Look, we all know Batman is popular. And a large part of the reason for the DC Comics character’s popularity is his extensive, colorful rogues gallery. So it stands to reason that DC would want to highlight them as much as possible, and even revisit their origins now and again. Except, right now, DC is in the midst of publishing three entirely separate, otherwise unrelated Batman villain origin stories.
And to that I say: DC Comics, if you love Batman villain origin stories so much, why don’t you just marry them?
In case you’re not as steeped in the comic book release schedule as we are at Comic Book Club, here are three stories in question. The first kicked off last month in The Penguin #6, written by Tom King, and art by Stevan Subic. Though the ongoing story has shown how a down-and-out Oswald Cobblepot is slowly building up an army to take back the Gotham underworld from his wayward children, issues #6 and #7 are jumping back in time to show a younger Oswald, before he was Penguin, teaming up with Batman to take down his rivals.
Perhaps of note, Subic previously worked on The Riddler: Year One with writer Paul Dano, which showed the origin of that character leading into the movie The Batman. But that’s a movie, and came out almost a year ago, so let’s not worry about it too much.
Things hit critical mass this week with the release of two other Batman villain origin story issues. The first is Batman #142, which kicks off the three-part The Joker: Year One storyline, written by Chip Zdarsky, with art by Andrea Sorrentino and Giuseppe Camucoli. The second is Poison Ivy #19, written by G. Willow Wilson with art by Marcio Takara, as in the moments after Ivy is losing blood and possibly dying after giving birth to her own worst enemy, she [Walk Hard voice] has to think of her whole life before she plays. Or, less confusingly, flashes back to her own origin story over the course of multiple issues.
While Zdarsky insists Joker: Year One isn’t an origin story, it does pick up right after the character has become The Joker, and seems to be walking us up to the point where Joker becomes Batman’s arch-enemy. In the current continuity, Batman and Joker are currently sitting in adjoining jail cells, and Joker is telling Batman his story.
Meanwhile, the Poison Ivy story is part of a larger push on the part of Wilson and company to reframe Ivy’s character and origin in a more feminist-forward way, versus the male-gaze-centric takes on the character that have existed for decades. And the Penguin storyline serves as a break before the main action of the book, aka the assault on Gotham, and ties into King’s overall reframing of Cobblepot as one of Batman’s most dangerous foes.
So all three storylines serve a purpose in the overarching arc of the books. It’s just weird that they’re all coming out at the exact same time, in February, right around Valentine’s Day. DC, if you want to ask Batman villain origin stories to be your Valentine, just suck it up and do it.
All weird jokes about anthropomorphizing companies and comic books aside, is there a reason all three of these storylines are hitting at the same time? The go-to reason would often be that there’s some Batman movie with all the villains coming out, and DC is eager to have the trade collection on shelves in time for interested general consumers. That theory pans out for The Penguin series as a whole, given the Max (formerly HBO Max) series was supposed to come out early this year, and then filming was delayed by the SAG-AFTRA strike. So time-wise, the first collection would be on shelves timed to the series; and as is, that’s still true, though by the time The Penguin hits Max, we may already be two collections in.
But there’s no Poison Ivy appearance on screen, other than the ongoing Harley Quinn animated series. There is a Joker sequel coming out later this year, but that’s a musical with Lady Gaga as Harley Quinn, which hardly matches what Zdarsky is doing in Batman.
So I think the real answer is coincidence. All three of these books have hit a critical point in their storylines where it makes sense to take a pause and reassess the characters. In Batman, Joker has just been introduced for the first time in Zdarsky’s long run. Given the intricate plan Zdarsky has been playing out so far, and the fact that Batman has essentially lost to his evil alternate, Zur en Arrh, this is a good time to pause and find out why and how The Joker fits into the overall storyline.
With Penguin, as previously mentioned, he’s about to attack Gotham. The only time we’ve seen Batman in this book is in the opening issue when the two were captured in media res about to drown to death in the Batplane. So far otherwise, Batman has been a non-factor in the book to Penguin’s plans. So laying out the long history of their relationship provides context going into the next arc of the book, as Oswald reenters Gotham City and almost definitely runs into The Dark Knight.
And with Poison Ivy, the title character is about to die because she birthed Jason Woodrue, the man who made her who she is. Wilson and Takara have always leaned into twisted horror in this book, so using this near-death (come on, she’ll be okay in the long run) to jump back and lay in the relationship, which started mid-stream when the book began, is again a good rest stop in the middle of the action.
What’s perhaps most interesting about all these ret-cons of Batman villain origins is that the respective authors are smartly using the opportunity to connect them to the overall story they’re telling in their respective books. These aren’t otherwise unconnected miniseries, they’re not promising “everything changes!” and suddenly we find out Joker is Batman’s father or something. It’s using current continuity to do something fresh that, at the same time, informs the emotional and thematic stories the writers all want to tell anyway.
The end result is that DC can release Joker: Year One, Penguin: Year One, and Poison Ivy: Year One if they want to (though the latter two aren’t currently titled that), which is just good bookstore business. Everyone is always looking for an entry point. But for ongoing, monthly readers, you’re getting a story that you might know the bones of, but are finding out it has surprising, new bones at the same time.
Which one of the most exciting things that can happen. Imagine if you went to the doctor, and he or she said “great news, you have new bones.” You’d be so happy!
Anyway, ran off the rails there, but just to bring everything full circle: DC and Batman villains sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G.
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