Okay... I think that I've now finally read just about all of the comics that Neil Gaiman has done. I'm still missing Miracleman, and maybe one or two one-offs, but after finishing Black Orchid I've now encountered most of his major works.
Black Orchid is special for many reasons, but possibly the greatest is that it is a Gaiman/McKean collaboration. McKean had an enormous influence on Sandman, because his covers were the only constant influence on that series' artwork; however, he never actually did the art for the content of any issues. He did bring a great creativity to Violent Cases. Black Orchid sees a different style from him, one that looks much closer to the collage style that he used for the Sandman covers, but still capable of showing characters and action.
I'm not exactly sure how McKean did his art for this, but I wonder if it might be a painters' version of rotoscoping. Many of the panels, particularly of characters, are just a little too lifelike, a little too realistic; it seems like he may have painted over actual photos, or compositions of photos. In any case, it's a really nice technique, slightly unsettling and weird, which fits nicely with the tone of the book.
I feel like I make this disclaimer every time I write about a graphic novel; maybe I should just add it to the template for my site. Once again: while I've recently been reading a fair number of graphic novels, I'm really not a "comics guy:" I didn't grow up reading comics, and while I have absorbed some knowledge about comics through the popular culture, I don't have any direct experiences with the major stories, characters, artists, arcs, rivalries, and revivals that populate the genre.
From what little I understand, Black Orchid was an existing character within the DC universe; possibly from the silver age, but don't quote me on that. That's all I know about her. As such, I really can't appreciate what Gaiman did to re-interpret her character.
The character that we see, though, is fascinating. Black Orchid seems to BE a plant; she is intelligent, but doesn't have an individual ego in the way that people do. She has some common memories that she shares with other manifestations of herself; these memories are fuzzy and indistinct, though, and much of the story consists of her trying to reach for answers.
She is also a highly unique breed: a super-hero pacifist. The book's introduction makes an interesting observation: the last two decades have brought us a renaissance of great comics that take a literary approach to meaningful themes, and works like Watchmen, Sandman, From Hell and The Dark Knight have shaken up the comic world. Yet, while their storytelling has evolved, these works still share the old hackneyed morals that comics have always had: the stories inevitably climax with violent men doing violent things to other violent men.
Black Orchid is something else. She never throws a punch, or taunts anyone, or sets a revenge plot in motion, even though she has more reason than anyone else to want revenge. She's kind to her enemies. She turns the other cheek. It's a strange and wonderful thing to read.
This can be kind of a hard story to read sometimes. There's a lot of pain, and a profound sense of sadness and loss. Yet, it has a genuinely happy and uplifting ending.
It is pretty fun to see Black Orchid interact with other characters from the DC universe. At one point she visits Arkham Asylum, where we briefly see The Riddler (who I'm vaguely familiar with) and... maybe Poison Ivy? She crosses paths a few times with Batman, who is great here: a quiet, menacing figure who shows her sympathy and helps her on her way. Lex Luthor is one of the major villains of the piece, and we get to see how he operates when Superman is nowhere in sight. He's just a villainous CEO, running several initiatives and directing subordinates in their tasks. The book reaches an apotheosis when Black Orchid meets the Swamp Thing, yet another character who I don't really know but may want to encounter, in his Alan Moore incarnation.
Black Orchid is a good, quirky, quietly thoughtful story. It's cool to see Gaiman working within the framework of established characters, and yet utterly subvert the narrative framework of the graphic novel. It doesn't compare to Sandman, but it's still well worth reading.