“Kingpin Queen” puts Harley up against Zena Bendemova as promised last go-round, but the real action takes place once Harley sets out to rescue Mason Macabre.

First, however, I need to prop this soapbox here because I have something I’ve been wanting to say about the relationship between comic books, the women who read them, and the writers & artists who create them. I was going to dump this under a spoiler tag in case you wanted to skip my polemics, but then you’d miss all the deserved high praise I have for this book.

Once upon a Time

Not really that long ago, I used to think Harley Quinn was an offensive battered woman cliché whose entire existence was predicated on her being a punching bag for the Joker. Every time I saw a little girl wearing a Harley costume it made me ill. And when I asked to cover this book for Batman News two years ago, it was with the fixed intention of watchdogging the character through what I thought would be one lurid oversexualized abuse fantasy after another.

What Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti have done with the character since launching her new series, however, proves many things that absolutely deserve being called out. Especially because I see so much other mainstream stuff on the shelves that can’t seem to get it right.

  1. You can write a strong female character who has serious character flaws without those flaws disempowering her or being a crutch. Harley gets herself into a lot of trouble, but she’s almost always responsible for getting herself out. She also almost never complains unless it’s done specifically for comic effect or she’s just playing for sympathy.
  2. You can write a sexy female character without everything being a boob-butt panel. Despite her skin-tight skimpy outfit, Harley never feels overexposed. The costume also isn’t that stupid in a fight (no cape, for example). He roller derby outfit at least has elbow and knee pads. Also, the main artists on this series John Timms and Chad Hardin have largely avoided action sequences in which it appears that she might fall out of her clothes at any minute. Contrariwise, there’s no need to neuter Harley’s female attributes by stuffing her in a modesty costume and giving her the physique of a 12 year-old boy.
  3. You can write a female character who is boy-crazy without it being an obnoxious interruption of the regular ongoing plot. Harley is rather affectionate and she swoons more than I’d like her to, but in 23 issues she’s yet to jump in the sack with anyone (unless you count Ivy), and has only had two dates (one of which was with Bruce Wayne, so that can’t count against her). This is less an issue of “morals” than plain ol’ plot focus. For me personally: if I want to read a comic about boyfriend drama, I’ll pick up Betty & Veronica.
  4. You can shoehorn in all the “inclusivity” you want into a comic without it taking over the story, becoming a point of alienation, or shoving an agenda down the reader’s gullet. The matter-of-fact way in which Harley loves everybody is a model to follow. She’s not waving a banner every page saying look at the diversity of my team! She just puts them to work and they are now naturally threads in the fabric of the story. This is a big deal (I sometimes think people don’t realize how much)–especially in a medium where so many books are pushing way too hard on issues of diversity.

I’m making these points because I was struck this week after reading two female-centered comics that are going about the idea of female empowerment in two distinctly different ways. As far as I’m concerned, Conner and Palmiotti get it. They’re doing it right. And if they want to have Harley take her weiner dog for a latte only to realize she’s lost track of the time and is late for her hair appointment with Harley Queen, I implicitly trust this team to make it funny and relevant as opposed to suggesting that this is how women live and prioritize their lives. And if they did it, I wouldn’t need to roll my eyes and curse the skies that it takes up six pages of my comic book that’s supposed to be an adventure about superheroes and supervillains battling it out.

Women come in all different styles and preferences and interests. I’m frankly tired of books that propose to specifically address what I want or need as a woman, that pretend to represent women, or that define women in such a niche way that they exclude all but that niche audience. Harley Quinn isn’t too hung up on being a comic about a woman for women. It’s more interested in just being a great comic book, period. And boy does that make a difference.

I welcome your thoughts on issues of feminism and diversity–let’s just keep it civil.

End of soapbox.

Back to the Book: the Russians are Just MacGuffins

With this issue, we see still more of a return to the dark edge Harley Quinn began with nearly two years ago. Harley’s in a take-no-prisoners mood with the lives of both Sy Borgman and Mason Macabre at stake. I don’t think we’ve ever seen this much blood and violence in a Harley book, so if you’re faint-hearted, be forewarned: this is a literal bloodbath (or maybe blood shower is more accurate).

I was a little surprised to see the conflict between Harley and Zena resolved so easily, but it wasn’t a disappointment. We do get some fun bowling alley action before the surprise cease-fire, and also some old-man-butt if you’re into that. No?

Not sure if this plot thread is leading anywhere beyond what we get here, but Conner and Palmiotti tend to circle back without warning, so I’m sure this isn’t the last of Harley’s relationship with the geriatric (and now mutually cyborg) spies.

Harley_23_01

You gotta love the skull on the bowling ball

The real action, however, is at the prison where (yes, Josh) I got my wish: Mason has been shanked in the showers. And this is how brilliantly it’s played: I almost felt sorry for the guy. I mean: they’re not kidding around–they really have hacked him up and for a moment it looks like he could actually die. Yes, it’s all fun and games until someone bleeds out on the cold floor of a prison bathroom.

Of course Harley flies in for the rescue, and boy does she look amazing! Chad Hardin outdoes himself in a violent fight sequence full of shanks, brutes, and high-flying kicks. Harley’s gymnastics are center-stage as she takes out a gang of men twice her size (and does it believably in terms of the way it’s staged).

Harley_23_02

Props too to Tom Napolitano for a lot of fun lettering throughout. With everything from a very wet “Smerpp” kiss in the bowling alley to the perfect RRRNNT of the prison alarm, there’s a delightful marriage here of pictures and sound.

Last issue I was conjecturing as to whether the soon-to-be-released Suicide Squad movie might be having a bit of influence over this title and I’m still feeling like that may be the case. But if if gives us stories like this, it can’t be a bad thing. It’s especially nice to see some actual high stakes for Harley, even as she jokes her way through the slaughter.

Lastly: look for the Bruce Timm variants (it’s fun to see his depictions of old and new Harley on the same cover).

Recommended If…

  • You like Harley Quinn best when she’s at her stabbiest.
  • You want an emotional rollercoaster full of weirdness.
  • You want to support a comic about a woman that doesn’t patronize women.

Overall

Harley’s leaping from one boiler to another when all the current men in her life find themselves in hot water. This is the bloodiest, most violent issue of Harley Quinn yet, but it’s only mildly gratuitous: much of the gore serves the story well and even though I’m no fan of Mason Macabre, I found myself fearing for his life. You also won’t want to miss being in on the cliffhanger turn of events. Even knowing what’s coming, I didn’t exactly see it happening quite like this!

SCORE: 9.5/10