“Better Nuthead than Red”

Issue number 6 closes out a story spanning the last three issues which teams the Mistress of Mischief with octogenarian cold war spy Sy Borgman (codename: Syborg) against such deadly aged Russian femme fatales as Ivana Brekemoff and Zena Bendemova. And if you’re already rolling your eyes, maybe this isn’t the comic for you (it gets better–or worse, depending on your perspective–when later we meet Kosta Armanoleg).

But because this title has not been reviewed thus far, before I touch on particulars about this issue, I’ll give you the 10¢ rundown for the series overall:

Following the latest attempt on her life by her beloved Puddin’, Harley has packed up and moved to Coney Island to take over a boardwalk property she inherited from one of her former patients. The property is populated with a number of strange and interesting carnival characters, so Harley fits right in, but she owes a lot on taxes, so she takes two jobs: one as a roller derby girl and another as a therapist in an elderly care facility. Meanwhile, a mysterious someone has put a hit on her, so most issues have featured random bounty hunters trying to collect.

Harley is portrayed as having keen intellect, but childlike emotions (in keeping with Dini’s original creation). She’s managed to take back some of her innocence, which I think it’s a serious improvement over some weirdly over-sexualized Harleys we’ve seen elsewhere (Arkham games, I’m looking at you). The reinvented character design and the creative team’s execution of Harley’s personality in both language and appearance keep her from being creepy or vampy. She is still sexy, but so far has not been exploited for fan service (plenty of opportunities to go there have been mercifully avoided).

I’m a huge fan of Chad Hardin’s artwork as a good match for the material. Stephane Roux has also contributed two issues in a style similar enough to not jar one’s sense of continuity, and both artists stay close to the design model set by Amanda Conner who has done all of the covers.  Hardin has the right energy for the wackiness: the plasticity of his characters’ expressions (a nice balance between cartoony and naturalistic) and his environments always display a nice level of depth and detail without overwhelming the action.

Why you should read Harley Quinn

Two things make this series stand out in the Batverse:

  • First, it doesn’t take itself or the DC world too seriously; despite the graphic violence, it’s genuinely fun. And let’s face it, sometimes Gotham is dark and many of the major Bat titles aren’t getting any less gloomy. While this is definitely a teen+ book, it’s got a zippy playful quality sadly missing from much of the mainstream oeuvre.
  • Secondly, its stories are relatively self-contained with only light circumstantial continuity across the first six issues. Long (often crossover) plotlines can take up to a year (or more!) to resolve–an agonizing amount of time to sustain dramatic tension. Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti seem to have deliberately created something more episodic and you have to appreciate the simple satisfaction of that.

Some points critical to the enjoyment of this series:

  • If you’re going to ask why a known psychopath is continuing to cause mayhem in full public view without seemingly any consequences, you’re never going to get past page one.
  • Likewise as to how she’s still working as therapist Harleen Quinzel.
  • This title appears divorced from any other part of the New 52 continuity. With only six issues, it’s not possible to tell what’s going on outside Harley’s rainbow bubblegum world, but it’s apparent that Suicide Squad Harley and roller derby Harley share few commonalities (this, to my mind, is a good thing).

The creative team has actualized a world in which zany is the rule and logic is not merely tossed out the window, but jettisoned with a rocket launcher. The humor ranges from bad puns to pop culture quips to gross-out potty jokes. In a word, it’s puerile.

Which brings us back to Issue No. 6! The premise has Harley assisting one of her patients (a cybernetic oldster in a motorized chair) clean up ancient Cold War enemies who just want to be left alone to eat their cheese. Typical of Harley’s personality, she naively obeys Sy Borgman’s instructions ostensibly “for the good of the country” though it’s clear to the reader that Borgman is just settling personal grudges. Helicopters fall out of the sky, bears attack, and many ludicrously named Russians buy the farm in exquisitely gruesome ways.

Harley_06_01

Yeah, what this book needs is more energy!

The Good

The saving grace of all this zaniness is that it’s so ridiculous it’s also largely inoffensive–and occasionally chuckle-worthy. Alex Sinclair’s consistently delightful colors are worth a mention: Harley’s skin glows, the Coney Island boardwalk sunrise is gorgeous, and the overall palette pops with jewel tones and neons. The writers also pack a lot in: three strategic hits and a landslide of silliness fill almost every page with action that doesn’t call for crowded layouts or dense dialogue. Pace is almost never a problem: for the most part Harley and Syborg hurtle from one thing to another only to ramp it up when you think you can’t turn the pages fast enough. An added bonus of this is that the issue bears repeat reading: it’s easy to miss some of the eye candy details along the way otherwise.

The Bad

Hardin struggles with the occasional subject, and in this issue it’s a sequence involving Harley riding a giraffe. The page doesn’t work and suffers from problems of proportion and logistics. Like how is Harley standing as if in stirrups even though she’s riding bareback? And how big is that giraffe? It’s minor, but when a book is this silly, it really has to sell these moments in order to work completely.

On the other hand Hardin rescues a later moment in which the script bogs down a bit by keeping the art sharp. A beautifully rendered glamor shot of an 1959 “El Torito” coupe juxtaposed with a Darth Vader-inspired “NOooooo!” panel saves a page-long expositional flashback sequence that otherwise briefly stops the momentum of the book.

Conner and Palmiotti also occasionally overdo it with Sy’s Yiddish–and Harley needs a better reaction word than “Jinkies”. Hopefully the series will mature away from these kinds of cheap slang gags which might otherwise become cloying.

The Ugly

Some may object to the Russian stereotypes and the level of violence in this, but again, I think the tone of levity throughout mitigates the worst of these offenses.

Recommended If…

  • You find decapitation hilarious.
  • You don’t mind wandering into a zany funhouse despite a mild contextual handicap for getting a late start.
  • You want to whet your appetite for the new issue featuring Poison Ivy.

Overall

Not a perfect leaping-in point and doesn’t add anything especially surprising or new to the series, but it’s still a whizz-dinger of a conclusion for the current story and ends on a promise of more excitement to come!

SCORE: 7/10