Mother Panic is still piquing my interest, and as a comic reading experience, it’s like taking a walk at night in a city you know but not that well. Maybe you’re on a trip. Maybe it reminds you of a past you spent there, though things and the city have changed now, too. It’s at once familiar as the Gotham many of us have known since childhood, whether through Batman: The Animated Series, the Tim Burton film, or comics.
For me, Gotham was as much a mood and state of mind as a place. And that holds very true for Mother Panic, written by Jody Houser, and alternately drawn by co-creator Tommy Lee Edwards and Shawn Crystal. The alternating art styles even reinforce that feel–ranging from an inky dive into the dark waters of story for Edwards to fairy-tale-noir for Crystal, with an eerie sepulchral lighting in this issue from Jean-Francois Beaulieu.
Our main character, socialite and cynic Violet Paige, [Wow, I just finally noticed what a good name that is for a character since Paige sounds like “page”. That only took me 11 issues.] is a cyber-enhanced escapee from experimental school/torture prison Gather House where she and many classmates were experimented on in the name of some better future for Gotham. But if we believe that, we’d believe anything. It’s the throw-away reason most organizations who use people like commodities give, and I think Houser wants us to notice that. There’s a subtle if difficult truth in the fact that we only build better futures by building better todays.
Violet’s actually really bad at that, though. Despite her money, power, influence, and intelligence (which is substantial), she can’t seem to improve her life. Maybe she feels some highs rather than lows when she succeeds at being a vigilante (as in some previous issues) but if she falls back on her “real” life (which is which now?), she’s a total mess.
Dating one woman rather dispassionately, in this issue, she also finds herself in the clutches of an old schoolmate who was possibly her girlfriend or had the potential to be once upon a time. Look, I won’t try to figure out Violet Paige for you–you’ll have to read the comic–but there is an interesting beat where she thinks the woman she might be dating might actually want to go on a “real date” with her like a “real girlfriend” and Violet actually perks up. We get one of the only smiles we’ve ever seen from Paige at that moment. So, she does want to create some stability in her personal life? Maybe?
But of course the moment passes because Jane, Violet’s schoolmate at hellhouse Gather House, “accidentally” turns up, too. And that’s the bigger plot arc, which reminds me in some ways of the iconic elements of the film Vertigo. Jane was once Violet’s passion, a motivating force in attempting to get free of Gather House. But Jane was forced to, or willingly, betrayed Violet, at a brittle and fragile time. And Violet can’t help but remember that. She knows how to handle enemies, after all. The thing is, we could read this as Violet having problems with letting people be fallible and finding ways to trust them anyway. She’s so absolutist (What vigilante isn’t??) that betrayal is betrayal. There seems no going back for Jane.
And if we want to judge Violet for this holier-than-thou-attitude, we’re left with an even trickier truth: she’s probably damn right. There’s no way Violet’s encounters with Jane have been accidental. There’s something very off about Jane despite her damsel-in-distress act. Violet alternately falls for it, then catches herself, then falls again.
Because people from our past are our biggest weakness, right? Though in Violet’s case it might be true to say simply: relationships are her biggest weakness. She could, of course, be a member of the Bat Family with that psych record.
Well, having gone down the rabbit hole of Violet’s relationships, I should also say that there are many other interesting moments in issue #11 which pertain to other characters. For one, we learn something we didn’t know about Violet’s mother, which is that she has a “degenerative brain disease” and yet might, possibly, have some meta-human abilities. We’ve know she was mentally ill, but the causes have been left vague until now. This recasts her as someone a tad less mysterious in some ways, but more in others. That should be a very interesting thread to follow in future issues.
In all, the fact that Violet Paige can take on monstrous people who do terrible things, get up and keep fighting after having her deteriorating cyborg parts revamped, and even once had the strength to defy and even kill her oppressors as a young person, and yet can’t figure out how to go on a date is actually very Gotham. I don’t mean that she’s a stereotype, or predictable, but I mean that she belongs in a place with such a powerful mood of introspection and violence.
Maybe some day she’ll figure some of this stuff out. Until then, we’ll watch her take down her internal and external demons one at a time.