Batman: Arkham Knight- Batgirl/Harley Quinn #1: “Caged Animals”
Written by Tim Seeley
Illustrated by Matthew Clark
Inked by Sean Parsons and Wade Von Grawbadger
Colored by Rob Schwager
Lettered by Travis Lanham
Do you like it when Batman is a jerk?
Like, a really, really big, huge, meanie jerkface?
Then brother/sister/friend, you’re… bound to be disappointed, because he’s barely in this book.
Sorry, I needed a lede.
Just when we all thought the Arkham universe had told us everything it had to say, along comes this little surprise. Frankly, even though the issue is flawed, I enjoyed getting another comic in this universe from a different writer to get a different point of view. Don’t get me wrong, there were times when I genuinely loved Tomasi’s scripts, and he did the best that could be done with “lead-in” material, but it’s nice seeing what someone else has to say, especially when it’s a guy like Tim Seeley.
The plot is pretty bare bones: set early in the series’ timeline, Barbara Gordon sets out to prove that she’s worthy to wear the mantle of the Bat, while Dr. Harleen Quinzel is inspired to commit crimes in the name of the Joker after a failed board hearing. There’s also a fight in a traveling circus and the origin of Harley’s hyenas, but what works best is the explorations into what makes the title characters work. Seeley’s script doesn’t go remarkably deep, so it’s not really a tried-and-true character study, but there are some good ideas at play and a few moments that sum up both Batgirl and Harley’s personalities and personal missions as good as anything has before.
Barbara, working independently from Batman, initially just wants to do the right thing, which I always love. It’s true to the character’s earliest roots in the comics, where she becomes a costumed vigilante almost by accident and continues fighting crime because it was fun and the right thing to do. It’s a simple, pure motivation, and seeing it with Barbara, Tim Drake, and even John Henry Irons is always refreshing. A motivating tragedy makes for some good drama and powerful storytelling, but it’s just as inspiring to see someone stand up for what’s right because they have the opportunity.
Harley, on the other hand, is just as tragic as she always is. Of course she’s being manipulated by the Joker, and of course she falls for it, thinking she’ll win his affection if she bugs the Bat for him. Barbara hits the nail on the head late in the game when she tells Harley that the Joker doesn’t care about who will help him out of his cage, but instead who will put him back there. It sums up Joker’s perspective of his relationship with Batman perfectly, and adds to the heartbreaking nature of Harley’s devotion and delusion.
Narratively speaking, though, this issue is pretty derivative of other comics. There are a lot of similarities to Mad Love, widely seen as one of the best Harley Quinn stories as well as one of the most fondly remembered episodes of The New Batman Adventures (there’s even a “rev your Harley” line), and Harley committing crimes in homage to the Joker reminded me a lot of last year’s Batman ’66 #25. She even has a similar costume design as in that issue, though to be fair it’s hard to stray away from her classic look on the comic page.
That brings us to Matthew Clark’s pencils, which are kind of all over the place. The basic backgrounds and layouts he uses are great, and the action scenes are staged well with lots of fluidity, clarity, and energy. It’s his character designs, and some of the faces in particular, that are pretty wonky. Babs’ costume is a hot mess of paneling, piping, and weird textures, but given some of the other redesigns in this universe it’s to be expected. Harley fairs a little better, but like Barbara her face is… strange. Sometimes they’re both feminine, while others they have weird angles and off proportions that just make them look weird.
As rough as some of the other characters look, though, the Joker looks absolutely phenomenal.
With his black lips, narrow eyes, and wide, toothy grin, he looks remarkably identical to Conrad Veidt’s Gwynplaine from The Man Who Laughs. It’s an unexpected yet welcome acknowledgement to the character’s earliest appearances, as that very film served as Jerry Robinson and Bill Finger’s inspiration for the Joker’s look. Honestly, I was a bit taken aback when I first saw him here, but once it clicked as to why it looked so familiar I was overcome with glee.
What the whole endeavor amounts to, though, is a spotlight on not just one but two female characters. That’s always welcome, especially with strong presences like Batgirl (who could really use a good story these days) and Harley (who is on the verge of overexposure, but still a bankable character who is great when done well). It may not have much to do with the game it ties in to, but as a one-shot it’s a noble endeavor.
In addition to “Caged Animals,” there’s also a short called “Batgirl Begins” from the same team that’s been floating around as a freebie for quite a while. Honestly, I’m not sure if it’s included in this collection (I wrote this over a month ago, when the digital issues dropped), but I’ll link to it just in case.
On the one hand, there are some nice moments between Barbara and Jim, the way she gets her costume is clever, and Killer Moth… well, he’s still Killer Moth.
And frankly, that’s the problem right there: it’s yet another retelling of the exact same conflict. If you’ve read Barbara’s first appearance in Detective Comics #359 , Batgirl: Year One, or even Batman Adventures #12, you’ve read this story. It isn’t really bad, but at this point it’s redundant.
Hey, at least it’s better than the Robin special.
- You’ve read the other Arkham Knight books.
- You’ve played the games.
- You need a good Batgirl fix.
- You collect anything and everything Harley Quinn.
Overall: Unnecessary, sure, and at this point I’m kind of tired of reading about the Arkham Knight universe, but as a standalone issue it isn’t terrible. Getting a better look at Batgirl’s place in this world is nice, but everything still feels derivative of other, better stories rather than one that will stand on its own.