Page 45 Review by Stephen
This is a book of impressions: of memories, shadows and echoes.
So many songs evoke a past much missed, misremembered or barely recalled at all.
There is a wreck of man out there called Carl; a drunken, washed up, one-time player full of hot-air and an acrid obsession with the ex-wife who had the audacity to leave him for another, less violent man, and then testify against him. Her name was Susan Linden and he killed her for it. Or he thought he had; he's in for a bit of a surprise.
For then there was the other Susan. An effective, solitary agent, undercover and on the brink of exposing a criminal organisation and the mastermind behind it. They caught her, they shot her, they set her on fire and then bombed the inferno for good measure. She was the Black Orchid, named after a flower that doesn't exist and she is quite, quite dead.
So who is this new Susan of radiant purple, grown in a greenhouse, and cast adrift in a world she's had no time to comprehend? She has no idea. She doesn't know who she is, what she is, or what she should do now. The only clues lie in a dead man's past, in his contemporaries at college: Dr. Jason Woodrue, Pamela Isley and Alec Holland. Her only brief ally is a man in a mask who hides in the shadows of Gotham, and he says:
"Most of the things that "everyone knows" are wrong. The rest are merely unreliable."
Now, several of those names may sound surprisingly familiar for a Neil Gaiman book. What one forgets is the Vertigo line originally had far stronger ties to the DC universe and its superhero community; what one may also have forgotten is that this was created long before the Vertigo line even existed. It's a far more ethereal read than most DC Universe books - it's far more of a child of Alan Moore's SWAMP THING - but a DC Universe book it most certainly is. It's just
going to do things differently.
"I've seen, y'know, the movies, James Bond, all that. I've read the comics. So you know what I'm not going to do? I'm not going to lock up in the basement before interrogating you. I'm not going to set up some kind of complicated laser beam death-trap, then leave you alone to escape. That stuff is so dumb. But you know what I am going to do? I'm going to kill you. Now."
That was within the first six pages, and it was quite the arresting development.
Returning to the legacy of Alan Moore, the early segues and black humour owe much to THE KILLING JOKE. "You're fired" was inspired. But it quickly establishes its own tone which, as I say, is far more ethereal, far more impressionistic, as our newly bloomed Orchid struggles with the genetically implanted memories she shares with her dead sister, and reacts to the world empathically. Here, for example, is Arkham.
"This is the bedlam. The jungle of despair. I watch their expressions: milky eyes peering from frozen faces, mouths unsmiling wounds in ruined flesh. I spy a skull-faced man who lies unsleeping; his nightmares pool and puddle on the floor around him. In a glass cell a blazing x-ray sits and smoulders and weeps. His tears burn as they fall
then his out on the pocked glass floor."
Another marked departure from the superhero genre is that the only hunting being done apart from the peripheral predators - domestic and child abuse both play a part here - is by the antagonists and the only one out for revenge is the bitter ex-husband and resentful ex-employee. Some people really don't handle rejection well. In other authors' hands it would be the Black Orchid out to avenge her predecessors' murders - particularly given their shared memories - but no, that is the instinct of the animal. A plant has quite different priorities.
It's a beautiful book, rich in green and purples, by a Dave McKean in his photorealistic phase, much inspired at the time by Bill Sienkiewicz. The computer has yet to be embraced and the only element of photographic collage I registered was the psychotic grin. Instead it employs pencils - sometimes coloured - and paint, some chalk and maybe, I think, oil pastels. There's a terrific sense of light. It's also thoroughly accessible to new readers, McKean splitting the page in half horizontally then working with three or four columns across. The occasional break into tumbling panels and the larger compositions in the Amazon jungle are all the more spectacular for it.
This new deluxe edition also boasts those rarest of extras: handwritten early jottings from Neil Gaiman's notebook, Karen Berger's first, detailed reactions to Neil's draft proposal, Neil's own proposal and promotional marketing text, preliminary notes and dialogue sketches for the second of the three original issues, its page-by-page, one-line breakdowns and an excerpt from its draft script.
"Winter is coming. The leaves are beginning to fall."