Mother Panic is one of the most consistently interesting comics in shops right now, taking familiar ideas and twisting them in just the right ways to keep you embedded in the world of the story. Written by Jody Houser, with art on issue #9 by John Paul Leon, and colors by the great Dave Stewart, Mother Panic is part of the Young Animal imprint of DC Comics, and has a shared universe vibe, as well as the input of curator Gerard Way.
The character was co-created by Houser, Tommy Lee Edwards, and Gerard Way.
So far, we’ve met wealthy socialite and chronic cynic Violet Paige, learned about her disturbing childhood with a mentally ill mother (who she’s still close with) and a morally bankrupt father as well as a cold-hearted psycho of a brother. But most of all we’ve learned about her time at an experimental reform school called Gather House where Violet, along with many other children of Gotham, were shaped and changed into the damaged or monstrous beings they are today. Which Violet is remains with the reader to decide.
[Cover by Tommy Lee Edwards]
The through story we follow in Violet’s life is her development as a vigilante on the streets of Gotham. At times tentative due to a lack of experience, but most times compelled by an internal necessity, she tracks down people who prey on children or those marked by victimhood, and in this story arc “Victim Complex”, which comes to a conclusion in issue #9, she’s tracking a guy who dresses in a body bag to torment people who have been public victims in the past. Ostensibly, we learn in this issue, it’s to make them “stronger”.
There’s an excellent parallel between this stalker’s behavior and the path that Violet might have taken in her own life. Because she’s been through trauma, she might easily have avoided a life that would bring her into contact with suffering or pain, but instead she seeks it out. And when she does, she attempts to make things better somehow, rather than attempting to “toughen” people up in ways that would just be a projection of her own self-judgement. Violet is someone who seems not to really judge others at all–until she switches into vigilante mode and has made up her mind about an offender. Compare that to other denizens of Gotham who can get a bit judgey and holier-than-thou like the Caped Crusader himself.
Bruce Wayne may have suffered the tragedy of seeing his parents killed in front of him at a young age, but Violet killed her own father as a child to protect herself and her mother, and then was subjected to years of brain washing and physical suffering as they added implants to her body at Gather House. I think she knows a little more about victimhood than Batman and maybe that’s why she takes a more compassionate approach to the general tide of humanity. That’s not to say she doesn’t reserve plenty of hellfire for those who fall outside of her grace.
But to get to the point about “flipping the narrative”, so far we’ve witnessed segments and fragments of Violet’s origin story across nine issues of the comic, parceled out in nicely balanced thematic units that often resonate, almost like musical themes, with the “current” storyline of each issue. So far, we’ve been aware of the gradual unfolding or peeling back of the layers of Violet’s victimhood as a child and young adult. And by contrast, we’ve been astonished by her strength and what she’s accomplished in life given her experiences.
[*Spoilers for Mother Panic #9 below!!]
But something pretty astonishing happens in issue #9 that drops the final main piece of the puzzle into place and the picture we see is a little different than what we might have expected. We realize that Violet is a much stronger, darker, and perhaps tormented person than we may have given her credit for. And that her humanity and compassion, by contrast, are that much more surprising.
Victims don’t usually win. Both Gotham and the real world can be terrible places. Justice is absent or elusive. Getting a sense of closure when you have been a victim is often a long process of self-determination and not one that’s handed to you. When we learn that Violet actually struck down her most oppressive tormentor at Gather House and burned down the place, that changes our sense of her story. The change is not so much because her main oppressor is, presumably dead, or because the school that imprisoned her can’t imprison other kids any more (though those facts are kind of awesome), but because Violet did something active in the process of her own liberation.
She would have been forgiven by the reader if she hadn’t. Indoctrinated, made dependent, her whole identity constructed by Gather House, the question is how on earth she managed this feat. And then we realize that we don’t know Violet as well as we thought we did–that there are far murkier and more interesting recesses of her subconscious than we have yet explored.
In this issue, Violet Paige goes from victim to victor in many ways, and that’s a big psychological difference to consider. That’s not to dismiss what she’s going to carry her whole life, or what she might have to do in order to address the internal forces physically and mentally pulling her apart.
But I’m taking a moment to reconsider Mother Panic in this new light. The fact that the creative team present a female character who took personal action to free herself feels radical to me as a reader, and seems like it will have many further implications down the road for Violet Paige.