when staring into the eyes of a tiger. It is a dangerous wonder.
While Black Orchid never had a moment that made me truly fall in love with it, I find myself appreciating it more and more as I think back over its artistry. There is no doubt Black Orchid is worth buying at full price.
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The artwork manages to be both grimy and disturbing while being beautiful and haunting all at the same time. The use of color in this book is especially striking and effective, but I find it most interesting in how it reinforces the themes.
The book is outright cynical towards humanity and the modern world. Regular people are drawn in charcoal blacks, whites, and grays, as are the objects and the world they live in. This remains true even when humans venture into the natural world, where they are surrounded by reds, blues and especially greens. They stick out like blots on a painting. The reborn Susan and Suzy are the opposite, awash in purples and pink highlights that swim in the black sea of the human world. I suppose this cynical view is what makes the ending a bit of a disappointment for me, but I will save that for the spoiler talk.
While the plot, atmosphere, and artwork are all top-notch, the characters are not very relatable at all. Dr. Sylvian clearly has layers, but we only spend about a third of the book, maybe less, with him. Furthermore, his main role in the plot is as facilitator for the “science” and as a dispenser of information.
The main character, I believe, goes technically unnamed through the book, but I will call her Suzan. Suzan is interesting, but by the nature of her situation she is also simple. She doesn’t know who or what she is, and she carries that one note of self-discovery throughout the whole story. She changes and grows, but she changes from a blank slate to a slightly less blank slate. By the end, the reader will almost certainly feel like they’ve just begun to learn about her, and that makes sense as she was born in this very comic.
Suzy, Susan’s younger “sister,” is more innocent and naive than Susan, and more in touch with nature (which is saying something, I suppose, for human-plant hybrids), but she is mostly there to give Susan someone to care for and feel for.
Carl Thorne, Susan’s ex-husband (the original Susan), is an incredible douchebag. He is a murderous, abusive, self-centered, and jealous man. There is no complexity to him outside of the vague question of what the original Susan ever saw in this man. He makes Doctor Sylvian look saintly – and Sylvian is growing naked plant women in his garden using the DNA of a woman he had feelings for from his past!
Of course, the characters are only a part of the portrait of this book. I have mentioned several times that I find the plot of the book to echo Greek myths, and the more I think about it the more connections I see. You have the birth of a sort of artificial being, almost like an Aphrodite being born of the sea foam. There is a sense of uncertainty as the hero journeys through an unfamiliar and dangerous world, meeting strange beings and mythical creatures (though this time they are characters from the DC Comics universe).
There is even a descent into a type of “hell” wherein the hero meets different lost souls and speaks to the denizens in a search for knowledge, and then she returns from it. There are beings that quite literally fit the definition of gods as the Greeks would have defined them, and worshipers. There are spiritual awakenings, deaths, births and rebirths. I may not have felt a deep emotional connection to this book like I did with Sandman, but I love seeing the fingerprints of Gaiman all over this thing.
Conclusion and Star Rating:
Black Orchid will only be “okay” for many comic book readers. I think there are some for whom it would simply do nothing for – which is fine. This graphic novel scratches a very niche itch, and it is not an itch that everyone has. For those who do get an itch for weird and wonderful dark myths like this one, Black Orchid is a “Great” book.
The ending was a downer for me. There was this whole journey of self discovery, fleeing into nature, abandoning the darkness. Susan plants the seeds for a new generation of plant-human hybrids, a strange new race of beings. And yet, in the end, Susan leaves the budding seeds to go back to the human world, perhaps to fulfill Batman’s prediction that she would be a crime-fighter, like the Susan before her. This twist might make sense if it were better set up that she was having a struggle in deciding between two worlds, but the whole time she seems very distantly connected to her identity as Susan. What’s more, she was positively diving into the natural world, reaching out for it with what seemed like open arms.
It was only once she got what she thought she wanted that she realized she wanted to go back. It wasn’t explained very well why she wanted to go back. By leaving the story off there, the reader is left feeling like they have only gotten a slight glimpse into this character. That may have been the point, of course. Gaiman was reinventing the character, probably for future stories. However, it doesn’t stop this particular graphic novel from feeling incomplete.
I was also disappointed in the resolution of Carl Thorne’s plot. He just dies at the end and falls flat, without having a major impact on the new Suzan’s plot outside of the first chapter. I was hoping for something more intense and dramatic. He was set up like a demonic stalking presence, in a way (red eye highlights, and all!), and then plop, nothing.
On a final note, I loved seeing the familiar DC faces throughout the story. It was fascinating to view Batman from the viewpoint of this unique character, and her journey down into Arkham Asylum was suitably hellish and disturbing in its own way. The brief humanizing moment with Poison Ivy was a nice touch that made her seem more real as a character as well, for as slim a role she had on the page. My favorite, however, was the appearance of Swamp Thing. It too was a short cameo, but I love the character and he had a unique perspective and reaction to her.
That’s it for now. Until next time!