Super Types

October 7, 2010

Gotham City Sirens: Abused, Broken, and Reborn

Gotham City Sirens

My favorite current comic book series is undoubtedly Gotham City Sirens (GCS). It’s hard to not love a comic book that focuses on three of Gotham’s most tantalizing, but villainous, beauties: Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn, and Catwoman. (Having Paul Dini as the writer for a great number of the issues doesn’t hurt, either.)

I’ve always had a soft spot for the bad gal in any medium. As a woman, it sometimes feels like I’m able to vicariously live out some dark fantasy through these characters. However, I don’t envy this trio their respective origins. Unlike their male counterparts, the catalyst for their rebirth as villains can largely be chalked up to abuses by the men in their lives. Granted, origin stories of comic book characters tend to be updated and changed now and again, but let’s look at some of the basics for these three ladies.

Poison Ivy
Poison Ivy: Though it experienced some tweaks along the way, Ivy’s origin has remained fairly consistent. Both transformations from Dr. Pamela Lillian Isley to Poison Ivy involve a man attempting to poison her. This poisoning (and in one case, repeated poisonings) gave Ivy her unique plant powers. The series of repeated poisonings that were perpetrated by Dr. Jason Woodrue actually drove Ivy insane and nearly killed her twice. From there she launched into a life of eco-terrorism.

Harley Quinn
Harley Quinn: Dr. Harleen Frances Quinzel started her metamorphosis to Harley Quinn at Arkham Asylum. At Arkham she met the Joker, who played to her sympathies. She soon became infatuated with him and helped him to escape. Their relationship continued, but it was a decidedly abusive one. He lied to her, he was mean to her, and more importantly, he attempted to kill her.


Catwoman: Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman, definitely has the most muddled origin story of the Sirens. Though her back story has surfaced in a number of incarnations, many of them point to a history riddled with abuses, and many at the hands of men. Her father, Brian, was supposedly an abusive drunk. When she was sent to an orphanage at a young age, she discovered they were embezzling money, so they attempted to drown her. One of the back stories has her as a prostitute. Even the film Batman Returns has Selina pushed out of a window by Max Schreck. The woman just cannot catch a break.

So why all of the abuse? None of these women started out particularly evil, but it seems the treatment they received from men caused something to snap within them. I don’t recall any male villains in the Batman story lines turning to a life of crime after having a woman poison them, abuse them, beat them, etc. (Please, do correct me if I’m wrong here.)

Abuse as it relates to female characters in comics is nothing new. (Women in┬árefrigerators, anyone?) However, I don’t think that it’s always additive to the character’s development. I also don’t think a non-abused villain would automatically be any less dynamic and interesting than one that has been abused. It’s an easy motive to fall back on to lead the character to the path of villainy, but perhaps too easy. Some of the scariest and most intriguing villains are the ones that aren’t bent on revenge, or the ones driven to crime by others in their lives. However, in the instance of our Gotham trio, perhaps this shared past of abuse actually ties them together in some way.

As an example, let’s take Gotham City Sirens #15. The tables are turned on Ivy, and she finds herself under the influence of an extraterrestrial plant man. When Harley encounters her and tries to talk some sense into her, she recounts the abuses she suffered at the Joker’s hands and reminds Ivy of how she had tried to keep her from returning to her vitriolic “puddin’.” Their degradation at the hands of men serves as one of the bonds between them.

For now, the backgrounds of our trio are set firm in the canon and are largely unchangeable pending an alternate reality or something equally as drastic. The positive side of this is that GCS uses the past as a device to bring the characters closer together. My only hope is that, while still a viable option to turn a character to the dark side, abuse isn’t relegated solely to female characters. I’m sure there are a few male villains that can count abuse as an element in their move towards evil (Hush comes to mind), but it’s rare and never the only factor.

The bottom line is that abuse is a scary and effective storytelling device, but it’s not the only one…nor the scariest.

Mac Beauvais



  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Artificial Flavoring, Macabri. Macabri said: My first article for Comic Attack went live today. Check it out! […]

  2. Very nicely done article. I do feel though there are a lot of misunderstandings when it comes to the complexity of Joker and Harley’s relationship. He’s abusive as a matter of his nature in general, but I believe there’s a lot more to the relationship; more than even Joker bargained for. Even Harley’s origin story in the comics establishes that part of Joker’s sometimes discomfort with her is because he cares for her and it feels bizarre to him. Sorry to rant, I just feel like Joker’s caring for Harley gets far too played down, especially when it’s such an interesting angle.

  3. Mac

    I completely agree with you Tara. Their relationship is not black and white by any means, but I still believe it largely counts as an abusive one. It would be an interesting relationship to explore as a topic in and of itself. I just wanted to be careful to avoid too many tangents in this article and focus on the fact that abuse is a factor in all three of our Sirens’ lives.

  4. Sekhmet

    I disagree that Joker and Harley’s relationship is a ‘complex’ one. That is basically minimizing how controlling the Joker is. The Joker is first and foremost a psychopath. It’s not black and white, it is what it is. One of the reasons I can think of why it’s popular with girls is the drama and relationship factor. I love the Joker but he is not boyfriend material. I am all for live and let live but it’s very disgusting and said when girls advocate such a horrible relationship. I seriously doubt either of you two have ever been in an abusive relationship otherwise you wouldn’t be condoning it.

  5. Mac

    Sekhmet – I don’t think anyone here is disagreeing that the relationship between Joker and Harley is an abusive one. I said so in my article and in my response to Tara. However, even abusive relationships can be complex.

    I have to say I also resent the idea that girls are into the relationship because of the drama. Very few romances in the comic book world are without drama. As the main demographic for comics consists of men, it can’t be just women that are interested in reading about relationships that have an element of drama.

    Lastly, I have at no point said I advocate the relationship between Joker and Harley. As to my history with abusive relationships, you’re right. I’ve never personally been in an abusive romantic relationship. However, I have been in an abusive friendship. I’ve also had several close friends who have been in abusive relationships (including one of my best friends), and I’ve dealt with the collateral damage and have known the helplessness that comes with seeing someone you love being taken advantage of. So, I think that gives me the right to discuss abusive relationships with some amount of experience and authority.

    Let us also not lose sight of the fact that these are comic book characters. We’re not talking about our best friends or our family members. Without a variety of relationships and personality types at play, the comics we all love would get very dull very fast.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *