Monday, November 15, 2021

Back Issue Box: Phantom Stranger #36

Spare your humble host the opportunity to post a little labor of love if you will on this Monday. In fact, this is probably the first of two posts on a little curiosity that I have been trying to track down for a while. 

There was supposedly a rumor in the 70s that Black Orchid and Supergirl were the same person. Black Orchid was completely mysterious. We never knew her origin or her secret identity. I don't even know if we ever completely knew the extent of her powers. We knew she could fly, was bulletproof, and had super strength.  That similarity, as well as the noirish nature of the stories, has always made Orchid a favorite of mine. 

But there was always a mention here and there of a story where she also seemed to have x-ray vision powers. Perhaps it is was that story that led to the fan theory?

I mean it seems to make sense as a plausible theory. The Kara of the time was living a bit in the shadow of Superman, Part of her arc then was trying to find her place in the world, bouncing from journalist to guidance counselor to soap opera star. So a flying, bulletproof woman? Maybe Kara trying out her own identity?

Okay, it is far-fetched. 

But that x-ray vision story has always intrigued me. So imagine my surprise when I finally found it in The Phantom Stranger #36

I love fan theories and the Orchid and Supergirl, I couldn't resist but to review it here. And if anyone has some proof of that fan theory (perhaps a letter in a letter column?), please forward to me!

On to the story.

The Crime Computer was written by Black Orchid creator Sheldon Mayer with art by Nestor Redondo.  Redondo's art is perfectly murky and moody.

What a great opening line!

"As mankind's technology grows more and more advanced, there will always be those who will misuse it." In this instance, the crime computer uses it's AI to plot brilliant crimes and analyze people and events. 

We start with a young man named for a crime. He thinks he is at a job interview when he is handed a gun. It turns out that gun has been used to kill an elderly man. A sound effect from a trick cigarette lighter the patsy is given adds the needed gunshot noise and powder burns to bring the law and complete the frame. 

In flies our heroine who tells the crooks they need to turn back and exonerate the man they have framed.

Despite being riddled with bullets from a spray gun, she remains unharmed.

Now in a strange turn of events, Black Orchid simply flies off. She certainly has the power to grab these guys.

Back in their lair, the two field agents, Flint and Harold, talk to the criminal mastermind. 

This unnamed man asks his massive crime computer some questions. For example, who is Black Orchid? Unknown.

But how can Black Orchid do what she does?

The computer, supposedly infallible, comes up with some ideas. Maybe she is an illusion? Or a ghost> Maybe she has trained her body to do it through zen meditation.

Or maybe she is an alien!

Hmmmm ...

One thing the computer does know. The plots it creates are perfect and therefore Black Orchid cannot impact their business.

If that was true, how did Black Orchid stumble upon their plot earlier?

Well, she has been using xrays to read the magnetic tape and their plans. Xrays that could be coming from any distance!

Hmmm ...

At the very least, it means she knows where the computer is located and therefore where they are located.

Later, the criminal genius hatches his next plot.

Cleo Berry wants him to murder her widow's mother. Custody of Cleo's son is being contested.

A plan is set up.

And more importantly, the perfect computer has deemed her completely trustworthy. The plot will work.

It is a crazy plot. 

The mother-in-law is elderly and cared for by a live in nurse. The two flunkies will distract the nurse while the intended victim is sleeping. Then the other will slip inside and kill the old woman. 

But then things go crazy.

The nurse is lured outside by the Harold who tells the caregiver that the elms on the tree have a specific rot that needs to be taken care of.

When Flint slips inside to slip the old woman a lethal dose of her medication, he discovers ... incredibly ... that she is a robot. The android captures this crook.

So let's add access to advanced robotics to the list of clues about Black Orchid. Like, perhaps she might have a duplicate robot hiding in a tree to sub for her in a pinch?

Hmmm ...

And the nurse?

Leaves the garden shed in her 'real' identity - Black Orchid. 

It is assumed she brings him to justice.

But first she makes him make a call.

The call? To the cops who head to the Bus Terminal which was the drop for the cost of the crime.

There it is all wrapped up. It turns out that the whole thing has been a set up. Even Cleo Berry has been a fake, the Black Orchid in disguise the whole time.

And how could the computer be wrong? Well it was reprogrammed or altered by the exposure to xrays.
It is one thing for the computer to malfunction. But to spit out the desired false information due to xray exposure? Black Orchid might need super-intelligence to pull that off. 

Okay, enough silliness.

But seriously, if the Black Orchid series in Adventure Comics and here was built as a mystery like the identity of Sensor Girl or Leviathan, I can imagine that Supergirl would be a very popular guess. I mean, I have built a pretty good case for it here. 

So how hard would you have considered this theory?

As for the story, it moves at lightning pace to get all the plot elements out. The art is lovely. Redondo is a master so that shouldn't surprise.

I know I will have one follow-up to this ... maybe even two. But for now.

Overall grade: B


Anonymous said...

Interesting coincidence to come upon your review right after James Tynion brought up Black Orchid in his email newsletter today.

You're writing about the original while he's presumably referring to the New 52 version, but from what I gather in Wikipedia, both the New 52 version and the original (after Gaiman's revamp of her) have connections to the Green.

Tynion wrote:


W: James Tynion IV / A + Cover: Christian Ward / Cover B: Ejikure / 1:25 Variant: Christian Ward / AE: David Wielgosz / E: Ben Abernathy

She is shrouded in mystery, her motives a secret, and one cannot help but ask: Who is Bella Garten, a.k.a. the Gardener, really? Green-thumbed storytellers James Tynion IV and Christian Ward dig deep into her past and unearth the secret origin of the latest addition to Batman’s rogues gallery. Learn not only how Bella Garten came to know Pamela Isley, but how she was integral to the origin of the woman who would one day be known to all as “Poison Ivy.”

"James here again! Just wanted to give this issue a special shout-out. Christian and I have been talking about doing this comic for almost a year now, a bit of a love letter to Black Orchid and Swamp Thing, that tells the back-story of The Gardener and helps re-center the backstory of Poison Ivy, a character who has been pulled in many directions over the years. The issue actually takes place before the events of the Everybody Loves Ivy storyline a few years back, and helps connect some continuity dots I’ve been wanting to connect for a long, long time. We had an absolute blast making the book, which I hope helps lay the track for many future stories for Bella Garten in the future of Gotham City and the DC Universe."

This Secret Files issue comes out this week.


H said...

Didn't Black Orchid guest star in a Supergirl story? I seem to remember either reading it myself or reading a blog post about it somewhere. That may even be the follow-up you have, if I'm not actually thinking of a similar story from one of those characters. They did use the 'incorrectly guessing a superheroine's secret identity' hook a lot in the 70's and early 80's.

Martin Gray said...

I don’t recall BO in a Supergirl story but I may have misssed it… they did appear in Super Friends within six months of one another in 1980.

What a terrific little story, by a Golden Age master and a Bronze Age legend. I hereby request you do the whole run of original BO stories, Anj.

And yeah, approaching this with the possibility that it’s Supergirl leaves me convinced that yes, it was. Perhaps Shelley Mayer was playing with the idea that his stories are on Earth 2 and this is the not-yet-introduced Kara Zor-L?

Just imagine what a fantastic treasury edition subject BO would have been if all stories read and looked this great.

Professor Feetlebaum said...

I checked some of the letter columns in Adventure Comics and The Phantom Stranger, but was unable to find any letters theorizing that Black Orchid and Supergirl were one and the same. One reader (Chip Bestler) in Adventure Comics # 431 wrote that Black Orchid was "a combination of Supergirl and The Phantom Stranger", but he gave no guesses as to her true identity.

He could have probably thrown in The Lone Ranger as well, as Black Orchid often left actual orchids behind, the way The Lone Ranger left silver bullets (who was that masked flying girl? I don't know, but I wanted to thank her.)

Anyway, I wonder if the "is she Supergirl?" theory may have appeared in fanzines of the day, or publications like The Comics Buyer's Guide.

And it's odd that, what with her ability to fly, great strength and invulnerability that no character in the actual stories brought up a comparison to Superman or Supergirl. I don't believe that any other DC characters were mentioned in those early Black Orchid stories. Was she even supposed to be on Earth One or Earth Two?

One thing that causes me to doubt that Sheldon Mayer had intended Black Orchid to be a disguised Kara Zor-El is the fact that Supergirl was concurrently appearing in her own magazine. But who knows ?

One more (very trivial) thing. When we first see Black Orchid in Adventure Comics # 428, she is lifting a car. When readers away back in 1938 got their first look at that new Superman character, he was...lifting a car. And in Action Comics #285, what was Suprgirl's (as Linda) first public super feat? Catching her adoptive parents car and flying them to safety as the bridge collapsed beneath it,

Anonymous said...

I swear there were some letterhacks back in the day who started positing this theory, but I can't point to exact issues where said theory was published on the correspondence page. And if the above posters have already scanned the relevant columns then...likely this is a dead end.
Black Orchid can't be Supergirl, I'll tell you why...for her to be Supergirl, DC Editorial would have to have a greater interest and passion for the character than they had exhibited to date. They'd have to have a zealous desire to experiment with the character, DC's idea of experimenting with Supergirl was having Linda Danvers change jobs every 24 months...their most lasting experiment with Supergirl was fridging her in 1985.
Still that is some sumptuous Nestor Redondo artwork...many a time going forward I'd a killed for an artist as good as he, on Supergirl.


Anj said...

Thanks for all the comments.

I have tried to find the origin of the theory as well without much success. So I thank the Prof for reading the later letter columns!

There will be one or two more posts tangentially touching on this soon.

And yes Mart, maybe I should review all the Bronze Age Black Orchid stories. She is a fave of mine!

Martin Gray said...

You know, never mind secret husbands, this would have been a great reveal after Kara’s death.

Anonymous said...

Its Supergirl as a secret "Super Social Worker"'s an interesting experiment on her part if true. It sort of tracks with her passing doubts about her role as Supergirl circa 1974-1975, maybe she needed to strike out in a new direction with a new persona...
Again its a great idea, too great for DC to grasp or exploit quite frankly, they'd need to think more of Supergirl for it to work.
Yeah more Black Orchid posts I say, I'm gonna start tracking these down in the dollars I love so well...going to a con Friday actually, I'll update my list tonight.

Pleasant Task!