Neil Gaiman is best known for his wonderful Sandman series published by Vertigo, but before that, in the late 1980’s Gaiman had another wonderful book that was published. Black Orchid is a vertigo book which, like Alan Moore’s superb retelling of Swamp Thing, took an older, established character in a bold new direction. Gaiman takes the character and integrates her within a mythological, almost holistic DC Universe setting.
This is a Vertigo story but also features cameo appearances by Batman, The Joker, Two Face, The Mad Hatter, Posion Ivy, Lex Luthor and Swamp Thing. This is, at it’s core a Superhero narrative, but wait, before you close this page down in disgust, it’s a Superhero narrative told in a Neil Gaiman way!
The character of Black Orchid originally appeared in DC in 1973 and was a fairly blank character, she is covered with more suggestion rather than definite identity. She must have stood out as a fascinating character to resurrect in Neil Gaiman’s mind. An almost blank canvas to paint on and within this book, he crafted a compelling, complex character, ethereal and faerie like.
At the very beginning of this story the Black Orchid dies, in quite a horrific way. It’s a clever way to shake the reader up, this isn’t a standard superhero tale. She was a hybrid plant lady, cultivated by a scientist (and all round nice guy Phil Sylvian). Once she dies, her sister, another hybrid flower lady is ‘born’ and uncertain with who or what she is. This new Orchid must deal with old memories surfacing and a world rife with crime and corruption.
Lex Luthor is portrayed as an evil, ruthless businessman who eventually gains an interest in acquiring the Black Orchard for his own research purposes. Add into the mix an incredibly interesting character – Carl Thorne, who loves singing Sinatra numbers as he murders and just happens to be the ex-husband of the Woman whose DNA was used to create the Orchids.
The main theme of the story is about the tragic loss of innocence, as a character who is truly pure enters the evil of the human world. Gaiman weaves this tale through the dark edges of reality centering on the business of criminality and into the plant-obsessed consciousness of various ethereal DC characters. It’s a story I truly enjoyed and one I would recommend to everyone who enjoys Neil Gaiman’s prose – and after all who doesn’t?