Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Black Orchid Wednesday: Phantom Stranger #32

Welcome to the latest edition of Black Orchid Wednesday, in which I look at the pre-Crisis Black Orchid stories through the lens of a fan theory that she was actually Supergirl in disguise.

This has been a wonderful and most welcome diversion here on the blog. I have always been a Black Orchid fan so covering these stories has been a revelation. I also had to track down these issues so it gave me a little side mission in comic stores and conventions.

But mostly I have loved doing this because the stories and, in particular, the art on these Orchid tales are quite good. There is a sort of Film Noir aesthetic to most of them. And the Orchid is so mysterious that each story is satisfying. It also helps that there have been lots of nuggets in these stories to bolster the theory. So many, in fact, that I am starting to wonder whether or not it was true.

Alas, there were only 15 pre-Crisis Black Orchid issues and today's book, Phantom Stranger #32, is the last one for me to cover. But I think there was some Cosmic Comic Karma going on because this issue has one of the best panels to either bolster or break down the theory. So we are ending with a bang.

I'll probably have one or two more posts on this topic to wrap it all up. 

And it would be wrong to not at least mention the amazing cover to this book by Luis Dominguez. Definitely has a Fantasia feel to it!

On to the book!

"The Crime of the Black Orchid" was written by Michael Fleisher with art by Nestor Redondo. This is the first Orchid story not written by creator Sheldon Mayer. Fleisher splitting the writing chores for Black Orchid in the Phantom Stranger series with Mayer stepping back in for one of the stories. What I find interesting is that Fleisher's two arcs both involve criminals impersonating the Orchid.

As you see in this dynamic opening splash, the Orchid seems to be flying away from jewel heist she has perpetrated. And the bullets fired by the police seem to bounce off her body. 

What is interesting here is how the Orchid seems to be an established super-hero here. The officers talk about how she is known to be on the side of the good and if she is going against them now they are in trouble.

I think Redondo does excellent work on her 'hippy costume' adding nice petal-like details to her cape and boots.

The following day, the Orchid easily saves a construction worker from a wrecking ball which has snapped off its cable.

The Orchid seems shocked when the men question her motives. And she is equally baffled when some nearby police pull over to try and arrest her.

But she easily handles the wrecking ball, holding it up one handed. That is prodigious strength! 

And then the panel that absolutely lingered in my mind as someone working out the 'Is this Supergirl?' theory.

First off, as she flees the police, Black Orchid thinks how she has been in prison and the food is terrible!" So that is a very big clue about the Orchid's past.

But then the cops comment on her being bullet proof. They say her skin must be made out of Kryptonite. Okay, that is a very specific reference. Now I get that they say 'skin made of Kryptonite' and not 'like a Kryptonian'. But they could have said skin like steel, or iron, or rock. But they said 'Kryptonite'. If you are a believer in the theory, I think you put this into a 'the author is telling us but not telling us it is Kara' pile.

But what about her criminal past?

Well, I am a firm believer in hints that are feints. Just because the Orchid was in prison doesn't mean she did hard time. It could have only been a couple of days.

And Supergirl was in prison, in Adventure Comics #394, on a cover where she is complaining about the food no less! That book was on the shelves just 4 years earlier.

Realizing she has been set up, the Orchid uses her skills of masquerade to infiltrate the seedier parts of town. We see her as a cigarette girl in a nightclub, a bar fly, and then an old lady selling flowers. The last place hits paydirt. These two thugs talk about the jewel thieves who set up the Orchid and where they can be found.

Now, you might think if this was Supergirl she would just use her super-hearing to uncover the information. 

But if you believe the Orchid is Supergirl, you have to think she wants to disguise that she is wearing the red S. If she is lurking over the city listening, it is almost to conspicuous. Another hero might ask her why. 

More importantly for the theory, Supergirl was just in Vandyre University to study acting. So taking on these parts sort of makes some internal sense.

These Orchid stories really have a film noir feel to it and the scenes set in the dark corners of the city are certainly atmospheric and gorgeous. Redondo kills it.

Cut to a small plane about to take off with Maya and her boyfriend Pete. The two pulled off the perfect heist with Maya pretending to be the Orchid, suspended by wires from a helicopter

Now they are off to South America to fence the jewels and retire.

But the cockpit radio has been turned on and listening in is a Lieutenant and some police officers. They were tipped off by a telltale flower left at the station. Arriving where the orchid told them to be, they hear the confession. We even learn that Maya was wearing a bullet proof vest, explaining her 'invulnerability'.

Love Redondo's art. Simple things like the wrinkles on the Lieutenant's coat make so much of a difference regarding the fullness of the art.

Pete sees that the radio has been switched on. And then a bound and gagged Maya hops into the cockpit. She had been replaced by the Black Orchid!

Gunning it, Pete gets the plane airborne ... for a moment. Then the more appropriately costumed Orchid shows up and basically brings the airplane to the ground. 

Once again, exonerated, the Orchid flies off laughing!

Okay. So here we are, at the last Orchid story. But I have to say, this one gave the most meat on the bone to chew and all in that one panel. Yes, the Orchid is shown to be super-strong and invulnerable again. But a past in prison? And skin like 'Kryptonite'? It sure is grist for the mill.

Outside of the theory, this is another fun Black Orchid tale with sumptuous art. I love that we see her working the leads in costume as opposed to just seeing the rubber mask on the ground in the last panel. Brilliant.

So think on this tale and get ready! Because I may be asking you to weigh in on the theory!

Overall grade: A


Martin Gray said...

Another great story, it seems, and the Kryptonite mention is a great clue, and then there’s the prison bit.

This time you’re right.

Well, no one can contradict you!

Anonymous said...

*Slow claps the Adventure #394 reference re. Prison, way played well played. It’s interesting that The Orchid made better use of Supergirl’s disguise and performance skills in these back up stories than in the whole ten issue run of Kara’s solo book...that Alone tells me Black Orchid is Supergirl’s notion of prankster cosplay!
The odd reference to “kryptonite skin” could well have been a typo, they happened back in the day. Anyway, how I ardently wish This crew were working so well on Kara’s woeful solo book, things might have been different. Forget Gerry Conway’s blustery Power Girl, “Black Orchid is Supergirl Done Right” :)


Professor Feetlebaum said...

That Kryptonite reference seemed to come out of left field. It COULD have been a typo. There's no such thing as "skin made outa Kryptonite".

But I'd like to think that this cop has only a passing knowledge of Superman and Supergirl and their powers. He has heard that there is something called Kryptonite, but has no idea what it does, so he references it wrongly.

I wonder if the Kryptonite reference was brought up in a later letter column?

The scene where Black Orchid brings down the plane reminds me of an episode of the old Superman TV show in which Superman (George Reeves) brings down a plane in a similar way (or as much as the primitive 1950s special effects would allow).

I see that the splash page credits Russell Carley with "script continuity". He's credited that way on several Michael Fleisher stories. Exactly what does that mean? I'm thinking it could be another term for "plotter", but I don't know.

William Ashley Vaughan said...

I love Jim Aparo's work, and he did some great phantom Stranger covers and interior artwork. However, according to Grand Comics Database, the cover on Phantom Stranger #32 is by another brilliant penciller, Luis Dominguez. His initials, L.D. are in the lower left corner.

Anj said...

Thanks for pick up William. Off to edit!