Review: POISON IVY: CYCLE OF LIFE AND DEATH TPB

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POISON IVY: CYCLE OF LIFE AND DEATH TPB
Written by Amy Chu
Art by Clay Mann, Stephen Segovia, Robson Rocha, Seth Mann, Ulises Arreola, and more
Published by DC Comics
Release Date: September 7, 2016

Poison Ivy has a brand new life. Re-securing her credentials as a botanist, Dr. Pamela Isley is ready for a quiet existence with her research in tow. But it is all for naught when her newfound colleagues start turning up dead and the finger gets pointed at the felon in their midst. Will Ivy end up the scapegoat or will she be able to complete her work — the creation of life itself in her own image?

There’s something about the women in Batman’s life that inspires a whole lot of loyalty among their fans. We see it with Catwoman, certainly. Batgirl. Batwoman. Gosh, Harley Quinn has fans coming out her wazoo these days. And Poison Ivy, although long paired with other women and showcased beyond traditional “villain” status, seems to be the last one to get her due.

Despite decades of publishing — less than Catwoman, although far more than Harley — Ivy seems to vacillate between inscrutable terrorist and charming gal pal, with not much substance behind those renderings. We’ve seen a few glimpses of her origins. We know what she’s like as an adversary, a manipulator, and even a romantic partner. But for how lovely the blossom that has consistently risen toward the sky, the soil in which she is planted has been rather shallow, for the most part.

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Enter writer Amy Chu, who shatters any sense of caricature in Ivy’s persona and delivers a fully rounded, living and breathing woman, complex and fascinating, in this collection of the six-part Cycle of Life and Death series.

Chu doesn’t set out to unravel Ivy or lay bare every motivation so that she, as a foil or protagonist, “makes sense” to the reader, but instead seemingly builds the character from the ground up with layers of nuance — some that see the light, and others that only feel hinted at. It’s a sophisticated way to portray a character that’s had little consistency over the years, and some might say counterproductive. But there’s a certain brilliant madness to the craft of making Ivy feel so whole and complete that those inconsistencies don’t seem to matter anymore. They’re rubble by comparison.

It’s not just the idea of Ivy taking on a “human” persona as Isley, of course. And in fact, that endeavor seems to underline broadly her discomfort with human interaction overall. Some of it, I’m sure, is distrust. The bulk, however, seems to be split between disinterest and lack of recognition. She’s no more human than my aloe plant is a willow tree, and so there’s a palpable sense of otherness that feels cold and imperious, but also somewhat sympathetic.

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Here we have a woman whose closest approximation of blood family is some dude who fell into a swamp. Her closest companions historically are hyper-sexual women, and having read a certain amount of asexuality into Chu’s rendering of Ivy (although threads of bi-romanticism are also present), I can imagine the kind of distance that exists between her and those with whom she allies.

That sense of asexuality makes the conception of her “research” — human-plant hybrid babies Hazel and Rose — even more fascinating a personal endeavor. And in some ways, it makes the accomplishment of building her own family and her own personal connection to another being all that more glourious to watch unfold. Not to mention, the mystery behind the deaths of Ivy’s colleagues, and Ivy’s own calculations to that effect, do keep me glued to my seat until resolved.

All in all, Chu has recreated so much of Ivy in such a short span of panels and pages, and yet at no moment does she feel not fully realized, as if she were the subject of a Victorian novel we’d read over and over, gleaning new observations of the lady with every single pass.

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It makes it all the more unfortunate, given Chu’s advanced prowess at depth of character, that she has so much working against her from the art team. With page after page, and cover after cover, of highly sexualized, highly objectifying renderings of Ivy and other women in the book, I just have to wonder how in the world anyone ever thought Clay Mann and the bevy of other artists were the right choice. It’s astonishing how large a disconnect there is between Mann’s lead on pencils — beginning with an immediate transformation of 13 year-old Gotham Academy lead Maps into a late teenager whose short skirt and butt frames an entire panel — and Mann’s sensitivity and careful rendering.

So many panels and scenes are simply dominated by upskirt shots, or centered on Ivy’s crotch at the horizon line, or feature an ample bosom just toppling out of the equivalent of barely constructed leafy pasties. It’s not a question of being prudish, nor of Mann’s competency — the work is very well-rendered and even when other artists come in, they follow Mann’s lead to the letter. The volume actually reads quite well artistically as one piece.

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No, it’s that the mismatch is so profound between Chu’s vision and Mann’s overriding sexualization of Ivy that poses the problem. With another writer, a different vision of who this woman is, Mann’s sultry line and overarching male gaze would be the perfect match for Poison Ivy. But it’s not here. Not even a little. And it takes a significant amount away from what Chu has accomplished.

Where the artists work well with each other is framed by the consistent colors of Ulises Arreola, who does support Chu’s vision a little better in parts by rendering so much of the environment and Ivy’s complexion with a pleasantly dull flatness. That doesn’t seem like much of a compliment, but in reality, taking a bombastic approach to color with the kind of subtlety Chu is aiming for would have been at cross purposes.

Still, Arreola has his own curious moments, with one panel — duplicated on the back cover of the volume — that’s shaded nearly to look like it includes an exposed nipple from the series star. Alas, this feels a little bit like par for the course given so many other pages throughout.

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I think the best I can say about this volume is that it tried very hard to breath new life into a very underserved character and fell short only in ways outside the control of the creators, not intention. Mann’s style is what it is, and that it’s a sincerely poor fit for Chu’s direction for Ivy is neither his nor the writer’s fault.

But it does seem to underline some significant difference of opinion between forces behind the scenes. Maybe DC isn’t quite ready to let Poison Ivy bask in the limelight and set down new roots? Here’s hoping that’s not the case, and we see more of Amy Chu’s vision in another volume, or ongoing, before a frost.

The Verdict: 7.0/10

 

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