GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm

Miscellaneous (non-Superhero) - "B" Page 2


cover by McKeanBlack Orchid 1991 (SC TPB) 160 pages

Written by Neil Gaiman. Painted by Dave McKean.
Letters: Todd Klein. Editor: Karen Berger.

Reprinting: The three-issue, 1989 mini-series.

Rating: * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Mildly suggested for mature readers

Published by DC Comics

Additional notes: intro by writer Mikal Gilmore

Although no one could probably have guessed it at the time, this late-1980s Black Orchid mini-series would prove rather significant. Not as a revival of a 1970s heroine who was so obscure (so the story goes) even some DC Comics editors didn't know who she was. Nor as the kick off to a subsequent short lived series. Rather as the American comics debut of Neil Gaiman, a British writer who would shortly create the Sandman and find himself leap frogging to the top of many critics "great comics writers" lists.

Viewed in that context, you can see in Back Orchid an ambitious writer, eager to work in the medium that feulled his childhood, even as he was desperate to make his mark and push convention. Just as easily, you can see in it the work of a fledgling talent not fully in command of his craft, nor mature enough to always recognize the difference between profound...and just pretentious.

The original Black Orchid was an off-beat series in that its costumed heroine was as much a mystery to the reader as to the villains. The stories were enigmatic affairs as the realist villains (mobsters and thugs) would try to figure out who she was, how she knew what she knew about their dealings, usually identifying a likely suspect or two...only to have the issue resolve with the Black Orchid's true identity still unknown. It was an interesting variation on the super hero theme, though not one that could necessarily sustain itself for long, perhaps explaining why she only lasted three issues of Adventure Comics, plus a few more adventures as a back up series in comics like The Phantom Stranger.

Gaiman's "edgy" revival begins, as so many such efforts do, with an attempt to shock us by having the Black Orchid get killed in the first few pages. This leads to Gaiman revealing that she was not human, but a plant-human hybrid, and no sooner does she die than a replacement is "born" in a distant greenhouse. But her memories are incomplete, leading to a search for identity and purpose.

Does this really seem like a logical extension of the original character? Well, no, not really. Gaiman could have called the book The Purple Pansy for all that it mattered.

The story is an interesting product of its time -- and a forerunner of the times to come. Published just a few years after DC's Crisis on Infinite Earths, when it was decided the entirety of the DC Universe must be unified into one streamlined reality under God (or, at least, under Jenette Kahn and Paul Levitz), and as DC began experimenting with "mature readers" comics (shortly begetting the Vertigo imprint), The Black Orchid reveals these contradictory influences. Intended as dark and adult (though only mildly) with some profanity, and the Orchid's origin given a gritty spin involving (implied) childhood molestation and an abusive husband, it's also rooted in the comic book universe in a way the original, as I recall, was not. There were a few 1970s comic book characters -- like the Black Orchid, a revival of the Spectre, possibly the Ragman (I'm going by memory here) who seemed to exist outside the regular DCU. When a character saw the Black Orchid fly in her original run, he was amazed, clearly implying this wasn't a world in which Superman and Green Lantern whizzed overhead on a regular basis. But Gaiman's revival is firmly rooted in the DCU -- mature readers or no. One of the main villains is Lex Luthor, and Batman and the Swamp Thing have cameos, and Gaiman connects his newly botanized heroine with the rest of the DCU's plant-based characters (small world, eh?). There's even an extended scene of our heroine visiting Arkham Asylum, meeting various inmates, in a sequence that would anticipate by a year or two the once-ballyhooed Arkham Asylum graphic novel (also illustrated by Dave McKean). It is a rather pointless, indulgent sequence...kind of like Arkham Asylum, come to think of it.

It's ironic that a writer like Gaiman, and many of his contemporaries, would seem so keen to show how edgy they were, desperate to shatter the conventions of the medium...even as they seem to show an almost unhealthy obsession with the minutia of the comic book reality (Gaiman latter penned The Books of Magic mini-series, which also seemed like less of a story, than just a chance to work in cameos by every magic-based character from DC Comics). How does the Orchid meeting Two-Face and the Mad Hatter further this story? Well, it doesn't. And would the Arkham Asylum sequence have any resonance for someone who wasn't already a hardcore Bat-fan?

Anyway...

There seems to be a deliberate dream-like aspect to the story, which can be both intriguing and moody, but also unsatisfying, as it all seems kind of untethered from reality, or even logic (like the Orchid being allowed to wander through the bowels of Arkham with only an inmate as chaperon -- no wonder Arkham has so many escapees). This dreamlike aspect is reflected in Dave McKean's painted art. McKean has a photorealistic style when it comes to faces and, sometimes, (the stiff) bodies. But his backgrounds are often vague or non-existent, and he paints many scenes in monochromes -- often shades of grey, with occasional flashes of purple or other colours, as if the comic is the equivalent of a black and white movie. It makes the visuals rather dreary and oppressive, the composition rather dull, and on more than one occasion, I wasn't sure what I was supposed to be looking at. It all adds to a sense of dislocation. This isn't the real world. The result is that often these don't seem like real people, and so it's hard to become emotionally involved.

The plot has the Black Orchid (and a junior version of herself) attempting to find out about their origins, while Lex Luthor sends out men to capture these plant women for dissection, and a recently paroled thug, Carl, is hunting her too...Carl being the ex-husband of the woman the Black Orchid was modelled after.

The story is kind of thin for almost 150 pages, and problematic. We learn Orchid's origins long before she does, meaning her quest isn't particularly intriguing from our point of view, as there is no great "mystery" demanding a solution. Gaiman shifts gears towards the end, as if he'd just read W.H. Hudson's novel Green Mansions, about the jungle girl, Rima (also given a comic in the 1970s), as the two Orchids retreat to the Amazon jungle, with Luthor's mercenaries, and crazy Carl, in pursuit. Then we're treated to an extended sequence of Carl (who somehow becomes a super bad ass) killing off Luthor's men, one by one, as they trek through the jungle -- with the Black Orchid largely removed from the action (meaning it's just an extended sequence of one bad guy killing other bad guys). It builds to a climax that is meant to be surprising in its sedateness, but it hinges on characters behaving in certain ways...but between Gaiman's aloof writing, and McKean's stiff, artsy pictures, I can't say the characters were fleshed out enough to make this work on anything more than an intellectual level. Even then, Gaiman's theme of violence versus non-violence is poorly realized.

The curious thing is that, though I'm being critical, I know the series has its share of fans who praise it and find it challenging and provocative. In fact, reading the effusive introduction to this collection by Rolling Stone writer Mikal Gilmore, I'm thinking that what he describes is a book I'd like to read. I just don't feel Black Orchid is it. I think there are some works that are written in a sufficiently vague, indistinct way, that fans often bring more to it than they realize, that they find themselves appreciating the story they believe it to be, rather than the story it actually is. Ironically, editor Karen Berger herself (in an introduction to the TPB Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes) admitted there was a "distance" to the writing in Black Orchid that kept her from becoming "emotionally involved with the characters".

An intriguing look at the early work of a critically acclaimed talent, but Black Orchid remains a little unfocused, and thinly developed.

Original cover price: $23.95 CDN./ $19.95 USA.


The Black Pearl 1997 (SC TPB) 120 pgs.

cover by H.M. BakerWritten by Mark Hamill, Eric Johnson. Pencils by H.M. Baker. Inks by Bruce Patterson, Dan Schaeffer.
Colours: Bernie Mireault. Letters: Sean Konot.

Reprints the five issue mini-series from 1996-1997, with some censoring.

Additional notes: introductions by Mark Hamill, Peter David and Bill (writer, musician, actor...and little Will Robinson) Mumy.

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by Dark Horse

Mature Readers

Driven by media enthusiasm, a troubled nebbish becomes a costumed vigilante. Part thriller, part mystery, and part satire, the basic premise here concerns Luther, a peeping tom who's fixated on Tina, the beautiful woman across the street. When Tina is kidnapped, Luthor gets into a struggle with one of her abductors and the man gets killed. Luther flees the scene, but a TV personality, Jerry Delman (part Howard Stern, part Jerry Springer), on the verge of cancelation and desperate for a gimmick, literally manufactures a myth of a costumed vigilante dubbed the Black Pearl. Pretty soon, adopting a costume and gizmos, Luther has become the Black Pearl for real, lionized by the public and vilified by the authorities, no one aware the truth is in the murky middle.

For all the interesting potential in the ramifications of a "superhero" in the real world, and the satirical barbs at media-driven stories, that wouldn't be enough to sustain a five issue series. Fortunately, writers Mark Hamill and Eric Johnson realize that. What begins to emerge is a plot above and beyond the broad canvased stuff: first the search for the abducted Tina, then the gradual discovery she has her own secrets. The story's hero isn't Luther, but a reporter named Frank Moran who starts investigating both the mysterious Black Pearl, and the mystery behind Tina.

The Black Pearl is tightly paced. There're lots of talky scenes, following various characters around, but the energy never lags. Overall the thing's clever and even funny (Luther attempting to make a pirate broadcast as the Black Pearl, where everything that can go wrong, does). For all the high-mindedness in spots, the story's fun and entertaining.

Despite being the titular character, Luther isn't the main character and remains enigmatic for the most part. It's a problematic decision, making his jump to deciding to become the Black Pearl a bit of a swallow. Still, given certain revelations toward the end, it might've been impossible to detail too much about what Luther's thinking without revealing some things too early.

The other characters are vividly realized on the surface, from Luther's media-junkie best friend to shock jock Delman, making for a colourful cast...but the subtle stuff that'd make them more than just archetypes isn't always there. Even Frank is the square-jawed leading man, but little more.

The biggest weakness with the story is in its social satire. The themes have been done before -- Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns with its panorama of reactions to the return of the Batman, or the film "Jimmy Hollywood", with Joe Pesci as an out-of-work actor who decides to make himself a celebrity by becoming a vigilante. But here the barbs are a little too pre-ordained, not always justified within the context of this story, and it says all it's going to early on. When the story moves toward its climax with shock jock Jerry Delman staging a rally, you know things are going to fall a part, you just don't necessarily believe they will.

In a way, The Black Pearl doesn't entirely fulfil its own mandate. It doesn't convincingly answer the question of what would happen if a costumed vigilante appeared in our world -- the real world. And Luther's a little too good at the action stuff for a skinny nerd.

But it's still a lot of fun getting half-answers to half-questions.

The art by H.M. Baker is appealing in a bold, brassy, no-frills way. It gets a bit rougher toward the end, though -- in its most extreme lapses kind of evoking a post-Chester Gould Dick Tracy strip. In his introduction, Hamill refers to the "graceful eroticism" of the art, evoking "lurid crime comics of the 1950s" -- which gives a kind of sophisticated spin to what amounts to saying Baker works in lots of big-breasted pretty girls in their underwear. The TPB airbrushes in bras over breasts that had originally been bare in the comic -- dammit! Some of the dialogue has likewise been cleaned up. Apparently they were hoping for a broader, cross over audience for the TPB collection (Hamill even plugged it on talk shows) and didn't want moms and dads to see what sort of comics they were really making.

The sharp colours by Bernie Mireault suits the art, though letterer Sean Konot needs to work on his "U"s -- they look more like an "N".

Finally, co-writer Mark Hamill is the Mark Hamill -- the actor, the "Star Wars" guy. This beggan as a would-be screenplay but was subsequently turned into a comic instead. In their introductions, Hamill buddies Peter David and Bill Mumy wax wistfully about what a great movie it would make. One can forgive them, I suppose, since both men work in various mediums (comics, TV, print). But there's something self-defeating when comic folks act as if comics should be regarded as nothing more than a stepping stone to a "real" gig like a movie. Granted, a movie would be better distributed, more respected by critics, and net Hamill more money...but would it actually be a better, smarter product? I don't think so.

Ultimately this is fast-paced, edgy, clever, exciting, funny...though maybe not as smart as it thinks it is. But then, are any of us?

Cover price: $23.95 CDN./$16.95 USA.


The Black Widow: The Coldest War
is reviewed here


The Black Widow: Homecoming

Rating: * * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Number of readings: 1
is reviewed here


Blade II 2002 (SC TPB) 228 pages

Written by Marv Wolfman, and Steve Gerber. Pencils by Gene Colan, and Alberto Ponticelli. Inks by Tom Palmer.
Colours/letters: various.

cover by Tim BradstreetBlade 2 based on a screenplay by David Goyer.

Reprinting: The Blade 2 one-shot (2002) and Tomb of Dracula #45-53 (1976-1977) - with cover gallery

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by Marvel Comics

This TPB was originally advertised as being called Blade: Duel With Dracula. With the popularity of the comicbook-based Blade movies starring Wesley Snipes, it was intended as a collection of Marvel's 1970s horror/thriller comic, Tomb of Dracula, in which Blade was one of the supporting characters. But Marvel must've got cold feet. Would a modern audience be interested in these decades old stories? Would Wesley Snipes fans take to this wooden knife wielding street fighter? So they tacked on their one-shot adaptation of the "Blade 2" movie, and retitled the whole thing simply Blade 2...advertising the Tomb of Dracula comics as "bonus" material. Some bonus, as those issues comprise around 176 pages!

I decided to hold off on seeing "Blade 2" so that I could review the comic as a comic (since I've wondered how coherent adaptations are if you haven't seen the original scenes). Taken on its own, the 48 page Blade 2 adaptation is...O.K. The concept of the movie is certainly intriguing enough, as the vampire hunter, Blade, finds himself teaming up with vampires to combat a mutual threat...a new, uber-vamp that preys on humans and vampires indiscriminently. It was reasonably coherent, though there were confusing spots, but whether that was a problem with scripter Steve Gerber, or whether it was a problem with the movie itself, I dunno. Toward the end the double crosses can get a bit bewildering as you try and figure out who was doing what to whom. The emotional quotient is minor, despite hints of Blade developing an attraction for a lady vampire. You read this more as an action-thriller than as a human drama. The craggy, raw art by Alberto Ponticelli is more interesting than I expected, with some nice energy to the scenes. On its own, I'm not sure I'd care one way or the other about it. Included as part of this bigger volume, it was O.K. And though the movie was R-rated, this has been toned down somewhat for the comic.

I didn't get this for the movie adaptation, though, I got this for the vintage stuff by Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan.

Sometimes I've enjoyed books, I'm convinced, precisely because I had no expectation. Other times, I can be disappointed because I was really looking forward to it. This leans a little to the latter.

I'd read Tomb of Draclua #45 when I was a kid...and man, did it make an impression with its unusual Fu Manchu template (where the villain is the title character!) and its complex soap opera-y plotting, cutting between various characters, following various plot threads. And it had one of the coolest cliff-hanger endings I've ever read! Just as a sidebar, in the late '70s/early '80s, there was a short-lived American TV series called "Cliffhanger" which told three on-going serial adventures...one of which concerned Dracula in the modern era. I always thought that was cool (even though I only saw one or two episodes) because of its evocation of the comic.

For years I wondered about what happened next in the comic, about how it all tied together. And now not only has Marvel collected a consecutive run of issues...but starting with the very issue I had. Oh boyoboy!

And yet, I found it somewhat disappointing.

There are two main plot threads through these issues. Dracula assumes command of a satanic cult, by posing as Lucifer himself, intending to create his own church. As part of this, he marries a disciple, impregnates her...and finds that he actually comes to care for her. Meanwhile, Blade and vampire detective, Hannibal King, are on the trail of another vampire, Deacon Frost (the villain in the first Blade movie, but a radically different interpretation). There are also supporting players, the main plot here being more romantic as erstwhile lovers Frank Drake and Rachel Van Helsing find themselves growing apart. Plus there are self-contained stories, some that owe a lot to traditional horror comics -- some business folks murder one of their own, who rises from the dead to enact a grisly revenge (only encountering Dracula near the end), or a more surreal tale (and one of the highlights) as Dracula finds himself magically drawn into a woman's library populated by literary figures. Plus there's a battle with the Silver Surfer, and a cameo by the Son of Satan.

All this sounds cool, but the execution is vague. One example is the romantic conflict: Rachel breaks up with Frank because he's no longer than man she fell in love with; they repeat this conversation over a couple of issues...then they get back together -- without even dealing with the reasons for Rachel's change-of-heart. Are we to put the sub-plot down to her just being a flaky chick who just needed to come around?

A lot of the plotting seems to promise more than it delivers. Blade and Hannibal King are told Deacon Frost has a duplicate of Blade with which he intends to rule the world (that was the cool cliffhanger to which I alluded). The next few issues just devote a few panels per issue to Blade and King running around Boston, only eventually encountering the doppleganger. But it's kind of unclear how the creature was created let alone how Frost ever intended to use it to rule the world!

Dracula's plan to establish his own church is intriguing, with the potential to be a comment on demagoguery and religion, but never quite rises to the heights of socio-political critique. There's some intriguing ideas, like Dracula establishing his temple in an old church, but due to his vampiristic aversion to holy things, unable to remove the portrait of Jesus Christ from one wall, creating this curious dichotomy as Dracula alternately mocks, and recoils from, the painting. But the whole spirituality aspect seems a bit...airy; rather than a true examination of good and evil, morality and immorality, it seems more an easy crutch, the notion that God (and Jesus) might be acting in opposition to Dracula seeming too much like, well, Deus ex machina. I won't even comment on the Jesus-as-superhero idea!

And because this was an on-going comic, the Dracula-church storyline never really builds to anything. The Blade-Deacon Frost story resolves, and since this is a "Blade" TPB, that's O.K., but it still means, as a nine issue saga, it doesn't really form a closed story (not that it ends on a cliff-hanger or anything).

Even the art by Gene Colan didn't quite send me as much as I expected -- though I'm a huge fan of his work. It was still good, with Colan having a knack for drawing rumpled, human figures, while imbuing the action scenes with a striking energy and kineticism, eminently at home drawing shadow-strewn streets and musty old churches. But sometimes the panels seem a bit crammed and cluttered, and the art becomes strangely slipshod in the last few issues. Maybe writer Wolfman was putting too much into the issues (something I would normally applaud) forcing Colan to restrict himself to small panels. Of course, the glossy, shiny paper this TPB is printed on wasn't the best choice for a brooding horror comic.

Ultimately, after years of eager expectation, this collection of Tomb of Dracula tales left me with mixed feelings. It's not truly bad, but it turned out to be not nearly as smart, not nearly as complicatedly plotted, not nearly as rich in human drama, as I expected. More enjoyable (so far) has been Marvel's republishing of the series' early issues in Essential Tomb of Dracula.

Cover price: $31.95 CDN/ $19.95 USA.
 

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