Most of the villains generally considered to be on Batman’s “A-list” of foes were introduced in the first decade or so following the Caped Crusader’s first appearance in 1939. The Joker first arrived on the scene in 1940, barely a year after his heroic adversary’s debut, as did Catwoman. The Penguin and the Scarecrow followed soon after, in 1941, while Two-Face first turned up in 1942. Even the Riddler, a character who wouldn’t really take off until the mid-Sixties, debuted as early as 1948.
I may be as old as dirt, but even so, I’m not quite ancient enough to have been around for any of those characters’ introductory appearances. On the other hand, I am old enough, and also fortunate enough, to have been present for the debut of another member of that top rank of Batman baddies — the villainess known as Poison Ivy.
“Beware of — Poison Ivy!” led off the 181st issue of Batman. The story, written by Robert Kanigher, pencilled by Sheldon Moldoff, and inked by Joe Giella (though bearing only the byline of Bob Kane), opens with the Dynamic Duo in civilian guise, taking in an unusual art show:
Just in case you’re wondering, these three villainesses had never been seen prior to this story, and, alas, would only make a few rare appearances afterwards. But before we have much of a chance to consider the oddity of a prestigious art museum devoting an exhibit to the glorification of three wanted criminals, however beautiful, this happens:
Yes, Poison Ivy’s crimes are so perfect, no one knows about them — so, just like any other master criminal would do, she makes a big public appearance to gain attention and, um, invite arrest. Not to worry, though — Ivy has no intention of letting herself be taken in, and promptly escapes Bruce’s custody using a lipstick which makes the camera flashbulbs of the attending press photographers explode and blind everyone, including Bruce and Dick. His blindness notwithstanding, Bruce quickly changes to Batman and heads off in pursuit, though he then almost immediately kills himself falling down the open shaft of an elevator closed for maintenance. (Oops.) Eventually our blind Bats does catch up with Ivy, but is set upon by her thugs:
Decisions, decisions! Ivy ultimately makes her getaway, even as Robin arrives to help Batman mop up her abandoned henchmen. Afterwards, noticing the dumb grin on his mentor’s face, Robin advises his older chum to go home and take a cold shower. “You’re already breaking out in a rash about Poison Ivy!” “Don’t forget I’m human too, Robin!” Batman replies. “I can lose my head like any fool! But — I’m okay now!” Sure you are, Bruce.
Meanwhile, Ivy decides to table the question of whether she ought to go for Bruce or Bats until after she’s proven to both that she’s the “No. 1 Woman World Public Enemy”, which she plans to do by eliminating her three rivals. She sends a letter to each of the villainesses, challenging them to meet at a neutral spot to prove who’s best. Soon afterwards, all three women appear at the appointed time and place, accompanied by their gangs, and mass fighting breaks out. (Though, believe it or not, none of these hardened crooks try to shoot each another; it was a different time.) As she’s invited Batman and Bruce as well, the Dynamic Duo also show up to join in the wild melee. Ivy takes out her three rivals by tricking them into grabbing for a “queen of crime” crown, which turns out to be electrified, then makes a play for the Caped Crusader:
It turns out that Ivy is wearing lipstick with a chloroform base — but since Batman is wearing nose-filters, it doesn’t affect him. (Well, not much.) Ivy then attempts to escape by climbing straight up a wall, “like she was ivy!”, as Robin puts it. (Or like Spider-Man, as my eight-year-old self might have put it had he been Marvel-aware at that point — but since he wasn’t, didn’t.) Batman shrugs off the lingering effects of the villainess’ kiss and throws a batarang which knocks Ivy off the wall and into his waiting arms. “You’ve caught ‘poison ivy’, Batman,” Robin observes. “Ha, ha, ha!”
Twelve briskly-paced pages (2 of which were actually half taken up by advertising), and that’s it for Poison Ivy’s historic first appearance — though, as promised by the final panel, she’d be back as early as the next issue. (Technically, it would actually be the issue after next, as Batman #182 would be an 80-Page Giant reprinting pre-1964 tales of “The Strange Lives of Batman and Robin”, as pictured at right — an issue I once possessed and still remember fondly, but which, alas, went astray sometime in the last several decades.)
“But wait!” I hear you, the Bat-savvy reader, exclaim. “That’s it?! Off-panel ‘perfect crimes’, some flirting with Bruce/Bats, a chloroform kiss, and wall-crawling? What about deadly plant toxins and mind-controlling pheromones? What about communion with vegetable life and eco-terrorism?” I hear you, friend; but the fact of the matter is that those aspects of the character weren’t a part of Poison Ivy’s original conception. Writer Robert Kanigher seems to have chosen Toxicodendron radicans for the moniker and motif of his new villainess primarily for the opportunity it provided to make non-stop references to Batman’s being “infected” by the “contagious” Ivy. Following Batman #183, Poison Ivy wouldn’t make another appearance in a Bat-book until Batman #291, in 1977 (though she did appear in a number of other DC titles in the intervening years, including Lois Lane, Justice League of America, Secret Society of Super-Villains, and even Super Friends). Her almost-mystical affinity for plant life and mastery of botanical biochemistry developed over the decades, with some of the most influential details coming by way of author Neil Gaiman, in a couple of stories published in late 1988. Gaiman produced a new origin for Ivy which linked her with several other of DC’s plant-oriented characters, including Swamp Thing, Black Orchid, and the Floronic Man.
This fully-matured conception of Ivy has since been featured in a number of memorable stories (and others not-so-memorable), and has inspired some of comics’ finest and most distinctive illustrators, including P. Craig Russell, Tim Sale, and Bruce Timm, respective examples of whose work are displayed below:
(As you’ll have noticed, the illustration by Timm, one of the primary architects of the “DC Animated Universe” of the ’90s and ’00s, features Ivy entwined with Harley Quinn — a co-creation of Timm’s who was established as a frequent partner [in more ways than one] of Ivy in Batman: The Animated Series — a relationship that was then carried over into the comics.)
Today, Poison Ivy is more popular than ever, and has even been reimagined (much like Catwoman before her), as more of a morally ambiguous antiheroine than an outright (and rather lethal) villainess. 2016 has found her headlining her own miniseries for the first time, and also participating in another project, DC Super Hero Girls, which features teenage versions of a number of DC’s female characters attending high school together. Here’s the official website‘s character page for Ivy:
I gotta admit, I’m still not sure what I think about this last one. I’m all for Girl Power, but I’m not certain that Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn are a great fit with Wonder Woman, Supergirl, and Batgirl. On the other hand, these are different versions of the characters…
But whether conceived as sprightly “green” teen heroine, mystical “May Queen”, or pathologically murderous criminal, there’s no doubt Poison Ivy has come a long way from the “dangerous dish” (Batman’s words) originally introduced by Kanigher, Moldoff, and Giella in Batman #181.
As has already been noted, “Beware of — Poison Ivy!” only took up the first twelve pages of Batman #181. There was a lot more to the issue, starting with a really nice two-page pinup of Batman and Robin by Carmine Infantino and Murphy Anderson, who of course also contributed the issue’s classic cover. Unfortunately, I no longer have that illustration, because I removed it from the comic and, y’know, pinned it up. (Actually, I probably used Plasti-Tak, since Mom would never let me stick pins in our walls. But I digress.) Still, thanks to the magic of the Internet, I can still enjoy it virtually, and even share it with you:
For my money, Infantino’s and Anderson’s rendition of the mid-Sixties “New Look” Dynamic Duo is definitive. The only negative thing I can say about their “Batman” work is that there’s not enough of it.
The pinup was followed by the issue’s second and final story, “”The Perfect Crime — Slightly Imperfect”. I’m missing the story’s first page (which was printed on the back of the pinup’s bottom half), but thanks to DC having reprinted it in Showcase Presents Batman #2, I can verify that, like the first tale, it bore the sole byline of Bob Kane. Unlike the debut of Poison Ivy, however, the identities of this story’s actual creators are in some dispute. The Showcase volume, the Grand Comics Database, and Mike’s Amazing World all agree in crediting the script to Gardner Fox, but disagree as to who produced the artwork. Showcase indicates it’s by the exact same two illustrators as the lead story, though a cursory look through the pages of both would (I believe) convince most readers that’s highly unlikely. Meanwhile, the GCD and MAW both identify the inker as Sid Greene, which looks right to my admittedly non-expert eye; but the latter credits the pencils to Moldoff, while the former makes a tentative attribution to Chic Stone, whom I know primarily as an inker of Jack Kirby’s work at Marvel. Could be either, I suppose; ultimately, though, it’s one of the many, many “who the heck did this?” mysteries of comic book history that will probably never be definitely answered.
In addition to carrying the Bob Kane byline, this story’s splash page identified it as a “Mystery Analysts of Gotham City” tale. The Mystery Analysts were an exclusive club of mystery-solving Gothamites that included Commissioner Gordon and, of course, the “World’s Greatest Detective”, Batman. In this issue’s adventure, their fellow member Kaye Daye, a mystery novelist, creates a furor at the group’s regular Wednesday meeting when she announces she didn’t actually write the latest book to carry her byline (which is kind of ironic when you think about it, cough, Bob Kane, cough):
As the group soon learns, however, this young woman isn’t the real Kaye Daye at all, but an impostor — the real Kaye has been kidnapped and marked for death as part of an inheritance-grabbing scheme. Not to worry, though — Batman, with a little help from his fellow Mystery Analysts, solves the mystery, rescues Kaye, and brings the impostor and her confederates to justice, all in twelve tidy pages.
The very first appearance of the Mystery Analysts of Gotham had been in Batman #164, the launch issue of the “New Look”, and I believe that the concept, with its emphasis on (relatively) realistic tales of detection, may be seen as representing the essence of what editor Julius Schwartz hoped to accomplish with his new approach to Batman. The Mystery Analysts turned out to be very much of their era, however, and unlike Poison Ivy, their post-Sixties appearances have been few and far between — though an iteration did appear as recently as 2014 — in Scooby-Doo Team-Up #2, of all places:
As I’ve written in this blog before (and surely will again) — there’s nothing in comics’ past, no matter how long it’s been since it was last seen, that may be assumed to be gone forever.
We’ll wrap up our recap of Batman #181 with a look at not just one, but two missives from the issue’s “Letters to the Batcave” column.
One of the pleasures of reading through old comic book lettercols is discovering the names of fan correspondents who eventually became comics pros. A few months back, I posted about artist Dave Cockrum’s letter printed in Hawkman #13. This time, it’s writer Mike Friedrich‘s turn:
Friedrich probably isn’t as well-known by contemporary comics fans as he should be — but in addition to his eventual scripting of titles like Iron Man, Justice League of America, and, yes, Batman itself, he would go on to make a huge contribution to the development of the independent comics field through an anthology title he edited and published in the 1970s, Star*Reach, frequently called the first “ground-level” (as opposed to underground or mainstream) comic book.
Considering his eventual career, it’s a little ironic that in this letter young Friedrich speculated on the identity of the writer of a Bob Kane-bylined story in Batman #178 — and got it wrong. As subsequently revealed in the letters column, the story under discussion wasn’t by “our man on the inside” E. Nelson Bridwell (a fellow fan who’d become a pro, anticipating Friedrich’s own coming transition), nor was it by any of the other candidates Friedrich put forward — rather, it had been scripted by the author of the lead story in this very issue, Robert Kanigher.
Mike Friedrich was seventeen years old when this letter was published. I think we may safely assume that Julius Schwartz wasn’t too disappointed by the young man’s failure to peg the true author of “Raid of the Rocketeers”, as within a year he’d be purchasing comics scripts from him. Indeed, Friedrich’s first published comics story would appear in Batman #200, just a little less than two years after this issue’s publication.
The second “Letters to the Batcave” item of note from this issue is more interesting for the editorial reply than for anything in the original letter. Reader Mickey Gaither wound up a generally positive review of Batman #178 with a few critical remarks about the portrayal of Robin:
That “camp” reference is a bit of a non sequitur, isn’t it? While I’ve long known that the critical characterization of the Sixties Batman TV series as camp came along pretty early in the pop cultural conversation, prior to re-reading this issue, I hadn’t realized it was on the minds of editor Schwartz and his cohorts as early as April, 1966, just three months after the program’s debut. Clearly it was, though; and it’s a little poignant to find the evidence of that awareness on this letters page, immediately following a tale of the “Mystery Analysts of Gotham City” — a concept as antithetical to the TV show’s camp aesthetic as could possibly be imagined in 1966.
Was the “New Look” era of Batman already about to come to an end, or at least to be irrevocably changed? Would the comic-book characterization of the Caped Crusader be forever warped by the enormous commercial pressures being brought to bear by the sensational success of the television version? I hope you’ll join me for my upcoming blog post about Batman #183, where we’ll address these and other questions. Same Bat-time, same Bat-channel. (C’mon, I had to say it at least once.)