Plato wrote in The Republic that copies are always inherently inferior to the originals. It’s called “mimesis” and it claims, among other things, that the transfer from one medium to another always loses some quality of the original “ideal” version. I keep thinking about mimesis when reading a story about a woman who is finding copies of herself. I think about it when I see IDW has made eight variant covers for this comic. But mostly I keep reaching for it because “Orphan Black #1” is an imitation of the TV show which proves Plato’s theory to be true.
I can’t summarize the plot of Orphan Black without getting into spoiler territory because the whole fun of the show is the regular twists. Instead I’ll give you a pitch: Sarah is a down on her luck mother who runs into an exact copy of herself at a subway station. Before she can say anything, the copy commits suicide by throwing herself in front of a train. Sarah picks up this copy’s ID and decides to live out the copy’s life in order to use her finances to start a new life for Sarah and her daughter. From there, twists and turns commence that are genuinely entertaining and open up a much bigger world than you might think at first glance. This is both the story of the TV show and the comic which kind of leads us to our problem.
Generally I don’t like comparing a copy to the original because the new story should be judged by its own merits. “Orphan Black #1” doesn’t give you any other options for critique however, because it is simply a retread of the plot of the TV show, without anything meaningful added. When I mentioned that bit about a copy never being as good as the original, I wasn’t just being cute. When you transport something from its original medium to a new medium there is always something lost. It is the job of the artist to figure out the important parts of the original story and change what needs to be changed for the new medium. The goal shouldn’t be to copy directly, but to translate to the new audience what’s so great about the original idea.
There are so many details in this comic that worked really well in the TV show but don’t work in comic book form. Simple things, like at one point Sarah is trying to disguise herself as her copy and forgets that she has a British accent where her copy doesn’t. This is the type of thing works simply and painlessly in a movie or TV show. But in a comic, speech balloons don’t immediately convey accents so it takes a moment to understand what is going on in the scene. Another thing comics don’t do well is juxtapositions of time. All comics are juxtaposed images so flashbacks can be confusing as single panels because we are used to reading the next image as further in time.
To be fair, I like the solution of using different panel borders to convey flashbacks but it’s still not fluid or easy to read. The comic ends up feeling very rushed because scenes which should be a whole page have space occupied by another time. None of this is to say you, as the reader, won’t be able to understand what is going on in this comic. You’ll get it, but not without a million minuscule moments where you are torn from the story to understand this comic is trying to be a television show.
But again, in all fairness I think this comic is going to have a tough time capturing the same magic as the show no matter what it does. One of the central joys of the show is watching the actress, Tatiana Maslany play several different roles at once. Her acting range is so amazing that in five or six seconds the barest nuance tells you which of the copies she is playing. It’s even easy to tell when she is playing a character pretending to be another character. That whole “gag” doesn’t work in the comic book world and I’m not sure what the comic offers to replace it.
Why is it that comics still feel like the bastard child to other mediums? When movies or shows want to take stories from our medium they always change what they need about us in order to fit their medium. Marvel movies don’t bend over backwards to be like the comics. The Walking Dead TV show had the spine to change whatever they wanted from the comics and the fans love it for that. Yet, comics treat other intellectual properties like virgins, so afraid of messing something up that they don’t do anything right. We’ve been doing this for over a century now, we should be confident about changing someone else’s story to fit our medium. It’s possible that if you haven’t watched Orphan Black that you might enjoy this comic but if you haven’t watched Orphan Black, I’d prefer to just recommend watching Orphan Black. For fans of the show, there’s nothing new here this first issue.
“Orphan Black #1” earns 4/10