Black Orchid (2012) is a graphic novel written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Dave McKean. The publication began as a three issue limited series published as part of the DC superhero multiverse in 1988 and 1999. Following completion, these issues were compiled in to a single volume which was published by DC and Vertigo in 2012.
This publication differs from many produced by DC due to the methods of image production McKean uses. As seen bellow in fig. 1, McKean implements the use of traditional drawing media, such as graphite and chalk, along with a contemporary use of photography and colour. This method of image making was iconic, and contrasted from the illustrations seen in the comic world at the time – a comparison can be seen below in fig. 2
Black Orchid provided a stepping stone in narrative terms between the widely celebrated superhero comics of the time and underground comics such as the Hernandez brothers Love and Rockets. As stated by Means-Shannon (2013), the work Gaiman and McKean produced for DC at this time, with similarity to the work of Alan Moore in Swamp Thing, shaped a new realm for the DC universe. This was more focussed in the relationship between the supernatural and the natural world, providing a more complex narrative angle than those then seen in mainstream comics.
As many independent comic publications overtly had basis in activism, it was a concern of publishers that many fans of the classic superhero format would feel alienated by this change in the genre, while fans of underground work develop a distaste for the more action based narratives of the mainstream comic publishers. However in contrast, Black Orchid developed a cult following of readers from all contexts. As Foley, S (2014) states in his own review of the publication, “ it is more a path to self-discovery than it is an adventure.”
However, Black Orchid – as a publication fundamentally unlike those that had come before – is not without flaws. Many readers of the time felt the narrative was itself unsure of the direction it wished to take – a criticism that stands true over two decades since publication. Gaiman’s signature weaving style of writing clashes with the pre-established narrative of the hero within the DC universe. Means-Shannon (2013) remarks on this phenomenon by indicating “Gaiman’s works are always carefully constructed so that they can function individually without prior reader knowledge or experience,”. While, generally speaking, this is a distinct strength of the author, in the case of Black Orchid, the reader can feel a disconnect between the deeply atmospheric, existentialist work of Gaiman and McKean, and the sudden appearance of characters such as Batman and Lex Luthor.
For this reason, I personally find that it is the work of Dave McKean that brings the true beauty of this publication to life. Visuals such as those seen in figs. 3 and 4 are unlike any seen in comics at the time, and paved the way for further experimentation within comic book publication – an excellent example of this being seen in Dustin Nguyen’s watercolour illustrations for Descender, an example of which can be seen bellow in fig. 5
To conclude, Black Orchid is an important publication in terms of both narrative and visuals. The publication of this work provided a stepping stone for a wide range of comics, while simultaneously providing a graceful narrative and stunning illustrations.
Foley, S (2014) ‘Black Orchid by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean – A Book Review’ WordPress 5th October Available at https://scottwilliamfoley.com/2014/10/05/black-orchid-by-neil-gaiman-and-dave-mckean-a-book-review/ (Accessed February 27th 2019)
Lane, C (2016) ‘7 Great Alternative Comics From The 1980s’ Houston Press 14th JuneAvailable at https://www.houstonpress.com/arts/7-great-alternative-comics-from-the-1980s-8477673 (Accessed February 27th 2019)
Means-Shannon, H (2013) ‘Neil Gaiman: The Early Years, Black Orchid’s Passive and Impassive Universe Part 1’ Sequart Organization Available at http://sequart.org/magazine/21022/neil-gaiman-the-early-years-black-orchid’s-passive-and-impassive-universe-part-1/ (Accessed February 28th 2019)
Moore, A (2012) Swamp Thing, Burbank: DC Comics
Fig 1 – Own photograph (2019) of Gaiman, N, McKean D, (2012) Black Orchid, Burbank: DC Comics Chapter 2 p3
Fig 2 – Wolfman, M (1990) Batman Vol 1 #444, Burbank: DC Comics, Cover Found At https://dc.fandom.com/wiki/Batman_Vol_1_444
Fig 3 – Own photograph (2019) of Gaiman, N McKean D, (2012) Black Orchid, Burbank: DC Comics Chapter 2 p 41
Fig 4 – Own photograph (2019) of Gaiman, N McKean D, (2012) Black Orchid, Burbank: DC Comics Chapter 1 p 39
Fig 5 – Lemire, J, Nguyen D, (2017) Descender # 23, Oregon: Image Comics, Cover Found at https://imagecomics.com/comics/releases/descender-23