August 11th, 2008
Yes, that’s not the poster – I’m not sure British television in the 80s did posters. Especially not for a series as outright miserable and cheap as Day of the Triffids. Instead what we got were real suburban streets, sets hungover from the seventies, and parochial British accents. The show was so bloody scary because the world it inhabited looked and sounded so depressingly like our own. The triffids were like some vile full stop on the end of contemporary British life – we were defined by the moment of our extinction and we turned out to be parochial, small, insignificant and suffering. The fact that mankind was to meet its fate blind (after a freak meteorological event) just served to underline the point that the universe is merciless, uncaring, uncompromising, and alien to all human feeling. What better monster to take on the role of apocalyptic deathbringer than one which has no anthropomorphic qualities: that skitters along on it’s roots, and feeds on blood, that, as a consequence of its inhuman nature, negates the value of culture, thought and emotion?
Fuck yeah, triffids are nasty.
What’s all that got to with Poison Ivy? Well, in order to properly answer that question we’re going to have to take a much closer look at the character. But before we delve any deeper I want to explain just why I think Ivy warrants a Rogue’s Review in the first place. It’s not as if she hasn’t retained her popularity, that’s for sure. She’s still a (ugh!) “fan favourite”. No, my motivation is tied to how the character is typically represented rather than her success with the public. You see, Poison Ivy in a comic book means one thing above all else: an absurd amount of tits and arse. Absurd by mainstream comic standards that is, saying something when you consider that female characters, in the DCU, are all too often presented as little more than fuck objects. Seriously, in an effort to research this piece I read the Joker’s Asylum (a series only redeemed by Jason Aaron’s Penguin story, which while not exactly the kind of thing I want to see, wasn’t half-bad) Poison Ivy one-shot. Not a good experience. The plot has Ivy putting her eco-terrorist shtick on hold in order to wreak revenge on the group of men who inadvertently transformed her from superpowered neophyte to nature’s avenger. As a premise it’s okay, but sadly the real effort, as ever, goes into engorging teenage willies with blood: Ripe, green buttocks bulge out of every other page, flower encrusted bosoms the size of small hillocks are the weightiest plot elements on offer. There’s even the obligatory murderous seduction scene. All that rolled up into an issue entitled Deflowered.
Whilst she didn’t always stand around in fuck-me poses, Ivy’s been framed as startlingly attractive from the beginning. Alluring enough to shove a wedge of jealousy between the Caped Crusader and the Boy Wonder in her first appearance. Then there’s the matter of her mind control snogs, which are at base a superpowered articulation of her desirability. Ultimately, there’s just no way of sidestepping the fact that for the last 15 years, Poison Ivy has been consistently rendered as little more than a pin-up. My problem with this is two-fold: in the first instance I want to see female characters given considerably more to do than produce boners, in the second it seems to me that modern comics are far too caught up in Ivy’s sex appeal, to the extent that it tends to dominate both visually and conceptually. I’m sure some people out there think it’s all very poetic: ripe! like fruit! like peaches! which are a bit like bums! That kind of thing. Me? I think it’s just too easy a sell – a short-cut to creating.
So what’s Ivy up to when she’s not servicing wank fantasies? Planning some tedious plant themed terrorist activity, that’s what, or being a little bit mad in a poorly defined “I’m so angry about all the lovely flowers getting trampled by shallow monkey men” way. In the interest of fairness I should stress that you can find some good stuff growing between the cracks – like the constant suggestion that Ivy isn’t quite human, which begs the question what is she? More on that later. There’s also a good deal of imagination frequently on display when it comes to the use of her superpowers, which have a lovely undefined quality in which all sorts of enjoyable ideas can take root. In the aforementioned one-shot, for example, there’s a great moment… actually, I’ll get to that later too.
The richest, most interesting element of Ivy’s personal mythos has to be the secret origin introduced by Alan Grant in Shadow of the Bat Annual #3, where it’s revealed that she was robbed of her humanity by the supervillainous Dr Woodrue while a member of his research team. The comic only touches on her backstory, but the red monotone image of a gaunt scientist, syringe erect, looming over Isley, who lies on an operating table as if awaiting a lover, has all the right horror movie connotations to get the imagination fizzing. Sadly it also has misogynistic overtones, the suggestion being that whatever went on there might well look something like rape. This version of Isley had her innocence stolen by Woodrue when he pumped her full of bizarre and dangerous plant derived compounds. Poison Ivy as the result of loss – a tragic figure, a victim. A common enough theme amongst bat-villains but problematic when seen through the lens of gender politics. Now, in order to rescue Grant’s origin story from what I consider to be entirely fair accusations of misogyny, avoid cliché, and help put Ivy back in the driving seat, I’d like to turn her victimhood on its head. Why can’t Pamela Isley have wanted what Woodrue had to offer? What’s wrong with Isley being the architect of her rebirth? She should own her monstrousness.
This is a woman who wanted her blood drained and replaced by lethal hallucinogenic plant toxins. It was in accordance with her plan that she be driven beyond the point of physical and mental endurance. She formulated the poisons which forced her body and mind to rupture and collapse. And it was her brilliance that bioengineered the impossible seeds that sprouted in the carcass of her soul. After the procedure, what rustled free of its bonds was the product of Isley’s resolute desire. As she had predicted, it sounded like a woman, and looked like a woman, but it wasn’t a woman, and When Woodrue stared into its eyes, Isley knew that something inhuman would stare back.
Isn’t someone ready to go through something like that considerably more interesting than just-another-female-victim of the guild of mad scientists? Isn’t she scarier for it?
I said earlier that I’d get to the one good thing about that Joker’s Asylum one-shot, and there it is. Horrible, eh? Seems to me that if Poison Ivy is to be rescued from mediocrity and cheesecake then a good way to go would be to inject some genuine horror, but the image also appeals on a deeper level. Surely that’s what the plant thing touched on above really looks like, deep down in the dark underneath that curvy exterior. It should be noted that this reading carries with it it’s own difficulties, afterall isn’t this just another example of a man framing womankind as the unknowable Other? Isn’t fiction, from Medusa through Catherine Trammell, chock-full of this pernicious stuff? In answer to the former question, I’d like to go back to my point that Ivy has ceased to be a human being, that she categorically isn’t a woman. The problem with that line of attack is that in order for it to be safely articulated it would either require a DCU where female characters are taken far more seriously and treated with considerably more respect. Assuming, however, that this is a path that could be safely negotiated, how would my Poison Ivy fit with what’s gone before, and, perhaps more importantly, what makes her tick?
To answer that let’s whizz back up this essay, and drag down our friends the triffids, clicking and hissing. Think about it, what better way to defuse her tedious sexiness, and bring some interest back to the character, than to flood her veins with sap, and focus on Ivy the plant? Because, you see, Plant’s aren’t people, plants are bizarre and alien. They don’t think, feel, or have intention, they don’t move, eat, communicate or reproduce in any way that we can relate to. They’re not made from flesh or bones. Crucially, when the borderlines between plant and human biologies and conceptual frameworks blur we get very uncomfortable indeed. That’s why venus flytraps are so horrid, that’s why (to our shame) we were all so disturbed by that unfortunate man in South America growing bark from his skin. It’s why we hate fungal infections, why Wyndham invented flower monsters, and why I want to insist that Ivy is a flower monster too. In one stroke her beauty and apparent humanity are sent spinning into alien territory – they’re not human qualities, they’re the function of plant organs: existential petals designed to lure in and manipulate prey. Is that skin or some kind of fungal tissue? Is that a mind or an alien consciousness that defies human description. What the fuck does it want?
Taken further these ideas feed into much bigger worries. Up-post I suggested that triffids can effortlessly take on an apocalyptic role because they stand for a world without humanity. When thinking about Poison Ivy’s then, I’m put in mind of vines and roots cracking and strangling empty cities, flowers blooming in soil warmed by blood. A plant world that has no compassion, makes no judgments. Eats, grows and reproduces without thought for the consequences, and will smother all human achievement if given the chance. Be clear, I’m not painting Poison Ivy’s ambitions, I’m sketching her ultimate nature: A green maelstrom that cannot help but try and rip us from the face of the planet. The dramatic extension of this is that plots featuring her should look to develop a feeling of otherworldly horror – one that reflects our fears of extinction, and ties into our contemporary anxieties about a vengeful natural world: hordes of plant men rampaging through a city blinded by a fog of alien spores, outerdimensional fungal infections that feed on human suffering. Ivy’s appearances at their most terrifying should evoke the kind of Darwinian disgust and terror to be found in movies like The Thing, The Day of the Triffids, or more recently Frank Darabont’s spectacularly nasty chiller, The Mist
Her stories should have an unpredictable quality, her schemes seemingly sprouting and growing. Batman’s genius intellect should be stretched to the limit as he struggles to trace the path of Ivy’s branching tendrils of cause and effect, that have consequences far beyond anything a human could anticipate. Ivy’s activities should take on the fractal structures of plants, with her smallest actions reiterating the shape of grander forms: the death of a greedy industrialist over here, describing, in curious and specific detail, Ivy’s plans for the Gotham City in its entirety.
Going back to the question of Ivy the sex object, on the surface Ivy’s body speaks of hidden pleasures, but when you get a good look at her foliage it quickly becomes apparent that the hidden pleasures are all her own, and they make no concessions to man’s insignificant little lusts. In fact, judging by all those blood soaked panels featuring men strangled by giant vines and impaled on enormous thorns, I’d say that Ivy’s desires take no account of human flesh either. What’s particularly convenient is that this brutal imagery has an overtly phallic dimension: long, tough, ropey roots; sharp spikes. It would seem that amidst all the jerk-off material, classic subversion is alive and well, with comics that feature Poison Ivy often having at least one moment when the traditional male gaze is answered by something that stares back harder, and has a bigger cock! If one were to play up these elements, her sex appeal would automatically become less boy friendly and complexified. Best of all, it would be entertaining – bringing with it body horror, and, if handled right, character depth. Afterall, what is she doing to that guy? And what the hell is she getting out of it?
Unpleasant. In fact thinking about it this is almost certainly the nastiest Rogue’s Review yet, and perhaps the most radical, although I’d want to draw the line at the suggestion that it’s incongruent with what we know of the character. I appreciate, however, that at first glance it might appear to demand some heavy narrative spinning. Bane has always been framed as violent and brutish, the Penguin has always been weird, Harlequin has always been crazy, nothing that’s been discussed in our previous reviews would have them be otherwise. Ivy on the other hand has long been a cheap thrill, only superficially or potentially complex, and many fans will want her to stay that way. But when I wrote above about injecting some horror into the character, what I meant was that her horrific aspects should be played up, because as far as I’m concerned horror has long been part of her appeal. All those panels littered with corpses torn up by giant brambles are just the tip of the iceberg. Even attempts to psychologise the character, like Grant’s, have had to recognise that on some level she represents a threat that stands outside the human world, and otherwordly threats are what a particular kind of horror is all about. As for Ivy the simplistic eco-crusader, that reading has always struck me as under-developed and banal. Surely in today’s climate (pun intended) it makes much more sense for her to embody the threat posed to us by our natural environment, than it does for her to be some proxy avenger? It’s certainly a grander statement, a challenge suited to Batman at his best. Because when all is said and done the bigger the threat the brighter the character shines. Batman doesn’t need uncomplicated villains – the mere criminally insane – or women to master and control. He demands weighty, frightening enemies, with presences that rival his own. And tits just won’t do that job.
Batman versus the green apocalypse, on the other hand?
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