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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