Review of Black Orchid by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean
Black Orchid. Written by Neil Gaiman. Illustrated by Dave McKean. (Vertigo Books 1989).
The early works of successful authors always seem like first drafts.
It’s impossible to read Sketches By Boz without looking for traces of Great Expectations. Somewhere in Titus Andronicus is the DNA of King Lear and The Tempest.
And -- there’s no way around it – Black Orchid is a dry run of Sandman.
Sandman was one of the most heralded comic books of the ‘90s, and justly so. The protagonist Morpheus was the Lord of Dreams, protecting his kingdom from the plots of his enemies, some of whom were gods, some of whom were demons and some of whom were members of Morpheus' family. Gaiman’s hyper-literate scripting combined references to classical fiction, history, D.C. comic books and the mythologies of cultures ranging from the ancient Greeks to modern British Jews to Australian aborigines.
For all its majesty, Sandman was not perfect. Many issues suffered from too much narration, some of the characters were annoyingly talkative, and the stories, over time, became overly impressed with their learnedness and import. But it was flawed in the way The Godfather Part II was flawed; you looked past the tangled plot and the clunky patches because the rest of it was so good.
Black Orchid doesn’t have that advantage. Gaiman’s shortcomings are on display, but not his talents.
The story is about a species of hybrid orchid women (pictured) who, yes, fight crime – this is a superhero book. In this case, the bad guys work for the crime syndicate of business kingpin Lex Luthor. (The choice of word is not accidental; Luthor as portrayed in Black Orchid is indistinguishable from Marvel Comics’ Kingpin of Crime.)
One of the orchid women is killed after infiltrating Luthor’s company. Meanwhile, a former Luthor henchman has completed a prison sentence for the boss, is expecting his old job back and may have a violent tie to at least one of the orchid women.
It takes too long to figure out what’s going on. Gaiman repeatedly teases the reader with a snippet of explanation, then cuts to another storyline. Characters from the D.C. universe seem shoehorned into the middle of the tale as a way to promote the sale of other titles. When one character finally provides the back story, the explanation is delivered in a tediously verbose speech that would be more at home in a Victorian memoir.
But all of that pales in comparison to a third act which shifts to Brazil, all the better to engage in dishwater moralizing about the fate of the Amazon rain forest. Low-life gangsters quote stats about defoliation, and we’re supposed to nod sadly but knowingly when one frame reveals that they plan to kill the orchid women with Agent Orange.
Did I mention the many quotes from popular songs, none of which add anything? Or that, at a critical moment, you can’t tell two of the characters apart? Or that the orchid women are supposed to be drawn with faint whirlwinds of air above their heads – since orchids apparently take their nutrients from the atmosphere – but that they look like ridiculous tornado heads instead? Or that artist Dave McKean is trying with every brushstroke to paint like Bill Sienkiewicz?
What sophomoric tripe. What a pointless collection of clichés and cultural touchstones. What a poorly executed pile of nothing.
Black Orchid could have been a superhero story; it could have been an environmental allegory (like Alan Moore's Swamp Thing); it could have been a literate mystery or a crime thriller. Instead, it tries to be all of these genres at once, and it fails at each of them.
Gaiman did a better job on Sandman.