Today, Michael and Spencer are discussing All-Star Batman 7, originally released February 8th, 2017. As always, this article contains SPOILERS.
Michael: A sympathetic villain is one whose immoral actions are motivated by noble intentions. Rather than being an outright force of evil, the sympathetic villain tends to have an ultimate goal — the ends of which justify the means. As a mass audience we tend to like our villains to be at least somewhat sympathetic — allowing us to latch on to some human emotion and understand them. You know who also likes to sympathize with his villains? Batman.
All-Star Batman 7 features the second part of the “Ends of the Earth” arc, moving Batman from the frozen tundra of the Arctic with Mr. Freeze to the blistering heat of the desert with Poison Ivy. I don’t believe that it’s a coincidence that Freeze and Ivy act as the featured villains for “Ends of the Earth” — and not just because they were both in Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin. Both Poison Ivy and Mr. Freeze are typically characterized as sympathetic villains, at least in the past 20 years or so. Pamela Isley and Victor Fries were both well-intentioned scientists who became freaks of nature with warped values and motivations.
Batman has fought Freeze and Ivy just as many times as he has the rest of his rogues’ gallery, but typically those fights end with Batman appealing to their humanity to help him do the right thing. In fact, that’s how Batman solves a lot of his problems: appealing to the “sane” versions of his villains. I can think of times when he’s done this with Harley Quinn, Catwoman, Clayface, and Two-Face, to name a few.
All-Star Batman 7 plays by that same formula, having Batman asking Ivy to help him, humanizing her by calling her “Dr. Isley.” Snyder has given the Dark Knight plenty of opportunities to extend an olive branch to the humanity of his villains in All-Star Batman — slapping around Two-Face and laughing at Mr. Freeze’s failure notwithstanding.
Then again that’s another through-line in All-Star Batman: Batman being a goddamn bastard. Batman likes to be the one in control, he likes to manage information and what people do with that information. He is trying to appeal to Ivy’s humanity by telling her about Lily — the girl who has been infected by Freeze’s ancient bacteria — but he withholds the information that she is dead. Ivy cuts through Batman’s bullshit right there as well as when she squeezes him for the information of the strike force that’s on their way.
In a way, then, Batman is the sympathetic villain here instead of Ivy: he has the well-intentioned goal of finding a cure for the bacteria but goes about achieving that surreptitiously. Batman knows that he’s going to ask the Dr. Pamela Isley part of Poison Ivy for help, so he doubles down on the sentiment by pretending as if Lily were still alive. It shouldn’t be that surprising that Batman is trying to manipulate Ivy in this way, he is the master planner after all.
The revelation that Lily has been dead this whole time is a classic Snyder twist. Throughout the issue artist Tula Lotay gives us flashes of plague, biohazard suits, and quarantine, counting down from 13. Our mind is trying to make sense of these nightmare images as we receive them, so we connect them to the “Rescue Lily” narrative that Batman provides Ivy. When Ivy calls Batman out on his lie we realize that we haven’t been watching a contagion countdown clock but Lily’s story in reverse.
Lotay colors the book with a lot of the lush reds, greens, and purples that we’d associate with Poison Ivy. When she taps into her entrancing powers of seduction and control, Lotay provides a trippy, disorienting aesthetic as if the ultraviolet colors were vibrating into one another. She portrays the enemy blackhawk’s “quantum stealth” as smudges on a glass, perhaps reminiscent of what Ivy might see under her microscope.
I laid out some pretty harsh claims against our Dark Knight’s motivations, but despite his trickery Snyder reminds us that Batman is the good guy in the end. Poison Ivy gives Batman one of her mind-controlling kisses and believes that’s why he’s defending her from the smudge soldiers. After the fight is over he reveals to her that he was defending her of his own accord because he was wearing wax lips. How do you like that Bat-fans? Scott Snyder threw in a wacky plot device from Batman and Robin! Though this begs the question of how Ivy’s powers actually work. In the beginning of the issue she controls the art-hating store clerk simply by willing it — she didn’t need to kiss him.
Spencer I’ll be honest — I still don’t know what to make of “The Cursed Wheel” backup, so I left that for you to explore. Do you have any thoughts/theories on my little thesis of All-Star Batman’s villains’ humanity and/or Batman being a bastard? Do you like the subtle building momentum of whoever those Blackhawks are? And did you ever make the connection that a lot of Batman’s villains used to be doctors? What’s up with that? Final thought: I don’t think you should ever name an epidemic after a child who died from it, but maybe that’s just me.
Spencer: There is a tendency to name newly-discovered diseases after the first person known to die from them (Lou Gehrig, anyone?), but it’s a rather ghastly one, and especially cruel when applied to a young child.
Anyway, bastard is probably a strong word to describe Batman, but he certainly is in one of his more manipulative modes throughout this issue. What hits me funny is that, while Batman was on the right track, he never really needed to manipulate Poison Ivy at all to get her to help. Saving a young girl’s life wasn’t what caught her attention — preventing her from being demonized for something out of her control was. It’s pretty easy to see why.
Obviously Ivy’s actions and memories are a little twisted, but she sees herself as someone who was just searching for knowledge — quite literally seeking the tree of life — and was punished for it. She believes she was misunderstood and “misrepresented” by Bruce Wayne, and now she’s branded a criminal, forever haunted by the label (something that seems to be represented, at least in this issue, by the Black-Op troops hunting Ivy and her work). Batman obviously thought that Ivy would see some of herself reflected back in young Lillie’s passion for plants and science, but what Ivy sees in that mirror instead are her own tragic, unfair circumstances. She sees a young girl whose name will forever be linked to a horrific virus, who will be eternally, unfairly vilified for nothing more than a desire to learn, for her own quest to find the tree of life.
That’s what the last of these countdown flashbacks show us: Lillie’s own quest to find something beautiful and life-affirming. That’s what Ivy wants Lillie to be remembered for, in a way Ivy herself never will be.
I suppose that’s what makes Ivy a sympathetic, perhaps even tragic villain. She may like plants more than people, she may casually (and convincingly) threaten to release a killer virus if she doesn’t get her way, but she not only has the capacity to do great good, but quite often legitimately wants to as well — she just needs a push to remember how. Even at his most dickish, Batman is able to see that in Ivy and provide that push, and that makes him pretty darn sympathetic as well.
I always knew Tula Lotay’s lush art would be a perfect fit for a Poison Ivy story, but I was still surprised by how good a fit it was for a Batman story as well, especially the kind of international stories Snyder’s telling in All-Star. The splashes of color and texture keep the desert environment feeling alive, and the early page with Ivy’s road-trip drawn over a map is an inspired touch. And even in this desert environment, Batman gets to be a ninja.
In fact, the issue even opens on a shot of Batman trudging through the desert. How did he get here? Who knows?! We don’t get to see the vehicle, just the fact that Batman is suddenly there. Even Ivy, who can sense that someone is approaching her camp, can’t tell it’s Batman until he lets her see him. How does he just suddenly appear like that, even in an environment with no cover whatsoever?! Removing Batman from Gotham City is always a risk, but in All-Star Batman it just adds to his mystery.
Over in the “Cursed Wheel” back-up, Duke Thomas pulls a classic Robin move: blatantly disobeying Batman by sneaking out against his orders. It’s a move that almost feels cliche, yet I think that could be exactly what Snyder’s going for — if Duke is learning to be a better crimefighter by imitating the paths of Batman’s other partners, then this is probably a vital lesson.
Batman continues his streak of being understanding and comforting (although far less manipulative, thankfully) in this story, trying to talk Duke through his distress, both physical and mental.
Francesco Francavilla still depicts Batman as imposing (because he’s Batman: how can he not be?), but although stern, he’s clearly trying to open up to Duke. It’s Duke who shuts him out, turning his back, crossing his arms, lowering his head, and closing his eyes. He feels like he has to disobey Batman, do things his own way, and quite likely learn the hard way as a result. I bet that’s not officially a part of Batman’s Cursed Wheel, but it’s probably the most Robin move he could make in this situation.
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