Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Black Orchid Wednesday: Phantom Stranger #31

Welcome back to Black Orchid Wednesdays, where I look at the pre-Crisis appearances of Black Orchid through the lens of a fan theory that she was actually Supergirl undercover.

I am down to the last two stories I have yet to cover, the Orchid's first two stories after her initial run in Adventure Comics. Today I will cover Phantom Stranger #31. Next Wednesday I'll cover Phantom Stranger #32. After that, I think I will have one or two more posts on this topic.

I have really been enjoying reviewing these Orchid stories as they all have been artistically incredible. They have a sort of film noir aesthetic. And the added mystery of who the Orchid is and what her powers are bring in another layer of complexity. How these haven't all been bundled into a nifty little trade is strange. 

As for this story, it doesn't add much to the Supergirl theory other than a passing word here or there. It follows the same format of the other stories. Someone in the tale is Black Orchid in disguise. What this issue does hint at is a possible weakness, something that would detract from the fan theory. But we'll get there. On to the story itself. 

"The Island of Fear' brings the original Black Orchid team of writer Sheldon Mayer and artist Tony DeZuniga back together. 

The Orchid is seen flying over an uninhabited tropical island. On the shore, a desperate woman is trying to get a message in a bottle off to sea in hopes of rescue from the hated Mr. Barstoe.

As usual, DeZuniga's art is spectacular. The Orchid looks like a flower cruising in. And the woman is gorgeous. 

As for the theory, the opening text description of our hero is interesting. She appears like an avenging angel. Back in the Silver Age, Supergirl described herself as a guardian angel to the kids in her orphanage and the town of Midvale. 

We again see the text describing her strength as that of 'a regiment' but with the sweet appearance of a flower. These are pulled right from the Adventure stories.

Barstoe and his men start to tie the woman between two trees, clearly with the intent to torture her for trying to get out this plea for help. But before they can get down to business, Black Orchid swoops in.

Again, we see she is bulletproof. This is such a classic trope for Kryptonians to just let the bullets ricochet off. 

What is interesting is that the bad guys assume it is a bullet-proof vest. They think shooting her in the head will show a weakness. But before they get a shot off, the Orchid kicks the guns out of their hands. Could Mayer have been giving us a clue? Is it the suit that gives her invulnerability? Or is this a feint? Would the bullets have bounced off her head too?

That second panel is probably the most flower-like panel I have seen of Black Orchid.

The Orchid picks up the woman with the plan to fly her to safety. But the woman says there are others on the island besides her. Barstoe says he will kill them all unless the Orchid drops the woman back to land.

Stymied, the Orchid concedes. But she also drops off one of her signature flowers as well.

The note says Barstoe's days are numbered.

We then learn the plot. Barstoe learned their might be gold on the island. He lured a group of men with special skills there to help him confirm the gold and establish the mine. Barstoe told them to bring their wives.

But then he reneged on his promise to share the reward. Instead, he enslaved them men under the threat he would kill their wives if they didn't comply. Now husband and wife are trapped on the remote island as slaves.

As for Barstoe, he has a small army of men ... and a new lieutenant, the comely Carla.

Barstoe assumes that one of the wives must be the Black Orchid. So he sets out to solve this mystery. If Black Orchid doesn't reveal who she is, he'll kill the women one by one until she does. And the husbands will have to watch. 

DeZuniga really shines here. Everything is lush and the women are all gorgeous.

One of the wives runs into the woods. 

Barstoe assumes she must be the Orchid so gives chase, only to run right into a powerful right by our hero.

Meanwhile, Carla seems to just look on.

Again the idea of her head being a weak spot is brought up. But once more, before we can see if it is true, the Orchid takes out the men. 

Barstoe has nothing left but to threaten one of the hostage men, the husband of the wife presumed to be the Orchid. but from the woods, that woman runs out and clocks him. 

So ... having been mentioned twice, was Mayer setting up that a head wound was possible? Or, since we never see confirmation, was this just a sham to make readers wonder?

I do like that the silhouette of the Orchid in the third panel is colored purple. Nice touch.

With his men knocked out and Barstoe momentarily stunned, Black Orchid tosses the key to Barstoe's boat to the husbands and wives. They all rush to shore to make their escape.

Only Carla remains present to help Barstoe. But why hasn't she moved? Because she has been a dummy the whole time, carved from 'boat putty'. Whoever the Orchid is, she has serious artistic talents. 

No real surprise but Carla, the new lieutenant, was Black Orchid all along! We have seen the Orchid take down criminals from within their organization before. But this is the first time she has left behind a simulacrum. Usually we just see the plastic mask left behind. 

So not much here to add or detract from the fan theory. The words avenging angel is a faint hint and perhaps only one for the most diehard Kara fans. Obviously, the flight, bullet proof body, and super strength are all consistent with Supergirl. But that 'head shot' weakness being brought up twice (even if never answered) makes me wonder about Mayer's intentions. 

Either way, this is a very fun story with simply sumptuous art by Tony DeZuniga. The action sequences are fantastic.

One more story to go ... and this one has the craziest clue ever. But you'll need to wait until next week.

Overall grade: B+


Martin Gray said...

Sounds like a great story, but the ‘avenging angel’ link is a bit of a stretch, for me!

I love this series of posts.

Anj said...

Freely admit I was grasping at straws.

This one didn't link up to the theory much at all.

Anonymous said...

If indeed as I suspect, Black Orchid is The bronze age Supergirl’s idea of cosplay, then it would be like her (given her intense disguise skills and the sheer pleasure she derives from the heroic aspects of deception) to establish a “ phony weakness” by which to mislead and confuse her opponents. Moreover “Black Orchid” tracks with the disappearance of the on-off superpowers weakness from the Supergirl storyline...maybe “Black Orchid” is a way of celebrating her return to full strength?
Anyway I can speculate fecklessly all day long, so let me end by seconding the idea of a Bronze Age Black Orchid Archive of some type, thar, I would spend money on...

Professor Feetlebaum said...

A collection of Bronze Age Black Orchid stories is a great idea, but unless there's a Black Orchid movie or TV show or something, I doubt it will ever happen (and even then...). Heck, we can't even get a proper Supergirl Bronze Age collection.

There is a Phantom Stranger Omnibus due out I believe in November. I understand it's been delayed a couple of times, probably because of that Covid thing you may have heard about (it was in all the papers). But none of the descriptions I've read mention the Black Orchid, so I'd be surprised if those stories are included.