Orpheus

Gotham City plays host to a great many heroes. At any given time, Batman, Batwoman, Batgirl, Huntress, Batwing, Spoiler, Orphan, Signal, and an indeterminate number of Robins patrol its teeming streets and dark alleys. Add in the heroes who often visit, like Nightwing and Zatanna, you have a crowded metrop– err, conurbation. So why do we need to add Orpheus to the mix?

Funny you should ask that, as I put together that very answer — and several more you have not even asked for yet — below. Read on and see where I’m coming from, won’t you?

Orpheus
This image was just a little too perfect to pass up, don’t you agree? Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

Meet Orpheus

Before I can argue that Orpheus needs to return to the DC Universe, it feels appropriate that I should fill you in on exactly who is the man in the purple and gold.

Before Orpheus became the protector of what is characterized as Gotham’s forgotten neighborhood, he simply lived there. Growing up the child of a television producer and a professional dancer, Gavin King dreamed of following in his mom’s footsteps and becoming a dancer as well. This goal, however, made me the target of some of his more toxically masculine classmates. They bullied him on an almost daily basis until King decided to add martial arts to his athletic pursuits.

Before long, he had proven himself enough of a physical force that the bullies stopped trying. Moreover, he finally realized his dream of becoming a professional dancer and joined a touring company in his late teens.

Living his dream, however, helps him see how many people don’t get to do the same. Unable to ignore poverty, sexism, cruelty, homophobia, racism, and more in his travels, he repeatedly gets himself in trouble. Dangerous or not, he feels compelled to try and help others.

His actions don’t go unnoticed. A secret society recruits him to be a champion of the people, hooks him up with a “stealth” suit, and sends him back home. It seems, while he’s been gone, the thriving minority neighborhood he once called home has fallen on hard times. So hard, in fact, that not only has crime increased but it has done so dramatically that neither the police force nor Batman visit it much.

Why Bring Him Back?

I suppose a ballet dancing superhero who belongs to a secret society and wears a purple stealth suit isn’t enough for you? Fair enough. You seem difficult to please, but I’ve got more reasons.

Orpheus
Orpheus talks tough. Whoever Johnson is in a bit of trouble, methinks. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

A Bad End

BATMAN: WAR GAMES may be one of the single worst crossovers of the past twenty years. In broad strokes, Spoiler “borrows” a plan from Batman to get back in his good graces. See, Batman made her Robin for a Gotham minute to try (as she wanted to make Tim Drake jealous) and then fired her because… Look, who knows? No good reason, certainly. So, she figured if she executed this plan of his to destroy Gotham’s gangs from within, she’d be Robin once more. Instead, it ended up a disaster because a key figure in the plan — “Matches” Malone — is, of course, Batman; except Bruce didn’t note that in his plan. The resulting bloodbath ends in Stephanie being tortured to death. Actually, being tortured nearly to death and then being purposely untreated by Dr. Leslie Thompkins to teach Batman a lesson. This storyline is monstrous.

The plan also called for Orpheus to play the part of gang infiltrator and subverter. However, because of the Malone mix up, Orpheus is left exposed. As a result, Black Mask realizes what Orpheus was up, slit the hero’s throat, and assumed his identity.

I know we’re nearly fifteen years and like three reboots away from WAR GAMES, but I will always advocate for everything being done to erase any and all signs of that infernal storyline from existence. Spoiler is back and Dr. Thompkins’ bizarre medical malpractice was eliminated. It’s time to do the same for Gavin King.

He’s So Cool

Giving Orpheus another chance after how badly he got played in GAMES is reason enough to bring him back. It is, however, hardly the only one. Number one amongst these might be incredibly facile, but whatever. Orpheus is cool.

The stealth suit is cool. The fact that the guy’s previous job was being a professional dancer in one of the most respected troupes in the world? Also, very cool. Making cracks about musicals while kicking a bad guy’s teeth in might be the coolest thing ever. Okay, fine, not cool per se. But unique. Interesting.

He had a personality from the jump, even with some of the woeful dialogue he ended up with (more on that later). His attempts to be “tough” were also interesting. In a city with a dominant kind of vigilante attitude, how do you fit in when that’s just not who you are at your core?

Undoubtedly what makes him the most interesting, though, is his race and base of operations. Which brings us to our next reason.

Orpheus
Orpheus speaks to the importance of representation, even in the case of illegal vigilantism. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

Filling A Need

First of all, yes, Duke Thomas (AKA owner of the worst superhero name, Signal) and Batwing — Luke Fox — are both black men. Considering there is room enough for a bevy of white superheroes, though, I think Gotham can support the existence of three black men, don’t you?

Thomas and Fox differ in multiple ways from King. The most obvious of these is that the Signal is a direct protégé of Batman, and Batwing is also part of Bruce’s inner circle. Orpheus, on the other hand, is a free agent. Even without the antagonistic relationship Batman seemed to have with any hero in Gotham wearing purple (see also: Huntress) during the late 90s & early 2000s, this puts King in a decidedly different place in the Gotham hero ecosystem.

Orpheus also has a direct connection to a single neighborhood in Gotham. This makes him uniquely concerned about representation. He’s not just a hero because he wants to curtail crime, he’s a hero because he wants to serve as an inspiration and role model for others. This gives him a kind of Superman vibe.

He also has a bit of a Daredevil thing about him in that he’s patrolling the place he grew up in. For DD though, his Hell’s Kitchen was dangerous when he was young, and remains dangerous now. Orpheus, on the other hand, grew up in an up and coming black neighborhood in Gotham that ended up destroyed by crime and brutal “enforcement” policies. Think what happened to Harlem between the 60s and 80s. Oh, with a dash of that neighborhood in Philadelphia that the police opted to literally bomb because of the presence of a Black Rights group they feared were a terrorist organization because, well, I’ll give you two guesses why.

Tweaks to Make for This Era

Now, comics have moved on and evolved in the decade and a half since Black Mask slit Orpheus’s throat. Therefore, Orpheus should evolve too. I’m not talking a massive overhaul here, but largely subtle changes to make him a bit of better fit for today.

Orpheus’s Role

The obvious change here is making him the Shroud of Gotham. He seems like a baddie, integrates the gangs, and destroys them from within. In addition to putting him in a singular role amongst Gotham’s heroes, it helps target an only glancingly focused on aspect of Gotham crime. On the other hand, after the first time, this would kind of a hard trick to replicate in the same city. Plus, it denies Orpheus the ability to be the role model he’d like to be.

Perhaps, then, he should return to globe-trotting. This won’t solve the problem of him being too hidden to be an inspiration, but it means he could pull the good guy in wolf’s clothing multiple times in a variety of locales.

My preferred solution, however, is to tweak the neighborhood, not the hero. What was largely subtext I’d want to make text. Orpheus’s neighborhood isn’t “so bad even Batman won’t go there.” No, it’s a once-thriving community that was undone by a combination of implicit and explicit racism rendering Gotham at large unable to respond to the unique concerns of a largely black and thriving portion of the city.

Shifting this makes Orpheus’ ability to be a role model clearer as well as adding challenge. This is a neighborhood that hasn’t just been let down by law enforcement but often harmed by — well-meaning or not — those institutions’ attempts to help them. So it places King closer to his goals but also makes what he has to overcome much clearer and concrete.

Orpheus
Ouch. Bet that feels like a swift kick to the face. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

Orpheus’s Personality

As I mentioned above, he has a great personality. It’s quirky and certainly unique amongst the heroes of Gotham. However, despite being created by two black creators — Alex Simmons and Dwayne Turner — Orpheus typically ended up being given life on the page by white creators. As a result, the character’s limited appearances are pocked with some awkward attempts at both respectability politics and slang. White creators can handle black characters but they have to be the right white creators, especially when it comes to brand new characters.

Therefore, ideally, a black creative team would handle Orpheus’s return and beyond for a time to truly develop a template that gives others a clearer idea of how to follow. Barring the ideal, he deserves creators who can at least understand and present a multi-dimensional black character that feels lived in. If they’re white creators and they can do it, fine. If they are Asian, great. And so on. But again, the ideal would be a black creative team who can make Gavin King a fully rendered person that others can then offer their own unique but recognizable takes on.

Orpheus’s Origin

I like the dancing aspect, I’d absolutely keep it. I might expand it a bit to include musical theatre as a.) Orpheus has loved a good musical theatre reference in the past and b.) the mythological Orpheus was a musician, not a pure dancer. Sure, both involve music, but it can’t hurt to bring King a little closer to his namesake.

I’m torn on the whole “he gets bullied so he takes martial arts classes.” I think, if it stays, much like the neighborhood piece above, the toxic masculinity would need to be called out directly. Moreoever, emphasizing how the bullies might be conflating dancing with being gay or, more importantly, being gay with being weak would be a smart move too. I’m actually for that either way. Ideally, though, I love the idea of Orpheus being athletic and creative enough to adapt the physicality of his dancing into his combat style.

The other issue I see is the secret society piece. Again, I’m ambivalent on this. There’s something about this random group of strangers that just hand him a suit that rubs me the wrong way. Maybe his mom, as a retired professional dancer, encouraged King to develop a more practical skill for life after dance and that enabled him to make his own tech? I think it would just be good if Orpheus had a more active role in his heroic becoming.

Orpheus: Costume
Orpheus had quite the threads back in the day. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

Orpheus’s Costume

So I love the costume. It’s, admittedly, a bit of the era though. However, the basically aesthetic could remain, I think. The coloring of the time often broke garish — see any of the first fifty issues of AZRAEL vol. 1 or the image of Orpheus kicking a guy above. This often rendered Orpheus’s stealth suit a particularly grape shade of purple with yellow piping. However, the intent seemed to be a deeper darker purple and gold. Just get back to that coloring and you’ve done a huge amount of the work already.

Next, the helmet. The helmet stays. End of story. Yes, including the fact that you can see Orpheus’s jaw. Remember, people knowing his skin color is important to his personal mission.

Now the coat. I love the coat. I love that it’s a sort of de facto cape. However, it’s also obviously a super heavy material. I’m thinking they meant for it to be leather-like. On the page however, especially with that coloring, it comes across as very pleather or just straight up plastic.

Given King’s dance background, a lighter fabric coat seems like a better idea. Picture those dancers who dance with fabric. Something like that, with, perhaps, the tips of the coat weighted so he can also “toss” them, utilizing them as both distraction and weapon. This, too, would fit with him embracing his dancing to create a physical attack style mentioned above.

Orpheus: Batman punch
Orpheus does not mind putting a hurting on Gotham’s most famous vigilante. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

Taking A Bow

There you have it. Orpheus. A hero worth bringing back and the start of a map on how to do so. By investing in what was good and unique about Gavin King while updating, refining, and emphasizing other elements, DC can bring him back better than ever. Gotham might be a crowded city for vigilantes, but that makes the need for Orpheus higher. He’d be a unique hero, one who’s happy to be amongst the people, to be seen, and one who thrives on inspiring others to improve themselves and not just fear his wrath.

One Comment

  1. roy

    January 23, 2019 at 5:49 pm

    Orpheus is an excellent character.
    Ironically, Dr. Orpheus is one of my favorite comedy characters. 🙂

    Reply

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