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Poison Ivy deserves better

Contributed by
Feb 18, 2019

Trigger warning: Poison Ivy’s story is surprisingly violent and upsetting, so please approach with caution.

In her early appearances, popular Batman villain Poison Ivy seemed to fully embrace her dark side, becoming fascinated with plant life and attempting to ensnare men, manipulate them, and even kill them if it suited her desires. Over time, she evolved into an out-of-control environmentalist suffering from mental health issues. More recently, she has teetered between good and evil, struggling to extend her concern for nature to a concern for humanity. It makes sense to make her a more complicated character; Doctor Pamela Isley might have dedicated her life to extremism, but she acted mostly out of genuine altruism and concern for the well-being of plant life. Her environmental cause has real weight in a world where nature undeniably suffers under ongoing abuse by humanity, both in the real world and in the DC universe.

Recently, a cover for the final issue of Heroes in Crisis that many fans found shocking was leaked, showing Ivy in a sexualized death scene. The cover was apologized for, but the revision that made it to Previews was the same cover with a changed color job, showing Ivy wearing a less revealing outfit. Weeks later, this slightly revised version appears to have remained the promotional image of choice. However, the main problems with the cover, the pose and the context of violently killing off one of DC’s few queer feminist villains, have gone mostly unaddressed by the company. Although it is unlikely that the cover in question will be the one that ultimately hits the stands, the fact remains that superhero comics have a complicated history with how they treat their female characters, feminist characters, and queer characters, and even if they didn’t the cover would generally be considered inappropriate due to the very real and very constant threat of sexualized violence leveled against LGBTQIA people in both the media and in real life. Encouraging the sexualization of a dying woman may be dismissed as a creative choice, but it is one that has real-world consequences for women and LGBTQIA people.

More recently, the #SavePoisonIvy hashtag arose to plead its case to DC and Heroes in Crisis writer Tom King. Fans of Poison Ivy argue that the character is important not just as another iconic comic book villain but as a feminist, an activist, a woman living with mental health issues, and a devout outsider, causing her to take on mythical proportion in the lives of many readers. For many, Ivy's flawed heroism resembles their own much more than the cut-and-dried morality of Batman. By representing people, especially queer women, who have been misunderstood and rejected by society, Poison Ivy is one of the most important feminist characters not just in comics but in all fiction.

In short, not only does Poison Ivy deserve more, but we all deserve to live in a world where Poison Ivy gets more.

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Ivy’s Tragic Backstory

Poison Ivy made her first appearance in 1966 as a fairly run-of-the-mill themed villain of Batman comics of the time. A relative latecomer compared to iconic villains like Catwoman and the Joker, Ivy quickly became a fan favorite despite her criminal tendencies.

In later stories, we discover that Pamela’s father physically abused her mother, although the circumstances surrounding it are open to interpretation depending on the creative team. In one version, she went on to murder her father after his violence led to her mother’s death. She visits him in prison, and symbolically jumps forward and kisses him full on the mouth. He is dead within the day. The same story makes an uncomfortable assertion that she used sexual favors from the dean of her college to graduate, which is an accusation that was likewise leveled at Harley Quinn in Batman: Mad Love. It is impossible for either woman to have gotten as far as they did in their respective work if they relied on sexual manipulation rather than job training and intelligence, but it is notable that this is such a prevalent trope and is used to dismiss each woman's respective intelligence.

She goes on to be taken advantage of by Jason Woodrue, the eventual Swamp Thing villain known as the Floronic Man. He leaves her after experimenting on her, and she has no help from anyone to adjust to either the massive amount of emotional abuse he inflicted upon her or her changed physiology. She becomes unstable and violent and eventually turns to crime to support her interest in saving vegetation from careless, destructive humans.

In Neil Gaiman’s take on Pamela’s character in Secret Origins, we get some context for her tendency to manipulate and lie about her background. She seemingly confides in a prison worker before eventually descending into a monologue that could double as a personal manifesto. The man, once attracted to her, becomes terrified of her and refuses to help her leave Arkham. She would appear mostly as a remorseless killer for the next several years of continuity with appearances in Batman and Wonder Woman.

For The Love Of Ivy

Yet, Ivy has grown increasingly sympathetic over time. Ever since she first appeared, she shows up almost exclusively to be tormented by every male character she encounters. This spans mediums, from comics to TV. In Batman: The Animated Series, it doesn’t make it to the page, but the series bible states that Isley had been sexually attacked by a gang of men in her own lab and went on to turn her anger on men. When she appears engaged to and set to betray a pre-Two-Face Harvey Dent, it is because he is financing the destruction of a marsh harboring an ecosystem important to the overall health of the region. When Batman fights her, he destroys her greenhouse in a fire.

One of the major reasons that Batman as a love interest is questionable is that he repeatedly traumatizes her. He has his reasons for his behavior as she has her own, but seldom are the times that Batman shows up in her life not directly connected to occurrences that leave her psyche scarred even beyond what it was before. When Batman shows up, her plants die, and she winds up in prison. More importantly, Bruce repeatedly tells her that she is essentially irredeemable. He is inarguably a negative influence in her life.

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Ivy has suffered greatly over the years. She loses her self-engineered family in Batman: The Animated Series. In the Poison Ivy one-shot, Pamela escapes Arkham and travels far away to live on a remote beach with complex animal-like plants she engineered and referred to as her pets. A young woman that worships her as a god comes to pay tribute and pray to her, which is when helicopters open fire and kill everything except for Ivy, who goes on a crusade of vengeance. In Poison Ivy: Cycle of Life and Death, Ivy creates child-like beings, which she loses to violence. After being retconned along with the rest of DC in Rebirth, the Riddler manipulates her and frames her for murder, leaving her reeling and broken. Trauma and an inability to heal is written into Ivy’s character arc again and again.

Yet, by giving the men that hurt her full responsibility for the direction her life goes in simply due to the extensive torment she has suffered via men, writers dismiss that Pamela Isley is a woman whose will was guided by very real empathy and forged in the fires of Hell. When focusing on the role of men in her narrative, we forget a hugely important element of her personality, which is that she is always in control of her own destiny regardless of her political extremism and mental health issues. As a greater focus has been given to her ability and ingenuity as a scientist, a certain methodical brilliance and a staggering level of autonomy have emerged.

How Harley Quinn And Ivy Grow Together

Harley Quinn is by far the most interesting relationship in Ivy’s life and vice versa. The brutality of Ivy and Harley’s past relationships is not generally what draws readers to them. Rather, stories benefit when the focus is on the connection between them. One of the longest-running slow burn romances of the last 20+ years, both Ivy and Harley’s individual development and how it has interplayed with one another’s stories have been absolutely fascinating. Beginning as a criminal duo during one of Harley’s break-ups with the Joker, their subtext-laden friendship was hinted and skirted around until ultimately they finally became a loosely termed item. In Amanda Connor and Jimmy Palmiotti’s run on Harley Quinn, their relationship is in flux as Poison Ivy is dedicated to taking things slow and focusing more on her work while Harley pushes and wishes for a more solid relationship with her. Regardless, it works from the perspective of the audience because the amount of tenderness and respect they give one another makes what would be a potential dealbreaker just another stepping stone on a long road together. By focusing on that rather than the standard sense of malaise alotted to queer relationships, LGBTQIA readers are given an entirely unique viewpoint. Harley and Ivy are important because, unlike so many queer characters in fiction, they survive and thrive and find each other not just in spite of but because of their extensive trauma. It is that pain that informs their gentleness with one another. For survivors of abuse, people that suffer mental illness, and LGBTQIA readers alike, theirs is a rare and necessary story of hope.

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A love affair between two emotionally unstable villains in which they actually help each other grow and become better people while giving each other enough space to develop their individual autonomy is practically unheard of in any medium, much less superhero narratives. Superhero comics are caught in ever-repeating cycles, and they lose focus through their inability to show real change while regularly shaking the foundation of their continuity to simulate artificial growth, much which is taken back and reversed just as quickly. Over the last few years, Harley and Ivy’s love has developed into something that feels complicated and real, and it has been the best thing to happen to these two characters whose major identifying characteristics had long been limited to the amount of abuse they could take from male characters. In short, Harley and Ivy aren't just a ship; they're a vehicle for change for everyone who has been through Hell and came out on the other side a little banged up but is still breathing and still growing.

Although their relationship changed with Rebirth, in the Everyone Loves Ivy storyline from Tom King’s run on Batman, Ivy exerts massive control over humanity to make everyone stop hurting each other, with the downside being that in order to keep peace their personalities will fade and be subjugated to her will. When she speaks with Batman on this, he says he understands that she would sacrifice anyone to save the world from itself, but he knows she won’t sacrifice Harley’s highly unique personality. Ivy falters and begins to lose control. Harley goes to her and holds her. “It’s okay,” says Harley, “You can be hurt. But I’m here now, so be hurt with me.”

For years, Ivy was an irredeemable villain, using her feminine wiles to manipulate and destroy. Over time, her crimes were slowly reduced, and her status as a genius botanist and plant life preservationist has been emphasized. Yet, again and again, her development is stunted or cut short due to any number of arbitrary reasons. At certain points in comics history, it may very well have been edgy and shocking to push Ivy to her absolute limit time and again, but audiences are increasingly less interested in watching a woman be repeatedly put through the grinder for the sake of writer’s convenience.

Ivy has died before, but she always comes back better than before, and that sense of rebirth is an important image for many readers. However, it is important to note that we as a society need to see women occasionally thriving as opposed to being caught in endless loops of crashing and burning in order for that particular metaphor to remain effective. By putting Ivy through Hell, destroying her, then bringing her back so often, her disposability is encouraged and the assertion that hardship increases one's strength is given more credence than it is due. I would argue that being murdered regularly blocks Ivy's character growth and emphasizes a general societal complacency towards violence against women. She is killed, but she comes back, which means that there inevitably will be more violence against her. Ivy's repeat resurrections aren't a suitable justification for the consistently sexualized violence against women in fiction.

In decades past, DC writers may have felt it was important to use Ivy as a morality tale against women who crossed the line into murder as retribution for their mistreatment by men. That was an already shaky and defensive stance for male writers to take in response to women’s trauma and it has only grown ever more questionable over time. It’s one thing to read a story like that in 1966, but it is no longer 1966, and neither Poison Ivy nor the world at large benefits from watching her be tormented and broken down only to be rebuilt every time she appears in a comic. Poison Ivy has been broken down by the world ever since her first appearance, and it hasn’t let up yet. She has been fractured, institutionalized, tortured, attacked, and traumatized. In her current incarnation, much of her past misdeeds have been retconned away, and she’s been given a chance for relative stability for the first time in her very long existence. Regardless of what happens in Heroes In Crisis, Ivy is more than what she's allowed to be, and she, as well as her love for Harley Quinn, deserves a chance to flourish and grow.

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