Neil Gaiman:

The Early Years, Black Orchid (Part 2), “Gangsters and Scientists”

Continued from part 1.

In the introduction to the first collected edition of Black Orchid, Neil Gaiman wrote, “I know that some people regard this writing as escapist fiction, but I think that tales of myth and horror are probably the easiest and most effective way to talk about the real world. They are like the lies that tell the truth about our lives” (qtd. in Schweitzer 77). In a much later interview, he commented on these thoughts further, adding, “Real life is a great big messy thing. The fantastic gets through the sort of protective cordon one has around one’s head. One can go in and change the way people think about things”(qtd. in Schweitzer 77). Black Orchid was not Gaiman’s first foray into the realms of “myth and horror”, but it was a world that allowed for a sudden expansion of these elements to the point that they seemed to leap into the foreground as dominant forces in his work. For the sake of argument, let’s look at “myth” and “horror” as two poles of influence in Black Orchid, both drawn together under the wider definition of “fantasy”. The quality of “fantasy”, as Gaiman said, is what enables both to catch the reader off guard and reach a deeper layer of their consciousness.

Myth, particularly, can leave a residue of truth behind in the reader’s consciousness, and horror, though it possesses its own kind of truth, also leaves behind a sense of something experienced. They may well work together to produce an effect of truth won through experience, though it may well be a sense of traumatic experience that embeds it most firmly in one’s memory. In fact, this was not a radical new combination of myth and horror for Gaiman, since we can see some of the same elements at work in his previous graphic novel with Dave McKean, Violent Cases, where memory becomes fused with mythology, and horror peaks in here and there in the form of gangster-based violence.

In Violent Cases, both mythology and violence are appealing in their own ways, and convey a great deal of truth about human nature, and the realities of human experience. Violent Cases even seems to suggest that the two are closely interrelated when it comes to human psychology, from the bright stars of mysterious epiphanies to the horror of human impulses to lash out and respond to violence in others. If myth were presented without a grounding in darker elements, we’d be inclined to reject it as “escapist fiction” that doesn’t speak to the “real world” we inhabit, but add a dash of believable and even a little shocking violence, and suddenly we have boundary markers on a wider reality, one that we can recognize. If, in turn, horror alone were presented, without a wider mythology to contextualize it, no doubt we’d respond to its recognizable features, but it would convey only basic truths and we might not look beyond it to a wider meaning. We’d be left with “senseless” violence and a failure to find answers about its origin, root, and significance. Fantasy creates a playground wherein readers can view these elements interacting and judge for themselves what their relationship might be. The conclusions we draw are something we can keep and hold onto, and it, as Gaiman says, changes our way of thinking.

The Mythology of Fantasy

The mythology of Black Orchid is expansive, as discussed in our previous instalment, so expansive, in fact, that it can contain an entire universe. The mythology of Black Orchid, sketched out in “Noted Toward a Vegetable Theology”, however, suggests a great deal of violence and struggle, almost epic in its terms. Mankind, though the offspring of the “embodiment of Earth”, Gaea, are “infuriating and unruly”, but they are not the only source of violence (Wagner, Golden, Bissette 188). Even “Erl-Kings” like Swamp Thing are capable of being “spoiled in creation” and needing greater “humility” (Wagner, Golden, Bissette 189). This potential flaw even among great “Earth Powers” paves the way for the “darkness” to “encroach[] into the world of sanity and order” (Wagner, Golden, Bissette 189). Lesser powers like “Forest Lords” are particularly problematic, capable of responding to human “unruliness” with destructive faction-building and terrible wrath. It’s a trickle-down effect from the highest reaches of mythology. Nature’s “dark side” is always a lingering force capable of taking up a conflict with humankind. But the higher one goes in this “Vegetable Theology”, the more harmony reigns as an ideal.

It’s worth asking if this mythology forms a kind of religious ideal or could be thought of as a religious system. When Gaiman created The Endless, he wanted to “update” mythology, a similar impulse that’s clearly at work when “Notes” draws together the potential universe-building inherent in the DC tradition of comics. This was a pre-existing universe when Gaiman encountered it, one which he renovated and reconfigured to make more consistent and more suggestive of mythological values, whereas writing Sandman was a ground-up architectural feat in world-building. In an interview, however, Gaiman makes the connection between The Endless and religious thought via a fan who first suggested it to him, and comments, “It really is not a religion…it is an inclusive religious structure. Everything is welcome. Nothing is untrue. In theory, you think the whole structure would collapse under a neatly eroded suspension of disbelief” (qtd. in Schweitzer 78). While the Vegetable Theology Gaiman proposed for the DCU, and one that certainly operates with radical autonomy in Black Orchid, is not a “religion” either, it’s an interesting prototype of creating an “inclusive religious structure”. It’s limitations are, in part, the DCU’s limitations, and so it can’t gel with the idea that “nothing is untrue”, but it comes as close as it can to those aspirations. And it certainly relies on an impressively successful suspension of disbelief. Religious structures almost always contain poles of good and evil, and account for a human position somewhere in between, whether evil is perceived as being an external force seducing humankind or whether it arises naturally within human nature. Either way, it’s a product of imbalance, an exaggerated outgrowth of positive traits driven to extremes, just like the darker qualities of nature possible in the Vegetable DCU.

Black Orchid’s depiction of mythology, however, has a unique quality. Unlike Swamp Thing, Black Orchid is less capable of unprovoked violence or planned attack. She is closer to Gaea, her representative on Earth as a “May Queen”. Black Orchid stems from passivity to develop impassivity in the face of violence, a countering and neutralizing force of remarkable strength. Because of these qualities, she stands closer to the “truth” of a positive mythology of harmony and order and is personally capable of exerting a stabilizing influence on an unstable human world. Sheldon Mayer and Tony Dezuninga’s original Black Orchid character also appeared as a sudden neutralizing agent in the presence of violence. She was mysteriously bullet proof, almost shape-shifting in her ability to convince others of varied identities, and routinely took on gangsters and crime both random and organized. She evoked the qualities of a resistant force against violence even without the fully developed mythology that fantasy narratives are capable of. She inspired a concept, at least, in readers, that something out there, an impulse of some kind in the universe, enabled Black Orchid to counterbalance senseless, and usually selfish, violence. Like Gaiman and McKean’s Black Orchid, she stood near the pole of mythology, but was capable of moving and operating in the battle zone of human existence.

If we imagine mythology at one end of the spectrum, and extreme violence, perhaps even the “horror” of chaos at the other end, between them, partaking of the qualities of both, is the “real” world, one recognizable to human beings, even when conveyed through fantasy. Speaking specifically of Gaiman and McKean’s Black Orchid, there’s another opposition within that no man’s land, and those opposing forces are represented symbolically and physically, by scientists and gangsters. Scientist like Alec Holland, and here more specifically Doctor Philip Sylvian, are represented as the friends of Gaea, ranged closer to a mythological sphere of influence. Gangsters like Carl Thorne, Susan’s ex-husband, and the font of explosive violence in Black Orchid, are at the furthest human point from harmonic balance, standing nearest to an opposite pole in chaos. Unfortunately or fortunately for humankind, both are fully capable of acting with great effect on the “real” world they move in, but through them their respective polar sympathies are felt. This explains why, in part, Black Orchid is created by scientists and killed by gangsters. Scientists push forward Gaea’s harmonic influence while gangsters do their best to stamp it out.

Gangsters and Scientists

It’s great storytelling to incorporate Sylvian into Susan Linden’s human, and later Black Orchid, life. He’s the definitive “friend in need”, and a “friendly” in the war zone. There’s little doubt that he’s a positive influence on his world, though his methods may be a little extreme. He’s convinced, eventually, that an apocalypse is coming to mankind and he’s desperate to find a way to assure humanity’s survival, even in hybrid Orchid form. Why is he so certain of this? Is it because he sees the increasing influence of chaos on humanity, and supposes that humanity will fall, causing a full imbalance in the universe? The fact that he doesn’t foresee the immediate function of the Orchids to begin fighting back against that chaos points out human fallibility, however founded on good intentions. Fortunately, good intentions come to the rescue in bigger ways than he expected. His human concern for Susan growing up, seeing the impact of her abusive family life, suggests his own loathing for violence. Like “May Queens”, he’s an open venue for the influence of Gaea to bring balance, and his openness places him in the position to bring about change.

Unlike his teacher, Jason Woodrue, he does not end up as a channel for elemental forces himself, and perhaps it’s a good thing since he can’t then be twisted into an agent of vengeance against mankind on behalf of a flawed reactionary impulse in the natural world. And unlike his colleage Alec Holland, who he often has reverent imaginary conversations with, he doesn’t have to bear the burden of becoming a full elemental fighting on behalf of Gaea on earth and attempting to negotiate with humankind. Instead he stands in the middle of these two scientists become agents of the plant world, and becomes a conduit, a facilitator for positive outcomes. The fact that he remains human means he’s a subject for identification for the reader. This effectively places the reader in the position of a “friendly” agent. He can convey the beneficial aspects of human aspiration toward harmony. But he’s still walking a dangerous road. His involvement with Susan, and his Orchid experiment, places him in the path of Carl Thorne, and his drive toward violence. Sylvian’s involvement costs him his life, and he faces chaotic violence, what he most feared for humanity, first hand. Ironically, his original intention to create a form of survival for humanity is reflected in the survival of the Orchids after his own death. His personal apocalypse came and went, and in that sense, too, his experiment was a success because he left a lasting legacy to help ensure humanity’s survival.

Carl Thorne’s role in Black Orchid raises interesting questions about Susan Linden’s personality and position in this schema of mythology and violence. As a human, she seems born into violence, running away from an abusive father only to eventually end up with a man like Thorne. Like Sylvian, being close to violence eventually destroys her life. The vulnerability we see in her as an adolescent, and as a young woman, and the fact that she had no choice, initially, but to be marked by violence, suggests that she represents possibility for humanity in a wider sense. She was a neutral figure with positive qualities who became a victim. She represents something lost and regained for humanity, but only at great cost. Black Orchid’s memories of being Susan after her death and the fact that a “May Queen” needs a deceased human personality to inhabit, keep Susan alive as a defining aspect of the Orchids. Without her, who would they be? We can deduce from their behavior that she is graceful, kind, and determined. She is humanity like it could have been, but fortunately, Gaea can use that potential in a new way to make an even bigger impact than a single human could in the struggle for universal harmony. For Thorne, the punishment fits the crime. Through killing Susan, he enables her avenger to arise in mythological, overwhelming terms. Steeped in a world of violence, Susan’s positive qualities can nevertheless assert themselves in a powerful way. She can become bigger than violence, and more enduring. She was a potential “friendly” like Sylvian, but she becomes a more powerful agent for harmony through death and resurrection.

Carl Thorne’s relationship to Susan is, to say the least, complicated. He’s definitively obsessed with her, even after her death. What does his attraction to her say about the role of gangsters in the Black Orchid universe? They are human, for one thing, though capable of channelling real horror into human experience. Susan is an enigma to Thorne, one he wants to fully “possess”. Her desire to escape him presumably results from her realization that he is sliding further and further toward chaos, and that she does not naturally belong in that world or wish to become like Thorne. Arguably, it’s her positive qualities he’s attracted to, but within his desire to “possess” her, we can see that harmonic principles like love, taken to their extremes can become twisted, contributing to chaos. In the end, killing Susan is not enough to quell his own instability. He becomes more radically violent, more hollow, and perhaps even insane after her death. A tricky question about Thorne’s role, no stranger to religious systems, is whether he is “used” by Gaea to kill Susan so that the Black Orchids can emerge as May Queens. But we see no evidence that Thorne operates under any other auspices than free will. His choices nudge him closer and closer to the edge of chaos. One of the least palatable but most “true” aspects of Black Orchid is the way in which Thorne seems to win, and win, and win in his chaotic crusade against the world of order. But his victories are finally limited, and his impact swallowed up into a more transcendent cause by the Orchids in the powerful finale of the series when gangsters, lured into the more Gaea-dominated world of the jungle, find themselves more or less impotent to create further destruction other than against themselves. When Gaea and gangsters meet, they are her “unruly” offspring again, still her children, still under her domain despite their allegiance with imbalance. They are only human, after all.

The Horror of Fantasy

What happens when gangsters and scientists meet, the two sides of the coin when it comes to agents of Gaea and agents of chaos? The prolonged scene when Thorne seeks out Sylvian is replete with horror, perhaps the strongest representation of horror in the series. Sylvian is not a fighter in human terms and not even all that capable of self-defense. He, like Susan, becomes a victim, but not before some telling conversations with Thorne that highlight Thorne’s decaying mental stability. Thorne imagines that Sylvian was “messing around” with his ex-wife, Susan, a delusion only enhanced by alcohol. As Thorne declares that he “LOVED…her…”, his syllables are punctuated by kicking Sylvian in the face in a spatter of blood (Gaiman and McKean). The polar differences between the two men are illustrated by their reactions to Susan’s death. Thorne kills in response to his “love” whereas Sylvian’s love for Susan leads to her resurrection and saving grace for humanity. Thorne then claims to be Sylvian’s “teacher” about the lessons he’s learned in life, namely that “There’s two kinds of people. There’s the wolves and there’s the sheep”(Gaiman and McKean). Thorne asserts that it’s the wolves who are “really alive” and get what they want in life. But has Thorne gotten what he wanted in life? Definitely not. Has Sylvian? Pretty much.

But even Sylvian is human, and recognizes the need to put a limit on chaos, declaring that he wishes he had killed Thorne himself “years ago”. The most truthful thing Thorne utters is that Sylvian “couldn’t” have done that. If Sylvian had killed Thorne in the past, he might have preserved one human life, Susan’s, but he would have been going against his own nature. And Sylvian is a preserver of natural balance. When scientists and gangsters meet, gangsters win on a basic level and lose on a cosmic level. Sylvian was afraid humanity would destroy itself, and he was right to worry. But he assumed that there was no direct influence upon the “real world” of mythological principles. Even he couldn’t see how close his science was to mythology, through his good intentions, until after it was operational. At that point, he had seen both myth and horror to perceive a greater truth.

Black Orchid is a book about “real life”, a “big messy thing”. It couldn’t get all that much messier than a few of its gangster scenes. But the “big” part is where mythology comes in. “Real life” in Black Orchid is not a mean, small, hopeless thing; it is both very big in its vistas and very messy in its struggles. If myth and horror go hand in hand as essential elements of fantasy, there are few better expressions of that fact in comics than the final scenes of Black Orchid where dying gangsters behold the ethereal world of the Orchids. Gaiman and McKean set a big stage for significant themes in their first full series with DC Comics, working with but also well beyond pre-existing principles and concepts. What they created was spectacular, but may that spectacle is essentially part of the smoke and mirrors of fantasy, engineered to “get through” the “protective cordon” of assumptions and “change the way people think about things” on a fundamental level.

Coming Up Next Time: “The Magician’s Choice” in The Books of Magic.

Works Cited

Gaiman, Neil (w.), and Dave McKean (ill.). Black Orchid: The Deluxe Edition. DC Comics: New York, NY, 2012.

Gaiman, Neil (w.), and Dave McKean (ill.). Violent Cases. Dark Horse Books: Milwaukie, Oregon, 2003.

Schweitzer, Darell, ed. The Neil Gaiman Reader. Wildside Press: Rockville, MD, 2007.

Wagner, Hank, Christopher Golden, and Stephen R. Bissette, eds. Prince of Stories: The Many Worlds of Neil Gaiman. St. Martin’s Griffin: New York, NY, 2009.

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Hannah Means-Shannon is a comics scholar, medievalist, and the Editor-in-Chief of She has published articles on the works of Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and Grant Morrison in the International Journal of Comic Art, Studies in Comics, the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, reference books, and upcoming essay collections. She is working on her first book for Sequart Organization about Alan Moore. She is @HannahMenzies on Twitter.

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Also by Hannah Means-Shannon:

How to Analyze & Review Comics: A Handbook on Comics Criticism


1 Comment

  1. If H.P. Lovecraft or Clive Barker have illustrated anything, it’s that Horror and Fantasy are different paths on an intersecting road. That is something of a paraphrase that Neil Gaiman wrote in an introduction to a Lovecraft collection called Dreams of Terror and Death. Of course, Clive Barker also illustrates that what you fear and what you desire can be one and the same and this is something that I can see affecting the dynamic of harmony and chaos in all of Black Orchid.

    In my opinion, I do think Black Orchid is very underrated it really subverts and deconstructs the nature of the superhero comic as many knew it by creating super-powered characters that never commit violence of any kind: thus making you really sensitive and questioning of that violence–usually taken for granted to solve any old superhero comic situation–when it comes. As for the Orchids themselves, they observe and try to find their own sense of identity: which is probably why it also reminds me of A Game of You: mainly the presence of these female characters and protagonists that are trying to find themselves and make an existence for themselves against the backdrop of violence and ignorance.

    This was a really fascinating article, and I remember The Neil Gaiman Reader well. :) Thank you for writing this piece as well.

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