Review: Orphan Black #1

Orphan Black #1


Orphan Black is a show that surprised me. The pitch - Sarah Manning, a 20something punk slash con artist, finds that she is one of an unknown number of clones and they team up and investigate the mysteries behind their creation - was unappealing, as it sounded like a kind of generic biomedical thriller. And while that remains the ostensible plot, the real interest comes in its fantastic character studies of the multiple clones played by Tatiana Maslany, which examine different ways people - and specifically women - can exist in the early 21st century. Maslany makes it, playing half a dozen major clones, with a performance sufficiently good that you can tell which of them is pretending to be each other at any given time.

The show is of the modern school of arc-based drama, where rather than tell 10 stories that together form a larger arc, the arc is primary and the episodic structure is imposed on that as a pattern. There is no "status quo" that episodes return to, the purpose of each episode is to advance the ongoing plot. It had presented more or less a continuous story since the first episode, with no real gaps, or at least no gaps where extra adventures or side stories could plausibly be inserted.

And this presents a problem for a spin-off comic. They typically live in the gaps. There's no room for that here, especially with the TV show as an actual ongoing concern. There are questions, mysteries left - the origin of the partnership between Beth (the police officer who kills herself in front of the series) and Katja (the German clone who we only barely meet). But it seems like the main narrative of the TV show is going to address some of this. Sarah's pre-pilot adventures might be fun but aren't Orphan Black, and a Beth/Katja prequel would consist mostly of material that the TV show didn't think was worth doing as flashbacks.

So what's an Orphan Black comic to do? Adapt the first episode, apparently. It's not quite a straight adaptation, focusing on Sarah more particularly than the show did. But that's only a marginal difference in an episode that is already firmly centred on her as a protagonist, and starts and ends at practically the same moments. Here, we get to see a few flashbacks - to her troubled youth and her just-as-troubled young adulthood. But none of this sheds new light on the character. Sarah Manning's voice largely acts as linking narration between highlights from the pilot episode, rather than providing any new insights on the character. And the brief glimpse we get of Beth's voice shuts down rather than open up possibilities.

Ultimately, Orphan Black is great because of Tatiana Maslany, and a comic doesn't have her. The art team (Syzmon Kudranski with Mat Lopes on colours) have an already very difficult job of likenesses made harder by the clones problem. On TV they're are different enough in expression that people have genuinely asked whether they are really played by the same person. It's only when you look closely at the details of the face that you are certain. The art here just doesn't have that subtlety available to it. And the lighting, the settings, clearly distinguish the world of Sarah, marked by shadows and darkness, with the well-lit professional environment of Beth. The art style we've got here just doesn't do that, going for stylised generalised griminess rather than anything resembling the visuals of the TV show. If the material were worthwhile, this would set it apart and give its own identity. But it's not. It comes over as a faded copy of one of the most interesting shows on television, without any of the life or wit Nothing in it is outright incompetent, but it's unnecessariness is objectionable.