Today, Shelby and guest writer Mike are discussing Batman: The Dark Night 23.1: The Ventriloquist, originally released September 4th, 2013. This issue is part of the Villain’s Month event. Click here for our Villains Month coverage.
Shelby: It’s a well-documented fact around the non-existent Retcon Punch offices that I love morally ambiguous anti-heroes. That character who walks the dividing line between good guy and bad guy makes for such an interesting and exciting read. My love of the gray area between good and bad extends to the various shades of good and bad; some good guys are more good than others, some bad guys are more bad than others. With the Justice League dead, this month is going to feature a lot of bad guys encountering bad guys, and as is the case in this issue, no one really wins. Not even the reader, sadly.
Shauna, our favorite telekinetic psychopath has holed up in an abandoned theater with her pervy ventriloquist dummy Ferdie. While her signs out front promising a show (and more importantly, free food and power), lure in civilians, she is “interviewed” by a (dead) TV reporter about her rise to “stardom.” Her story of being a perfect, beautiful, talented child who’s plain twin brother tragically died young contrasts heavily with the truth; she was the plain, ignored child who killed her brother with her telekinesis because she was super jelly of his rising fame. She begins her show for the hungry, cold civilians who have gathered, who all have an appropriate human response to what they see.
At this point, some regular thugs break in and discover “bad guy” has a whole new meaning here. They were just looking to steal some food and rape some ladies, but soon they have their eyes gouged out by a seemingly sentient ventriloquist doll. Ferdie makes his way back to Shauna to finish the show, only to find that she poisoned the food and all the civilians are dead.
I still don’t totally get this version of Ventriloquist. She’s telekinetic, an actual ventriloquist, and suffering from psychopathy, multiple personality disorder, and probably other terrible mental afflictions, yes? I guess the only big difference between her and the original Ventriloquist is the telekinesis, so her dummy can actually go around and commit terrible acts on his own, but does that mean that during Ferdie’s killing spree, she was controlling him with her mind and somehow throwing her voice over the entire theater to make him talk, all while making up the dead civilians to look like him? Because even for me, that stretches the imagination some.
I guess the other big difference between Shauna and the Ventriloquist we grew up with is who is in charge. With Arnold Wesker, it was always Scarface who was in charge, Scarface who did the bad stuff. Here, even though Ferdie has the personality of a handsy drunk uncle, it’s Shauna who does most of the murdering, Shauna who orders Ferdie around. I like that she’s the one with the agency, and I really like seeing more crazy lady villains in my comic books, but this just feels forced. Shauna is too evil, if that makes any sense. She has been plotting murder since basically the day she was born.
This sums up all the problems I have with this issue; I just don’t believe it. I don’t believe in Shauna’s powers, I don’t believe how evil she is, I don’t believe that she was universally panned as a child, as a newborn! Babies are adorable, but newborns all look the same: wrinkled, red, and angry as hell. There is no way a nurse at a hospital would gush over a baby to the point of forgetting about that baby’s twin sister. There’s a chance that what we’re seeing here is Shauna’s view of her childhood, that she perceived the world as fawning over her brother to the point of forgetting that she existed. But then why present us with two lies from Shauna about how she was raised? If the story she tells the (dead) reporter about how beautiful and talented and awesome she was is the lie filtered through her warped view of reality, why show us another, opposing warped view to counter it? Are we not supposed to know the truth behind Shauna? Is her psychosis so deep that she doesn’t even know the truth behind her life? That could be the case, but it just comes off as either nonsensical or clumsy and forced.
Which is why it’s so surprising to me this issue was penned by Gail Simone. There’s none of the personality we usually see in her work here. Everyone seems flat; the civilians are hungry and scared and gullible, the street toughs think they’re hot shit, Shauna is unbelievably evil. Honestly, Ferdie’s bizarro collection of love letters to Babs might make him the most developed character in this issue. Everything is flat and shocking for shock’s sake, which actually seems a fairly decent depiction of this whole Villains Month gimmick. On that winning note, I’m going to turn things over to our old friend Mike. Mike, how did you feel about this issue? The only thing I liked about it was that Simone was ballsy enough to kill all the civilians in the end, did you have any positive takeaways?
Mike: Excellent points all around Shelby; I whole-heartedly agree. Being a reboot/replacement of Wesker-Ventriloquist I think that Shauna-Ventriloquist has a lot riding against her from the get-go. Add to that the fact that she is so overtly unsympathetic, and you have a new Batman/Batgirl villain that is an extremely hard sell.
Man, do I miss Arnold Wesker and Scarface. One of the best/silliest parts of Bat-villains like The Ventriloquist/Scarface, Black Mask and Two-Face is clearly these men are psychotic, but they have these straight-laced mobsters following their every command. Despite being a puppet with a tommy gun, Scarface was a major player in the Gotham underworld. Shauna-Ventriloquist on the other hand, is just another “performance artist villain;” another cheap knock-off of The Joker essentially. She doesn’t have a gang, she telekinesis; and the best thing she can do is…bring a puppet to life?
Shelby was spot-on with the breakdown of the strange flashback storytelling. Gail Simone’s deliberate choice of the dichotomy between Shauna’s perceived reality and the actual one is a nice touch, but everything that actually transpired just seemed unbelievable. Given how Shauna’s past is depicted, does Simone really intend for us to feel sympathy for this character? If not, Shauna is just another villain who throws morals out the window and kills people because “why the fuck not?” Yeah, because we definitely need more of those kinds of characters.
Let’s touch back on that power set of hers. I, like Shelby, was kind of frustrated with how adept Shauna seemed to be at controlling Ferdie (I kind of hate this name btw) while she was off painting faces etc. In the flashbacks we saw her doing relatively “simple” things with her telekinesis, which generally involved slight pushes, pulls or breaks. On the other hand, making a puppet walk, talk and kill seems like an extremely complicated process to me; especially while multi-tasking with one’s face-painting skills. The letters to Batgirl were a nice touch, but does that imply that in the case of The Ventriloquist that the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing? This is a new character but already there are so many plot holes and excess baggage thrown in that as a reader you really just don’t want to deal with her at all.
Another thing I’m not too fond of is Ferdie’s power-drill hands, or whatever you want to call them. I guess you need to give a tiny wooden man an upper hand of some sort, but I think it is just a little too over-the-top grotesque for me. Also, who constructed those damn things? I’m pretty sure there is no direct correlation between telekinesis and carpentry/engineering. Gail Simone can write creepy characters well, as evidenced by pretty much anything in Secret Six, but the nature of Shauna-Ventriloquist just seems gratuitously violent. In general I have been extremely underwhelmed with Simone’s new villains in Batgirl, and Shauna-Ventriloquist is no exception. Tonally, she feels like a hodge-podge mixture of Two-Face, The Joker and someone who is batshit crazy, like Professor Pyg or Mr. Zsaz (in certain depictions.)
A couple of random thoughts I had while reading this issue:
Did anyone else think that the dude with the daughter looked like the psychiatrist from Watchmen? It’s a minor thing, but he kept reminding me of him.
Also, the “Crime Alley Cretins?” REALLY? These guys look like a bunch of hobos from the 90s, and for some reason they’re acting like they run Gotham city. I mean look at the picture, the dude is actually rolling a shopping cart! Total hobo.
And yeah Shelby, this is probably a good example of what Villain’s Month as a whole will be. Yikes, it’s going to be a LONG month…
I say this more and more often these days: Goddammit DC. Goddammit.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to DC’s website and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?