Vertigo, Black Orchid #1-3, written by Neil Gaiman, art by Dave McKean, 1988
Okay, so I read the first four volumes of Sandman. They were good, don’t get me wrong, but they didn’t blow me away. I thought “Hey that’s clever” a few times and “oh, nice reference”, but never “this is changing my life”. I want to read the rest of the series, I really do, but I’m in no rush, I suppose. I just don’t see why Neil Gaiman is such a big deal.
My mistake, I didn’t see why Neil Gaiman is such a big deal. But I just finished reading Black Orchid, so now I do. It was awesome. Maybe someday I’ll read all of Sandman in a month or something and really get it.
So why did Black Orchid blow me away? First, it was part of that crazy 80s reimagining scene where every B-character seemed to get their own new treatment. It worked well for Swamp Thing, Animal Man, Hawkman (to an extent) and a bunch of others (Green Arrow not so much, sorry Longbow Hunters but you make me sad). Why did Black Orchid deserve a revamp? I’m not sure, but someone trusted Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, and was right to do so.
The story begins with the original Black Orchid, a character nobody seemed to know or love. Gaiman shouts “out with the old and in with the new” and suddenly our focus is on a new purple plant lady. She’s got the memories of Black Orchid, but who is she, really? Gaiman takes us on a journey to find out and bring Lex Luthor, Poison Ivy, Batman and Swamp Thing along for the ride. The first issue is perfect set-up, tying the old character to the new and introducing us to a former henchman of Luthor’s—a terrifyingly realistic villain that makes the DC Universe (or I suppose, the early Vertigo world) seem eerily similar to our own. The second issue builds in perfect step and we see Gaiman’s dreamy thought-scapes tie nicely with an easy to follow, accessible (yet exceptional) story. We get deep here, but no so deep that pretentiousness creeps in. Issue three surprised me and the story turns into a jungle-set horror movie. The ending was too perfect. I get it; Gaiman knows how to write with the best of them.
The art is in a class of its own. Dave McKean is just… wow. He makes the kinds of pictures that you can’t believe you’re seeing in a comic book. I’ll admit (somewhat begrudgingly) that I didn’t care for Batman: Arkham Asylum—again, it didn’t blow me away and I hold that against it—but McKean’s work in Black Orchid is simply astounding. I don’t know how else to describe it… spellbinding? Awe-inspiring? Work that makes you consider the very foundations that comic books are built upon and makes you shudder to think we may never again see work as beautiful as this—while tossing and turning about because the images of purple bodies, lush green backdrops, silhouetted dark knights and the greed of mankind personified won’t leave you to dream in peace? Sure, all that.
I could go on and on, but reading my endless praise won’t give you a fraction of the satisfaction that you’ll receive reading (or re-reading) this series. Easily the best series I’ve read in a very long time.
Acclaim, Man of the Atom, written by Warren Ellis, drawn by Darick Robertson, 1997
Now, I love Solar, but to paraphrase Fabian Nicieza’s explanation of this one-shot, it’s hard to create interesting ongoing stories for a character that essentially has the powers God. Fortunately, Warren Ellis found a way to write at least one interesting tale for our man of the atom. Quite an interesting tale indeed…
For those of you unfamiliar with Solar, Man of The Atom, he was an old-school Gold Key creation that flew around in a read bodysuit with a visor and radioactive symbol on his chest. He could control energy, fly—essentially do whatever needed to be done to stop the bad guys. In the early 90s, Valiant comics brought him back and Jim Shooter did some neat things with him before it all got boring again. Enter Acclaim and their purchase of everything Valiant—Solar was ready to hit the scene again in an all-new way. But he didn’t make a golden return to form; instead we get this one-shot that acts as something of a mini event book. Don’t worry about continuity though, Dark Horse would later grab the reigns of Solar’s tales and these days Dynamite is in control. This guy gets around.
I want to tell you so many things about this book, but I also want you to discover it for yourself for the first time—it’s a great experience. Ellis takes his time, introducing characters we’re not sure we care about until around halfway through. A brother and sister have dedicated their lives to finding out the secrets of the world. One takes to science to explain everything, the other faith. They don’t clash, however. They share the same goal; they’re simply deciding to tackle the issue from both angles. Why, science and faith may have more in common than we think.
In the brother’s quest for knowledge, he comes upon a scientific accident with more questions than answers. There’s plenty of science-talk I didn’t quite understand (but felt I did at the time) and it’s all very interesting. The sister tasks herself with purging the ancient libraries of the Vatican for information and her plot takes a decidedly horrific turn. What does all this have to do with Solar? Oh, you’ll have to find out that part on your own.
Ellis writes great dialogue and paces the story slower than expected, but things never get dull. There’s quite a bit to absorb in this single issue, from all the connections to the Acclaim Universe to the history lessons and science-lectures. It’s a Warren Ellis book and there’s enough sci-fi and cynic’s humor to go around.
Darick Robertson unfortunately draws a book that takes too many cues from the over-bulging extreme scene that was the 90s. His work isn’t exactly early Image, but it’s not my kind of art either. The storytelling is strong, however, and his layouts make sure Ellis’s story never falls off the rails. The dense, over-saturated colouring certainly didn’t help, though.
Overall, this is a book you need to read. It doesn’t require any previous knowledge, just a focused mind and an eagerness to stick with the story. The payoff is quite impressive, though I wish the ending was tighter. It left me wanting and I’m not sure where to look for more.
Image, Stupid #1, written and drawn by Hilary Barta and Doug Rice, 1993
If you recall the early 90s Image boom, you probably remember the first wave of titles. Savage Dragon, Spawn, Youngblood, WildC.A.T.s—these titles set the comic world on fire. Problem was, after their initial breakthrough, most titles weren’t able to live up to their monthly schedules. Books were hyped, then delayed, then hyped again. Fans bought as many #1s as they could and salivated for more. You may remember as well there was also a small “second wave”, bringing us titles like Dale Keown’s Pitt, Sam Keith’s The Maxx and Mike Grell’s Shaman’s Tears. Cleary this was all too much for Image and a number of second wave books were axed. Amongst the victims was Stupid, Hilary Barta’s much needed shot of humor for the ridiculous 90s scene. We only got one issue of Stupid. Injustice!
Admit it, that’s a great cover.
Stupid reads like an extended MAD article. Spewn is Spawn with self-referential gags involving cape lengths, crappy powers, silly editors and disgusting bodily fluids. This is straight up parody and it hits quite a few right notes. I wasn’t in a constant laugh, but the pokes at Todd McFarlane’s art style, the Big 2 and silly origins had me in stitches. I’m not entirely sure what Doug Rice contributed to these pages, as he’s credited with “story and fred” (sic), but even that weird gag is appreciated.
The art is simply delightful, albeit in a grotesque way. Barta knows how to time a joke and stick it with the pictures. There’s a splash page in the middle of this book that might be the most artistically impressive splash page released by the early Image comics. The fact that we got more Rob Leifeld titles and only one issue of Stupid is an absolute embarrassment. This book has aged better than any of Image’s first wave books (except maybe Savage Dragon).
If you find this lying in a bargain bin for a reasonable price, I suggest you grab it. Perhaps joking about the hottest artistic trends wasn’t the best idea back in the day, but I loves me some retro 90s skewing.