DC’s young adult imprint, DC Ink, just released its latest graphic novel, Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass. Creating a new origin story for Harley, this reimagining introduces readers to her as a fifteen year old, struggling to navigate life, discover who she is, and make the right choices as her home is threatened by a wave of gentrification. Now, I’ve read a few Ink and Zoom books, and generally I haven’t been a fan. The one’s I’ve read either simply didn’t gel with me or I felt they weren’t true to the characters within the stories. I was afraid Breaking Glass would follow suit, but I’m happy to say it isn’t. In fact, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this story. Yes, It might be a total reimagining of Harley in high school, but Mariko Tamaki has a good grasp on Harley as a character. She’s still the same Harley I’ve come to know: funny, quirky, prone to violence, and in love with a good hot dog.
The story opens with Harley stepping off a bus, on a quest to find her grandma. Well, grandma’s dead, because… Gotham. Instead of grandma, she finds Mama, a drag queen who owns the karaoke cabaret below her grandmother’s apartment. Mama takes Harley in, she starts attending Gotham High, becomes best friends with Ivy, grows close with the Queens- Mama’s friends and fellow drag queens- and things are good… Until they aren’t.
See, she’s got a problem. The Kanes, one of Gotham’s elite families, are trying to send Harley and her friends’ whole block hurtling into a shiny new future with little care for the residents who’ve spent most of their lives in this community. In this struggle, Harley’s faced with a choice: side with Ivy and her family to fix things, or follow the Joker and implement a more explosive solution. Any other story would have had Harley siding with Ivy and good winning out over evil, but Harley isn’t the kind of character who always makes the best choices. She has a wildness to her that makes her path not as clear cut as other heroins. I feel like this makes her the perfect character to tell a story with such a complex subject.
Harley’s personal struggle is presented quite well as we see her pulled in different directions, wanting to do the right thing, but unsure of how to go about it. Mama wants her to be a good kid who goes to school, stays quiet, and leaves the adults to handle all of the problems. Ivy wants her to be vigilant and stand by her side against greed and corruption. Meanwhile, Joker wants her to let loose and take out all her frustration at the source. It’s a lot for anyone, much less a teenager. Ultimately, Harley finds herself through the struggle and manages to come into her own. But, does she come out of it as a hero or villain? Which influence does Harley decide to follow, and does she ultimately make the right choice? Well, it’s not as simple as all that. That’s the whole idea behind Breaking Glass. Things aren’t easy, or perfect, and often times our mistakes outnumber our victories.
The conflict at the heart of Breaking Glass isn’t painted as black and white. Harley’s problem isn’t one with a clear cut bad guy she can punch. It’s a systematic obstacle too large for any one person to handle on their own. The questions of right and wrong are no less difficult. While Harley deals with consequences to her decisions, rich “boogers” (Harley’s quite appropriate term) tend to get off with few consequences. It shows how situations we hope are simple can still be murky, and that right doesn’t always come out on top.
All that said, I do have an issue with how heavy this story gets at times. At a certain point, the balance between serious and fun tips far more to the serious, and leaves the book tonally inconsistent. Hopeful storylines like Mama’s fundraiser or Ivy and Harley’s campaign to change the film club ultimately build to hopeless conclusions. Each thing, big or small that Harley puts her efforts into seems to always end in failure. Neither Harley, nor the readers, are really given a lot of wins. And while I already said that I appreciate an approach that does not take the complex subject lightly… this recurring theme of inevitable despair makes for an unpleasant reading experience at times. In fact, I found myself feeling powerless and quite frustrated for most of the book’s latter-half. While it does end with some notes of optimism, I don’t feel as though the positivity is given as much weight as the overall sense of oppression.
But even though the themes in Breaking Glass are serious, I don’t want to give the impression that it isn’t also fun. It’s got all the hallmarks of a good Harley story: some explosions, bats breaking things, and Harley looking to food for advice. Ivy doesn’t shy away from the fun, either. I typically view Ivy as a serious character, so it is nice to see her cut loose. She’s got some great one liners that made me laugh out loud, and she and Harley are a good team together. Her protests against the film club are staged in full clown make up, allowing for some funny scenes. One is a moment where other students start to engage with them, and a guy suggests the next protest include space clowns, his friend is obviously not excited to be a clown, and especially not a space clown. It’s a funny moment of both visual and textual humor.
Whether the story was leaving me in tears or in stitches, Steve Pugh’s illustrations elevated the emotional tone of any given scene in the most beautiful ways. His colors, character designs, atmospheric backgrounds and more are as lovely as they are engrossing.
I really loved the way Harley’s design constantly changes to fit her as she grows through the book. It’s interesting to watch her harlequin outfit come to life gradually, from the smallest hint of it in sweaters, to gorgeous face paint, and ultimately into something that looks like the Harley we all know.
The other stand out character design was Joker’s. His mask made me do a double take the first time I saw it, as I tried to figure out what was going on. Was this a painted on face? Or something reminiscent of his New 52 face, cut off and pulled back on? It’s unsettling, and reminds readers that he’s not to be trusted.
One of my favorite things about the book’s visuals was the use of color. Specifically how Pugh wields red. It follows Harley as she attempts to take back some control in her life. We see it in flashbacks, when she’s either lost that control, or is wrenching it back from those who’ve wronged her. It grows more and more as Mama’s group works to save their home, then when she meets Joker, until finally we see Harley, in her red and black Harlequin self. It’s really beautiful, and helps carry the reader through Harley’s story in a unique way.
- You love all things Harley
- You want to see her take on some serious issues
- Steve Pugh’s art is reason enough
Overall: Breaking Glass tackles some serious issues in a way that is both thoughtful and real to life. It’s funny, beautiful to read, and full of heart. There are no easy answers in the book, or clean solutions to problems, but it does provide readers with both a relatable narrative and a spark of hope to push them forward.