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Who is Poison Ivy? The origins of Dr. Pamela Isley

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Batman Rogues Galleries is, almost without a doubt, one of the most iconic, and Poison Ivy is no exception to the rule. She’s also one of the most visually striking characters, often barefoot with a green costume made of leaves and vines.

Poison Ivy was created by Robert Kanigher and Carmine Infantino, at a time when Batman was massively popular thanks to the 1960s live-action television series. As a result of the show and Catwoman’s popularity in it, they wanted more female villains. To respond to this demand, Carmine Infantino and Robert Kanigher created Poison Ivy who made her debut in Batman #181 in June 1966 (where she was penciled by Sheldon Moldoff). The character never made it to the show.

The character was in part inspired by the short story “Rappaccini’s Daughter” written by Nathaniel Hawthorne. It is about a young woman who tends a garden of poisonous plants and becomes toxic herself. Her design was modeled on Bettie Page, with Ivy having the same haircut and figure.

Poison Ivy is a woman with a poisonous touch who can manipulate all plants. She also possesses a complex and rich history and became more and more powerful with time and several retcons…

Poison Ivy in the Silver Age

If Poison Ivy was introduced in 1966, her first origin story was told more than 10 years later by Gerry Conway in the pages of World’s Finest Comics #252… in a Wonder Woman backup story.

Meet Pamela Lillian Isley… Though the FBI thinks she is named Lillian Rose, at that particular time. Raised in an upper-class family, her trouble began when she fell in love with her French botanic teacher, Marc Legrand. He manipulated her and convinced her to steal an Egyptian urn containing ancient herbs for him. Despite having no experience in thievery, Pamela pulls it off but Legrand uses the deadly herbs to kill his lover and disappear into the night…

Somehow, Pamela’s system absorbed the poison into her bloodstream and metabolism and fought it like antibodies fighting a disease. Against all odds, she survived and became immune to all poisons.

It has to be said that it was a weak origin story for Poison Ivy, a character inspired in part by the feminist movement and presented as an independent villainess, with no ties with any other villains.

Pamela was no damsel-in-distress, she was a deadly femme fatale. In her early appearances, Poison Ivy wanted to become the Queen of the Underworld. She quickly established herself among the most dangerous Batman villains, though unfortunately also suffering from a classic case of being a lovestruck woman wanting Batman to love her when she wasn’t just trying to kill him. She was at first mostly an expert seductress, capable of manipulating her enemies through the use of plant pheromones. With time, she gains some abilities, like a form of control over plant life and also motivation to protect the natural world. As for her skin, she appeared with a normal flesh tone during this period… But this will change in the next era…

Poison Ivy in the Modern Age (and Beyond)

As you all know, the DC Universe was rewritten following Crisis on Infinite Earth. Pamela Isley’s origin story was revised by writer Neil Gaiman in Secret Origins #36, published in 1989, with some pieces of information delivered in Black Orchid #1. It’s not the last time her history is told and a little bit redefined, as Ivy also reminisces about her past in Joker’s Asylum: Poison Ivy. More recently, the villain known as The Gardener recalls Pam’s history in Batman: Secret Files: The Gardener during Fear State within the Infinite Frontier era.

What is the truth about Poison Ivy? Pam has made up her previous origin story. The truth is her real name is Dr. Pamela Lillian Isley, Ph.D. She studied advanced botanical biochemistry at a university as part of a research team (with Alec Holland) under Dr. Jason Woodrue, the future Floronic Man. He is the one who poisoned her, turning her bloodstream into deadly poisons by nearly killing her twice and driving her crazy as a result. She gained the ability to create her own toxins as well as being immune to poisoning.

Her skin turned also green for the first time during that period, giving her the power to draw energy from sunlight as plants do. It has to be said, that she didn’t become a full green-skinned woman immediately. It became a more established feature after Batman: The Long Halloween and The New Batman Adventures animated series where she had an olive complexion, but also after her regular appearances in the Harley Quinn comics in the 2000s. The animated series also laid the foundations for the Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn friendship, which will evolve into something more.

Poison Ivy’s powers also grew and after seemingly dying and being reborn, her powers over flora were increased. She can be considered as much a goddess of nature as an eco-terrorist by the people surrounding her.

Poison Ivy in the New 52

If Poison Ivy’s studies with Jason Woodrue can be considered for most of DC Post-Crisis continuity part of her origin story, the character has a different background during the New 52 era.

During this more gritty era, Derek Fridolfs rewrote Poison Ivy’s character origins in Detective Comics #23.1, published in 2013,

In this version, Pamela Isley was born with a skin condition: an aversion to sunlight. She learned how powerful flowers can be, by observing her parents’ relationship. Her father was an abusive and violent man who was buying his wife’s forgiveness with flowers. He also forbade young Pamela from going outside, restricting her to the family garden where her mother frequently tended to the gardening. In the end, her father killed her mother and buried her beneath her flower garden.

Pamela wasn’t the subject of the experiment in this version. She was a more than capable student who landed an internship in Wayne Enterprises’ Bio-Chemistry division. There, she accidentally spilled chemicals she was working with on herself, gaining her powers.

After that, she followed her now classic path as an eco-terrorist, even as she joined the Birds of Prey for a time. She also headlined for the first time her own series with Poison Ivy: Cycle of Life and Death.

Introduced as a supervillainess who feels attracted to Batman, Poison Ivy will grow throughout the years, though not without some difficulties and rewriting, to become a more complex character with more defined motivations. Her obsession with plants, botany, and extremist environmentalism led her to become the most prominent eco-terrorist on the planet. Ivy wants to save the world from men, by any means necessary. But, if her cause requires it, she’ll work with Batman, making her walk the fine line between villain and anti-heroine.

Want to read more about Pamela Isley? We invite you to check out our Poison Ivy reading order!

Last Updated on December 19, 2023.

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