BOOK REPLIES/REVIEWS (2014): Gaiman, McKean, & Klein’s (2012) Black Orchid

15 October 2014

Summary (TLDR Version)

Between death and a fate worse than death, which would you choose.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: Gaiman, McKean, & Klein’s (2012) [2] Black Orchid

I often start in on books using claims made in the promo or ad text on the back to illustrate how wide of those claims there the book actually goes. In its own way, this makes my reply sometimes as much about how the book gets received as the book itself, some might say unfairly.

In the present case, by contrast, if I start with Mikal Gilmore’s[3] introduction to Black Orchid, it may in fact become the sole and only focus of this reply. With graphic novels (books of fiction in general) I tend to avoid introductions, because they often have the effect (intended or not) of framing how you should read the book. Here, Gilmore announces, “the tale you are about to read begins in violence … but in this tale, something unanticipated happens” (4).

His major claim for the book, in fact, consists of insisting it amounts to a game-changer for the genre. This certainly seems valid for McKean’s contribution, although the work here falls short of his subsequent work, but whether the story deserves such praise remains far more doubtful. Especially in the terms that Gilmore states.

To begin with, he makes a great deal of the fact that the heroine gets killed at the outset, prefaced by her murderer declaring, “Hey, you know something? I’ve read the comics … I’m not going to lock you up in the basement before interrogating you … then leave you alone to escape. That stuff is so dub. But you know what I am going to do? I’m going to kill you. Now” (4). He ignores two major details here. First, the murderer first shoots Black Orchid in the head, but this does not kill her because, as he says, while “our data files on you are pretty thin on hard facts, … they do claim you’ve got some kind of bullet proof body” (14). So then he burns her alive and also blows up the top of the building. Second, this only kills one body the Black Orchid has; her consciousness, or something like it, regrows in another body.

So, in point of fact, contrary to Gilmore’s claim, the villain does not kill Black Orchid—or, we might say even more precisely, to kill Black Orchid involves more than the usual. Certainly, Gaiman announces don’t expect the expected by providing a scene like this at the outset. But just like Alan Moore’s swamp thing, which provides at least one of the obvious backdrops for Gaiman’s book, the scene does less to change the comic genre than to orient the reader (in this case) to the tacit immortality of the heroine.

Having apparently misread the opening, Gilmore says:

Either way, BLACK ORCHID works against all these conventions of violence: it begins in the horror of reality and its works its way towards a lovely dreamlike end that is no less powerful or hard-hitting for all its fable-style grace. As a result, BLACK ORCHID is the first major work of comic book literature that uses violence as a critique of the uses of violence (6).

That he calls this the “first major work of comic book literature” to pursue this theme suggests that others have pursued it, albeit in “minor” form. So we would have to wonder why Black Orchid deserves credit as the first, especially when Moore’s Swamp Thing has already (more than once) demonstrated that endings other than violence may solve the conventional villain-crisis of comic books. This happens, for instance, immediately with the story arc of Jason Woodrue, who has hijacked the world power of all plant life to destroy mammalian life on the planet. Swamp Thing literally asks the plants to stop their destruction (explaining that if all mammalian life were dead, plant life would die off as well). Moore also sets up this resolution by surveying the many, many powers that other superheroes have, showing how none of them can intervene into this kind of world-destruction, and so it makes the simplicity and elegance of the solution to the crisis that he (and Swamp Thing) articulate all the more amazing.

So, the solution of nonviolence already has a spectacular representation. But even in the present case, Gilmore seems to fatally misunderstand what he reads. Confronted by the proponents of violence in her sanctuary of nonviolence, Black Orchid does not respond with retributive violence when a human gets killed there (expressly against her wishes), but she also explicitly warns her opponents if his forces ever interfere with her again she will retaliate. He replies, “Sure. You’re the one who’s so down on violence!” and she replies, “I didn’t mention violence. But if he persists … I will find whatever it is that he loves … and I will take it away from him” (152).

She promises a quid pro quo, but it will not come in the form of violence, which in this book generally means death outright. Why Gilmore thinks this marks a game-changer, when virtually all comic book heroes, even a thoroughly violent one like Batman, has specifically and on principle not killed bad guys, seems baffling. The Joker seems to have endlessly enjoyed tormenting Batman with this point, and certainly Arkham Asylum, as perhaps the most laxly run containment facility ever, similarly serves to make the heroes’ refusals to kill (once and for all) their problematic villains probably the single-most important contribution of comic literature in general to the world.

Meanwhile, Gilmore seems to miss entirely the substance of Black Orchid’s threat: most succinctly, that one may suffer fates worse than death—fates suffered, in fact, by everyone in Arkham Asylum. One may say, precisely, that what containment in Arkham inflicts amounts to a denial of what the villain loves: the freedom to torment others and cause mayhem, &c. And since those in the asylum spend a great deal of time escaping, we may assume they don’t much enjoy their confinement.

Similarly, Black Orchid promises retaliation by taking away what others love—even if what they love amounts to power, opportunities for cruelty, circumstances to practice the fine art of sexual psychopathy, &c. Thus, the eschewal of (the violence of) death doesn’t come with anything resembling the truly radical solution Swamp Thing arrived at: to speak to the interests of those who plan to destroy the world.

One may insist that you can’t simply talk to the Joker or Poison, &c. First, let me say that heroes need villains, so making villains irredeemably immune to any form of rationality, therapy, or even alternative satisfaction to whatever mania inflicts them first and foremost serves the aims of an on-going narrative. But to insist on this absolutely impenetrable character tries to argue—or at least provides an image of—some theoretically imaginary or real limit to the power of human speech. Some people want to imagine that some people remain forever beyond the pale, and this simply serves those arguments of power that want to incarcerate or contain people—and thereby inflict fates worse than death upon them.

It points to the limits of our willingness, not necessarily our capacity, to redeem people from “madness” or “criminality”. It underscores our laziness, even if it also points to a woeful lack of resources provided to support the effort to reach those who suffer “madness” or “criminality”. And in a nation that has 2.2 million people in prison and where the construction of the “black male” as inherently criminal has wide social cache—most unfortunately amongst police in our police departments—the idea that retaliation (whether in the typical form of murder/death or in a heroic confinement to an institution) hardly amounts to a desirable social response. Swamp Thing’s “talk to them,” admittedly in a fantasy setting and done by a character very close to a deity, nonetheless provides an alternative image that seems far more worth striving for.

Black Orchid’s refusal of violence offers nothing more than a standard super-hero obligation; her substitution of retaliation does not necessarily mark any sort of humanistic or progressive advance, especially when confinement in someplace like Arkham Asylum serves as the major symbol of what “I won’t kill you” looks like and promises. Moreover, Gaiman’s subsequent demonstration of a considerable enthusiasm and knack for (sexual) psychopathology makes this supposedly progressive avoidance of violence less convincing. As Sandman and other texts make clear, he wallows adroitly in the horrific—and the “solution” promised here by Black Orchid amounts to a more horrible threat than death.

As such, it seems more that Gaiman articulates a way for super-heroes to inflict greater punishment and cruelty than simply murdering their opponents. Black Orchid herself has lived this horror herself, having suffered “death” (in quotation marks) at the outset. She ultimately arrives at a place of peace (her own Heaven), and this presents an image of hope (“where there is life, there’s hope”), yes, but not for those she inflicts retaliation upon.

Whatever complicated thematic unravelling this might lead to (in this book or in the comic genre generally), the major gesture here seems more akin to, “Silly mortal, you thought death was the worst that could happen to you?” In Sandman, Death certainly causes less agony and mayhem than Dream or Desire. Whatever shift Gaiman affects here, it seems to have far less to do with any structural change to the genre as Gilmore claims; such a remark applies more to Moore’s imaginative breakthrough in addressing rationality to plants. At most, all Gaiman has done amounts to pulling back the veil on the (im)polite fiction that permits super-heroes (and us) to pat ourselves on the back for torturing those we deem irredeemable.


[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Gaiman, N., McKean, D., & Klein, T. (2012). Black Orchid. Deluxe ed. New York, N.Y: DC Comics/Vertigo., pp. 1–160.

[3] A senior writer at Rolling Stone, the introduction assures me.

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