Title courtesy of the Coasters’ old song, “Poison Ivy,” which tells you whose debut I’m about to discuss.Despite Bob Kane’s signature, the art for Poison Ivy’s debut in Batman #181 came from Sheldon Moldoff, with Robert Kanigher scripting. Kanigher did a number of Bat-scripts in ’66 but they always feel off to me, though they sometimes have interesting touches. “Birdmaster of Bedlam” in Detective Comics #348 isn’t very good but it’s a little shocking that the eponymous villain’s first crime kills one of Bruce Wayne’s dates as collateral damage. In the Silver Age it feels like anyone Bruce goes out with should be safe — I mean, she’s dating Batman! But not this time.
“Beware of — Poison Ivy!” tries to convince us that Ivy is a serious badass villain but it falls flat. In the opening scenes, after we learn about the world’s top three female criminals, Poison Ivy shows up and declare she tops them all — she’s so good, nobody’s even suspected her (this is a nice touch, one several later comics would use with other villains). But now she wants her place in the limelight — though not enough to get caught, of course.The A-plot revolves around Ivy challenging the other women, then taking them all down. Kanigher is much more interested in the B-plot though, wherein Ivy flirts with Batman in both his identities and Batman enjoys it. At the climax it seems Ivy’s so sexy, even the Darknight Detective can’t resist.As the splash page shows, the kiss leaves Batman gobsmacked, but that’s because Ivy adds chloroform to her lipstick. With Robin’s help Batman shakes off the spell and brings Ivy in, game over. Or … is it?It’s a ho-hum story and Moldoff’s art doesn’t make Poison Ivy as irresistible as she’s supposed to be. Having Carmine Infantino illustrate it might have been a better choice, based on the Infantino/Murphy Anderson cover. I may not be the only one underwhelmed: after a second appearance two issues later Poison Ivy didn’t battle Batman again until Gerry Conway’s run in the early 1980s (though as many characters I like had similar absences, that doesn’t really prove anything). In-between she battled Wonder Woman and the Super-Friends, joined the Injustice Gang and the Secret Society of Super-Villains, but apparently Batman did get over his case of Poison Ivy.
When I finished Ivy’s origin (part of my Silver Age reread of course) my first thought was “Why didn’t they use Catwoman?” because Ivy reads like a second-rate Selina (though as Kanigher co-created Harlequin, that may have been more of an inspiration). Catwoman also did a story where she sought to prove herself the number one female villain (Batman #45). She could kiss Batman into letting her go and unlike Ivy, didn’t need any gimmicked lipstick to make it happen. Selina’s also much more capable of violence if the smooches don’t work. So why create a new villain who does the same sort of thing, only worse?
I found the answer in Michael Eury’s Batcave Companion: William Dozier, the Batman producer, wanted “more chicks” as villains. As Julie Newmar was already swaggering through the show, writing a Catwoman story wouldn’t have met Dozier’s needs. Though obviously Ivy didn’t either as they never used her; did they also think she came too close to Catwoman or was there some other reason?
Even if it didn’t make sense to write Catwoman into this story, it’s puzzling Julius Schwartz and his Bat-team didn’t use her in another issue. By 1966, the Batman TV show was a certified hit and DC was starting to respond (I’ll say more about this another time). The Riddler had seven comics appearances while the show was on the air; the Joker and the Penguin had a half-dozen each (not all of these were in the main Bat-books). Every comic-book reading kid in America knew Catwoman from TV. Yet outside of an appearance in Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane, the Feline Fury didn’t show up anywhere — except for a statue in World’s Finest #159 until the end of ’67.
Catwoman gave up crime in the 1950s because DC worried about becoming a target for anti-comics censors. Critics could argue that having Batman turned on by a criminal, especially one who cracked a whip, made DC both soft on crime and pro-kink — indeed, the infamous Fredric Wertham made exactly that argument. Better to drop the Cat and escape the wrath (by the way, if you’re at all interested in the anti-comics crusade, this book is the one to read). Green Lantern’s romance-minded foe Harlequin was retconned into an undercover FBI agent for similar reasons.
Comics censorship was no longer a serious threat by the mid-sixties but was DC still worried? Was it just that nobody on Julius Schwartz’s team had any interest in writing a woman supervillain? Even so, I’d think the Batman show would make Catwoman hot enough to change that.
But apparently not.
#SFWApro. Covers by Infantino, interior art by Moldoff.