Friday, April 1, 2022

There's No Such Thing As A Black Orchid Blog

It seems almost an annual occasion that I get so disheartened about DC's handling of Supergirl that I wonder if I should keep running this site. It seems like it is always around this time of year I begin to think if I should be focusing on someone else.

The Tom King mini-series completely misinterpreted  the character and how I view Supergirl. Unfortunately, I think this take is going to stick for a while. How can I cover the heroic young woman who is bright and optimistic and fierce in her battle against injustice when currently DC thinks of her as an incredibly damaged and depressed person, wallowing in pain?

At the same time, I have toyed with the old rumor that the original Black Orchid was indeed Supergirl. I have covered some of the foundation of that idea. 

I have always like Black Orchid, a sort of mystery woman in the DCU with an exceptional look.

So why not turn this place on its head and become a Black Orchid blog.

The title of the blog is 'There Is No Such Thing As A Black Orchid Blog', a play on the tag line 'There is No Such Thing as a Black Orchid' used to promote the 1988 Black Orchid mini-series written by Neil Gaiman with painted art by Dave McKean.

This was Gaiman's first major work for DC after a couple of smaller stories in Secret Origins. This was pre-Vertigo but just as the British Invasion was about to explode all over DC. It was a re-imagining of the character. And it seems like the perfect place to start this site. McKean's painted work is brilliant.

There'll be more. The early Adventure stories and the Phantom Stranger back-ups. Her appearances in John Ostrander's Suicide Squad. The new Orchid in JLD. 

But let's jump in right here with Black Orchid Book 1.

We start in what looks like a board meeting for organized crime. Stats are thrown around about drug money, 'computer crime', prostitution, and how pornography will be a big seller in the late 80s.

Ms. Halliwell is there taking notes but her purple internal dialogue captions let us know she is the Black Orchid.

She has been undercover for a year, worming her way into this conglomerate. She thought she had reached the top but this man, 'The Chairman', isn't the top dog. He works for 'The Principal'.

Nice usage of plant idioms here. 

Unfortunately, The Chairman knows Halliwell is Black Orchid. He springs a trap, coiling her in her chair and removing her rubber mask showing us her classic look.

I wish we got to see more of this famous costume but we don't. So drink it in.

It is a pretty powerful scene as The Chairman says he isn't going to dillydally, talking to Orchid or imprisoning her and leaving. He is all about killing her and shoots Orchid in the head at point blank range. She is, of course, bullet proof.

So the next thing he'll try is fire. (Cute use of the 'you're fired' line, like out of a Bruce Willis action movie.)

And just as it looks like the Orchid will be able to leave this penthouse, the Chairman, now on the street, blows up the top floor. 

Now this is an opening scene, killing our protagonist in the span of the first 8 pages. 

As I said, McKean is just spot on here with use of color and shadow.

But as that Black Orchid dies, another comes to life.

In a greenhouse outside the city, a new Orchid gains consciousness.

This new look is one of a solid purple body with more upright petal-like hair and will be the look that the character had for the next 10 years or so.

Things are a bit mysterious as we see other gestating plant versions of the Orchid, in various stages of age and maturation, all in the heated room.

The conscious one has language, has some spotty memories, but little else.

Wonderful image as this new Orchid is born in the pain of the old one, that anguish written on her face.

She wonders into the attached home where we meet Phil Sylvain, a botanist.

She both knows him and doesn't know him, as those vague memories are still under the surface.

'Who am I?' she asks. And he is surprised because 'the last one' knew right away.

He knows who and what the Black Orchid is.

Now remember, at this point in the DCU, Black Orchid was a complete mystery. Her secret identity, her origin, heck even the extent of her powers were basically unknown. So for the first time we were getting a peek into her backstory here.

He starts by saying her name is Susan. She was an innocent.

The first Black Orchid was driven to fight crime and injustice but she was also a little naive. 

The news is an incessant stream of environmental catastrophes, a strong theme in this book and the series that followed, but then Phil sees the footage of the first Orchid dying in the explosion and understands what has happened.

We cut back to The Chairman as he inspects the burned husk of the original Orchid and reports it to The Principal.

In a nice page, we learn that The Principal is none other than Lex Luthor.

In some symbolism, we see him tearing the petals of a flower, showing both his power over the Orchid and mirroring blood drops. 

But Luthor ... nice addition.

Meanwhile, Phil continues to fill in some gaps of who this Orchid is. 

Her name was Susan Linden, a tough kid in his neighborhood. Someone who befriended him and defended him when he was picked on for being a nerd.

But she had her own issues with an abusive father.

Finally, in what sounds like her early adolescence, she runs away from home, keeping in touch with Phil via postcards.

He barely saw her until later in life when she married someone named Carl Thorne.

I suppose the abused backstory is a little trite but it does inform why she would become a super-hero and try to right wrongs. She was already doing it as a kid.

As for Carl, we have met him earlier in the book.

He has been in prison for 7 years, taking the rap for an arms deal gone wrong. But when he was caught, he was the weapons person for someone big ... Lex Luthor! 

Carl is being released after serving his term and expects that he'll pick up right where he left off with Lex. But Luthor isn't having it. Luthor thinks that Carl skimmed a large shipment of weapons for a side deal. And Carl's wife, who we now know was Susan, testified and made things difficult for Lex.

For these reasons, Lex is cutting ties with Carl. 

And Carl doesn't like that.

So we have Susan (and Black Orchid), Carl, and Lex all circling one big plot. 

Back at the greenhouse, Phil continues his exposition.

He went on to become a famous botanist. And, in fact, was close friends with a bunch of people we know in the DCU!

His classmates and fellow professors included Jason Woodrue, Pamela Isley, and Alec Holland.

I really like that Gaiman is thrusting Black Orchid into the mainstream of the collected universe already. Swamp Thing, Poison Ivy, The Floronic Man, and even Luthor are all in this book. 

It also immediately lets us know that Phil isn't some bargain basement Botany guy. He is playing with the big names.

Exhausted from all she has been through, the Orchid goes outside to rest, sleeping in a tree.

There she has a disjointed dream which clearly plays on some of Susan's memories.

This is the human Susan who has left Carl and has contacted the Grand Jury. She and Phil are in a taxi after a dinner out when their driver pulls over.

We see how the driver kills Susan.

So we know how and why the human Susan was killed. But how did she get reborn ... or recreated ... as the Black Orchid.

Again, McKean is a master here. The dream is all shades of purple until we see the multicolored muzzle flash. And mind the odd mouth on the killer.

At a bar after being spurned by Luthor, Carl gets drunk and irate.

His life would be better if his ex-wife hadn't ratted on him. And how dare Susan end up with her 'nerdy ex-boyfriend' after she left him.

With his hair trigger temper at a peak, he needs to lash out. He decides Phil is the best target and heads to Sylvain's home where he tricks his way into the house and clubs the meek scientist with a bottle of booze.

That demonic, detached mouth comes back showing us that it was Carl who killed Susan.

Whew, that was a lot of story for one issue. We have the death of our hero. The rebirth of our hero. Some backstory of our hero's human past and her interaction with her friend. And we see how she got tied up with the wrong people.

I can tell you that between the mysteries presented, the new take on the Black Orchid, and the luscious art, I was hooked.

Easy grade of A. 

But wait, there's more.

Just one last bit of ephemera, certainly worthy of getting it's own post at some point. But DC was so sure the series would sell, they commissioned a limited print by McKean. It says 'There is no such thing as a black orchid' below with a pic of our hero in sunlight, a rainbow of birds flying by.

This was a major purchase for me back then in 1988 but I loved the series and splurged. 

When my life changed a couple of years ago, the first splurge purchase I made was to have this framed and it has hung in my home office since then. It means something special to me.

Hope you all stick around the site given it's new aim.


Steve said...

I still dislike the book for destroying everything about Black Orchid as she then existed. She made a pseudo return in Justice League Dark but we've never gotten back to the fun mystery of the original back ups.

Anonymous said...

Hey have those back up stories ever been collected in a trade paperback? What am I saying of course not this is DC...

H said...

Just like clockwork, every night of March 31 you try someone new and it never seems to stick ...

Always nice when you do these Anj. Though I gotta agree, not a big fan of this book. I'd rather keep some of the mystery and classic conventions built into the original character.

Metal Mikey said...

Personally, I'll quote the sage wisdom of the Irredeemable Shagg: "Find your joy"! Your joy isn't with what DC is doing with Supergirl, and that's a totally understandable. So, I'm game to read your thoughts on another favorite DC heroine of yours!

P.S. I'm also positive about your initial subject matter! I never got to read Gaiman's "Black Orchid" until YEARS after I read his "Sandman" run, but even with that being early in Neil's DC creative run, I LOVED when I finally got around to reading that miniseries! Kind of wish Gaiman got to work more with his retooling of the character!

Martin Gray said...

Thanks Anj, this was a great look at the first issue of a flashy mini. Tying her origin to the other DC plant folk makes sense, and I don’t mind a little knowledge. I get bored when mysteries go on forever (which isn’t to say the revelations about Wolverine’s childhood weren’t utter pants). The art is just stunning, and be happy, JF, the whole story is in trade!

That ‘there’s no such thing as a Black Orchid’ line rather begs the question. So why not call her ‘Purple Orchid’? I don’t know if such things exist, but at least it matches the character’s colours?

Anonymous said...

“Black Orchid” sounds mysterious and sexy, “Purple Orchid”, sounds vaguely silly...and I am off to update my Amazon Wish List...


Anj said...

Thanks for all the comments.

Yes, this was my annual April fools gag where I change the focus of the blog for one day to shine a spotlight on another character I love.

I enjoyed the miniseries and thought the origin they gave her was plausible. Given how hot Swamp Thing and 'the green' were back then, I thought plugging the Orchid more firmly in the DCU was a good idea.

I love the original mystery stories and have one more back issue look at her in mind in the future.

Dick McGee said...

Truly despise this story and Gaiman's take on the character in general, and the direction they've taken her since. It just misses the point entirely - the fun was not knowing who and what she was, as well as seeing what crazy nonsense the writers would come with this time to trick us into thinking we finally had a clue. That was unique, and clever, and worked just fine for a character who didn't have to support a book on her own for the long run. Should have left her as a cypher who shows up know and then as a guest or backup feature and then vanishes for a while.

Yes, that's tricky to sustain and the writers have to work at it to stay fresh and keep coming up with new "is it her? or maybe her? or this other woman?" gimmicks. But it was worth the effort. Gaiman (and all that comes after for Black Orchid) just feels lazy and contrived by comparison.