Black Orchid is a relatively obscure DC Comics superheroine whose big moment of fame came in a miniseries written by Neil Gaiman, with art by Dave McKean. (There's a well-known anecdote to the effect that when Gaiman asked his DC editor if he could do a Black Orchid story, he then had to explain to her who Black Orchid was.) In particular, there's one very famous expectation-subverting scene; at the time this page was created, that scene alone was responsible for fully half of the Black Orchid-related trope examples on this wiki.
To begin at the beginning: Black Orchid was created by writer Sheldon Mayer and artist Tony DeZuniga, and debuted in Adventure Comics #428 (July, 1973), during the early days of the Bronze Age. After three try-out issues of Adventure Comics, she became the regular back-up feature in The Phantom Stranger for the next few years.
Black Orchid is a master of disguise, and many of her adventures involve her going undercover in the criminal organisation she is investigating. She can also do more standard superheroics; she has a purple superhero outfit and can fly, has super strength, and is immune to bullets. The stories never showed her when she wasn't in some disguise, nor revealed her real name or the origin of her powers (although one story arc gave an apparent reveal, which then turned out to be part of a Costume Copycat plot).
There apparently wasn't enough demand for Black Orchid to get her own series, and when the 1970s version of The Phantom Stranger ended its run, she slipped into obscurity for a decade.
She began reappearing in the late 1980s, as some of the children who had read her adventures became comic book writers themselves. She appeared in an issue of Blue Devil where various mystic themed characters gave conflicting origin stories for her that parodied some of the more famous Marvel origin stories. She made a string of appearances with John Ostrander's Suicide Squad, putting her mastery of disguise to good use. And then in 1988 came Neil Gaiman's Black Orchid miniseries.
The miniseries, one of the pioneering titles that influenced the later Vertigo Comics imprint, starts in the familiar way, with Black Orchid impersonating a secretary to get the goods on another criminal organization. Then it turns out the secretary's boss knows who she really is — and instead of ranting at her, sticking her in a death trap, or locking her in a storeroom until the Big Bad arrives, he shoots her in the head. Then, having empirically verified that she really is Immune to Bullets, he burns down the building with her still inside.
It turns out that the real protagonist of the mini is Black Orchid's sister, who is left to deal with the fallout of her death and sort out the messy history of their family, in the process finally revealing who she was and whence her powers. (It's complicated, and involves cameos by just about every plant-themed hero or villain on DC's roster, from Poison Ivy to the Swamp Thing.) At the end of the mini, the sister takes up the mantle and becomes the new Black Orchid.
There was a 22-issue Black Orchid ongoing series featuring the new Black Orchid, not written by Neil Gaiman. The Vertigo Black Orchid made occasional cameo appearances from time to time in titles such as Birds of Prey.
A Black Orchid resembling the original, classic version is now a member of the Justice League Dark in DC's rebooted New 52 continuity. The fate of the Gaiman version of the character has yet to be confirmed.
Black Orchid provides examples of:
- Abusive Parents: The woman who became the template for Black Orchid was frequently beaten by her father as a child, and after he caught her kissing her boyfriend, he is strongly implied to have raped her.
- Ax-Crazy: Carl Thorne, to put it mildly. He killed his wife Susan after she blew the whistle on him. then killed Sylvain after Luthor refused to give him his job back, before destroying his lab work while drunk.
- Bat Family Crossover: The Gaiman miniseries is, in part, a crossover involving DC's plant-themed characters. It's primarily focused on the second Black Orchid, but Swamp Thing and Poison Ivy both play major roles in the story as well.
- Bigger Bad: Lex Luthor, in the original Gaiman mini (funnily enough, he's rarely mentioned whenever someone thumbs their way through all the "conventional" DC characters Gaiman has dipped his toe into).
- Bound and Gagged:
- Usually how the original Black Orchid would dispose of the people she replaced during her adventures.
- The first Orchid herself is tied up just before being executed.
- Cement Shoes: Luthor's henchmen do this to Carl Thorne in the miniseries. He's saved by the two surviving Orchids.
- Charm Person: The later two Black Orchids are able to use pheromones and scent manipulation to control people and alter their perceptions.
- Color Character: Black Orchid
- Collective Identity: One story arc apparently revealed that 'Black Orchid' was really a team of non-superpowered women who between them gave the appearance of a single superpowered individual...
- Cool Old Lady: The wood dryad Tanawah from the ongoing series. She eventually declares herself "The Dryad of New York City" during her spotlight issue.
- Consulting a Convicted Killer: Batman provides some assistance to "Black Orchid," a fellow crimefighter, so that she can talk to Poison Ivy at Arkham Asylum.
- Costume Copycat: ...they turned out not to be the real Black Orchid.
- Cut Lex Luthor a Check: Fittingly, Lex Luthor wants to do this with the Black Orchid seeds.
- Decoy Protagonist: The first Black Orchid, in the miniseries.
- Distracted by the Sexy: Averted and subverted. Any sexiness that the other two Orchids has is usually a result of their glamour powers or imagery created by their pheromone manipulation. In their natural form, the two have noticeable beauty, but none of it is cheesecake-related.
- Double Standard: Rape, Female on Male: Subverted. As Flora's actions become morally ambiguous, she uses her pheromone manipulation on Elliot Weems to become his wife, and she pretty much rapes him to create more orchid seeds. This is meant to demonstrate Flora reaching the Moral Event Horizon rather than a punishment for Elliot's actions, although Elliot's standing as a Corrupt Corporate Executive makes the situation a bit gray.
- Dying to Be Replaced: The first Black Orchid, in the miniseries.
- Epigraph: The three issues of the miniseries had quotes from Omar Khayyam, Lou Reed, and E. E. Cummings on the back covers.
- FaceHeel Turn: Flora Black.
- Glamour: Black Orchid can do this in the ongoing series that followed Neil Gaiman's miniseries.
- Green Thumb: Black Orchid, following the miniseries.
- Grievous Bottley Harm: Thorne to Philip Sylvain in the miniseries.
- He Who Fights Monsters:
- Pointed out by Poison Ivy that in having locked her up, that she's not allowed sunlight, which she needs as a plant person, and she doesn't get parole for having been committed but instead has to "prove" that she is sane, and the only reason the guards don't rape her because she scares them. Though she is a hazard to Gotham, she's not being given humanitarian treatment by Gotham's civil servants.
- The second Black Orchid, Flora, becomes increasingly disillusioned with humanity as the series progresses, until she decides to try and wipe them all out. She fails, and is killed with liquid nitrogen. At the moment of her death, Suzy, the younger Orchid who used to be her companion, takes on the Black Orchid name.
- Immune to Bullets: Black Orchid
- Innocent Fanservice Girl: A subversion. The second and third Orchids don't actually wear clothes, but in their natural forms they lack nipples and vaginas. No one makes a point about this because, understandably, their real forms wouldn't really pass for human.
- In-Universe Nickname: Sherilyn usually called Flora by the name "Blackie", because she didn't know what her actual name was.
- Latex Perfection: Part of Black Orchid's stock-in-trade.
- Legacy Character: The second Black Orchid, who inherits the mantle in the miniseries; and the third, to whom it passes at the end of the ongoing series.
- Master of Disguise: Black Orchid
- Meta Origin: The Gaiman miniseries toys with the idea that Black Orchid and Poison Ivy's origins are tied to "The Green" (the metaphysical energy field from which plants draw their life), just like Swamp Thing and his enemy Floronic Man. The miniseries establishes that Alec Holland (Swamp Thing), Jason Woodrue (Floronic Man), Pamela Isley (Poison Ivy), and Philip Sylvain (Black Orchid's creator) were all colleagues in the field of plant science, apparently explaining how they unlocked the power of the Green.
- Ms. Fanservice: Notably defied with Poison Ivy in the miniseries. She looks every bit as haggard and disheveled as you'd expect a forcibly institutionalized mental patient to be, and is far too emotionally drained by Arkham to try seducing anyone.
- Mugged for Disguise: Pretty much the trademark of the original Black Orchid. She'd take out and tie up some poor mook who was close to the lead villain, and then take his or her place in order to bring down the lead criminal. The real goon was usually discovered safely bound and gagged in some hidden location at the end of the story.
- Not My Driver: In an issue of Suicide Squad, Black Orchid impersonated bad guy William Heller's chauffeur. She does it not to kidnap him, however, but so she can eavesdrop on conversations between him and his advisors.
- Plant Person: Black Orchid and her sisters, according to the miniseries.
- Production Foreshadowing: Batman makes a brief cameo in the Gaiman mini, represented as a mysterious shadowy figure who speaks in white writing on an irregular black speech bubble. Gaiman liked the speech effect so much he decided to recycle it for the supernatural protagonist of The Sandman. And in Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, which also had Dave McKean art, Batman has the same white writing on black bubble.
- Purple Eyes: Black Orchid and her sisters, according to the miniseries.
- Say My Name: And what saves the second Black Orchid, "Hello, Carl."
- Slasher Smile: Carl has one when he kills Susan in the miniseries.
- Super Strength: Black Orchid
- Too Dumb to Live: Carl Thorne in the miniseries, who does increasingly stupid things in his efforts to impress Lex Luthor. Being drunk while setting fire to the Orchid hybrids' greenhouse does not help. It ultimately gets him killed.
- Wise Beyond Their Years: Suzy shows shades of this during the ongoing series, though it's less that she's wise and more that she's showing common sense. This is especially evident in #16 while she's travelling the Splinterlands, and just about everybody she meets has got their heads up their asses.
- You Have Failed Me: Luthor orders Carl Thorne's elimination after he torches the greenhouse where the Orchid hybrids were being grown, eliminating the possibility of them being used for Lexcorp research.