As should be clear by now, I wasn’t impressed by Scream #5, and maybe for good reason. In Ghastly Terror, Sennitt argues that 1973 was Skywald’s creative apex, but that by the end of that year “the rot had already begun to get in” (164), fueled by the company’s increased reliance on cheap foreign artists and increased competition from Marvel’s line of black-and-white monster magazines. Maybe I should give Skywald another chance. Maybe I should spring for the comic at the very top of Sennitt’s “Ten Best Horror-Mood Magazines,” Psycho #8, and review Skywald at its best. And I should definitely note that one story—“The Black Orchids and the Tale of Anne,” written by Hewetson under the pseudonym of “Stuart Williams” and drawn by José Cardona—is better and more complex than the other contents of Scream #5. Thanks to the miracle of poor copyright filing, “Black Orchids” is presented in its entirety below.
When I first read “Black Orchids,” I was again unimpressed, since Hewetson’s writing stuck to the same “tell, don’t show” aesthetic I disliked in other Scream #5 stories. The doctor’s exposition-heavy captions on pages four and five are too wordy for my tastes (which bend more towards Kurtzman than Feldstein), and Hewetson’s dialogue is stuttering, weird, non-idiomatic. Visually, I like how Cardona draws the woods as a swirl of wash, silhouette and negative space, and I also like the last panel of the story, as Anne’s psychosis rubs out the panel grid even while Cardona presents Anne’s suicide in a sequence of four images. It initially seems, though, that Cardona missed the point of the story, which hinges on the fact that sister Mary is homely but has a pure and noble soul: as John says to Mary (and, unwittingly, to Anne) at the top of page six, “Anne is beautiful only on the OUTSIDE—a surface beauty…but you I love because of your inner beauty…” But throughout the story, Cardona persists in drawing Mary equally as attractive as Anne. On page three, Mary looks out at us with a glamorous, symmetrical face, in a pose that Cardona might’ve cribbed from fashion photography:
In a close-up on page five, Anne claims to be ugly, and Cardona again draws her as gorgeous:
It’s tempting to read this confusion between word and image in “Black Orchids” as another example of Skywald hamfistedness, but wait. The story of Anne’s psychosis is transmitted to us through at least two filters: Anne herself—who must’ve told the police and her doctors at the sanatorium some version of the events—and through Anne’s doctor, the narrator of much of “Black Orchids.” So why do we trust the version of the story related to us by the doctor, who’s only learned about the crime second hand, and possibly only from a madwoman? Does Hewetson take inspiration for “Black Orchids” from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), with its tales-within-tales and unreliable narrator? Perhaps Hewetson’s words present a distorted, incomplete version of the events, even while Cardona’s art reveals that Mary was not the ugly homunculus Anne claims she was? Does “Black Orchids” itself twin into opposites? Are we reading a pulpy, low-down, unintentionally provocative American spin on Moto Hagio’s “Hanshin”?
In a landfill in Western New York are decomposed scraps of paper that used to be a comic book, and before its pictures were mildewed out of legibility, that comic told a story about a leopard-woman in love with a normal man. I’d like to read that comic again today. I might like it better, and I also could learn from it—about a comics company I’ve never heard of, about the broader history of horror comics, about the wonky gender dynamics inherent in the figure of a leopard woman. When I think of that rotting comic, I remind myself that as a critic I’d like to make fewer snap judgments, and strive for more understanding, more contextualizing, more Jauss and axe-faced Anne.