Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

Home > CR Reviews

posted December 31, 2003

Creators: Dylan Williams, Ben Catmull, Jesse Reklaw, Kevin Huizenga, Ted May, Mats!?, Lark Pien, Gabrielle Bell, T Edward Bak, David Lasky
Publishing Info: Sparkplug Comic Books, $8, 116 pages, 2002
Ordering Numbers: None

Orchid accomplishes a lot with its first issue, but the new publication's most impressive achievement is its general indispensability. Against all odds, this is a new anthology with an entertaining and marketable hook in addition to its well-executed stories. Unlike collections that seem to mirror others in terms of artists used and stories told, this is a book that if you pass it by, you won't have any book like it. Edited by Dylan Williams and Ben Catmull, the digest-sized magazine has achieved its unique identity through what is perhaps the most unlikely strategy available to them -- the directed theme. But instead of an organizing principle of the arbitrary type that seems to dominate the yearly Small Press Expo effort, Orchid's editorial direction gives its contributors a reach creative foundation with which to interact. Working primarily in teams, but with a few significant creators working alone to good effect, Orchid's artists have done an entire book adapting Victorian horror stories.

Like many specific sub-genres favored by comics in the past, Victorian horror stories provide pulpy thrills aplenty while engaging a wide range of potential subject matter -- morality tales, lessons in proper social behavior, satire, and cautionary stories being a few examples. Death is a constant presence, and the world is a largely unfair placed marked by its social and economic limitations more than its open-ended possibilities. There are also with such works certain expectations of visual style that can either be embraced and riffed upon or ignored to achieve an effect that thwarts the reader's pre-conceptions. Very few readers might want a promising artist to work with such comparably rigid storytelling tools full-time, but seeing accomplished work filtered through the sensibility is a kick in the pants, both for the audience and in some cases the artists themselves.

The book is attractively mounted, with iconic covers by Mats!? and Ted May that play to each artist's strengths with very simple, balanced page design and unique color sense. The inside front and inside back covers have eschewed arty ambiguity for helpful information. As many of the stories lack a splash page or broadsheet and start with a smaller panel, they flow together in an interesting fashion, helping the reading experience cohere. Pointing out such unobtrusive but effective choices by the editorial team may seem silly, but compared to other anthologies this one is remarkably reader-friendly without coming across like a pay-in talent showcase.

The greatest achievement in Orchid belongs to "Green Tea," an adaptation of the J. Sheridan Le Fanu story by Kevin Huizenga. Le Fanu was the 19th century Irish novelist and journalist whose literary reputation was restored by M.R. James in the mid-1920s. Le Fanu wrote stories that mixed the vaguely supernatural with metaphors for spiritual decay. Many of the author's best works were fueled the nocturnal lifestyle he adopted in grief from the year of his wife's death until his own passing 15 years later. Huizenga subtitles his adaptation "Glenn Ganges Remix," meaning that the sturdy everyman narrator he's employed in Supermonster has his own related story used as a framing sequence for the re-telling of Le Fanu's. "Green Tea" is the story of an uncomfortable vision by a Reverend Jennings in the 19th Century and a narrator's description of his descent into suicide. Huizenga's choice to add another layer to the story makes his character sympathetic to both the man suffering the visions and the man who tries to understand him. The vision experienced by Glenn Ganges is even creepier than Jennings' monkey apparition, being a dog with a forearm and hand stuffed into his mouth from the direction of the severed elbow. Huizenga lets the story unfold in very deliberate fashion, utilizing a six-panel grid for nearly all of its pages. His deceptively simple style proves versatile not just in what the cartoonist can depict, but in its ability to handle smoothly a great deal of text in service of a story told mostly in reflection and observation. In other words, this is a really interesting short story, and the fact that it is nominated for an Eisner award says a great deal that's positive about the nominating committee's taste. It should be sought out.

The remaining stories are of varying quality, but many would be the best feature in a lesser anthology. The book's kick-off tale, Lark Pien and Jesse Reklaw's adaptation of Jan Potoki's "The Story of the Demoniac Pacheco" features lurid art, a few strikingly designed single pages, and effectively creepy first-person narrative. David Lasky's take on the most familiar story in the volume, Edgar Allan Poe's poem "The Raven," goes the formal exercise route. Lasky uses Poe's relentless prose directly but interprets it through a series of arranged panels and figurative shadows. The reader becomes focused on panel placement and page design in a way that plays up the isolating, doomed quality of the text. It's the kind of story you admire for the approach, but may not choose to read more than once. Adaptations by Gabrielle Bell, Ben Catmull and Dylan Williams are all serviceable. Bell's nothing-special take on Saki's "Tobermory," which has the advantage over the rest of the stories chose for Orchid in that the horror, such as it is, comes from the humorous rudeness and potential access to embarrassing stories a talking cat visits upon a household. Williams' pacing in "The Man with the Nose" proves overly languorous, leeching the story of a lot of its dramatic impact. Catmull adapts another Le Fanu tale, "The Little Red Man," this one a much more straightforward story of a hallucination and as a result less interesting. "The Tomb of Sarah," by t edward bak, proves the weakest story of the bunch, but even then there's a really appealing rough and lurid quality to the art, even as it fails to cohere into a sharper, fully-realized reading experience. Very few current anthologies have featured work that holds the interest of the reader all the way through, combined with a couple of efforts (Lasky, Reklaw) that force the audience to consider where they lie in the artist's body of work.

Any future issues of Orchid would surely find plenty of material in Victorian horror for further explorations of the formal strengths of comics, their opportunity for evocative image making, and the chance to build a compelling narrative. Yet while the first effort from Catmull and Williams makes for a solid, no-frills read which almost astonishes in an era of creatively bankrupt unknown-heavy anthologies, the bar for another outing will be compared to issue one rather than less-inspired volumes. Artists should take a clue from Kevin Huizenga's "Green Tea" in working on such an effort, and for anthology work of this nature in general. Huizenga adds layers of narrative and speculative theme to a solidly rendered take on the story itself, bringing the reader more directly into the exercise of looking backwards, the haunted ruminations shared by 21st Century artists and 19th Century writers. Like the visions that haunt his characters, the flourishes in style were invisible to everyone but Huizenga himself, a strategy for exploring such psychologically rich material that's worth re-visiting.

This was originally published in The Comics Journal #255