(by Len Wein and Terry Austin in Who’s Who in the DC Universe #3, May 1985)
We’ve reached the final installment of this February feature, which means it’s time for some whys and wherefores.
My interest in the Black Orchid was a long and slow-burning affair, born of a kid whose obsession with minor characters was inversely proportional to his access to the comics that featured them.
I was introduced to the character in the same way I was introduced to most pre-1980 d-listers — via “Ask the Answer Man” queries and tantalizing house ads in acid-browned flea market finds.
It wasn’t until I picked up the above issue of Who’s Who and couple of Orchid’s Suicide Squad appearances that I was able to find out exactly what the character’s deal was.
Those were enough to convince me to buy the first issue of the prestige format miniseries a few years later, a purchase I regretted as soon as I sat down to read the damn thing. Dave McKean’s art was gorgeously evocative, but Neil Gaiman’s decision to turn the character into a self-consciously twee riff on Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing run came was the laziest possible resolution to a mystery that didn’t need to be resolved in the first place.
The character then slipped off my radar until my big back issue binge of the mid-Nineties, when I unearthed her original trio of Adventure Comics appearances in a while searching for the Fleisher/Aparo Spectre which immediately followed them.
The issues were pricier (five bucks a pop) than the bargain bin fare I’d been scooping up en masse, but the shop was having a half-off sale and the comics fit my current interest in Bronze Age oddities and obscurities.
Those comics are what cemented my love of Black Orchid even as they stoked further resentment over what she’d become. The character combined Sheldon Mayer’s stripped back Golden Age approach to superheroes with Tony DeZuniga’s “Filipino School” style of expressive realism.
The result was something greater than the sum of its parts, a domestic equivalent to Diabolik, Fantomas, Judex, and other ambiguous and mysterious protagonists of Euro comics and pulp fiction.
More plot device than fully developed character, the Black Orchid existed as a preternaturally elusive foil for the various evildoers who attracted her attentions. The bad guy tries to figure out Orchid’s identity, falls prey to hubris, and gets taken down from an overlooked angle.
It was simple and a bit predictable, but it worked elegantly as shorter done-in-one stories. It was also a hard formula to duplicate, after Mayer and DeZuniga turned the reins over to Fleisher and Nestor Redondo shortly after Black Orchid became a back-up feature in the Phantom Stranger’s bi-monthly series. The stories weren’t terrible, but suffered from a generic Bronze Age vibe lacking the spark that animated the earlier material.
(Orchid’s appearance in the first Blue Devil annual was fun because of the ensemble cast of d-list castoffs, and because Mishkin and Cohn used her mysteriousness as the basis of a pretty amusing running gag.)
When you’re a kid, funnybook mysteries — be it Wolverine’s origin or Black Orchid’s identity — beg some form of resolution. There’s a compulsive need to know, to have the “truth” revealed and incorporated as immutable “continuity.”
When you get older, though, that stuff ceases to matter as much. Decades of reveals, retcons, and reboots put the lie to any proclamations of “canon.” Sometimes maintaining a mystery can be more satisfying than offering a half-assed solution for it.
That was certainly the case with the Black Orchid.