‘Orchid’ a better breed of post-apocalyptic fantasy

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Mankind’s polluting and war-mongering ways have wiped out civilization and left those surviving in a desolate wasteland where might is right and life is cheap. “Orchid,” a new graphic novel by Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, doesn’t cast off the conventions of its post-apocalyptic fantasy roots. However, a surprisingly well-realized and disturbing world with an emphasis on class warfare make for an interesting mutation of an increasingly-stale genre.

After a global flood wiped out most life on Earth, the few survivors began fighting over what little patches of land they could find. Entire generations were soon preyed upon by slave traders and the horrifyingly-mutated animals that fill the polluted swamps that now cover much of the planet. It’s a welcome change from the familiar barren desert setting of most post-apocalyptic tales, but it’s the small details that make it feel real like mutated leeches being harvested for the drug trade, grass headdresses worn by prostitutes in the slums and the mismatching of clothes and names from many different times and cultures that suggests that things like nations and fashion are long gone.

The have-nots are oppressed by tyrants like Tomo Wolfe, who crushed a rebellion led by a man wearing a mask containing strange powers. Simon, one of the last surviving rebels and one of the few people left who can read, escapes from Tomo’s men and meets Orchid. Orchid is a prostitute who is caring for her little brother, Yehzu. After being captured by slave traders, Simon, Orchid and Yehzu make their escape into the wilds, which prove to be even more dangerous than captivity. All the while, the mystery of the magical mask, which kills whoever wears it except for a select few, hints at a supernatural means to fix a world gone wrong.

I hesitate to call Orchid a reluctant hero since she really feels more like a sidekick in this first volume. The considerably verbose Simon is the one who tries (and fails) to drive the plot towards the familiar rebels-rise-against-evil-empire story, but there’s something to be said for a comic that doesn’t turn its protagonist into a gun-wielding superwarrior within a few chapters. Morello has promised us an epic revolutionary story, but he doesn’t cheapen it by glazing over the feeling of powerlessness that precede such events. Like the world they inhabit, Simon and Orchid feel more like real (and very vulnerable) people than unstoppable action heroes, and gives the action scenes a sense of danger that many comics lack.

Morello’s writing is effective, if not nuanced, and he generates just enough lingo to make his world sound real. Expect frequent detours from the main story to have aspects of the world described in detail, a la Tolkien. Every new major character introduction comes along with a few pages of backstory. While his narrative technique may be blunt, his earnestness is infectious, and the extended forays into exposition actually become some of the most memorable moments of the book.

Artist Scott Hepburn favors expressive lines and characters, which helps separate “Orchid” from the usual gritty realism of the post-apocalyptic genre. He’s got a knack for faces and monsters, including a bizarre owl centipede, but the proportions of the humans change depending on what kind of panel he’s drawing. For instance, they are more realistic up close and not much more than stick figures from twenty feet away. It’s a little distracting, but the grimy environments and inventive costuming more than make up for it. “Orchid” also benefits from clear visual storytelling, with no cluttered or confusing panels to muck up the action.

Post-apocalyptic fiction has survived so long for a number of reasons. It allows us to manifest our fears that civilization is not sustainable and that humanity will devolve into savagery once the rule of law has fallen. Morello explores these familiar themes, but in straying from the radioactive desert full of biker gangs, he creates a new and horrible world that honestly seems beyond repair. The sense of hope, as embodied by Orchid and the promises of a peasant uprising against their oppressors, is still very far off.

Make no mistake, “Orchid” is a bleak tale, but strong visuals, a sense of danger, and a genuine desire to see hope triumph in a hopeless world make it one that will grab your attention and refuse to let go.