Pulp and Dagger

Graphic Novel Review


Batman & Poison Ivy: Cast Shadows

2004 - available in soft cover

Written by Ann Nocenti. Painted by John Van Fleet.
Letters: Todd Klein. Editor: Joey Cavalieri.

64 pages

Published by DC Comics

Cover price: $6.95 USA

There's something about the modern incarnation of Batman villainess, Poison Ivy, that seems to bring out the sensitive side in a comics writer these days. Certainly when John Francis Moore penned a Poison Ivy tale for the comic book, Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight (included in the TPB collection Batman: Collected Legends of the Dark Knight) and later penned the one-shot graphic novel, Batman: Poison Ivy (1997), he wrote stories that were more than just mindless fisticuffs of Batman tackling a one-dimensional foe. Oh, they weren't necessarily high art, or especially sophisticated -- they were both superhero thrillers, after all. But they were touched by humanity. Likewise, Ann Nocenti's Cast Shadows is not necessarily a milestone in comics literature, but it is an agreeable read, injecting some nice character stuff, and thematic threads and symbolism, into a reasonably well paced thriller.

Poison Ivy is currently incarcerated in Arkham Asylum where a new therapist has been treating her with hobby-based therapy -- encouraging Ivy, the erstwhile botanist with the poisonous kiss, to continue her work with plants. But when a newly erected skyscraper threatens to block out the light to her window, trouble ensues. People start contracting a lethal toxin, and Batman is forced to call upon Ivy's assistance in finding an antidote...but he begins to suspect she might be responsible for the cause, not just the cure.

The story begins with echoes of Grant Morrison's much ballyhooed -- and grossly over-rated -- decades old Batman graphic novel, Arkham Asylum, in that we open in Arkham itself and are treated to the darkly creepy world of the inmates. But unlike Morrison's graphic novel, Nocenti doesn't let it get away from her, or become swamped in pointless self-indulgence.

Nocenti's handling of Batman is also nicely down-to-earth. There have been some comics writers in recent years who have kind of embraced the idea of Batman as an ultra hard nosed, almost fascistic fanatic. But Nocenti's Batman is more human, more compassionate. He's a guy who can unself-consciously stand around a brightly lit hospital corridor discussing medical options with a doctor, rather than remain coiled in the shadows, his cloak wrapped about him like an understudy for a roadshow production of Dracula. And though he is mistrustful of his old foe, Ivy, he can engage in conversations with her that are without rancor, even tinged by sympathy. One can appreciate the fact that, for a superhero action-adventure, the crime-busting takes a backseat at times to trying to combat a disease. In fact, cops are little in evidence in this story, as Batman's chief foil this time out is the local medical examiner. This is a far more humane take on the "plague" concept than was employed in another Batman TPB collection, Contagion.

Of course, as noted at the beginning of this piece, Nocenti has not necessarily written anything extraordinary. Though well-paced, it's not an especially complex or twisty tale for 64 pages. To be fair, she does keep us guessing a little as to how much, or in what way, Ivy is responsible, but it's not exactly a brilliant study of red herrings and misdirection.

It's in her treatment of the characters, and the use of symbolism and themes, that the story lingers in the mind. The very concept of rampant urbanization, as the towering skyscraper blocks the light from those around it, adds a tinge of social comment, even if it's understated. And at one point Ivy complains to Batman about her cell, saying "It's so dark in here" and Bats responds "There's nothing I can do about that." At first it seems Batman is being a touch callous, then you go: oh! I get it. They aren't really talking about her cell, but her psyche.

Ironically, the biggest weakness with the story is the painted art by John Van Fleet. I say ironic because I suspect that was meant to be a big selling point: oooh, painted art, the fans are meant to whisper. Van Fleet does a good enough job with the people -- they look like people, and are real enough -- but his backgrounds are sometimes muddy, even when he's going for a hyper- realism (I think he's actually using photographs for the backgrounds in some panels). He so blurs the image, or washes it out with colour, that it can still be hard to figure out quite what you're looking at. Cast Shadows is more a suspense-thriller than an action piece, which is just as well as Van Fleet's handling of the occasional action scene can also be hard to figure out precisely what's happening. Which isn't to say the art ruins the story. Particularly when characters are standing around, talking, the scenes are well enough portrayed. And there is often a certain ineffable, moody atmosphere with which painters can imbue their work. But ultimately I can imagine quite a few pencil and ink artists who would've done as well -- and better -- with the material.

The bottom line with Cast Shadows is that it's a story as much about the people as the events, and one that, though clearly pretentious at times, doesn't forget that it is, after all, meant to be an entertaining adventure. It's a decent, likeable read and sometimes, on a rainy day, that's all you can really ask for.

Reviewed by D.K. Latta

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