Upgrade or Downgrade? Black Orchid Deluxe hardcover

4 Dec

by Mike Hansen

Black Orchid Deluxe HCI hadn’t intended to do another Up-or-Down so soon, but I’ve gotten several requests for more, and since they’re easier to do as I’m organizing my comics and cleaning up my place, why not?

As I’ve mentioned, in the late 1980s-early 1990s DC Comics was on to something truly special. Few publishers at the time were turning out classic after classic (Dark Horse is the only one that comes to mind) and, though I was too young to appreciate it at the time, DC proved beyond a doubt that comics post-Watchmen/Maus/Dark Knight Returns were validated as true literature.

One of DC’s earliest projects to demonstrate this was 1988’s Black Orchid by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, one of their first U.S.-published comics works (along with The Sandman). A strange, short tale about unintended consequences and beauty in a violent world, Black Orchid was the first story to reveal the sophistication of Gaiman’s later self-contained works (his early Sandman stories were strange, cliffhanger- and superhero-populated affairs) and McKean’s sense of story-as-design he later applied to Arkham Asylum and Cages.

Black Orchid TPB 1st printing

The 1993 trade paperback (1st printing). Note the DC logo blotching an otherwise beautiful cover.

THE GOOD: The 2012 oversized Deluxe hardcover edition of Black Orchid is the best edition of this work so far. The three original issues were an excellent use of the “Dark Knight” square-bound bookshelf format, and the McKean-designed 1991 collected-edition softcover was tasteful in its presentation, but this hardcover goes one step further by adding some bonus features and reproducing the artwork at a larger size. The reproduction looks fine to me, without the softness of some of DC’s earlier Deluxe editions. The story pages are trimmed accurately as well, so the full-bleed artwork is not lost around the edges – in fact, some pages have slightly more artwork than the previous editions, which is a big plus for me, even if it doesn’t affect the storytelling.

McKean is not credited as designer of this new hardcover, though the design is clearly inspired by his work. The main differences are full-color presentations of the three original cover paintings (muted in the original softcover), new front-cover dustjacket artwork, and a selection of correspondence, notes, and draft script pages by Gaiman (this last being rather unnecessary, as it illuminates little about Gaiman’s process as a writer).

The original softcover’s cover artwork is used as the book’s cover art underneath the dustjacket, which is a nice touch.

THE BAD: It’s unfortunate that room was made for several pages of Gaiman’s scribblings, but the original promotional artwork for this project, with text by Gaiman, is missing. A disappointing oversight, especially since a letter by Gaiman featuring this promo text was included.

Black Orchid ad by Dave McKean

Black Orchid TPB reprint

The 1993 Vertigo reprint has a classier logo, but it’s still obtrusive to me.

THE REST: The story’s editor-mandated use of mainstream DC Comics characters like Batman and Swamp Thing ensure that this should not be the place to start reading classic Vertigo material; I’d consider Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing work as Vertigo Ground Zero (with The Sandman a close second). But this is an elegant, beautiful story, gracefully told, and is worth the read, even if in hindsight it is one of the creators’ more minor works. An only “good” story by Gaiman or McKean is still better than the vast majority of other comics, as far as I’m concerned.

The characters’ story was later continued in a monthly Vertigo series that lasted two years, with more beautiful McKean covers and art by great storytellers like Jill Thompson (Scary Godmother, Sandman, etc.) and Charles Adlard (The Walking Dead, The X-Files, etc.). I’ve never read the series (which has never been collected into book form), but I hope to check it out soon.

Black Orchid TPB 2013 printing

The 2013 softcover is virtually identical, minus “The Deluxe Edition” text.

THE VERDICT: Should you buy it? PROBABLY. If you love Neil Gaiman’s work, and want to see one of his earliest good stories, this is a great book. If you loved the Batman graphic novel Arkham Asylum, you’re in for a similar artistic treat here. But read some Swamp Thing first and maybe check out a few of the all-time classics like Watchmen and Sandman first.

I’ve always enjoyed this story, and until a newer edition is released in a decade or two with the above promotional artwork included, this Deluxe hardcover will be on my bookshelf.

The 2012 hardcover is already out of print, but a comics-sized softcover version of this edition was published a few months ago. It’s a sad sign of the times that most graphic novels rarely stay in print for long. I hope the softcover remains available, as DC has one of comics’ strongest backlists. As bookstores continue to close, and digital distribution and print-on-demand become more commonplace, I fear that the only way to get a good print copy of a good story is to grab it the minute it’s released…

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