When I was a sixteen year-old in Cambridge, UK, it was the late 80s, and it was dull as the ditchwater gathering in the River Cam that splashed onto my Doctor Martin boots ( inscribed with Tipp-Ex “Smileys”) as I walked to the local polytechnic, where I studied a sort of art A level course that consisted of me being able to take my pet dog to class, a boy who was scared of both purple and broccolli (yes we did paint some broccolli purple, and yes, we chased him with it up and down the art studio) and lots of projections of slides of buildings in Italy that I couldn’t care less about, but that scarred me with the knowledge of what the difference between a Romanesque and a High Gothic window is. Living in Cambridge, old buildings were a bit bleh, seen that, done that – another medieval church? Yawn. I had Tudor fatigue.
What I did care about was Forbidden Planet and Waterstones. Books and comics were really my saviour from all of this boring East Anglian meadow and vale. Every lunchtime, I’d trudge in the rain (it was usually raining) to the comic shop to browse the rather male-looking comics in search of something I could relate to. And there it was: Black Orchid. A comic book by two guys called Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean. Of course, at the time I knew nothing of them, but it was this wonderous image that caught my eye:
I quickly snatched up the graphic novels in the series and spent all my money on them. When I got to the counter I saw a further pamphlet advertising a signing with Gaiman and McKean! I couldn’t believe it. I felt like I had just discovered my destiny. It was the first time I had seen art and prose come together, and it was exactly what I wanted to do with my life! (I didn’t, I became a book marketer, but hey, that’s OK.)
Black Orchid tells the tale of a girl, spliced with an orchid, who is something of a superhero but also a case of not knowing her own sadness, anger and power can affect others. It was a really poignant message for me, a small and shy teenager full of creative zeal but nowhere to put it. I lived in a lush area of fenland, world famous meadows, trippy false dawns and huge medieval cows. I went to school at the institution St Trinians was based on, and the royalty of Spain and Oman sent their daughters there. And yet, Cambridge is a Town and Gown kind of place. It had an inner, romantic soul, but it is filled with nasty, cheap housing estates, antisocial gangs, addicts, homeless people, travellers, and criminals, living in empty churches and camping out under the willows and field brambles. Cambridge was a dangerous and dark place. One time I spent a few days socialising with a man who played the tin whistle who wore a plastic bracelet on his arm with his name on it. Turned out he’d escaped from an asylum. I felt crazy and full of art all at the same time.
I went to the signing that weekend, and luckily, hardly any people were there except a couple of the local goths. I not only got my books signed, but also my denim jacket, which Dave and Neil drew and wrote on, in silver marker pen, a huge orchid and some prose (not that I can remember what). I was stoked. I wore that jacket EVERYWHERE. I was so proud of it. It even inspired my tattoos later in life, all of which have the exact color palette of this image above, with the lines of my memory of that jacket drawing. I even sported pink and purple hair in honor of Black Orchid for some years.
But disaster struck. I went to see the band (The) Pixies a few months later, and wore my jacket. But it was hot, and there was a mosh pile of jackets under the stage, and I flung it there, within reach, taken by Debaser no doubt. Alone and tired at the end of the concert, I was completely devastated to have lost my jacket – IT WAS TAKEN! To this day, if I visit Cambridge, I look in charity (goodwill) shops, hopeful that the terrible theft was not valued and was once again discarded by a now-forty-something (who likes Pixies) for me to re-discover. But no.
Once I was in hospital, very sick indeed with a gallbladder infection, on heinous amounts of painkillers. I read The Sandman, brought to me by a kind friend, and in my morphinic state, I swore blind that there was a subplot involving a missing jacket…
A couple of years ago I tweeted about the jacket being lost at The Pixies gig. Neil Gaiman tweeted back to let me know that her thought that losing my Gaiman/McKean masterpiece jacket at a Pixies gig “was probably as good a place as any.” I know this sounds like slim pickings, and a very small gift, but to me, it brought my Neil Gaiman odyssey full circle. You see, I’d always felt guilty I’d insisted that these two young graphic novelists not only drew pictures and wrote messages in every single Black Orchid book I owned, but I’d been so made up that adrenaline took over and I forced them to draw all over my jacket. I’d felt like a complete superfan chump leaving the signing table.Every time I read a Gaiman book, I felt guilty about losing the damn jacket.
Of course, now Neil Gaiman is a super successful author with film scripts and books worldwide (you can see his body of work here), and it was just hearing these few consolatory words direct from my first true book hero — and indeed the first author who ended up changing my creative landscape for my entire life — meant I didn’t have to feel guilty that I lost the jacket any more. But you know, if you ever see it hanging in a goodwill store…I’d be incredibly curious and happy to see it again…it’s blue, with a silver flower…