Classic Bat-villain Poison Ivy finds herself forced to solve a mystery without a single appearance by The World’s Greatest Detective in the six-issue miniseries Poison Ivy: Cycle of Life and Death, written by Amy Chu, with pencils primarily by Clay Mann (with assists and fill-ins by Stephen Segovia, Robson Rucha, Julio Ferreira, Ethan Van Sciver, Al Barrionuevo, and Cliff Richards), inks primarily by Seth Mann (with help from Jonathan Glapion, Art Thibert, Dexter Vines, Sandu Florea, Ethan Van Sciver, Scott Hanna, and Cliff Richards), colors by Ulises Arreola, and letters by Janice Chiang. Is it good?
Poison Ivy: Cycle of Life and Death (DC Comics)
Poison Ivy, when handled properly, can be a fascinating character. With her militant commitment to plant life, not to mention a dangerous ability to control and communicate with plants, she’s essentially an eco-terrorist in a way that feels a bit more honest than the likes of Ra’s Al Ghul. Her ability to use pheromones to manipulate men makes for an interesting counterpoint to Batman’s, um, complicated relationship with romance and sexuality. And her now-canonical polyamorous romance with Harley Quinn makes her one of the few LGBTQ characters in superhero comics. She is one of many great Batman rogues, but she doesn’t need Batman to be an interesting character, so she absolutely deserved a starring role in her own story, even if only for roughly 120 pages.
Unfortunately, Poison Ivy: Cycle of Life and Death is not the solo adventure that Ivy deserves.
That’s not to say that it’s actively bad, but it’s certainly one of the most average comics I have read in recent memory.
The problem here, for the most part, does not lie with writer Amy Chu. While the storytelling and dialogue won’t knock your socks off, Chu plays with some interesting ideas, from the central murder mystery in the lab where Ivy’s alter ego, Dr. Pamela Isley, works, to Ivy’s characterization. It may not come as a surprise that Chu doesn’t depict Ivy as a full-fledged villain (even as Priest has been proving that it is possible to paint a protagonist as such and still tell a compelling story in his current Deathstroke series), but she’s not your typical anti-hero, either. She has generally good intentions, but we get the impression that her connection to animal life and distance from humanity gives her a sense of right and wrong, or lack thereof, that doesn’t fit and can’t fit with our own society.
This plays out in her dialogue as well as her actions. Here, Ivy doesn’t talk like a scheming evildoer or a seductive femme-fatale, but in cold, matter-of-fact language that highlights her “otherness.” Chu even wrings some deadpan humor out of Ivy’s personality.
“I need to increase the security around here,” Ivy says after a string of violent incidents. She then lays out a number of small potted plants around her apartment, including at least one that’s some kind of flytrap. “That should keep out anymore unwanted intruders,” she says.
Ultimately, though, as much as it’s peppered with cool ideas here and there, the overall product is never as compelling, fun, or memorable as you want it to be. And that’s not entirely Chu’s fault.
It’s not entirely the fault of the artists, either – at least, not individually. I don’t know which higher-up at DC was behind this book’s scheduling, or why they decided that it needed to be rushed out, but it’s clear that these issues were produced in a hurry. Why else would there be such wild inconsistency on a visual level from issue to issue? The first issue, penciled by Clay Mann with inks by Seth Mann, is the only one with just one penciler and inker – the ones who get cover credit. By the sixth issue, it’s penciled by Al Barrionuevo and Cliff Richards, and inked by Sandu Florea, Scott Hanna, and Cliff Richards, with no involvement from the Mann brothers at all, nor any indication of whose art is on which page.
I’m not trying to disparage any of these individuals, either—it’s not their fault that any time you have this many artists on one comic, no matter how good they are, it makes for a jarring reading experience. Taken discretely, one page at a time, this is generally a good looking comic. That’s part of what makes it so mystifying. Ethan Van Sciver, for example, is hardly a “fill-in” artist, but he shares the fourth chapter with two other pencilers. This is the man who is widely credited for helping revive the Green Lantern franchise, along with superstar writer and DC CCO Geoff Johns, in stories like Green Lantern: Rebirth and “The Sinestro Corps War.” Doesn’t he at least deserve his own issue?
Really, this is emblematic of a larger problem that has been brewing at both Marvel and DC for years: artists aren’t valued enough. If they were, they wouldn’t have treated the art duties on this book, as with countless other books, like an afterthought. I understand that sometimes, superhero comics must keep up with a rigid schedule in order to keep pace within the structure and timing of a shared universe. I get that deadlines are, and must be, a thing. But Poison Ivy is a six issue miniseries that doesn’t appear to have direct ties to any storylines that were going on in other DC comics at the time that the single issues were being released. They couldn’t have pushed the release date back a little to give the Mann brothers more time to draw?
Luckily, it’s all held together by colorist Ulises Arreola, who invigorates the comic with rich shades of green. There are other colors too, of course, all rendered in a lovely painterly style, but the green motif not only works thematically, but is surprisingly versatile. Arreola does a great job using the color to bring out other elements, like the red in Ivy’s hair, or the purple in the Mohawk of one of Ivy’s fellow scientists.
Still, even the wonderful coloring can’t save other failings in the art. Some pages are overly cluttered, while others are somewhat confusingly laid out, making for a frustrating and distracting reading experience. Letterer Janice Chiang, for her part, helps guide the reader as best as she can, but there were a few moments where I wanted to throw Scott McCloud’s “Understanding Comics” at the artists. This is not a consistent problem, but it is a problem nonetheless.
There’s one other complaint that I’ve been avoiding discussing, but I can’t put it off any longer: the sexualizing of just about every female character in this book. Look, there is nothing necessarily wrong with sexy comic book art. I’ve written about this before, but I generally believe that if an artist is going to draw almost every woman in a comic with super sexy figures, poses, and outfits, than the same should be done for male characters.
Perhaps as a straight guy I only have so much authority when it comes to identifying hot pencil-and-ink dudes, but none of the male characters in this comic are nearly as sexy as the women.
I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, like it or not, Poison Ivy was designed as a sexy character. A huge part of her deal is the way that she uses sex to manipulate men! Similar things can be said about Catwoman, who makes a brief appearance. Heck, I dislike the way that Harley Quinn has been oversexualized in recent years (for reasons that may be better left explored in another article), but at least her sexiness here is consistent with her recent characterization in other stories. I’d love to know how Amy Chu, one of the relatively few female writers recently published by either of the Big 2, feels about all of this.
On the other hand, do we really need this close-up of a high school girl’s short skirt?
Is It Good?
Poison Ivy: Cycle of Life and Death may be worth a look for hardcore Poison Ivy fans that want to see how much potential she is capable of. For everyone else, though, it’s too messy to recommend.