Michael Grasso / June 11, 2019
A little over thirty years ago, Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean’s Black Orchid limited series landed in comic shops. Gaiman, in the late 1980s probably known best for his history of Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide series (Don’t Panic), and his novelistic collaboration with Discworld creator Terry Pratchett (Good Omens), was a newcomer to American comics. McKean, an illustrator and designer, had worked with Gaiman on one-off graphic novel Violent Cases in 1987, but after a meeting with editors at DC Comics, the two were tasked with creating a new limited series based on obscure 1970s DC character the Black Orchid. At this time, DC Comics, having emerged from the continuity-shaping 1985-1986 crossover event Crisis on Infinite Earths, was actively seeking ways to integrate long-forgotten characters and titles into the new, unified DC universe.
DC had already tasked Brit Alan Moore with taking over the failing title The Saga of the Swamp thing in 1983; Moore had taken the title in a mature, hallucinogenic new direction, and this success had earned him the right to “reimagine” the Charlton Comics characters to which DC had obtained the rights in the form of 12-issue maxi-series Watchmen in 1986. Other comics creators from the UK, including Grant Morrison, Peter Milligan, and Gaiman himself would subsequently be given moribund titles and forgotten characters to revamp in the aftermath of Crisis. The subsequent late-’80s “British invasion” of American comics and the Vertigo imprint, which changed the complexion of the comic world in the 1990s (itself following in the footsteps of Marvel’s Epic imprint, Jim Shooter’s experiment in creator-owned comics), would likely never have happened had Gaiman and McKean not been given the opportunity to produce such a revolutionary, socially and politically relevant, thought-provoking, and stunningly gorgeous three-issue series in Black Orchid.
The original Black Orchid, who appeared in several 1970s DC anthology series and as an occasional guest character in other heroes’ titles, was a master-of-disguise who infiltrated criminal enterprises in so many forms that even her origin and name were canonically shrouded in mystery. As such, Black Orchid was a perfect tabula rasa for Gaiman and McKean’s American comics debut. Symbolically, Gaiman’s “killing off” of the original Black Orchid, Susan Linden-Thorne, during her infiltration of a criminal organization backed by Superman villain Lex Luthor in the first pages of issue #1 was a bold statement. But it also allowed Gaiman to give his own explanation for Black Orchid’s superpowers and confused identity up to this point. Black Orchid was herself only one of many “epiphytes,” sentient plants cloned from the original human Linden-Thorne’s DNA after she was killed by her husband Carl, an arms dealer tangentially involved with Luthor. Linden-Thorne’s childhood friend, botanist Philip Sylvian, harvests her DNA for his own experiments intended to heal the planet’s ecosystem. In his desire to bring Susan back from the dead, he inadvertently creates a vigilante obsessed with fighting crime. Black Orchid’s mastery of disguise and invulnerability are explained away as the benefits of her mutable plant body. But upon this “original” Black Orchid’s demise, her consciousness “sings” out to the other epiphytes in Sylvian’s laboratory-greenhouse, partially transferring her consciousness. After Susan’s ex-husband finds Sylvian, kills him, and burns down his greenhouse, only two Black Orchids survive. They dub themselves “Flora” (her body that of a teenager/young adult) and “Suzy” (a young child).
I want to begin with McKean’s art. Back in 1989, when I was expanding my own comic fandom outside of the standard superhero fare from Marvel and, to a lesser extent, DC, I saw the cover and interior of Black Orchid #1 at a friend’s house and was blown away—maybe even a little intimidated. Flipping through the glossy pages of the graphic novel, art splashed colorfully across the pages in McKean’s inimitable high-realistic style, I was suddenly questioning the very aesthetic limits of the comic book as a medium. Possibly the only thing I could compare McKean’s work to visually at the time was Bill Sienkiewicz’s mid-’80s stint on New Mutants, still one of my very favorite comic runs ever, as well as Frank Miller and Sienkiewicz’s Elektra: Assassin from ’86-’87. But where Sienkiewicz is impressionistic, symbolic, jagged, and often abstract, McKean’s illustrations flow sinuously off the page in a unique fusion of hyper-realism and an intuitive understanding of the power of color. While Black Orchid‘s illustrations are often monochromatic, they utilize the deep, rich purples swirling in the bodies of the two surviving Black Orchids, “mother” Flora and “child” Suzy, to create illusions of depth through different saturations of violet. When we visit the Louisiana bayou or the Amazon rainforest, rich browns and greens take over, the backgrounds teeming with plant and animal life. When we visit with Susan’s ex-husband Carl, McKean gives us tight claustrophobic panels, drawn in rough-hewn beiges and greys. And inside the dark cells of Arkham Asylum, where Flora meets with Batman villain Poison Ivy, grim shadows and the sickly, rotting hues of Ivy’s “experiments” offer a psycho-chromatic interpretation of Ivy’s mental illness. (McKean would return to Arkham later that same year, working with Grant Morrison on 1989’s Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth.)
Discussing Flora’s journey brings me to Black Orchid‘s uneasy co-existence with DC continuity. Asking creators like Gaiman and Morrison and Moore to work within existing comic franchises absolutely expanded the bounds of what was possible in American superhero comics. But the flip side of this fusion is that sometimes the insertion of these radically original concepts into existing continuity just doesn’t work thematically. Take Flora’s trip to Gotham City in issue #2 to see Poison Ivy in order to find out more about herself. At first, despite her powers of disguise, she can’t get into Arkham to see the inmates. It’s only after having a portentous meeting with Batman that she gets a “calling card” allowing her carte blanche to take a tour through the dank halls of the asylum. The meeting with Batman doesn’t work on any level and is one of the series’ few sour notes; it temporarily bestows upon the narrative an undeniable “TV spinoff” feel that diminishes the power and weirdness of the story up to that point. Admittedly though, Poison Ivy herself and the other plant-based DC characters such as the Swamp Thing that are part of Sylvian’s extended family of researchers work very well as complements to the Black Orchids. And the inclusion of Lex Luthor as the series’ criminal mastermind is a stroke of genius; this was the beginning of Luthor’s post-Crisis 1980s existence as a sinister industrialist and businessman. All the scenes that depict Luthor’s global reach—from the mean streets of Metropolis to international gun runners to mercenaries who can troop off to the Amazon on a moment’s notice to chase after Flora and Suzy in issue #3—prove a perfect foil for Flora and Suzy’s quest for self-understanding and eco-liberation.
Flora and Suzy, caught between humanity and “the Green,” are simultaneously both scientific experiments gone awry and possible saviors of the planet. Part of the express intention behind the Black Orchid series was to call attention to the plight of the South American rainforests. As mentioned earlier, Sylvian sought answers to the coming environmental collapse in science, as did the other members of his cabal, Jason “The Floronic Man” Woodrue, Pamela “Poison Ivy” Isley, and Alec “Swamp Thing” Holland. With three of these scientists changed forever by their experiments and the fourth, Sylvian, killed, we’re led to believe that science, in fact, may not be the answer to the Earth’s problems. Issue #3’s meeting between Black Orchid and Swamp Thing provides the MacGuffin for the denouement of the series in a handful of seeds that will grow yet more Black Orchid epiphytes, which Flora and Suzy need to deliver to the heart of the Amazon. Luthor’s mercenaries and Susan’s ex-husband Carl follow, as Black Orchid seems to take a sudden left turn from a dreamlike meditation on identity and the environmental emergency into a full-on ’80s action film set in the jungle.
Carl’s psychopathic one-by-one picking off of the Luthor mercenaries reminds us of his violently abusive, possessive, and patriarchal nature, but Luthor’s men themselves are literally all business. While they carry on their backs tanks of defoliant to threaten Flora and Suzy (and take the time to fatally interrogate a group of local natives to find where the Orchids are hiding), what the mercenaries (and ultimately Luthor) really want is to exploit the Black Orchids and find out what makes them tick—for Luthor’s corporate and personal exploitation. Carl loses his life in the final confrontation with the remaining mercenaries by attacking them solo and biting off more than he can chew (and perhaps trying to protect Flora and Suzy in his own twisted, possessive way). But once Carl is dispatched and Sterling, the head of Luthor’s men, threatens to spray Flora and Suzy, Sterling’s men rebel. “She’s perfect,” one of Sterling’s men says. “She’s beautiful… We’ve killed for you before. It’s what we do. But not her. Not here.” The climactic fight scene, a staple of superhero comics, is short-circuited before it can even happen. The conflict is resolved non-violently (although Flora firmly promises if they come back to the rainforest, she’ll make sure that Luthor will lose “whatever it is that he loves”).
The feminist and anti-colonialist message here is pretty clear: men who have been tromping through the jungle, raping the land and murdering its natives, have been defeated by the power of a female presence that wants no more killing, that finds the land holy, that wants to preserve a place “far from cruelty, far from violence, and from sudden, pointless death.” But in the end, Flora and Suzy themselves do not remain in the Amazon to protect the seedlings. Suzy has spoken to the local tribe that will act as the epiphytes’ guardians. Even Flora and Suzy, as close to the Green as they are, are essentially clueless colonizers; when Flora asks the mercenaries to bury Carl, she inadvertently violates a local taboo. Suzy tells her, “They say you shouldn’t have buried Carl though. They burn their dead people.” This message seems to trigger something in Flora, Susan’s memories and identity suddenly flooding through her. She and Suzy do not belong. Suzy says the animals she’s been playing with also do not want her here: “You can’t really play with them. They have their own games.” Flora and Suzy realize that, as outsiders, they have to leave paradise. They fly off together, abruptly ending their quest.
Gaiman and McKean manage to convey a series of fairly subtle messages throughout Black Orchid, but most prominent among them is that the Western male drive to both the exploitation of nature and violence against women have knock-on effects that, when replicated on a global scale, will lead us to certain death and disaster. Carl Thorne’s abusive husband, Lex Luthor’s possessive industrialist, even Philip Sylvian’s good and “scientific” intentions to heal the world: all of them ultimately seek to cage and exploit Susan and her Orchid descendants. The other scientists’ technocratic attempts to channel and quantify nature lead to insanity and subsumption at the hands of the unfathomable “Green.” These themes, simmering under the surface of the series, offer a panoply of thought-provoking jumping-off-points for an audience in 2019 staring down the barrel of imminent global climate collapse. Over the past three decades, both the petty Thornes and the all-powerful Luthors of our world have done all they can to trample the Green underfoot in the name of unceasing profit and a callous disregard for life on our planet. With an out-and-out fascist, ecocidal, and genocidal government in command of the Amazon now, we careen headlong into oblivion, with no beautiful, sublime Black Orchids to offer us a solution—non-violent or otherwise—to our problems.