Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Black Orchid Review: Adventure Comics #428

With Supergirl nowhere to be found on the shelves post-Tom King's brutal portrayal in Supergirl Woman of Tomorrow, I have needed to fill some blog space with other content. Recently, I have been looking at Black Orchid, specifically through the lens of the 70's theory that she might be Supergirl in diguise. 

At the recent Wicked Comic Con, I was able to finally purchase Adventure Comics #428, the first appearance of the Orchid. I was pretty pleased to find a copy in decent condition and at a decent price! This has been a smallish grail book for me for a while so I am happy to be able to check that box. 

So what better place to go in my mission than this very issue and see if the clues are there from the beginning. As always, I am trying to fit Kara into the flowery suit so speculations will run wild. So buckle up. And remember, when this book came out, Supergirl volume 1 was on the shelves and half way through it's 10 issue run. So it makes the thought that the Orchid was Supergirl initially less likely.

Let's start with the great cover by Bob Oksner showing the Black Orchid. in the light of the full moon, looming over a dark window filled with gun-toting thugs. Oksner knew layouts and this one is beautiful. It showcases this innovative costume nicely. But there is no way to glean from this image just how powerful the Black Orchid is. This looks more like a Black Widow cover.

Still, it does catch the eye. And I love the font for her name.

'Black Orchid' was written by Sheldon Mayer with art by Tony DeZuniga. This is a moody story for Mayer I feel. But it is right in DeZuniga's wheelhouse. The women are gorgeous. The Noir-ish setting is grungy beautiful. And if looking for some links to the Supergirl theory, It is interesting that DeZuniga did his share of Supergirl stories from the prior Adventure run for the Girl of Steel. Hmm ...

The story opens with this fantastic panel showing her in her glory, flying around an old creepy mansion bathed in the full moon. I love the almost lack of significant detailing on her costume here, giving the Orchid almost a ghostly feel. 

The caption box is actually a summary of the first half of the story.

But 'impossible strength' ... hmmm.

As usual, a lot happens in the 16 page story, almost too much to limit my panels.

Inside the spooky mansion is a meeting of organized crime. They are meeting because a young District Attorney named Tom Ransom is trying to break the cabal. Ransom's brother was the prior DA and was purportedly killed by this group. When one of the gangsters named Canard tries to have them confirm the murder, he is uncovered as being Ransom himself in make-up as Canard. 

He has a camera and a tape recorder on him. And that means he is in for a world of hurt when unmasked.

The triggermen for the gangsters beat Ransom unconscious and drag him out of the room and into a car to kill him. 

But then, before they can off Ransom, the car is hoisted into the air by a 'chick' dressed like a flower.

I mean 'Holy Action Comics #1!' Her first super-feat is to hoist a car and send some ruffians running?

Great panel here by DeZuniga. If you assume the thugs are falling to the ground, it means we as viewers are looking up. That means Black Orchid is holding the car sideways, literally shaking these guys out.

And then we learn she is bullet-proof!


Okay, fairly standard super-powers. But all shared by Supergirl.

Black Orchid scoops up the injured Ransom and takes him to his house to recover. She knows that Ransom's sister-in-law Myra  is a physician who can care for him.

But it is that first panel that intrigues me the most. 

He mentions comic books and she says that before this stunt maybe a flying person only existed in comics. Does that mean the Orchid stories take place on a Earth-Prime sort of world without superheroes?

And then she says that she has 'never done this before'? Read one way, that means she has never flown before. But read another, it could be that this is her first costumed adventure. Certainly that would fit Supergirl. She has never been a masked hero before.

If anything I think these panels lessen the theory. But facts are malleable!

Black Orchid certainly knows a lot about Ransom's family, so much that at one point he wonders if Myra is the Black Orchid. 

We learn some other things as  well. She smells of an exotic perfume and she always leaves a black orchid bloom when she leaves. 

Again, great panel layout by DeZuniga giving us narrow images to piece together the narrative and allow the dialogue to be laid out.

Myra thinks Tom's injuries are minor. But she asks for the maid to bring in some water to help clean the wounds. 

In comes Adele, the new maid. 

Now if you have read any Orchid stories, you know that in each one you should be trying to figure out who the Orchid is in disguise. Of course, this being her first adventure, you might not be primed to ask that question.

But look at Adele. She is young, pretty, and blond. If I showed you these panels out of context and said it was Supergirl undercover, you might believe me. I thought I might be on to something.

Meanwhile, the lone woman gangster from the beginning, Gladys Vincent decides that she can't live with what the crime families are doing any more. She has grabbed the camera and tape recorder from the first scene, which does have incriminating evidence on it, and gone on the lam. She calls up Ransom to set up a drop.

Unfortunately, the head gangster has bugged everyone's homes. He has his men waiting there. They kill Vincent and again incapacitate Ransom. Now it will look like a murder gone wrong.

Pretty brutal set-up for a comic code book. Lurid and noir-ish. And DeZuniga sells it with the art.

But once again, the Orchid flies in to save the day. In a great page, we see the Orchid lash out but in almost silhouette, again ramping up that sort of ghostly or phantom-y feeling. 

She takes out the thugs, brings Tom back to his house, and then takes out the main gangsters.

When Tom awakens, he finds a black orchid flower at his side. Inside the bloom are the tape recorder and camera. He has his evidence.

And, as expected, Adele turns out to have been the Orchid in disguise. 

Ransom wonders if he will ever see his hero again.

A couple of things here. The sight of the blond wig means that ... perhaps ... the Orchid isn't a blond. But maybe, if she is Supergirl, she left the blond wig there as a feint to throw off suspicion. 

Next, that last panel is just fantastic. T-shirt worthy! You get a great shot of the Orchid's costume, including her cape-like ethereal components. But look at that bright smile and body language of joy. This pose just screams Supergirl to me.

So let's end on a couple of questions.

First off, based on this story, do you think this enhances the fan theory? Or detracts from it? Or is a neutral addition?

Second, remember this was her first story. Had you read this off the rack, would you buy more?

For me, it is a fun story, setting up the premise and showcasing her powers. You sense she is going to be a super-powered heroine fighting everyday crime. And the art by DeZuniga is beautiful. 

I am so happy I own this now.

Overall grade: B+


Dick McGee said...

Black Orchid was one of those "wow, she looks neat, why can't I ever find any stories with her in them?" characters for me back in my youth. There were a lot of those owing to the way DC did ads in their books and the lack of anything akin to a comic shop near me. Spent years looking at Kamandi ads and wondering what the heck was going on in that book, too. I think the first time I actually saw her on a page was random Phantom Stranger backup story, which didn't really help me understand what she was about.

Fast forward to the 90s and I finally managed to read most of her early appearances while working in a comic store (thanks, speculator boom!). Really liked the character, largely because she was such a cypher and the character design is great. Not really very happy with Gaiman about ruining that, nor am I thrilled with the direction DC has gone with her since then. Leaving her mysterious would have been a better idea IMO. Not viable long term for a character that has a book of their own, but it worked fine for someone who shows up, does her stuff, and vanishes in guest appearances and backup features at irregular intervals. That would have left her something unique (or at least rare) in the DC multiverse, and fans (and in teh books, villains and heroes) could keep guessing at her real identity happily for years to come without ever getting a definitive answer.

Certainly heard worse theories than Supergirl behind that mask, but if it came up in the books I'm sure it would have been "proven" wrong. Maybe a Cadmus project using Kara's DNA, though? :)

Anonymous said...

Yeah sometimes you can ruin a character, rob them of their most important asset their...mystique, by delving too deeply into their backstory. I mean The Joker for example loses 90% of his mojo automatically when you try to give him a name and an origin...ditto Black Orchid. Maybe its best Black Orchid just flit around my imagination as an elaborate practical joke the bronze age Supergirl was playing on the Justice League...


Anj said...

Thanks for comments.

Thanks Dick McGee for all your Orchid comments! So great to see another fan!

And yes, I will continue to think this is Kara. Reading all these stories from that angle has been fascinating ... and a few more to go!

Martin Gray said...

Am I the only person who looks at Black Orchid and sees a butterfly character, not a flower?

Steve said...

Yes, Martin. You are.