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Black Orchid, Ecofeminism and the Feminine Superheroic

2011 May 24
Scan of a page from Black Orchid graphic novel, Black Orchid meets Batman in a graveyard. Image copyright Gaiman / McKean /DC Comics 1988

Image copyright Neil Gaiman / Dave McKean / DC Comics 1988

A while back I told you about my favourite cyborg, Battle Angel Alita. Well, now I’d like to introduce you to my favourite flying plant woman, in the second in my series on really old comic books I have a tenuous excuse to blog about. Here comes the excuse…

Like feminism? Like Neil Gaiman? Then you may be happy to hear that there is a new book being put together of essays about JUST THESE THINGS. Abstract submissions have just closed, and Death, Desire, Fury, and Delirium: Feminism in the Worlds of Neil Gaiman is on track to be published in early 2012.

This got me thinking back to Gaiman’s 1988 story Black Orchid. Unusual, poetic and full of references, I think it’s a cracking comic. And it’s illustrated by Dave McKean (channeling Georgia O’Keeffe) so it’s beautiful. Really – alternately lush and gritty, humming with colour, splattered with monochrome… it ruined other graphic novels for me from a very early age.

Since this is Gaiman, there are also some classy cameos: Lex Luthor, Batman, Swamp Thing (obviously) and a trip around Arkham Asylum which includes a for-once-actually-pretty-scary Poison Ivy.


What’s the story?

The original Black Orchid was a Bronze Age superhero who sounds pretty kickass (being invulnerable and superstrong and able to fly ‘n’ all…). But rather than simply rebooting the character and reworking her origin story, Gaiman does something pretty daring: he kills her off. On page ten. And with her the story sloughs off a heap of superhero clichés and leaps to somewhere and something altogether different.

As Black Orchid dies (caught out trying to infiltrate LexCorp) another being wakes up in a greenhouse somewhere else with some of her memories. The story follows her quest to discover her identity and protect herself and her clone sister – another human-plant hybrid – from the clutches of those who were pursuing the first Black Orchid, and from the abusive ex pursuing the woman she used to be.

Genderfun

I probably don’t need to say that there’s a lot of interesting stuff about identity and memory in there. There are also a lot of very feminine tropes about nature, healing, nurturing, non-violence and motherhood – the older Orchid acts as mother to her younger sister, and even Poison Ivy has some disturbing ‘babies’ in Arkham – which are certainly not commonplace in your standard superhero comic.

Page scan from Black Orchid showing Poison Ivy. Image copyright Gaiman / McKean / DC Comics 1988

Poison Ivy. Image copyright Neil Gaiman / Dave McKean / DC Comics 1988

But this isn’t your standard superhero comic – this is a story about a superhero who isn’t a superhero. Who isn’t the same character she was when you started the book. All sorts of assumptions come tumbling down. Who’s the Big Bad? When’s the big fight? What’s her snappy comeback?

Like its contemporary Watchmen, the story questions the superhero myth and structure, upends and subverts it, teases out the stories stuck between the monoliths of Good and Evil. But it comes at it from an entirely different place. You could argue that in Watchmen the myth of the superhero consumes itself in a hyper-masculine world of science and violence, while in Black Orchid superheroic power is rejected for a hyper-feminine power of nature and passive resistance.

In fact Dr Julia Round has argued the second bit. In her paper ‘Can I call you “Mommy”?’ Myths of the female and superheroic in Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean’s Black Orchid she explains firstly how the “non-egoistic collectivism” of Black Orchid’s shared, continuous identity overturns the “heroic individualism” of the superhero myth.

Even the look of the book resists the powerful iconography of the traditional superhero story – think of Superman’s ‘S’ and the bat sign, the cape, and even the idea of the costume itself:

Black Orchid inverts expectations of this type, as the Orchids are not costumed or linked to any specific logo. Instead they are characterized by splashes of colour in a monochrome cityscape and, in their natural surroundings, simply merge with the background. This aesthetic contributes to Black Orchid’s redefinition of the superheroic, using painted artwork that is feminised in its watercolour appearance and use of purple shades.

As the plot progresses, Black Orchid resists and escapes the men pursuing her, but doesn’t attack them. Batman encourages her to become a crime-fighter like the first Black Orchid, but she retreats. As Round says, “she is not a masculine defender of the state, but instead wants only to retreat from society and reproduce.” Yes, really. I did say hyper-feminine (‘a woman’s just gotta nurture!’)  Much as I love Black Orchid, it certainly throws up some problems. How can I give a thumbs up for her non-violent resistance and at the same time be hoping she’s going to impale the bad guy on a tree?

The final showdown between Black Orchid and Luthor’s henchmen isn’t a heroic battle, as Black Orchid refuses to go with them but also refuses to fight them, saying just “Do what you have to do.” I won’t spoil the ending, but I can say it’s not the way Alita would have done it.

Ecofeminism

Page scan of Black Orchid showing Black Orchid in purple on a green background. Image copyright Gaiman / McKean / DC Comics 1988

Image copyright Neil Gaiman / Dave McKean / DC Comics 1988

That said, Alita does sacrifice herself at the end of her series to save the world. But only after she’s exhausted every possible ass-kicking route. In fact Black Orchid makes an interesting contrast with Battle Angel Alita, as the ‘cyborg feminism’ for which I think Alita makes such a good figurehead was proposed as an alternative to the popularity of ‘ecofeminism’ in the early 1980s. And I can think of few better poster girls for ecofeminism than Black Orchid.

Broadly, ecofeminism is a branch of our beautiful multiple complicated movement that focuses on a connection (and an implied sympathy) between the exploitation of the natural world and the oppression of women. There are a lot of sound reasons to make this link: women are usually affected first and worst by environmental damage, women make up the majority of the world’s agricultural workers, and yet it is overwhelmingly men who own land and control access to natural resources. And the association of the feminine with nature and Mother Earth is a deep and powerful one, which has been cast in a renewed positive light, thanks largely to ecofeminism.

Sadly though the movement has also spawned a lot of guff – about wafty earth goddesses, women’s spiritual connection to the natural world, their innate love of cute fluffy animals and the terrifying, all-encompassing juggernaut of their need to nurture something, anything – to which I do not subscribe.

But to show I don’t hold the theory to blame, I’d like to direct you to some brilliant and important work being done in the name of ecology and feminism by the Women’s Environmental Network. Also: go and read Black Orchid, and tell me what you think.

A couple of disclaimers…

  • I’m using ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ to refer to the traits, qualities, symbols and associated ideas that are loosely grouped around those words in most Western culture and emphatically NOT referring to men and women.
  • When I’m talking about the ‘superhero myth’ I’m using ‘myth’ in the semiotic sense (as Round does in her article) rather than ‘myth’ in the straight up stories and legends sense. There’s quite a good definition here for anyone who’s interested.
6 Responses leave one →
  1. Russell permalink
    May 24, 2011

    Funny, Black Orchid is one of the few Neil Gaiman works I haven’t checked out already, but this article has certainly increased my motivation to seek it out. Great article!

    • Sarah Jackson permalink*
      May 24, 2011

      Thank you! :-)

    • Miranda permalink*
      May 24, 2011

      I love the way she’s illustrated in that first image, with her hair blooming upwards like a giant flower. She looks faintly unsettling and spooky – just a little bit – which I really like. If you’re not quite human anymore, I think it should be a tad uncanny.

    • May 25, 2011

      I came across it about a decade ago without even knowing it was Gaiman (who I knew only through Sandman & fairytale retellings), simply drawn in by McKean’s art.
      Now I cannot read the standard superhero fare without going “so?”.

      I can recommend to pick this graphic novel up & read it through.

  2. Stephen B permalink
    May 24, 2011

    I came across it at exactly the time I wanted punchy obvious superhero fare, and I can see now exactly why it threw me completely. I wasn’t seeing the ways it subverts as the *awesome* things I would if I read it now :)

    That feminism-in-the-worlds-of-Gaiman paper could be AMAZING.

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