Overview: In DC’s Young Animal Line-Wide “Un”-Event, the unique beauty and wonder of weird has come under attack. Only one villain would look to silence such a strange and joyous song – Oppressive Mundanity! All the while a dark tide ebbs; everywhere it flows, the Milk will cleanse the souls of the unique and the creative and prepare them for righteous mediocrity!
Synopsis (spoilers ahead): If like me, this is your first experience with Mother Panic, it may take more than one viewing of this material to fully absorb this story. As part of DC’s YOUNG ANIMAL imprint and as part of the first crossover of those books with the mainstream DC continuity, there is more than a little strangeness and cerebral/meta/bizarre action on display. The good news is given a bit of extra time for digestion, there’s some incredibly creative storytelling going on that will leave the reader hungry for more.
We begin with that rarest of DC Comics attributes, a recap page, in which the shockingly violent origin of Mother Panic is laid out with some allegorically poetic exposition. What is important here is to know that Violet’s past is very, very dark. Whether that darkness will dictate her future actions remains to be seen.
The recap melds deftly into a scene of breakfast and tea in a garden of earthly delights. Violet is groggy from a long night before and not prepared to take in too much of her mentally unstable mother’s bizarre storytelling before her morning caffeine. Instead, her mother has news tied directly to the origin story we’ve just seen. Gather House, the orphanage where Violet came of age that held within its walls the sinister machinations to capture the hearts and minds of its occupants, has risen from the ashes. This is not just an analogy. During the recap, we see that this is where Violet was not just raised, she was imprisoned and subsequently tortured and altered here. Eventually, she affected an escape, during which she made a difficult decision to burn Gather House to the ground with many of its young prisoners still inside. The ghosts of that decision haunt her to this day, as we see while her mind wanders during breakfast and hallucinations of the voices and faces from that day swirl up and out of her tea mug, nearly shocking her out of her seat.
The news that Gather House has suddenly reappeared is disturbing and more importantly seemingly impossible. Having watched the flames engulf the former prison herself, she will have to investigate its reappearance immediately and in person.
Throughout the morning there persists for her a dull headache and feeling of something forgotten, just out of her minds reach. It continues to bother her as she makes the journey to Gather House. She expects to find a charred empty landscape and is quite surprised to find not only the structure fully intact but a beautifully manicured lawn and garden featuring a menagerie of landscaped animal shrubbery.
Entering Gather House she finds the place restored to every last detail that she remembers, even apparently set up for a celebration. Words continue to slip from her foggy mind when suddenly she is beset on all sides by heavily armed and serious-looking children dressed in what appear to be uniforms largely inspired by Robin. She is now a prisoner of the Holy Sidekick Choir of Merciful Justice. Reluctantly, she admits defeat and asks if her captors plan to shoot her. “No, silly billy! You’ve been BLESSED! The Father is going to FIX you!”
Violet follows the children, whom by now are skipping and smiling along their route towards the inner chambers of Gather House. Steeling herself for a showdown, Violet continues to replay the horrors of her childhood in her mind. Gather House is where she ultimately received the powers that made her into Mother Panic. Through experimentation and body modification, she underwent cyberization and procedures that strengthened her body and mind. Others were not so lucky however and she is determined to put a stop to this new wave of mind control and alteration, no matter who is behind it all, which appears to be Batman.
Introducing himself as “Father Bruce,” a costumed figure stands at the pulpit as his sermon enthralls the full house of costumed kids. But a closer look at this costume gives the impression of a campy Adam West, rather than the serious Affleck or modern presentation. Wearing a black coverall, but finished with the requisite cowl and cape, “Father Bruce” welcomes Violet to the sermon, as the second figure in a pale nun outfit keeps pace with this version of the Dark Knight.
Launching almost immediately into a long-winded session of “villain-splaining,” Father Bruce details the new iteration of Gather House and his mission to offer a new origin story and, in fact, a new life to the children set about the pews. In order to offer this gift, his counterpart offers “the Milk” a concoction that clearly preps the kids for brainwashing which continues as they enter “the machine.” Violet is not impressed, “Call it what you want, it still looks like Gather House to me,” she exclaims, noting that regardless of their intentions, they’re still brainwashing kids without consent.
And there is something else strange here. The character in the cowl, it turns out, is actually Crazy Quilt. He, too, has ingested the Milk and it offered him a new “origin,” leading him into his role as the Father of this congregation. The figure beside him is Mother Partake, the former head of Gather House who was Violet’s captor during her time there. This makes no sense either, as Violet was certain she perished when Gather originally burned. Clearly, there is something more sinister at work.
Stranger still, rather than a pitched battle, this confrontation looks like it will be settled by debate team rules. Father Bruce claims that the ends of a more wholesome and moral existence justify the means of kidnapping and brutality that bring the children into Gather House. Mother Panic still shaking her head noting, “You’re brainwashing kids, building an army. Same old story,” but the haze that has persisted in her brain throughout the story renders her demure to the pleasant ideology set before her. She knows that her own past, while disastrous, gave her the agency she wields today. But fighting is so hard…
Finally, she is shaken from her trance. A young girl she has seen before is undergoing the procedure. The Milk has her and the machine has given her a new chance at heroics, outfitting her in a sidekick uniform and the whole nine. For Violet, this is her worst nightmare. Someone she knows she’s already saved nevertheless in the clutches of Gather House. The procedures and tortures that should have ended with her last night in that place taking hold of another young mind. This last bit is too much and Violet breaks the hold of the Milk. Seizing control of the situation she grabs a gun from one of the children and levels it at their captors.
Crazy Quilt challenges Violet, betting she won’t strike down her mentor again. It’s a two-fold challenge as he’s referring to Mother Partake as well as the fact that Violet shot her own father to save her and her mother from continued abuse. She thinks about her decision for all of two seconds before pulling the trigger.
Mother Partake’s form shatters like glass revealing the phantasm as part of Crazy Quilt’s reformation as the strange Bat-Proxy “Father Bruce.” Violet isn’t surprised in the least, exclaiming the only reason she was able to pull the trigger was that she sensed something was off about the fragile apparition. As the pieces of Mother Partake melt back into the Milk from which they were formed, Crazy Quilt’s form also starts to dissolve. Milk streaming from every orifice, he cries out “No…the truth!” And with that reveals the person underneath.
The real Batman? At some point, you’ve just got to go with things and accept that the meta factors at play in this story are a bit more supernatural than Batman typically deals with. Violet checks if he’s OK. Muttering, “The children, we’ve got to get them to safety,” Bruce just gets to the task at hand. Violet gets back to what she does best and, with one last look around, sets Gather House on fire again. Her head seems clear now and while we don’t know when she fell under the control of the Milk, she seems fully recovered.
The next morning there is a visitor in mother’s garden. Batman has more intelligence to share. Violet’s mother has some information of her own exclaiming, “Bruce Wayne, it has been so long!”
“Magic or metahuman,” Bruce asks?
“Still figuring that out,” Violet replies.
The girl from Gather House is still with her, although the other children left to be put into foster care or somewhere else safe with Batman that same night. This one, it seems, may really have some sidekick in her.
Batman shares with Violet that a cybernetic eye appeared in his cave last night and it has a message for them. They will have to work together a little bit longer to see this bizarre case all the way through. It’s possible they’ll encounter the Justice League of America and Doom Patrol along the way. But before they go, Bruce has one last thing to share. “Whatever you’re trying to do, your efforts have made Gotham a better place. Let’s make sure it stays that way.” Indeed, let’s hope Mother Panic sticks around for quite a while.
Analysis: For the first encounter with Mother Panic, this is a lot to absorb! Still, regular series writer Jody Houser offers an interesting if not entirely straightforward look at the origin of the character through the recap page. This is referenced a few times throughout the story as events that transpire relate to Violet’s very violent origin. This special is the second chapter in the crossover event, “The Milk Wars,” making it an even harder task to properly introduce the character but taking that into consideration, the story does a pretty decent job of this.
Ty Templeton’s art does a great job observing the aspects of the Milk Wars crossover, conveying a classic, almost “Saturday Evening Post” aesthetic combined with a unique, modern sensibility that separates the Young Animal imprint as a whole. The colors provided by Keiren Smith are an amazing compliment to the art creating backgrounds that are anything but. Frank Quietly’s typical single-subject cover gives us a full view of the sort-of Dark Knight, who reads from his Big Book to his congregation. The book’s title? “Bat-Manners.” Good stuff.
While there is an overall “meta” aspect to Mother Panic and the Young Animal aesthetic in general that makes Batman feel a little out of place, the character is used in a very interesting way in this chapter of “The Milk Wars” crossover that just barely pulls the whole thing off. Is it weird? Yes. Is that what the creators were going for? Absolutely.
Final Thoughts: By necessity, Mother Panic operates in a part of Gotham that we don’t normally see in the Bat-Books. This is by design so that the characters can explore different paths and storylines without tripping over each other all the time. Bringing them together creates some natural tension, but if you are willing to take some things on faith, there’s a good story being told. I’m interested to see how “The Milk Wars” will resolve, and Mother Panic has definitely caught my eye.