‘Can I call you “Mommy”?’ Myths of the female and superheroic in Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean’s Black Orchid

Authors: Round, J.

Conference: Debating the Difference: Gender, Representation and Self-Representation: The Annual Scottish Word & Image Group Conference

Dates: 5-6 September 2007


This article discusses Black Orchid’s use of myths of the superhero and feminine in the context of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s linguistic theories of myth. It contends that, to date, the superheroine myth has often followed a similar path to that of the superhero and it often seems that the feminised superheroic has yet to be explored. Rather than following a similar pattern to concurrent texts and interrogating the superhero myth from within, Black Orchid does so by replacing its tropes with feminised elements.

The article initially establishes Lévi-Strauss’s model of myth and applies this structure to the superhero, noting its underlying binaries of order/chaos, duty/desire and so forth. It considers the paradigms these binaries make up in the context of the myth’s manifest subject and notes the ways in which this subject matter also operates on a latent level that seems to question this manifest lesson (as regards notions of vigilantism, violence, fascism and so forth). Devices such as the numerous genre rules integral to the superhero myth are attempts to reconcile these implicit contradictions. It then applies similar reasoning to Black Orchid, considering the text’s use of feminine myths to address questions of violence, power, and identity. The question of violence is invoked and addressed as Black Orchid offers an alternative to motifs such as the climactic battle and use of violence to produce peace. The text continues to subvert the superhero power binary, concluding that strength is not always right and creating a place within the genre for a different sort of power. Using the myth of the May Queen, the Orchid’s overt multiplicity contrasts with the heroic individualism that more usually characterises the superhero myth. In this way Black Orchid resolves the violence dilemma, power conundrum and identity fracture that underlie the superhero genre.

The article concludes that Black Orchid both reformulates and comments on the gendered construction of the superhero and, in so doing, offers one of the fullest and most original explorations of the feminised superheroic to date.


Source: Manual

Preferred by: Julia Round