Easily Empathizing with and Conflictedly Rooting for Poison Ivy

Bill McKibben’s introduction to his 2019 book, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?, begins by reflecting on his 1989 text, “As the title indicates, The End of Nature was not a cheerful book, and sadly its gloom has been vindicated.  My basic point was that humans had so altered the planet that not an inch was beyond our reach, an idea that scientists underlined a decade later when they began referring to our era as the Anthropocene.  This volume is bleak as well – in some ways bleaker, because more time has passed and we are deeper in the hole…Put simply, between ecological destruction and technological hubris, the human experiment is now in question.  The stakes feel very high, and the odds very long, and the trends very ominous.”[1]  This is why a part of me can’t help but root, however conflictedly, for Poison Ivy in G. Willow Wilson (writer), Marcio Takara (artist), Arif Prianto (colorist), and Hassan Otsman-Elhaou (letterer)’s new miniseries, Poison Ivy, despite her goal being, you know, the absolute end of the human race.  Because maybe we kinda deserve it?  At least maybe we don’t not deserve it. 

I know.  It’s complicated.  This is why I love the series!  With two of its six issues released, Poison Ivy is a road trip toward the end of days all the while blaring a mix tape of existential pain, mourning-laced resolve, and striking body horror, which leaves the reader uncomfortable in ways we need to be uncomfortable.

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Ivy addresses the farmers whose cattle she’s returned to the earth, explaining the peaceful way in which she did so. / Photo Credit – DC Comics

Ivy’s journal (it appears she’s writing to Harley Quinn) serves as the series’ narration.  Images of decomposing cattle open the first issue, with fungi and other planet life erupting from the corpses as bugs and lizards crawl on them.  Over these images, Ivy narrates, “I know what you’re probably thinking.  Ivy’s been through a lot.  Split into multiple beings, fused back into one being, gained unfathomable powers, lost unfathomable powers.  After all that, she’s pissed off.  But this is not a story about revenge.  This is a story about love.  I don’t like killing animals.  In fact, I don’t like killing anybody.  But here’s the thing.  Humankind has warped the natural landscape so completely that even our food has become an ecological cancer.  These cattle were never meant to be here.  The native species that evolved in harmony with this land starve beneath their hooves.  The kindest thing to do is give them back to the earth.  To let them nourish the creatures they would otherwise destroyDeath is not something to fear.  It’s coming for all of us sooner or later, like an old friend.”

In the service of putting the world back in balance, Ivy has set off on a cross-country road trip releasing Ophiocordyceps lamia (or parasitic mushroom) spores along the way.  The spores are so light they can float through the air for miles and so fine they are nearly invisible.  Ivy controls them as she releases them, having some erupt immediately upon infection while others incubate in their host until they’ve returned home to help spread them further.  Using backroads and crisscrossing counties, Ivy’s ultimate destination is Seattle, aiming to give the lamia enough time to spread to the point it’s unstoppable before the Bat-Family notices.

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Ivy remembers the last kiss she shared with Harley before she broke up with her. / Photo Credit – DC Comics

Stopping at a bar late at night in the first issue, Ivy reflects on leaving Harley.  Their break-up was hard but she couldn’t forgive Harley for her part in the loss of her godlike powers.  She writes, “At the height of my powers, I spared the city of Gotham.  And in return, they clipped my wings.  I know you of all people understand why that’s so hard to forgive.”  Long, complex story short, during “Batman: Fear State” a villain known as the Gardener divided Ivy’s soul in two, placing all her joy, passion, intellect, and love (in essence, her humanity) in a seed and loosing a being known as Queen Ivy.  Ivy merged with the Green – a cosmic elemental energy force which is inherent to, animates, and connects all planet life in the universe (Swamp Thing’s connection to it makes him one of DC’s most powerful characters) – and Queen Ivy used her power to wrap Gotham City’s bedrock in vines, allowing her to destroy it with a thought.

Catwoman rescued the seed which held Ivy’s humanity and, in her love, Harley was able to resurrect/regrow this piece of Ivy’s soul.  With the help of the Gardner, Harley merged Ivy’s two halves back into a unified being.  Whole once more, Ivy used the last vestige of her godlike power to free the city, calm its inhabitants in the grip of Scarecrow’s Fear Toxin, and save a mortally wounded young girl.  Staring the Gardner down, Ivy says, “You took part of my mind, without my consent, because you thought you knew what was good for me.”  The Gardner replies, “I was just trying to help…”  Ivy cuts her off, “I’m not a hero, Bella.  I’m not a villain either.  I am myself.  I am Poison Ivy and I will do what is in my power to save this world, in my own way.  And I will make my own decisions on what I will become next.  Without you.”

Neither hero nor villain, Ivy is a woman who will save the world by ending humanity with her Ophiocordyceps lamia spores.  The first issue closes with Ivy writing, “It’s not that I dislike human beings.  As individuals they’re fine.  What I hate, what keeps me awake griding my teeth, is civilizationCollectively, we are an invasive species.  Sucking up every resource on the planet until all that’s left is a ball of superheated concrete.  The only way to save this beautiful blue marble is to get rid of all of us.  Every one of us.  Even me.  Because there is only one person who deserves all of this beauty.  And that’s you.  And there’s no way back from extinction…right?

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Ivy writes of Harley and the world, the only two things she loves. / Photo Credit – DC Comics

Now the whole destroy all of humankind thing is Classic Supervillains 101.  But this isn’t the Batman Who Laughs, driven by his madness to seek ultimate power in the multiverse, nor the Crime Syndicate, dark versions of the Justice League who’d rather conquer than save.  Ivy’s motives are saving the planet and wiping out humanity is the only workable path Ivy can see to her goal and when we look at the reasons which support that…well, Ivy’s not really wrong.

Look at our world.  Returning to Bill McKibben for a bit of context, he explains, “the lesson of the last thirty years is unequivocal: the planet was actually finely balanced, and the shove we’ve given it has knocked it very much askew.”[2]  Problematically, all we hear about our effect on the environment doesn’t seem to change our behaviors, at least not on anything like the scale needed for real change.  “And yet nothing slows us down – just the opposite.  By most accounts we’ve used more energy and resources during the last thirty-five years than in all of human history that came before.”[3]  We harm the planet in our ceaseless consumption of resources and in the sheer volume of waste we generate.  “By the middle of this century the ocean may contain more plastic than fish by weight, partly because we toss away so many bottles and partly because we take far more life from the ocean than it can reproduce.”[4] 

When we look at the effects of all this it’s, well, it’s far more than I can cover in a piece like this.  But to frame climate change at a glance, McKibben writes:

Those of us in the fossil fuel-consuming classes have, over the last two hundred years, dug up immense quantities of coal and gas and oil, and burned them: in car motors, basement furnaces, power plants, steel mills.  When we burn them, the carbon atoms combined oxygen atoms in the air to produce carbon dioxide.  The molecular structure of carbon dioxide traps heat that would otherwise have radiated back out to space.  We have, in other words, changed the energy balance of our planet, the amount of the sun’s heat that is returned to space.  Those of us who burn lots of fossil fuels have changed the way the world operates, fundamentally.

                The scale of this change is the problem.  If we just burned a little bit of fossil fuel, it wouldn’t matter.  But we’ve burned enough to raise the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from 275 parts per million to 400 parts per million in the course of two hundred years.  We’re on our way, on the present trajectory, to 700 parts per million or more.  Because none of us knows what a “part per million” feels like, let me put it in other terms.  The extra heat that we trap near the planet because of the carbon dioxide we’ve spewed is equivalent to the heat of 400,000 Hiroshima-sized bombs every day, or four each second.[5]  

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Ivy’s lamia spores infect and transform a farmer, leaving one less fossil fuel burning American for her to worry about. / Photo Credit – DC Comics

The effects of this heat are far-reaching and, again, beyond the scope of a piece like this to fully explain.  However, in the service of a small frame, we see the dire effects of this heat generated by our use of fossil fuels.  “The Great Barrier Reef is the largest living structure on Earth, but it is roughly half as living as it was three years ago.  Massive bleaching events in 2016 and 2017 (caused by the incursions of hot water that are becoming ever more common) devastated the northern and central sections.”[6]  Loss of biodiversity in our oceans is just a piece of the puzzle.  McKibben elaborates:

Paleoclimatologists, for instance, have discovered that…millions of years ago, during the Pliocene, with carbon dioxide levels about where they are now, the West Antarctic Ice Sheet seems to have collapsed in as little as a hundred years.  “The latest field data out of West Antarctica is kind of an OMG thing,” a federal official said in 2016 – and that was before the really epochal news in the early summer of 2018, when eighty-four researchers from forty-four institutions pooled their data and concluded that the frozen continent had lost three trillion tons of ice in the last three decades, with the rate of melt tripling since 2012.  As a result, scientists are now revising their estimates steadily upward…“Several meters in the next fifty to 150 years,” said James Hansen, the planet’s premier climatologist, who added that such a rise would make coastal cities “practically ungovernable.”  As Jeff Goodall (who in 2017 wrote the most comprehensive book to date on sea level rise) put it, such a rise would “create generations of climate refugees that will make today’s Syrian war refugees look like a high school drama production.”[7]

These ominous effects on our population aren’t limited to the climate refugees of “the future.”  McKibben outlines how climate-related troubles alongside violent conflicts among people are already undoing strides we made over the last decade fighting the effects of extreme poverty in the developing world:

I noted earlier that we’ve  seen a steady decline in extreme poverty and hunger…But late in 2017, a UN agency announced that after a decade of decline, the number of chronically malnourished human beings had started growing again, by 38 million, to a total of 815 million, “largely due to the proliferation of violent conflicts and and climate-related shocks.”  In June 2018, researchers said the same sad thing about child labor: after years of decrease, it, too, was on the rise, with 152 million kids at work, “driven by an increase in conflicts and climate induced disasters.”[8]

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While Ivy speaks of her plan, sadly we, as a species, have become really good at being really bad to the planet. / Photo Credit – DC Comics

The violent conflicts which tear apart our world are created and sustained by many interwoven factors and climate change is one.  “There are studies that try to quantify these changes – one standard deviation increase in temperature supposedly increases conflicts between groups by 14 percent – but you hardly need them.  Common sense will do.  The planet is crowded.  As we begin to change it, people are pushed closer together.  We know what happens next.”[9]  So malnourishment and child labor are rising due to the proliferation of violent conflict and climate-related disasters and climate-related disasters help create more violent conflicts.

None of this is new information.  It is, in fact, all easily accessible information and it’s been around for decades.  McKibben’s The End of Nature was the first work about climate change written for popular consumption and it came out in 1989.  We have had steady access to our ever-growing knowledge around the reality of the climate crisis ever since.  That’s thirty-three years!  Thirty-three years and we as a people, by and large, have done nothing. 

Can we blame Ivy for drawing the conclusions she does?  Her deciding humanity needs to end makes us uncomfortable but it makes us uncomfortable because it makes sense.  We are an invasive species!  At least that’s how we behave.  Issue #2 opens with Ivy writing, “Never say I hate the world or anything in it.  I love the world.  I love every root and seed.  I love every little pollinating insect.  And I love you.  It’s just that those are the only two things that I love.  One very big, the other very small.  Everything in between, I can’t stand.”  Again, can we blame her?  Over thirty-three years of largely superficial and/or performative action on the personal, local, national, and global level…why would Ivy have any love in her heart for civilization at large?  Connected to the planet in a way we aren’t, she feels the pain of the Earth in a way we can’t.  She loves Harley but how could she stand the rest of us when we treat the world as we do and she has felt it all?

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A vision of Ivy when she was one with the Green. / Photo Credit – DC Comics

Sure, we may do small things as individuals and our societies may make incremental and/or performative changes.  But we are largely ignoring the reality of this problem.  Why?  We, in the developed world, are comfortable.  As a result of our comfort, we can ignore the problem as the realities of malnourishment, child labor, fleeing rising sea levels, trillions of tons of ice melting in Antarctica, the Great Barrier Reef dying, biodiversity disappearing, and the heat of 400,000 Hiroshima-sized bombs being trapped in our atmosphere daily don’t land on our doorstep.  This willful ignorance lets us justify not making the lifestyle changes necessary to authentically and systemically care for our world.  This is why climate activists so often cite Mahatma Gandhi’s truthful declaration, “The world has enough for everyone’s needs, but not everyone’s greed.”  We like our comforts so we protect our willful ignorance.

Looking at this stark reality, I understand how Ivy can say, “What I hate, what keeps me awake grinding my teeth, is civilizationCollectively, we are an invasive species.  Sucking up every resource on the planet until all that’s left is a ball of superheated concrete.  The only way to save this beautiful blue marble is to get rid of all of us.  Every one of us.  Even me.”  While her avenue for salvation makes me uncomfortable, I agree with the rest.  And, while I don’t know that I’d want her to win, I believe the planet deserves her to…unless we get our act together.  I believe in our ability to be transformed in and through love.  I believe in our ability to transform our world and our relationship to the world in and through love.  But…




But look at our relationship to our world.  Look at how we cling to our comforts at the expense of the world, its biodiversity, and those who live in the developing world.  It’s impossible not to empathize with Ivy in her quest.  And it’s hard not to root for her, too.  A part of me believes she’s right.  That doesn’t mean I no longer believe in our potential to be transformed, just that a part of me, in the face of our grand indifference, worries we love our stuff more than we care about the world and everything living on it.  If this is the case, if our love of stuff and comfort is too strong, than Ivy’s approach is the only answer left and the Earth deserves her to win. 

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You’d be hard pressed to say we don’t have it coming. / Photo Credit – DC Comics

McKibben frames our unwillingness and inability to confront climate change like this:

Climate change is not a normal negotiation between different interests, where compromise makes obvious sense.  Climate change is a negotiation between human beings and physics, and physics doesn’t compromise.  Past a certain point, there’s no more room for maneuver.

                That point is clearly upon us: it’s not a good sign that the largest physical structures on our planet, its ice caps and barrier reefs and rain forests, are disappearing before our eyes.

                So: problem from hell.  Governments prefer to evade it.  Human psychology is not designed to cope with it.  It’s happening too fast.[10]

Ivy, too, is frustrated by our halfhearted attempts.  When the farmer who owned the cattle she kills draws his rifle on her, he shouts, “I’m sick of you Greenpeace types destroying honest folks’ livelihoods – -”  Ivy agrees, “I sympathize.  I’m sick of them too.  But I’m afraid I’m something much worse.”  For Ivy, with governments evading the problem and our psychological inability as a species to cope with it resulting in pointless performative actions, the only solution is our removal.  Yet this realization doesn’t mean Ivy’s happy about it nor is it easy for her. 

The whole of issue #2 plays out at a truck stop diner where Ivy wrestles with the consequences of her plan.  Sitting with a starving artist/poet named Jenny, and watching her talk to the nice man who runs the diner, Ivy writes, “They’re not bad people.  Their lives thread in and out of the tapestry of the world, individually harmless.  Can I really take that away from them?  What am I doing?”  Even as she questions her actions, her resolve remains firm.

The reason Jenny is sitting with Ivy is because the diner is packed and there are no other empty tables.  As the scene pulls out, it shows all the families sitting, eating, talking, and laughing with each other in the diner.  Alongside these scenes Ivy writes/narrates, “I have to stay focused.  I have to get to work.  It takes effort to guide this many spores around this many targets.  This is the perfect environment in which to seed new life.  Back at the truck stop, I activated the lamia spores immediately.  But now I tell them to wait.  Wait for all these people to disperse across the country, taking the lamia spores with them to dozens of towns.  Spreading my children far more effectively than I could do alone.  I remind myself that I’m giving them a much kinder and gentler death than the one they will have if they live through what’s coming.  They’re so complacent that they can’t see what these grasslands will look like in a few short years.  Wildfire season is already longer and more intense than it was just fifty years ago.  Very soon it will be impossible to stop.  We have less than twenty years left to save this planet.  Half measures aren’t enough anymore.  The only way to spare the Green from total destruction is to eliminate the problem.  Unfortunately, the problem is us.”

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Jenny and Ivy meet and share a meal before Ivy will infect her. / Photo Credit – DC Comics

While she is infecting the families at the diner, the police arrive looking for Jenny (who committed wire fraud with a library computer for some cash).  Ivy intervenes to help her, sending the lamia to the officers and waking it up immediately.  Ivy saves Jenny but also infects her.  As the cops die, coughing up blood with fungi erupting from their bodies, Ivy narrates, “She thinks I’ve saved her life.  And I suppose I have.  For a few hours.  The policemen are calm as death slips over them.  They feel no pain, no fear.  In fact, they feel something like bliss.  Jenny is right.  I am a hero.  In my own way.”

Ivy’s hero’s journey, as it were, is to save the planet by ushering in the sixth mass extinction in it’s history.  The Ordovician-Silurian Extinction occurred 440 million years ago as small marine organisms died out.  Then came the Devonian Extinction 365 million years ago when many tropical marine species became extinct.  The largest mass extinction in Earth’s history came next, with the Permian-Triassic extinction 250 million years ago and end of a wide variety of species including many vertebrates.  The next extinction of large numbers of vertebrate species 210 million years ago, in the Triassic-Jurassic Extinction, allowed dinosaurs to thrive.  Lastly there was the Cretaceous-Tertiary Extinction 65 million years ago which ended all nonavian dinosaurs.  Ivy aims to make humanity the subject of the sixth, as she tells two men she met at a bar who aimed to rape her.  Ivy easily incapacitates them physically and notes she could walk away, but releases the lamia anyway.  She tells them, “Don’t fight this.  In another minute, it won’t hurt at all.”  As their bodies begin to transform Ivy says, “You see?  Now you’re part of it too.  Life, death, rebirth.  The Green is always thinking.  And right now it’s thinking of you.  Welcome to the Sixth Mass Extinction, boys.”

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Photo Credit – DC Comics

Another mass extinction looming isn’t just Ivy’s fiction goal.  It’s knocking at our door now, even without superpowered hands pushing it along.  McKibben explains:

But these losses come from a multipronged assault: forests cleared for timber and farmland, coastal waters poisoned, tasty animals overhunted and overfished.  And now we are, far more rapidly than ever before in Earth’s history, filling the atmosphere with the precise mix of gases that triggered the five great mass extinctions.  It’s not that the planet can’t eventually deal with this: over the very deepest time, all that carbon will eventually be turned into limestone in the ocean, and into oil and gas and coal, and eventually the cycle will repeat itself.  If you back up far enough, nothing matters.

                But perhaps we, of all creatures, shouldn’t back up that far.  Unlike the fishes of the Permian, we’ve been given a warning.  Unlike the sauropods of the Cretaceous, we can do something about it.  As Peter Brannen wrote in his history of the great cataclysms, “Thankfully we still have time” – though clearly not much.[11]

We have been warned.  We can do something.  But our time is running out and choices, if we’re to make them, must be made sooner rather than later.  Like Ivy, we must decide our course of action and that decision rests on how we view our relationship with the world and everything on it.  Ivy justifies her plan by claiming the only way to save the planet is to destroy all of humanity.  But, as McKibben makes clear, the world will eventually reset from the damage we’ve done on its own.  It may take millions of years – and a great many species, ourselves included, will die along the way – but it will eventually shake off our damage.  Ivy’s not stupid.  She knows this.  But, as the series is beginning to make clear, there are deeper motivations for her actions than just losing all faith in humanity’s ability to change.  Driving Ivy is not just her radical stewardship for the planet but a nexus of pain, confusion, anger, and determination rippling out through her relationships with herself, her lover, her would-be natural supports, and everyone else. 

The next four issues will show what Ivy decides to do with her Ophiocordyceps lamia spores and within her web of relationships.  We have a little more time than four issues/four months to decide how we’ll live in relationship with the world…but not much longer.  Time is running out and there is no supervillain and/or antihero and/or ecoterrorist and/or wounded human being driving us to our destruction.  Rather, it is our own general apathy and obstinate refusal to give up our comforts, our excess, and our way of life which heralds our impending doom.  Frighteningly and frustratingly, this is an enemy far harder to defeat.

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Like Ivy, we too stand on the precipice of a monumental choice with implications for our entire world.  DO we act with courage, strength, and faith?  Or do we assume all is lost and live out our days in apathetic endorsement of what is? / Photo Credit – DC Comics

[1] Bill McKibben, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?. (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2019), 1.

[2] Ibid., 23.

[3] Ibid., 13.

[4] Ibid., 46.

[5] Ibid., 21-22.

[6] Ibid., 48.

[7] Ibid., 40.

[8] Ibid., 29.

[9] Ibid., 30.

[10] Ibid., 70.

[11] Ibid., 53-54.

5 thoughts on “Easily Empathizing with and Conflictedly Rooting for Poison Ivy

    1. I highly recommend it! In fact, I’m enjoying this so much I’ve been debating between buying “Batman: Fear State” or getting it from the library. You know I’m not the biggest Batman fan but, from what I’ve gathered from this series, they do some great character work with Ivy and Harley so I want to check it out. And THAT is a good story if it leads me to willingly read more Batman than I otherwise would!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. AHHHHHH! REALLY?!? JO! This is SO EXCITING!!! You literally just made my morning! I love, love, love, love this news!

      I’m glad you’re intrigued by the series, too. There’s so much beauty and conflict in it. The way Wilson’s narrative comes together with Takara’s art is really something special, too. It’s far more magical than I could ever capture with a few pictures in this post. I’ll look forward to hearing your thoughts once the trade paperback is released.

      And THANK YOU for giving me the good news! Ahhhhh, a twelve issue ‘Poison Ivy’ series! YES. My life absolutely needs this!


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