Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Black Orchid (Gaiman and McKean)

It's hard to believe that Black Orchid (DC, 1991) is now almost twenty years old and that Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean have been on and off collaborators for so long. This comic (originally printed as three comic books in 1989) is, I guess I have to admit, a superhero narrative of some sort (it includes appearances by Lex Luthor, Batman, and other DC stablehands, after all), but the crime-fighting Black Orchid (a strange female human-plant hybrid) dies in the first pages and is only potentially replaced by the end of the narrative.

The comic is almost entirely painted, rather than drawn, and in a palette of mostly green, purple, and grey. Outline drawings are almost entirely absent, though the lettering and text is done in a very traditional style (by the seemingly untiring Todd Klein). The introduction, by Mikal Gilmore, suggests that it makes plain that "most [new comics] still end up resorting to hackneyed moral and narrative customs: violent men save the world through violent choices or violent bravery. In this book something altogether different occurs" (n.p.).

But what occurs at the resolution of the plot is violent: a man is killed, though not by the Black Orchid figure, and she promises retaliation against Luthor if he "interferes" again in her or her sisters' lives: "whatever it is that he loves. . . . I will take it away from him." In a non-violent way, apparently? And the upshot of this encounter has the plant woman (and plant girl) leaving their Edenic Amazon retreat, where they are no longer happy: their return to the world is depicted as a kind of Fall, and the very last panels, showing the return to the city, are in a reddish (dare we say hellish) orange. I do think the book addresses the power of violence in comics, but it does so subtly, and the ending of this book is, for me at least, not a very happy one. A change has come, Eden is lost, and the heroine is happiest to return to society, which is, in this book, the place where violence does seem to belong.

Or maybe that's just my take on it.

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