Pamela Isley, better known as Poison Ivy, debuted fifty years ago in the pages of Batman #181. Originally conceived by Robert Kanigher and Sheldon Moldoff as a Betty Page derived temptress the character steadily gained in prominence over time. As her personality developed so did her motives, shifting from explicitly criminal to greyer areas. As with the Batman himself, she has weathered changes in fans’ taste by successfully adapting herself to different eras. This week DC continues that tradition with the launch of a new Poison Ivy limited series. First, though, I shall revisit “Hothouse” a great Pamela tale from the post-Crisis era.
“Hothouse” by John Francis Cooper and P. Craig Russell ran in Legends of the Dark Knight #42 & #43 (1993). Legends of the Dark Knight was a Batman anthology which allowed a variety of creators, both upcoming and established, to tell tales from any era of the Caped Crusader, including imaginary ones. In practice most creators chose the post-Year One period which was in vogue at the time. “Hothouse” roughly fits into this pattern, though, Cooper wisely choses to avoid retelling the hero and villain’s initial encounter. Also, Batman is on much easier terms with the police and average citizen of Gotham than is typical of the immediate Year One era. However, there is no sight of Robin and James Gordon is still simply Captain Gordon. Clearly the story belongs to the Dark Knight’s early days, even if he is a little further along in his development.
The narrative begins when a fundraiser for Gotham University is disrupted by the suicide jump of the current school regent Ian Spencer. Having failed to catch Spencer in time, Batman is examining the body when a figure catches his eye: Pamela Isley. For a moment, his senses reel back to their first meeting, before some prodding from the officer on the scene jerks Batman out of his daydream. Clearly, trace fragments of her toxin still swim through his veins. At first Batman tries to tell himself that her presence was merely a coincidence and that whatever demons drove Spencer to suicide they were of his own creation. Still, doubts nag at him, especially after he and Gordon discover that Pamela was working at the University through a science granted signed off on by the recently deceased.
Batman confronts Pamela who insists that she is reformed, her former condition cured through hormone treatments. Skeptical, Batman choses to give her the benefit of the doubt. Soon thereafter, the reader glimpses Pamela’s association with Dominque and Victor a pair of suspicious types who were also at Spencer’s demise. Dominque is an intimidating presence freely smacking around the former costumed criminal, clearly displaying an upper hand over Pamela. Or does she? As the mystery unfolds, the picture grows muddier. At the center of all these machinations is a new psychedelic drug which Pamela has been able to synthesize in her hothouse.
As long time readers know, Pamela has a natural ability to make the heads of men swim with visions. As Batman digs deeper into the case, he finds his concentration snapping easily. Even after the evidence exonerates Pamela, he cannot get her out of his mind. One of Bruce Wayne’s dates storms off when the playboy calls her “Pamela” for the third time in one dinner; a routine robbery intervention by Batman falls apart after a woman’s red hair triggers memories of Pamela. Cooper does a great job weaving all these strands together, blending the mystery with Batman’s increasingly pre-occupied mindset. The “Hothouse” of the title refers to more than flower cultivation.
Cooper is also strong in his writing of Pamela. He takes a nuanced approach to her character, acknowledging the trauma in her past without overplaying it. For most of the story, Pamela comes off as precisely what she claims to be: a reformed woman trying to get on with her life. Even after more illicit pursuits are revealed her motivations have sympathetic components. She does not desire money out of material greed, but for the power it grants. The more wealth she possesses, the better is able to live on her own terms, free from the men who have taken advantage of her in the past. Yet, some habits are difficult to shake, especially those hard-wired into us by experience. And so part of her still yearns for a dominating male figure, specifically the one pursuing her in a cape and cowl.
This last point leads to the one misstep in the story, and that is Cooper’s choice to saddle Pamela with a severe mental disorder. For most of the narrative she is simply driven, though in the final pages Cooper reveals that she is in fact quite delusional about the interests of the Caped Crusader. It works well-enough in the context of the story itself and is at least restrained compared to how other members of Batman’s Rouges Gallery have been treated (she is never depicted as a psychotic killer). However, it is disappointing that Cooper felt that Batman needed another nemesis not of sound mind.
The art for “Hothouse” was provided by P. Craig Russell. While his name has faded from prominence, Russell had a streak of high-profile work in the late 80s/early 90s. A winner of multiple Eisners, he was awarded back-to-back trophies in 1993 (the year of “Hothouse”) and 1994, when he illustrated the “Ramadan” issue of Sandman. His expressionistic style proves to a superb match for Batman. Russell emphasizes the lithe curves of Batman’s figure, his cape sinking into the shape of his back instead of resting stiff against it. His Batman moves with a graceful determination, reminiscent of Neal Adams. At the same time, Russell’s loose line-work and semi-abstract settings give a prominence to mood over naturalism. He really brings out the emotional undertones of Cooper’s script. This is especially true in the climax when Batman is fighting off the full effects of Pamela’s toxins. Suddenly hallucination and reality bleed together in such a manner that the remainder of the story never fully pulls them apart again. It is exciting, vivid work from Russell which demonstrates that his art remains as gorgeous as ever. (He is assisted by the striking coloring of Digital Chameleon).
All in all, despite some misgivings about the conclusion, this is an enjoyable Pamela Isley story, which I would recommend tracking down. This Wednesday, Amy Chu and Clay Mann add a new chapter to Pamela’s ongoing saga. Based on comments at last year’s New York Comic Con, Chu seems to have a good handle on the character. Hopefully there is plenty excitement in store for Poison Ivy fans as she enters her 50th year.