Does it count as consent if the person you’re with has been programmed to never go against your orders — to always give consent, no matter what?
In the recent Heroes in Crisis series, we saw Harley Quinn framed for murder and Poison Ivy killed — and subsequently reborn as a shell of her former self. Poison Ivy was essentially dehumanized and objectified for the sake of wringing some angst out of Harley Quinn. A death blatantly teased for several issues even though her body was never shown on panel, Ivy’s bloody body was ultimately proposed as a pin-up cover for the series’ penultimate issue. Because apparently nothing sells comics like artwork of a dead bisexual woman covered in her own blood.
That same seventh issue featured Ivy’s startling rebirth in a body that was more plant than human. Having essentially turned into a pale imitation of Swamp Thing, Ivy’s reunion with Harley side-stepped how gruesomely she’d been treated as a plot device while simultaneously delivering on the fact that Ivy no longer has nipples or a vagina with her new body. In a sense, it gives free reign to sexualize and exploit Ivy’s attractiveness to new lengths, because she’s not human anymore.
Fortunately in sharp contrast, this month saw the widespread release of Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass by Mariko Tamaki and Steve Pugh. Part of the DC Ink imprint, Breaking Glass reimagines Poison Ivy as Ivy Du-Barry, a young woman of Black and Asian descent, and an outspoken activist who does everything she can to speak against the blatant racism, classism, and sexism constantly thrown in her face and the face of her community.
Nevertheless, with the arrival of yesterday’s Jody Houser and Adriana Melo’s redemptive Harley Quinn & Poison Ivy mini-series, it’s worth remembering that this is not the first time this character has been metaphorically stuffed in a fridge.
Of course, Poison Ivy has died in several out-of-continuity tales, like when she was feasted on in Batman: Crimson Mist or similarly murdered by Batman in Batman/Demon: A Tragedy. Ivy’s had her mind destroyed and was driven into a catatonic state in JLA: Created Equal. Batman: The Animated Series featured a plant copy of Ivy gruesomely melting away in Batman’s arms, while her last appearance in the show proper had her seemingly drown at the end of the episode “Chemistry.”
The incident I particularly want to discuss all doesn’t take place in a DC comic, however. No, this one goes all the way back to the 1980s when Marvel Comics published Squadron Supreme, a twelve-issue maxi-series written by Mark Gruenwald and pencilled by Bob Hall and Paul Ryan. The character I’m talking about right now is Olivia Underwood, a.k.a. Foxfire, who was essentially Marvel’s pastiche of Vixen, Poison Ivy, and Star Sapphire.
In light of the confluence of Poison Ivy’s horrific treatment in Heroes in Crisis, her mini-series with Harley Quinn built on said horrific treatment, and her role in Breaking Glass as a young biracial woman, echoes of Foxfire’s story resonate with me. It is necessary to discuss how horribly racist her story was and the grotesque implications of the sexual unevenness of her relationship.
This woman who was brainwashed, used as a slave, and then sacrificed herself for a man who was not worth it. And ultimately, the sexual abuse overtones of Foxfire’s story were minimized compared to the abuse shown to the other paler characters in Squadron Supreme.
But we need to take a step back. This is about how Foxfire died. And what it means for Poison Ivy today.
The Squadron Supreme was Marvel’s version of the Justice League. Not their answer to it, but their version of it. They started off as a group of villains called the Squadron Sinister who fought the Avengers. Later on, an alternate universe version of the Squadron Sinister called the Squadron Supreme appeared when the Avengers travelled to Earth-712.
The twelve-issue Squadron Supreme series focused on the titular team’s attempt to create world peace on their Earth. Needing to clean up the mess created when their Earth was taken over by the Over-Mind, the Squadron initialized their “Utopia Program” and took over the United States government. Their policies included stricter gun control and implementing advances in medical science, but their biggest project was the Behavior Modification Device. Invented by super genius Tom Thumb (the Atom), the B-Mod Devices were meant to “cure” criminals of their aberrant behavior and make them law-abiding citizens.
In short, they’d be brainwashed.
Out of the entire Squadron, the only objections against using the B-Mod Devices came from members Amphibian (Aquaman) and Arcanna Jones (Zatanna). Both voiced their opinion the devices were tampering with peoples’ minds and essentially violating their very beings, but they were outvoted.
Later on, the Squadron’s enemies in the Institute of Evil tried to use the B-Mod Devices to turn the Squadron into villains. They were defeated after Tom Thumb revealed he secretly programmed the machines so they couldn’t ever be used on the Squadron.
Of course, Tom only recently installed this little feature after he realized his teammate Golden Archer (Green Arrow) secretly used the B-Mod Device to brainwash his ex-girlfriend Lady Lark (Black Canary) to fall madly in love with him. Keep this in mind too.
After the Institute was defeated, the Squadron voted to have these villains modified so as to serve the Squadron and thus “be good.” They were later voted into the Squadron as full members, even though they were also programmed of being incapable of betrayal or ever saying “no” to any veteran Squadron member.
Amphibian was the only person who voted against this as he argued they were using the villains as slaves. And when the truth about Lady Lark’s brainwashing was exposed, Amphibian quit the group out of disgust towards their hypocrisy.
While all this was happening, former Squadron teammate Nighthawk was staging a rebellion. He believed the Squadron was violating the basic civil liberties of the American people and realized it wouldn’t take much for their programs to be corrupted or used irresponsibly should the Squadron fall out of power. Nighthawk started training a resistance group with the villains who escaped the Squadron’s notice and the heroes who hadn’t publically debuted yet. The newer heroes planted themselves into the Squadron while Nighthawk, allying with the villain Master Menace, figured out how to undo the B-Mod Device’s effects. Covertly breaking the former villains out of the Squadron’s control, Nighthawk’s group staged an attack that ended with several dead and the Squadron putting an end to the Utopia Program.
One member of the Institute of Evil was a woman who went by the handle “Foxfire.” Real name Olivia Underwood, Foxfire was a scantily clad Black woman with the power to project from her hands a bioluminescent energy capable of rotting matter. In layman’s terms, she had a poisonous touch. Not much was known about her past or where she gained her abilities, but she appeared to be a frequent enemy of Nighthawk when she wasn’t a member of the Institute.
It took me a long while before I realized Foxfire was supposed to be, at least in part, the Squadron’s version of Poison Ivy. Both Foxfire and Poison Ivy’s abilities are poison based, Nighthawk is the Squadron’s version of Batman, both Foxfire and Ivy use sex appeal, and their names are floral references. Understand too that Foxfire was created back when Ivy’s real name was “Lillian Rose,” not “Pamela Isley.” Rose / Wood.
One reason why Foxfire is so significant is not only that she’s the only person of color in the entire cast, but also is the only woman who dies in the story (aside from one minor character). After the Squadron brainwashes her alongside her Institute of Evil colleagues, she adopts a brighter costume which, while still rather daring, is clearly meant to be considered less “trashy” than her previous outfit. This is a sign the Squadron’s tried to make her “respectable,” even though she’s still dismissively called a bimbo by regular civilians.
Foxfire’s ongoing subplot involved her forming a relationship with veteran Squadron member Dr. Spectrum. Frankly, she doesn’t get much in the way of character development that didn’t involve her new lover. When Nighthawk’s group frees her from the behavior modification, she’s offered the choice to help take the Squadron down. Foxfire accepts, but quickly shows she has doubts on her mind. Despite no longer being brainwashed, Foxfire can’t bring herself to hate the Squadron for violating her mind. Nor can she bring herself to hate Dr. Spectrum, whom she still loves.
While she can’t necessarily turn on Nighthawk’s group since she’s outnumbered, once the group engages in battle with the Squadron, Foxfire switches sides. Foxfire pleads her love to Spectrum, saying she didn’t care what the Squadron did to her because they made her an “honest woman.”
To prove her love, Foxfire uses her power to kill Nighthawk assuming the rebellion will fold without its leader. Though she feels absolutely no joy in killing Nighthawk and fears she may be damned.
Just as Foxfire tells Spectrum the Squadron can now win, she’s immediately stabbed through the back by Mink, Nighthawk’s lover. Foxfire’s last words before she passes out are that she killed Nighthawk for Spectrum’s love. She dies several hours later while in an operating room.
The only other time Foxfire is mentioned is in regards to being Nighthawk’s killer.
So, where to start from all that.
I do need to say that, while the story eventually clarifies the B-Mod Devices were immoral and their usage shouldn’t have been condoned, the racial and sexual implications of Foxfire’s story are essentially glossed over.
Going back to the fact Foxfire’s the only Black woman in the entire cast of heroes in villains, as well as the only Black person in the cast, it makes the notion of her being used as a slave alongside the rest of the Institute of Evil even more horrific. She is a Black woman who had to be taught the proper way to act, a positioning with multiple layers of misogynoir. The Squadron’s implemented what they believe are necessary measures to make Foxfire a law-abiding citizen, zapping her of her free will and leaving her unable to say “no” to any of them. This is rape culture, and how Black women are seen by white supremacy, and everything that those institutions produce in their significant overlap.
You see her face in that last panel? That is the face of a woman who is terrified at the thought she unintentionally spoke against her master. Even if Foxfire is still sexy and flirtatious, she’s under the Squadron’s control and she only acts this way because they LET her act this way. If they wanted, they could’ve programmed her to become the biggest prude on the Earth and still would’ve argued it was for her own good.
Her relationship with Dr. Spectrum is what ultimately gets Foxfire killed by the end of the story. Again, the implications of their relationship and how toxic it truly was don’t get discussed at all. You can argue Spectrum never forced Foxfire into loving him and she hit on him first, but Spectrum doesn’t have to force her to do anything because she will always agree with him.
She then enters into a physical relationship with Dr. Spectrum, one of the people she has been modified to be absolutely loyal to. So Foxfire is with a man whom she can never say “no” to, no matter how she might feel on any subject. The concept of consent was taken from this relationship long before it was a thought on either of their minds.
There are also some grossly lopsided issues regarding the B-Mod Device’s role in the relationships of the Squadron. Earlier I mentioned the situation regarding Lady Lark and Golden Archer, overtly abusive and blatantly sexually abusive, too. Also, both Lark and Archer are white.
Lady Lark and Golden Archer were longtime lovers, but Lark did not want to commit to marriage. Before she was a super-hero, Lark was a successful musician. She had to quit because her vocal chords were surgically altered against her will, granting her sonic powers, but leaving her unable to sing. Lark always hoped to go back to her career someday. She couldn’t see herself marrying Archer because she knows he loves being a hero and felt the things they wanted were too different. She tried to let him down as gently and respectfully as possible.
What did he do? He lashes out and accuses Lark of cheating on him, before he secretly used the B-Mod Device to brainwash her into total obedience.
This backfired spectacularly on Archer, because Lark became mindlessly devoted to him and started smothering him in affection 24/7. Disturbingly, when the truth about Archer’s assault on Lark came forward, the decision to have him kicked out of the Squadron was NOT unanimous. Arcanna Jones is the only one to basically state Archer raped Lark’s mind, while Amphibian argues the Squadron didn’t have a right to judge him because they did the exact same thing to the Institute of Evil. Archer’s still kicked out of the Squadron, but Lark is simply allowed to leave with him. It wasn’t until the sequel story that Lark was freed from Archer’s control.
While the consequences of Archer’s actions are still downplayed (he even makes a backhanded plead of guilt before saying he never would’ve brainwashed Lark if the Squadron hadn’t invented the B-Mod Device), they’re also still viewed as more clearly horrible than the supposed murkiness of Foxfire’s relationship with Dr. Spectrum. Would that have been more noticeable if Foxfire wasn’t Black?
Finally, there are the circumstances surrounding Foxfire’s death and how it’s her unhealthy love for Dr. Spectrum that kills her. Her last acts are a desperate attempt to save Spectrum and prove she’s still a woman worth loving, in a way that gets her remembered as a cold blooded killer.
But when Foxfire is stabbed and slowly starts bleeding to death in Spectrum’s arms, the moment is meant more as a catalyst for the awakening of Spectrum’s new powers — absorbed from his shattered “Power Prism” (the equivalent of a Green Lantern ring). He doesn’t realize this until Foxfire’s dying in his arms, and in his grief he lets out a blast of energy directed at Foxfire’s killer. All her development was built around Spectrum, and her death is used to unlock a cool new ability for him.
Out of the two times Foxfire is posthumously mentioned, it’s only about her killing Nighthawk.
The second time it’s referenced, she’s not even referred to by name. Jim Calafiore even draws her looking deliberately malevolent, creating a false depiction of her actions and why she killed Nighthawk in the first place. And she never received a counterpart in “Supreme Power” series alongside many of the other Squadron characters.
In light of the contrast between Heroes in Crisis and Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass, Foxfire’s role as a Poison Ivy homage seems particularly poignant, especially as she’s been undeservedly ignored for decades. The events of Squadron Supreme demonstrate that Ivy’s death in Heroes in Crisis is not the first time the character has been metaphorically objectified, and summarily discarded. Foxfire also shows that Ivy Du-Barry is not the first time Ivy has been transformed into a Black woman, but the handling has drastically improved between the two stories.
We also need to acknowledge that outrage around Ivy’s role as a dead white woman far exceeds outrage and discussion around Foxfire’s role as a dead Black woman, a character remembered only for her killing a white man to prove her love to another white man. A white man that had a hand in stripping her of her free will and programming her to act the way it was believed she should behave.
And if we want to continue being outraged over the misogyny and sexism perpetuated in the way Poison Ivy was brutalized and stripped of her humanity, then we need to be cognizant of patterns — across decades of published material, and in our own reactions and priorities as well.