Knight Terrors

Alright, it’s time for my big Knight Terrors: Poison Ivy rant. In terms of psychological horror and using the surreal metaphors of a nightmare to communicate a specific theme, Pam’s tie-in issues have been top-notch. The way G. Willow Wilson sets up the atmosphere and rules of Ivy’s nightmare world is nothing short of brilliant. The way in which this nightmare can reflect the anxieties of many in the real world is sadly poignant. To truly understand what’s happening, though, we need to talk about the suburbs.

The rise of the American suburbs in the 1950’s represented a major milestone in the history of the United States. It symbolized the United States’ status as an economic, world super power where the growing middle class could exercise their newfound financial freedom as consumers. It was the spiritual escape from the scarcity and uncertainty of the Great Depression and World War II eras, and the sector in which that escape manifested itself materially was housing. The houses of the suburbs with their innocent, cheery pastel colors and white picket fences were metaphorical fortresses built to protect their inhabitants from the harsh realities of poverty and war. This was the “American Dream.” …If you could get it.

A dream house in the suburbs was also a symbol of being embraced by society. If you could obtain one, it meant that American society valued you and your contributions enough to allow you that kind of security. For those who could not obtain it, however, this was the American nightmare. It was confirmation that society didn’t value you enough to warrant your security. It created a near unachievable goal on which you would always be measured by. I’ve been unlucky enough to witness this nightmare in action for my generation. I’ve seen the psychological side-effects that come with not being able to obtain this dream house take their toll on friends and loved ones. This American nightmare is at the heart of Ivy’s nightmare. It’s just more fun than the way I put it, though, because it uses superheroes and villains to make its point.

Getting to the plot of Knight Terrors: Poison Ivy (finally), Pam essentially sets up the premise right off the bat as she ruminates on the dreams and expectations of life versus the reality of what you get. Many dream of falling in love and obtaining the perfect career and house, but few actually get it. When Ivy falls asleep under Insomnia’s spell, we get to see what Pam’s “dream house in the suburbs” actually looks like. Much like the houses of the real world suburbs, Ivy’s dream house is a fortress. As Wilson puts it, “(The dream house is) like all of our anxieties, but inverted. All of of our fears, reversed.” Just as the IRL dream houses of the suburbs reflected and protected against fears of poverty and scarcity, Ivy’s dream house is meant to reflect and protect against her fears. So what is Ivy afraid of?

Currently, Pamela’s major anxieties revolve around her relationship with Harley. Harley, the love of Ivy’s life, has recently been on a path of reformation and redemption. Harley has been focused on her career as a superhero psychologist as a means of leaving her former life as a criminal behind. This new path that her girlfriend is on has obviously created a great deal of uncertainty for Ivy who, despite the shift in her mission away from the total destruction of the human race, is still very much an outlaw. The anxieties surrounding what this could mean for her relationship manifest in the form of Pamela’s nightmare neighbors. Ivy is shocked to find that, in this nightmare world, she lives next to Batman who Ivy describes as a “bad person” who “protects the rich and corrupt against ordinary people.” Or, to put it another way, in Ivy’s estimation the Batman is an authority figure whose mission is to protect those who are embraced by society (like those in the suburbs) from those who are not. Before any of you Bat-fans get offended, keep in mind that it makes sense that Ivy thinks of Batman this way since she’s spent a majority of her adult life battling and evading him. The fact that Pam’s real life girlfriend is now working with Batman must cast a good amount of doubt into Ivy’s mind regarding the future of her relationship.

However, that’s not a problem in the nightmare suburbs! In the neighborhood of Ivy’s dream house, superheroes and supervillains live together in peace and serenity. Those who were once cast out of society have been embraced by it. All is bright and well. Pam’s dream house is the fortress that protects against her anxieties over her relationship potentially failing. It provides the security she believes Harley needs by making them just as embraced by society as the Batman. It gives her the material security that Pam lacks in the real world. It is the walls against her fears as much as it is a reflection of them.

Yet, for everything there must be a price. For Ivy, the price of this security is her ideals. The reason that Pam lives as an outlaw is because of her fiercely held environmentalist principles. Her belief that the planet is under threat from human pollution and intervention has caused her to be in direct conflict with popular society. Being embraced by it and its security would inevitably lead to giving those principles up. This is illustrated in issue #2 when dream Harley tries to kill a dandelion using a pesticide. Despite the fact that the pesticide will harm the environment while the dandelion actually aids the soil, the world of the nightmare suburb cannot allow the dandelion to live because it does not reflect the perfection of the security of the suburbs. The struggle this causes is Ivy’s mind telling her that something isn’t right here and this isn’t what she really wants. She will never be able to live with this security if it means abandoning her ideals.

The conclusion of this story comes with two realizations. The first is when Pam realizes that the nightmare Harley could never be the real Harley. The real Harley would never force Pam to trade her principles for security. The second realization comes from Janet-from-HR (aka, the hero Gotham deserves). Most of Ivy’s anxieties stem from what she doesn’t have. Because Pamela doesn’t have the perfect career or house that symbolize security, she fears that she has achieved nothing with her life and therefore does not deserve something good like her relationship with Harley. Janet refutes this by telling Ivy about what she’s done for her. Janet reveals that Ivy has changed the way she looks at the world for the better, so, despite the fact she hasn’t achieved material security, Pamela has accomplished much by sticking to her principles. This encouragement gives Ivy the strength to unmask the nightmare Batman and find her own face staring back at her. This means that the fears of losing her relationship are not real. They are just Pamela’s own anxieties reflecting back at her. And so, Pam wakes up…

Honestly, I could go on and on about this story. I wrote a novel and didn’t even delve into everything I intended to. G. Willow Wilson exhibits masterful use of metaphor and of the nightmare setting as a whole. It manages to reflect believable in-story fears of a fictional character while also capturing real world anxieties of an everyday issue. If anyone asked for an example of a perfect nightmare story in fiction, I would probably say this is it. If nothing else, it’s my favorite tie-in of the crossover far and, in my eyes, its existence justifies the event even if the crossover does nothing else of worth. Simply wonderful!