Story: Neil Gaiman
Artwork: Dave McKean
Review by Bareesh
I'll start by blaspheming. I'm not a huge fan of Dave McKean's artwork. Don't get me wrong, it's beautiful work but it's just, well, look at Arkham Asylum. It's so vague and surreal; it's hard to keep up. So when I opened up my shiny hardcover deluxe edition Black Orchid, I didn't expect to like it as much as I did.
Right from the start, this is not your usual costumed crusader comic. Mainly because 4 or 5 pages in, the main character, Black Orchid, one of the DC Universe's more obscure heroes, is killed. Black Orchid first appeared in the early 60s in Adventure Comics combining flight and immunity to bullets with a mastery of disguise. In the iconic moment where the gangster has a gun to Black Orchid's head, he says, “I've read the comics, I've seen the movies, I'm not gonna lock you up and let you escape. But, I will kill you right now.” And that's exactly what he does. As the Black Orchid dies, a few miles away, her sister is born; another flower woman, she becomes the second Black Orchid. Uncertain of who or what she is, Orchid has to come to terms quickly with a world rife with corruption.
Lex Luthor plays a cool-headed businessman with an interest in obtaining Black Orchid as a prized specimen. Things are complicated with the sudden re-appearance of Carl Thorne, the ex-husband of the woman who's DNA was used to make Black Orchid. There are cameos from Batman, Swamp Thing, the Mad Hatter and Poison Ivy and the novel offers a view into Arkham Asylum, too (particularly memorable is the scene where Riddler and Joker sit in straight jackets telling each other jokes and err, riddles). And perhaps the ending is an even bigger surprise than killing your hero from the get-go. But I'll leave it to you to discover that.
As I mentioned before, I'm not a huge fan of McKean's art. But here, it's ambiguous and not distracting. It ranges from the totally vague to almost photorealistic scenes. It's making me reconsider my previous views on him.
This, in many ways, is an escape from the fundamentals of comics. Gaiman takes huge risks, going against all traditions and common sense of comics and it works. It leaves the reader wondering on what just happened and waiting for it to slowly set in. It's dark, yet hopeful. A beautiful mess of tragedy and innocence that is exposed to a harsh world, this is a coming of age story, Gaiman-style. It's not Sandman and it's not Alan Moore's Swamp Thing, but it's a masterpiece in its own right.