Binge-Drinking, Brain-Bashing and Burnt Beavers: ‘Harley Quinn’ Skates Improbably Into The Spotlight
The success of Harley Quinn seems to have taken everybody by surprise – including DC Comics, who suddenly finds itself with one of the most successful female-led ongoing series on the stands. Written by Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti, with art (mostly) from Chad Hardin and colorist Alex Sinclair, letters by John J. Hill, Harley Quinn has proven to be a huge success with readers and retailers. And with volume one collected and out now in hardcover, it seemed like a good time to look back across the first nine issues and get a look at what all the fuss has been about.
A fan-favorite as introduced by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm in Batman: The Animated Series, she's a psychiatrist who heads way out of her depth when she meets the Joker. He convinces her that he's her one and only true love forever and ever, and then exploits that obsessional love to have her break him out of Arkham Asylum time and time again. She was bright, sparky, totally doomed, but relentlessly optimistic.
But the last few years in the New 52 have given Harley a complete makeover, literally, with a relentlessly grim new origin story which saw her 'bleached' head to toe by the Joker after he cruelly dunked her in a tank of chemicals. Her further adventures saw Harley join the Suicide Squad, steal the Joker's severed face, and then seduce Deadshot whilst she'd tied him up and stuck the face on his head. Indeed, the last few years in the New 52 have been really weird to Harley Quinn.
Yet Harley Quinn remains an ideal character for DC, in many ways. She’s a well-known female character who has an identity of her own (although, yes, framed almost entirely by her creation of a relationship with the Joker) and well-established personality. She’s forthright and comedic, but also indulges in the sort of manic violence which the publisher seems to enjoy putting out. She’s grimdark in subtext, but a happy go lucky maniac in context: perfect for the New 52. She also has an absolutely huge fanbase, being a notable face in adaptations like the various Batman cartoon series, video games – and on the convention floor in the form of countless cosplayers.
So the series gives its creators a lot of opportunities to play with, which is established immediately in the first few issues of the trade.
Foremost, Harley gives DC a chance to make fun of itself, mostly in the opening jam piece which kicks the collection off. For the last few years DC's been quite closed off as a company, and there have been a heap of reports and bar-con chatter about creator unhappiness, stories being rewritten, and all kinds of sinister rumors floating about some editors. As a result, Harley Quinn’s sudden kickback against the company hits home hard, fast, and brilliantly:
There’s a lot to hit on here, and Conner and Palmiotti manage to rap a sharp cane across the hand that feeds them (in this case, DC co-publisher Jim Lee specifically). The in-jokes fade away fairly quickly, but they mark some of the most effective comedy in DC comics in quite some time.
What’s confusing about the book as a whole, though, is the style of the comedy once you get past the superior issue #0. Unexpectedly, Harley Quinn is a fairly cruel book, twisting around after each few pages and reminding the reader that the main character is a nasty piece of work, and the people around her are equally dubious. The creative team spend their time alternately reveling in this knowledge and withholding of it, creating a dissonant approach which frustrates and fascinates in equal measures.
In the past, many writers have used Harley Quinn as a chance to show off their understanding of human psychology – pushing to demonstrate the exact diagnosis they believe she has, and how it affects her and the people around her. I’d suggest that Conner and Palmiotti are perhaps the first people to ignore that literally-overly-clinical approach and just enjoy themselves as they delve into her world. Their stories are defiant and proud of her, even though she goes to some fairly low, macabre places. She’s singularly her own person, and the reader is forced to align a bit of their morality with her – which is also a fairly dispiriting experience.
Chad Hardin’s artwork plays into this fairly neatly, offering a consistency which plays against the wayward scripting. Immediately setting his own approach, the artwork remains thoroughly consistent throughout – what you get in the first issue in terms of detail, exaggeration and storytelling carries through into every subsequent issue. I can’t think of many other artists who maintain that level of consistency even as they put out their eighth straight monthly issue. The backgrounds don’t start to lack detail, the characters remain big and bold, and the sequential work is unfailingly smart.
Hardin does a decent job of fleshing out the world, and his work manages to put a little levity onto the faces of the slightly cartoonish supporting cast of characters. He tends towards cheesecake whenever possible (there are lots of times where Harley forgets to wear a skirt, or decides to bend over) which is a little disconcerting – but seems to play, more often than not, into the tone of the script. Like many of the women Conner's drawn in her career as an artist, Harley's pretty overt about her sexuality throughout the series, and the artwork doesn’t have any qualms about emphasizing that. As story, the art does a sterling job, with each page managing to delay and hide the jokes until the reader reaches them – John J. Hill’s lettering helps tremendously in this respect also – but also providing dynamic and entertaining layouts.
It’s in large part due to Hardin and Sinclair that the series is able to maintain the reader’s empathy in Harley, who would likely have been a crash in slow motion with a weaker artistic team. She’s consistently absolutely brutal to people she’s only just met, and rarely shows even a semblance of interest in humanity; or a coherent empathy system. This is largely due to the hyperactive plotting of the trade: each issue has a tendency to go off on random tangents with no explanation.
Unlike Marvel's Deadpool – probably the book closest to Harley in style and atmosphere – each issue is essentially unconnected to anything that happened before or after. Things just tend to happen out of nowhere, so she’s far more reactive than proactive as a character.
It can be hard to read this as a trade collection, as prolonged hyperactivity doesn’t particularly favor a binge-read. The various subplots aren’t so much threaded through the story as they are randomly thrown at the reader’s face, and Harley tends to be either really motivated or completely apathetic to the nonsense going on around her. The main recurring point is meant to be the concept that somebody has put a hit out on Harley, but this is suddenly explained halfway through the trade in somewhat anticlimactic fashion. At any given moment a subplot could sputter into life or explode in on itself, and there’s a distinctly even hit/miss ratio between the stories which work and the stories which fall apart.
The problem with having a series which doesn’t have any grounding in reality is that, well, it doesn’t have any grounding in reality. The characters don’t have to be believable, consistent, or sympathetic – you never know if they might get killed off out of nowhere and then forgotten about forever after. There remains a throwaway feeling in the trade, where at any point you could get a bit bored of the distracted nature of the storytelling and just put the book down. Any issue feels like a jumping off point, because there’s no continuity between each story. Harley remains an interesting protagonist, but the approach to her and the approach to her world is, repeatedly, unexpectedly vicious.
The book goes from broad humor to the macabre without often noticing a distinction between the two, and works best when toning down the ridiculous in favor of quieter moments between Harley and her supporting cast. Perhaps the most enjoyable aspects of the series as a whole are the ones which focus on the first hook: that Harley owns an apartment building now, with a whole community built around it. It’s somewhat like Marvel's Hawkeye, only the residents are a stronger, more interesting bunch. Hardin creates a world which looks and feels like Brookyln but has half-goat people wandering around in it, and that allows Conner/Palmiotti a fair amount of leeway with their cast of characters.
When the series hones in on that and ignores the temptation to go big, it flies. Similarly, a repeating plot sees her returning to the role of therapist, putting on makeup and a wig so she can ‘play’ the role of nurturer. This leads to the most disturbing but fascinating issue of the first hardcover volume, where she goes off on a rampage after learning that one of her patients has been abandoned by her family. Here’s where the creative team really stretch out a little, really exploring the mindset of their lead. Things take on a Funny Games element to them – yes, I’m throwing in a reference to Michael Haneke here and I’m disappointed in myself too – in how dark the comedy becomes. But the team are consistent in their tone here, not cutting away and putting some tension into the story.
The finale of that issue putters away somewhat, as happens several times here, because Harley tends to always get away with what she does. I imagine the long-term plan of the series will see her start to lose some of the freakish empire she’s built – this trade is more focused on having her gather some victories under her belt than making the reader sweat for her safety. It’s a consequence-free series thus far, and you’ll either enjoy that aspect or find it irritating.
Harley Quinn is a strange series, in both intentional and unintentional ways. The pace slips all over the place, and tone is an afterthought – but the jokes hit more often than not, the character intrigues, and the overall vibe from the trade is one of pride. Harley is oversexualized at times, and hyperviolent at others. But throughout it all, she’s in full ownership of herself. She’s uniquely her own person, and I struggle to think of another character in comics who is written with such a sense of confidence. That’s what carries the series whenever it threatens to burst off the rails and go haywire.
There’s something weirdly compelling about this proud, defiant little book.