This week, Poison Ivy taught me the importance of empathy.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Poison Ivy, to me, is an incredible idea for a villain. I have never seen a reason to make her a hero. In fact, I found the very thought of it both uninteresting and problematic.

Despite that, many now consider her a hero. Oddly enough, it seems the comic industry does not much care for my feelings about which characters should stay villains. As fans of this heroic Ivy became increasingly vocal, I became increasingly frustrated and confused. What the hell were they on about? How could they think making Ivy a hero did anything but undercut her narrative?

Then I read Rose Rosen’s take on the character’s transition at Women Write About Comics. Originally published in December of 2017, the piece is smart and insightful about why she and many others want a heroic Pamela Isley. By taking the time to read Rosen’s perspective, my own knee-jerk annoyance about the idea of it melted away. She helped me understand fans like her and, through empathy, I was able to relax some of my own persnicketiness.

Does that mean I’m all in on Poison Ivy, hero? Now, I can’t give away the game so soon, can I? First, let’s explore the journey that came first.

Poison Ivy in the animated style
Image courtesy of Warner Brothers.

At First Sight

I still remember the first time I ever encountered Poison Ivy.

BATMAN RETURNS opened June 19, 1992. Less than 3 months later, BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES debuted on Fox on September 5. At some point in between those days, my local paper ran an article about other villains the next Batman movie can use.

Two characters leaped off the pages at me. The first was Two-Face with his bifurcated appearance and equally ambivalent attitude. It was as if I somehow was already anticipating the “but both choices have validity” attitude that has bedeviled most of my adult decisions.

The second was Poison Ivy. I had never heard of her and was immediately intrigued. Another female villain besides Catwoman? She’s an environmental fanatic who uses a mix of natural physical gifts and chemical pheromones to use and — more often than not — destroy men? She was unlike any villain my tween self had ever read about or seen.

When THE ANIMATED SERIES did grace my TV screen, my initial interests were almost instantly confirmed. Two-Face was a typically calm man whose temper had grown too large to be contained, seeming splitting him in two before his face is even scarred. As a kid whose hormones were sparking bursts of temper in my typically placid presentation, I recognized that experience.

Poison Ivy, on the other hand, represented all I didn’t understand or have experience with. Her anger was coiled and effective, not overwhelming and goal derailing. Ivy’s sensuality, even in animated form, was utterly baffling to me; her disgust for humanity even more so. Thus, I was compelled to try and unravel the mystery.

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Poison Ivy Evolves And So Does My Understanding

When I first started reading comics, I was far more about the characters than the creators. I wouldn’t look for Chuck Dixon’s writing or Neal Adams’ art, I’d look for appearances by characters I loved, especially villains like Poison Ivy. Doing this quickly taught me that Ivy’s characterization was inconsistent.

Some writers portrayed her as the ultimate femme fatale, dripping with sex and toxin in equal measure — the bad idea men just could not seem to resist.

Others made her a crusader. Sometimes that meant they filtered her capacity for outrage and action through a sort of funhouse mirror of extreme feminism. She didn’t hate humankind, she hated MANkind. She loathed men and saw them as pawns to be exploited as they had exploited so many women before. There was some sensuality here but it was more of just one arrow in the quiver.

At other times, the focus of her crusade was not toppling the patriarchy, but protecting the environment. She was an extremist who asserted flowers ruled while people drooled and saw no reason to champion feminist principles. Instead, Ivy strove to help plants return Earth to a verdant wonderland and choke anyone who got in the way.

Over time, a bit of anti-hero did creep into her portrayal. The best examples of this come from how her relationship with Harley Quinn humanizes her, but there are more. As Rosen points out, Ivy serves as the main source of healthy sustenance to Gotham City in “No Man’s Land.” Moreover, the garden doubles as a refuge for the orphaned and displaced children.

Then, with the arrival of the “New 52” Poison Ivy made the final leap to hero. With some falters and misdirects along the way, hero became her dominant DCU characterization.

Poison Ivy's plunging neckline
Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

Why Do I Object?

First, like so many comic book fans, I can often succumb to the monster we call nostalgia. Or, to put a clearer point on it, the creature that whispers in our ears, “The way things were when I started reading comics is the way they’re supposed to be.” Poison Ivy was a villain when I first learned of her; she was a villain when I first saw her on TV; she was a villain in comics. Therefore, Ivy is supposed to be a villain.

An incomplete list of other items I think oughtta be the way I first encountered them in comics include. Batman’s costume should have the yellow halo. Peter Parker and Mary Jane should live as man and wife. Robin is Tim Drake. Karen Page is alive and Matt Murdock’s main squeeze. So many people wear leather jackets or armor.

It’s a backward reasoning and I cop to it. That doesn’t make me wrong, per se, but it does make me a little intellectually lazy. So let’s dig deeper.

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Men Turning Women Good

The three most prominent female villains in Batman comics since I started reading them are Catwoman, Harley Quinn, and Ivy. Catwoman is going to marry Batman. Harley has gone so anti-hero game that she’d be a hero if not for her nasty sense of humor. And, well, we’ve been talking about Poison Ivy this whole time.

Given that all made the move, at least initially, from villain to something more heroic under male writers, I cannot help but wonder if there is an inherent bias in the way men view women — and female villains — that makes this transition more likely. That said, how few women writers and how many male characters there are makes establishing a control group difficult to impossible. Without that, it is hard to judge if there is a disproportionate effect going on.

Regardless, a non-scientific comparison does suggest there’s something there. Whether it’s the benevolent sexism that makes people think that women are less likely to be bad without “good” reason or the more objectifying sexism that wants a sexy character on the page more often, I can’t help but wonder. I doubt anyone would do it “on purpose” but our subconscious can mess up now and again.

Ivy's Seduction
Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

A Dearth Of Dangerous Dames

However, even if it is all above board and no sexism is involved at all, Poison Ivy’s hero status still means one less female villain for Batman. Having heroes be women is important, but I think having multi-dimensional truly threatening and dangerous women as villains is important too. As with men, women should have a range of complex character from heroes to villains to supporting characters.

Losing Ivy leaves Batman with Talia Al Ghul as the only woman villain he has tangled with that might be known — emphasis on might — by the public, largely thanks to her turn in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES. Even if we say “who cares” about the larger public, though, Batman is fairly bereft of villains who aren’t men. The original Ventriloquist is active but the female Ventriloquist, Peyton Riley, is still not the most well-known interpretation of the character. Roxy Rocket is fun but not a real threat. There’s Lady Shiva who hasn’t been seen since her appearance in DETECTIVE COMICS. Lynx made the transition to being largely a Tim Drake villain long ago. Francine Langstrom’s only reason appearance as She-Bat was in HARLEY QUINN. Orca is a bad joke. And so on.

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And Yet…

I confess I clicked on Rosen’s story with significant skepticism. My thought in advance was something like, “Yes, please explain to me why anyone would feel this way.” This isn’t the most open-minded way to approach someone’s arguments.

Still, her piece proved persuasive. In detail, she lays out a compelling dissertation on why Ivy becoming a hero not only made sense to her but was important to her. Well-reasoned and honest, Rosen’s piece effectively worked on both heart and head.

You really should read it for yourself, but I will just quickly lay out some of her main points. Ivy’s transition to hero made her more prominent in the DCU on an ongoing basis. According to Rosen, this standing made it easier to engage with themes that Ivy raises about gender and sex like femininity, the patriarchy, and navigating male gaze. Additionally, it gave the DCU an unabashed feminine superhero who came from the man’s world, who wasn’t a stranger in a strange land.

Further, Dr. Isley is, well, a doctor. She could be a role model of sorts at a time where we are increasingly aware of how women are often chased out of STEM as girls. Not to mention, at a time when science is increasingly controversial and rejected far too often, having a hero embrace it is heartening.

Similarly, Ivy is also an unapologetic environmentalist. While her “plants everywhere, people nowhere” stance is undoubtedly an extremist point of view, her concern that we’re killing the planet has only gained relevance over the years. Similarly to how attitudes towards the Japanese in comics during World War II seem horrifying to us now, Ivy’s environmental advocacy, which once seemed like alarmism, feels far more accurate today.

Best Friends
Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

Is My Mind Changed?

It doesn’t matter.

While writing this article, I realized that the point of it isn’t whether or not I still think Ivy should be a villain or should be a hero. Sorry for the tease above.

Instead, the point of all this is how being empathetic to Rosen’s point of view made me happier with the direction Ivy has gone in and made me understand a group of fans’ viewpoint better. Empathy made me more contented and more informed.

Too often when we discuss and argue about comics, the goal seems to lie within winning. “I will prove that Hulk should always be Professor Hulk and everyone else can suck it,” we declare. “I will show, definitively, that Batman can beat anyone else, up to and including Superman,” we claim. And so on.

Some of that is great fun. However, some of it quickly turns rancid. It’s a shorter walk than I think any of us would like from “my favorite Captain America is Steve Rogers” to “Captain America can’t be black!” The line between “Clint Barton Hawkeye is my favorite” and “oh look at the social justice warriors ruining comics by making Hawkeye a girl” seems far too thin.

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Reach For Empathy Before You Argue

Preferences are great. Favorites are wonderful. Yet when we forget that the fans on the other side, the ones who loved Sam Wilson as Cap or Kate Bishop as Hawkeye, are human too, we can get ugly. When we lose track of the idea that Poison Ivy being a hero or that Atom being Asian can be important to people even if it isn’t the way we’d like it, we can get cruel.

Empathy doesn’t mean I have to like Ivy as a hero — although it can. It just means I can understand and appreciate why others might. Once I do that, I can engage them in conversation. I can agree or disagree. What I can’t do with empathy is tear them down, threaten them, or harass them.

Rose Rosen’s article was a reminder of that for me. I wasn’t out there harassing fans who consider Poison Ivy a hero but I didn’t understand either. I thought it was, to be honest, silly. She showed me otherwise. If we can raise the level of empathy on the comics internet, on comics Twitter, we still won’t all agree. Yet the discussions will become so much more fruitful.

And yes, that’s a Poison Ivy pun. Sorry.

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