Harley Quinn #51 review

Howdy folks, welcome to the start of a new arc titled, Triumph. To those who have been curious about the Harley Quinn title and have been looking for a jumping-on point, I’ll say this. Harley Quinn #51 references events and features characters that were very specific to previous issues. In particular the character Jonni DC makes another appearance. This character had her big introduction in Harley Quinn #50, and she’s a continuity cop. Essentially what that means is that she monitors and guards the DC continuity, which involves a lot of fourth wall breaking and mentioning of DC’s co-publishers, Dan DiDio and Jim Lee. While this is most likely going to confuse readers who have never read an issue of Harley Quinn before (or at least none from Humphries’ run), I think you would be okay otherwise…for the most part. It’s good to bear in mind that this is a weird title, and oftentimes it seems like the creative team is actually trying to confuse readers. Anyway, enough of that. Let’s grab the issue and have a look.

The premise of this arc is that a superhero, Captain Triumph, is warped from his own time (the 1940s) to present day, because Harley Quinn broke the DC continuity in issue #50. I looked up the character online, and he’s an actual character who first appeared in Crack Comics #27 in 1943, during the Golden Age of Comics. His powers are invulnerability, flight and, apparently, invisibility (I wonder how that’s going to play into the current Harley Quinn arc?). In any case, the way he is written in Harley Quinn #51 is fairly straight-forward. To me he feels a little bit like a generic superhero archetype with a typical set of powers and moral compass, and really, he’s just another Superman analog. Now, this doesn’t mean per say that nothing interesting can be done with the character, but so far, in this comic, I can’t say I’m that excited to read about him. I think the main reason is that I just am not getting a good idea of his personality because I don’t think that the creative team has managed to develop him into a full-fledged character yet. So far, we get to witness his powers and he tells Harley a little bit about his past, but as it stands it’s not enough. Perhaps more time will be spent developing the character in upcoming issues; which is fine, by the way, so long as he is developed as a full-fledged character before this arc ends. One thing that I do really appreciate, though, is that the creative team has not neglected to show us Triumph’s confused reaction upon finding himself in our modern world. He has no idea what smartphones are, for example, thinking they are devices used by some kind of supervillain to control people.

Other than Triumph, we also meet once more Harley’s mom. And I’m going to be very honest right now. With all due respect, I really dislike the character and the relationship between her and Harley. Here’s the thing: this series references DC continuity from time to time, and not just in the sense that Harley broke the DC continuity—I’m mainly talking about her being a member of Suicide Squad and stuff like that. Now, over in Suicide Squad it’s pretty much established that Harley resides in Belle Reve, which is a prison built for the meanest criminal mofos. And yet she lives here on Coney Island and is free to do whatever she wants. Furthermore, Harley is a murderer. This very comic, for example, references her dark past with Joker, but the way this comic is showing it, is like none of it is a big deal. Harley even refers to those past adventures as “fun.”

I get that the book has a certain target audience and therefore tries to go for a more light-hearted, absurdistic approach. But the more I think about this, the less it’s making sense that a supervillain, murderer and psychopath like Harley (who, as I just pointed out, actually considers killing and traumatizing people, as well as stealing, fun things to do) is just living this happy-go-lucky life. If anything, she should be locked up and in therapy, but instead her mom’s just hanging out with her like everything is fine. Yes, her mom does criticize her on several occasions in this issue, but her reaction is incredibly surreal in the sense that Harley is genuinely contemplating mischief, and her mom is just more or less saying that maybe she shouldn’t be doing those things. (I wonder what that says about her mom as a character?)

Having said that, I’m now in a position where I can state my main problem with the way this story is being told. Even though this book wants to reference past continuity, like Harley’s time with the Joker, the entire cast seems to be totally cool with her being a murderer and criminal. Over in Suicide Squad this works fine, because she’s living with other murderers. But in this series, there’s never any conflict between her and her friends whatsoever (aside from a little bit of friction between her and Coach a few issues back, but that got resolved relatively quickly). Nobody is ever questioning her motives—her mom’s mild questioning in this issue notwithstanding. The question that comes to mind as I read this series is: to what extent does it really work to put this character in this context?

In my opinion, her journey to Apokolips was a nice change of pace. Something that I think this book needed. During that arc, she was among godlike psychopaths—in hell, essentially. At least it was something new that I hadn’t seen before. On the other hand, maybe I’m reading too much into this. Maybe I should just accept that Harley, as a well-known murderer in the DCU (she’s the Joker’s ex! Yes, I keep repeating this because it’s important to her as a character) can live this kind of life. But if this is the life she is living, with a super sweet mom who treats her like an angel, then to what extent is it believable anymore that she really is the Joker’s ex-girlfriend? Something to think about.

As for the humor in this book, it feels slightly forced to me. Sometimes it works—there are some fun campy moments with Captain Triumph that are pretty entertaining. Such as the aforementioned reaction to finding himself in present day America. But then there are jokes that I don’t think work very well. A very specific example that comes to mind is when we see Jonni DC sitting in a room with several versions of Donna Troy. One of the Donnas wants to leave, but Jonni cries at her to sit her butt down and that, “No one leaves until we straighten out this continuity once and for all!” To readers who are well-versed in DC lore and are familiar with Donna’s background, this joke should be obvious: Donna has a fairly convoluted back story. But to readers who just got into comics and want to check out Harley Quinn for fun, this will be completely lost on them. But even for me, knowing about Donna, the joke is so random that it fails to land. Which leads me into my next point.

What’s up with all the fourth wall breaking? It used to be pretty much contained to the Harley Quinn series. It’s a part of the book’s voice and identity, and it’s something you either like or dislike, but it will be there. It’s not a bad thing in and of itself. However, where the jokes used to be subtle and not the driving mechanism behind the plot, it’s now completely infused with the narrative. So much so, that it’s bleeding into other titles. We’ve seen Harley breaking the fourth wall in the recent Aquaman/Suicide Squad crossover, Sink Atlantis, for example. And I can’t help but wonder if this is good for the character in the long run. You know, I’m really into meta-fiction, but why Harley? Is the plan really to make her DC’s version of Deadpool? Does this approach make the comic sell more copies? What’s the deal? What am I missing here? This is also something to consider.

Ultimately, this is what I think about the way this issue is structured: Harley, despite the fourth wall breaking and the questionable portrayal of her relationship with supporting cast members, is as crazy as ever. She’s pulling the same crazy stunts and pranks that she’s always been pulling, and this might be the series’ appeal: at least Harley still reads like crazy old Harley, in line with what previous creative teams have established. The plot itself, though, is mainly setup. The real conflict has yet to start, and the creative team wisely spends enough panels introducing Captain Triumph so, despite not really having had the chance to get to know the character, we at least know his ordeal and have a general idea of who he is. Other than that, there are many scenes sprinkled throughout the narrative—such as the moment with Jonni DC and the Donnas—that I think are intended to add more flavor, but, for me at least, only distract from the story itself and therefore seem like digressions rather than interesting sidesteps.

As for the art, I will be honest and say it’s not my style. But that’s just a matter of taste, and that’s fine, because despite that I recognize that Sami Basri’s output is very consistent in tone and aesthetics. It’s a good fit for the book, because it’s capable of conveying the camp, the Golden Age throwbacks, the humorous and the dynamic action sequences. Perhaps Basri’s art is even a little bit too clean at times, but this does result in Captain Triumph looking like a golden god whose invulnerability enables him to walk from any confrontation without a scratch. And Harley herself looks kinda cute, with a glimmer in her eyes like she’s not entirely clear in the head, which adds to her characterization as a crazy girl with a taste for mischief.

Recommended if:

  • You like Harley Quinn best when the jokes involve breaking the fourth wall
  • You are really into Golden Age style camp
  • You actually know of Captain Triumph and would like to get an idea of how he’ll operate in present day America

Overall: Harley Quinn really is a strange book. Breaking the fourth wall has become a core component of the narrative, and the titular heroine’s relationships with supporting cast don’t always make sense given that Harley is the Joker’s ex and a member of the Suicide Squad. Some of the jokes feel forced, whereas others, particularly those involving Captain Triumph, are entertaining and funny. The art fits the book perfectly, and really sets the tone of the story. But do I recommend this one? Well, I guess this is just not for me, especially since I find myself questioning too many elements of the story. But if you can look past all of that, by all means, give it a read.

Score: 5/10