Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Black Orchid Review: Adventure Comics #429

Could Black Orchid be Supergirl? It was a fan theory back in the 70s and one I have been exploring in depth over the last month or so here.

Today I look at Adventure Comics #429, the second appearance of the character in her initial 3 issue run in the title. 

There some things I have learned about the Black Orchid from these stories, some universal truths. 
One, she will always be in disguise at some point, impersonating one of the characters. So as a reader, you are always wondering.
Two, the stories tend to be bonkers, appropriate for the times.
Three, the art is always going to be gorgeous. I have yet to see a lackluster art effort on her stories.
And four, and most importantly, you can see why the theory would have some legs. It is pretty easy to retrofit these stories into some Kara history.

This issue keeps all those things true. But it is wild ride, so settle in. 

'Challenge to the Black Orchid' was written by Sheldon Mayer with art by Tony Dezuniga.

We start with a truly stunning splash. There is some balletic about this, as the Orchid soars above a dock. Underneath her, you see someone hunched behind crates with a rifle. It is very Noir.  Dezuniga is at the top of his game here.

If you read the opening paragraph, it could definitely be the opening of a Supergirl story. 

"She appears where there is evil ... she has the strength of a regiment, flies through the air like a bird of prey, and has the beauty and compassion of a young girl." (Okay, I snipped out the 'she disappears' bits. They don't fit the narrative.)

Mayer does a good job of shaking things up almost immediately. 

Seeing someone aiming a rifle in the opening panel makes you think that person is the villain of the piece. He opens fire on the men coming out of a car. The Orchid flies in and stops the sniper's bullet from hitting its target. She grabs the shooter and flies off with him.

But the men being shot at don't exactly seem like nice guys either. They also pull out gats and return fire. 

Orchid's power is evident. She is bullet-proof and super strong. 

And then we learn that the man being shot at is the actual villain of the piece. The Orchid drops her trademark flower with the message that Barry DeMorte, the sniper's target, has until midnight tomorrow to confess his crimes.

You can feel the bombast and narcissism of DeMorte. He thinks he is irresistible to women. He has the power women crave. And he accepts her challenge. Not only isn't he going to turn himself in, he is going to do evil again.

I love this art by DeZuniga. That opening panel of DeMorte yelling. That last panel with his arms bursting out of the panel. Even his incredulous body language there shows just how great he thinks he is. 

Elsewhere on the dock, we hear the story of the sniper, Sam Hendricks.

The Orchid has investigated his fall from grace. He was a ship captain bring a hoard of expensive antiques to shore. A strange fog rolled in forcing him to cast anchor. 

And then, from a nearby similarly anchored yacht, Hendricks hears the scared screams of a young woman. She is so distraught she jumps off the yacht and is picked up by the cargo ship. And she is frightened. She won't return.

She is outright gorgeous of course. Dezuniga shows us just about everything he can here. And her beauty probably lulls the suspicion of Hendricks. Because an odd fog and a beautiful girl swimming to your ship seems suspicious.

The woman, named Mala, ends up being an inside person for a crime. She uses a gas gun to knock everyone out on the ship. Demorte and his men were on the yacht and head over, taking all the antiques like pirates. They burn the ship behind them.

And Hendricks? They leave him alive as a patsy, stinking of booze in a lifeboat. He was blamed for the ship sinking, found guilty of negligence, and stripped of is livelihood. 

The Orchid has researched Hendricks' story and will force DeMorte to confess. That was her challenge.

Mayer is a bit to on the nose with these villain names though. Mala? DeMorte? 

Meanwhile, DeMorte is planning a similar crime on a freighter that very night. But first he needs to trap the Orchid. He is quite the ladies man and goes to this 'wall of fame', a spread of 8x10 photos of prior conquests.

He thinks that one of his prior romantic partners must be the Orchid looking for revenge. He pinpoints two of them who are the most likely. Daphne Wingate was a scientist working on anti-gravity devices. Cindy Harper is a Yoga master who could have gained complete control of her body.

He wants both on the boat when he commits the crime to try and lure the Orchid out into the open. 

DeMorte is certainly a disgusting human, regarding women like prizes, displaying his trysts on a wall, and talking about women like objects. 

DeMorte brings his ship up next to the freighter Orion and again deploys his fog making machine, forcing the boat to drop anchor. 

Before he can start his raid, the Black Orchid arrives reminding DeMorte that he has until midnight to confess. 

But he has been expecting her arrival. After all, he thinks she is already on board. He springs a trap, catching her in a heavy steel fishing net. 

It barely slows her down as she flies into the hold of the ship and rips herself free. The crew thinks she must be stuck on the ship now and batten down the hatches.

Running into the ship. DeMorte sees both Daphne and Cindy there. If neither are missing, someone else must be the Black Orchid. And the only other woman on board is Mala. She must be the Orchid. We learn Mala was once a stage magician and a stunt woman, skills that could explain Black Orchid's abilities.

Suddenly, Mala is more than a means to his criminal ends. She is something special. And for DeMorte, that means she is something he wants. If he is to have her, DeMorte will need to prove he is special. She dares him to commit the freighter crime on his own.

She knows the buttons to push. He literally dives right in while she flies over him as the Orchid. 

But on the Orion, the police are waiting. This was all a trap set by the Orchid. Caught red-handed, DeMorte is taken into custody. And the crime matches what happened to Hendricks so much, it seems to clear the Captain.

DeMorte can't believe the police are letting the Orchid fly off. She is Mala, his accomplice in his crimes.

Back on his yacht, DeMorte discovers Mala tied up and the telltale Black Orchid face mask of Mala. That's right. The Black Orchid took her place after busting through the fishing net.

The Black Orchid's identity remains a mystery. She could be anyone. 

Okay, that was the standard amount of insane story you could expect to see in a 15 page Bronze Age story. The most interesting part of the story is DeMorte. He is a misogynist and yet he melts and becomes smitten and compliant in the face of the presumed super-powered Mala. He seems intelligent to pull of his crimes but he foolishly rushes into the Orchid's trap. 

There is no denying the beauty of the art here. Like most Black Orchid stories, this feels like a pulp crime story with a super-powered hero. The art is cinematic and dark, grungy and glorious. And like Films Noir, Dezuniga's women are sexy and dangerous.

Outside of her powers, there isn't much here to link the Orchid to Supergirl. Kara wasn't one to use her feminine wiles the way the Orchid did as Mala. But it isn't easy to rip through steel. 

Overall grade: B


Anonymous said...

I look at this from a counter factual POV, in other words, IF Supergirl, seemingly on a lark or perhaps motivated by a desire to jibe the JLA, donned a mask & uber surrealistic costume, a whole new identity then why wouldn’t she change her tactics and traffick in her “feminine wiles” to reel in some crooks? Seems like a Bronze Age Supergirl thing to do...
Oh and I devoutly wish Tony DeZuniga and Sheldon Mayer had themselves a real run on Supergirl, from the looks of things it would have been memorable and outrageous...


Professor Feetlebaum said...

The earliest Superman stories often portrayed him as a mysterious figure who showed up, did the job, and then disappeared. The Max Fleischer cartoons played this up in newspaper headlines:

Superman vanishes. Public mystified

After bringing masked gangsters to justice, Superman disappears.
Public mystified.

Superman vanishes again.

There are others, too. Maybe it's Sheldon Mayer's Golden Age background, but with a little rewriting, I can't help but think that these Black Orchid stories could easily be Golden Age Superman stories.

If Sheldon Mayer and Tony DeZuniga HAD done a run of Supergirl stories, they would have been a whole lot better than what we got in Supergirl's first solo book, that's for sure.

Anonymous said...

My point entirely, Mike Friedrich, Sheldon Mayer & Tony DeZuniga would been anything but boring in the solo Supergirl book, the one thing it would NOT have been was ten issues of “boyfriend of the month”.
Nope I approach this all as a happy collective experiment in counterfactual fanfic...
“Can You Prove It Didn’t Happen??”
Criswell the Psychic, 1959


William Ashley Vaughan said...

I would have loved to see a Mayer/Dezuniga Supergirl comic book.

Martin Gray said...

I’d have bought that book too…remember those couple of issues of Adventure Comics with DeZuniga/Oksner art? A tad cheesecakey, but very nice.

This sounds like another great story for the heroine who looks like a butterfly.

Anonymous said...

I can hear a classic LCS fracas even now: “Butterfly!” “Flower!”, “Butterfly!”, “Flower!”...but ya know what it beats timing out when Supergirl will get jobbed out to Robin the Boy Wonder in “DC vs Vampires”....


Anj said...

Thanks for great comments.

I have been enjoying this set of reviews.

If Supergirl is doing this on the sly, she would change her style. So feminine wiles and tech devices could be covering her tracks. In fact, Orchid not just slugging people might also be a cover, so she doesn't splatter someone.

A couple more stories to go!