Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Black Orchid #1 "One thing is certain"

Following Alan Moore's initial success as a revisionist superhero writer, DC comics recruited several other distinguished British creators, among them Neil ("Sandman", "American Gods") Gaiman and Dave ("Cages", "Mirrormask") McKean. The latter have previously collaborated on the experimental "Violent cases", and they collaborated with the editorial on finding the existing DC property to revitalize. Gaiman picked Black Orchid, a character anecdotally unknown even to his editors, who eventually agreed on the proposal and accepted the project as a three issue prestige format mini-series. Essentially designed as three double sized issues reproduced with higher production values, the original "Black Orchid" mini-series has remained notable through it's connection to Swamp Thing, as well as being the project that brought Gaiman and McKean to attention to the American audience.

And while it goes without saying that both creators have since enjoyed high acclaim in the media beyond the superhero comics, Black Orchid has remained associated with what had become Vertigo's shared supernatural continuity, her appeal still coming largely from the fans' good will directed towards the 1988 series. Once again, it's hard to discuss the project without stressing the role Alan Moore's work has had on the medium at the time, with "Swamp Thing" particularly introducing the readers to smart, well layered writer-oriented comics.

Taking a subtler approach to a long dormant DC property, Gaiman followed his protege in taking (even demanding) what might have otherwise be regarded as a thankless assignment, and turning it into a chance to do passionate, experimental, creator oriented work. The chief difference in regard to Swamp Thing was that the Moore written vehicle was still being reasonably popular, as it served as a basis for two live action motion pictures, being conceived as a monster title with a clear hook. Black Orchid, as an elusive anti hero using her mastery of disguise to sabotage criminals was seemingly designed as a perpetual back-up story fodder, with the gimmick of the reader never really being sure of her in story identity obviously being very limiting both in commercial appeal and potential serialization.

Gaiman and McKean start their story at precisely the ending of a typical Black Orchid feature. The reader is invited to participate in the gorgeously rendered high end crime syndicate meeting in a skyscraper boardroom, with the Orchid narrating on her role in infiltrating the organization. Yet, the strong stylings of both creators, and the unusually long introduction quickly lead the readers to believe that they're in to anything besides typical spy adventure. Basically, even before the painted, mostly six paneled black, red and purple pages break up into a splash revealing the Orchid's fate (with the four vertical panels indicating motion in a shot that tellingly has no traces of purple), it's clear that Gaiman and McKean's relaunch will be a wholesale one.

Once the dialogue heavy sequence breaks down into violence, quickly abstracted by McKean's considerable talent, the narration stops and when the familiar six paneled layout reappears, Gaiman's new Black Orchid starts introducing herself to the readers, and the wider DC universe. And when scripting a scene where a lead character literally gets born through the flower's bosom, it's clear that she is anything than a typical superhero. Yet, on the other hand, having a female plant elemental in a poetic new series centered on ecological issues and insensitivity of then current times ostensibly realized as a horror title, seems completely sensible after the success of Moore's "Swamp thing".

In fact, for all of the differences in subject matter, DC's postmodern Thumbelina follows the same logic that the company operated on when they introduced Supergirl to their Superman line of titles. In taking another obscure DC backlister and turning her into a female Swamp Thing, Gaiman and McKean were basically following trends of the day, and contributing to the group of titles that will eventually form the core of DC owned Vertigo imprint. Of course, at a time, "Black Orchid" was just another prestige format mini-series, giving its authors a chance of trying to marry the more experimental tendencies in alternative comics with reviving interest in the periphery characters that have fallen off by the wayside.

Traditionally, DC and Marvel have resisted with putting such strong artistic visions behind their most successful characters. It goes without saying that the detailed, painterly approach McKean frequently employs in his comics would never be a possibility on a monthly "Superman" title, which was evident in the controversy that his next project, the "Arkham Asylum" graphic novel drew from the Batman fans.

"Black Orchid", as realized by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean was simply always designed to familiarize a new audience with their work, being a sort of bridge toward bigger and different things, even if they included a decade long commitment Gaiman had with "Sandman" at DC. Eventually, it is the attentive readers that are apt to rediscover the project, as it's hard to imagine a today's reader becoming the fan of the original iteration of the character without recognizing the Gaiman and McKean effort, and somehow acting in spite of it.

In any event, by posing Black Orchid as a larger than life character that is nevertheless the only supernatural element in the book's first issue, Gaiman resorts to a cast of somewhat more traditional genre types in order to ground the book. Using this approach, the writer enables the Orchid to maintain her appeal as a fantastical character, while still allowing for a story that reflects the reality (albeit seen through the filter of a postmodern horror series). For a start, the reader is introduced to Carl Thorne, a small time criminal with bigger designs, whose release from jail coincides with the incident involving the demise of the original Orchid. Thorne is a particularly lucid character, whose power trips are reminiscent of Moore's Matt Cable (himself an eventual "Sandman" regular), and rendered by McKean in a way that seems to rely a bit too much on photo reference.

In contrast, doctor Philip Sylvan is introduced as a much more sympathetic character, acting as a mentor to the new Orchid, with most of the first issue being taken up by her (and in turn, the reader) being informed about her predecessor. As excepted from the creators of the intimate "Violent cases", Gaiman and McKean provide an inspired and affectionate look into the past of both doctor Philip and Susan Linden (this is the name Gaiman comes up with, along with most of her origin). Interestingly, in deconstructing the character's original incarnation, the writer breaks with the spy based identity game that has provided for drama in her previous appearances, and gives her a real back story, which provides the impetus for the series' plot.

Once again, Gaiman follows Moore's ideas in separating  the plant elemental from the original character's past providing for the complete revamp, to the extent where the writers are working on a new character of their own creation. The difference being that the Black Orchid revamp is so wholesale that the link to the original is largely relegated to a distant inspiration, with even the conflict in her past invented by Gaiman and disconnected from the DC's original stories. In a way, it could be said that Swamp Thing is a much more direct and logical percussor to Black Orchid, if the connection was limited to her being a plant elemental, but the shared storytelling techniques, and overall presentation bring into mind a much deeper bond.

In a way, Black Orchid, as solicited by the then unproven creators, follows the latter's lead in such a way that it becomes a spin-off with much less integrity than "Hellblazer" and "Sandman", perhaps explaining it's current status as being a collector's item of note to fans of Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean. To their credit, the creators try their best to make the assignment their own, so that the atmosphere does not immediately recall that of Moore's swamp based series.

McKean's sepia toned pages regularly break up the claustrophobic urban melancholy with flashes of green and purple tones, avoiding the black and white look aesthetic but not really managing to integrate Gaiman's consistent narration. The characters have enough authenticity and poignancy in their monologues (because there is little actual communication in the book itself) that they escape the traditional two dimensional portrayal of a typical gangster and superhero scientist, but McKean's layouts never really manage to integrate with the prose to make the story flaw at an unobstructed pace.

Simply put, both creators seem to be too busy trying to impress the reader with their talents to really think about how well their story flows. It seems taken as granted that any of the perceived shortcomings could be explained as side effects of the experimentation. The latter part of 1980s were a period where American superhero comics were at a particularly interesting intersection, and a lot of unorthodox creators would up working on the fringes of DC and Marvel's superhero output, before finding new opportunities for their work. Thus, McKean's stripped down design of Black Orchid feels completely in tune with some of the more creative Bill ("Big numbers", "Elektra Assasin") Sienkiewicz designs, who has likewise had a very non traditional career following his Marvel debut.

Dave McKean basically presents Orchid with a teenage girl's body type, dispensing with the superhero costume altogether to focus on the female form, abstracted chiefly when it comes to her hair, and the elusive make up around her eyes. The design is not directly sexual, but instinctive and memorable, dominated by pink hues that carry over the subtlety as well as the implied sensuality that is not really touched upon in the first issue. In fact, Gaiman writes Orchid in such a way that she is mostly tabula rasa in the debut issue, as he introduces her to her predecessor's past, while implying a very different origin for her.

Gone are the genre classic hysterics typical of the new character trying desperately to come to grips with the nuts and bolts of his situation, replace by a much more intuitive and feminine approach, that is rare for a typical superhero comic. In fact, it's hard to imagine an editor actively advising against the objectification of a female form, particularly in the years since "Black Orchid" has been published.

Yet, for a comic book priding itself on it's subtlety, DC was thankfully wise enough to proceed with the subtler approach in what was essentially the protagonist spending the whole of the series completely naked. That the approach was successful and a considerable amount of fans ended up considering what has become known as Vertigo comics the epitome of the smart genre writing speaks to the strength of the creator's passion and the quality of their work.

That it would be a full ten years before DC had started to embrace the creative vision not chiefly inspired by Moore and Gaiman is an unfortunate side effect, and it's certain that a 1998 reinvention of the "Black Orchid" would have been closer to the tone of Peter Milligan's paranoia thriller "Human target" than the venerable "Swamp Thing". Be that as it may, in 1988 Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean saw it fit to realize their creative potential in a foreign market by following Moore's example and despite the common elements such as using Superman's foe Lex Luthor as an antagonist and the propensity of building up the narrative rhythm by quoting poems in the captions, Gaiman and McKean have quickly proven themselves to be outstanding creators with unique voices, whose talents have gone on to be highly recognized and rewarded in such crowded markets as Young Adult literature and fantasy movies, to name but a few that come to mind first.

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