Harley’s finally done it: she’s conquered every trial thrown her way by the Lords of Order and Chaos and earned the right to be their Angel of Retribution. This is what she’s worked so hard for, so she should be excited, right?
In reading Harley Quinn there have been many things I’ve come to expect from the book: craziness, violence, and a tendency to avoid diving deeper into serious issues. This tendency is something that’s bothered me in the past, because there’s so much potential for character change, and I felt the book threw that away time and again. With this issue, I’m starting to rethink that expectation and frustration.
I was worried that author Sam Humphries had said all he intended to say about Harley’s grief in the last issue. I thought, ‘Oh, we’re done with the mourning bit and on to more crazy super powered Harley.’ Turns out I was wrong. The moment the Lords of Order and Chaos give Harley her powers she attacks them, blaming them both for her mother’s death. It’s a really stunning couple of scenes, that Basiri handles well. You can feel Harley’s anger and grief in the action and fury of her attacks. It’s not surprising that she doesn’t win– they did give her the powers after all, but it’s a satisfying moment to read both because readers and Harley can feel her momentary success, and because it’s confirmation that she’s not done coping with her loss yet.
The Lords aren’t at fault, however. In a strange twist, they turn into some old ladies to calm Harley down, and we learn that no matter what Harley did, her mom would have died anyway. Harley’s grief drives her to redirect her anger and frustration at the world toward the Lords, which turns to desperation and bartering as she offers to give up all her powers just to get her mom back. It’s a great progression of her feelings: last issue she was in full denial, while in this issue she gets to move further, through anger and bargaining, and into some acceptance.
The bulk of the story focuses on Harley coming to terms with her grief and saying goodbye to her mom. The Lords give her and her mother a chance to talk, and it’s some of the most heartfelt, emotional stuff in this series. The conversation flows naturally, with highs and lows, and has points where mother and daughter get off topic or are goofy. There’s a page of their expressions trying to say goodbye that’s both funny and heartbreaking because we know what’s coming, but it’s just so true to both characters you can’t help but smile. It’s sad to know we won’t see more of them together after this, but I appreciate the fact that Humphries is making this death stick and letting Harley grow from it.
This issue very much feels like a culmination of everything Humphries has been doing since he came onto Harley Quinn back in issue #45. Harley’s come a long way from where she was then. She was someone who ran from responsibilities and looked at fun as a distraction instead of facing up to how she was feeling. It’s an obvious character trait we see time and again in this book, but one that’s changed slightly as she’s faced each of her trials. I think Humphries has played a really clever long game with readers, both giving us fun narratives and subtly driving Harley towards being someone able to come to terms with her problems. We see that clearly in this issue as she can finally let go of her mom.
It’s also clear in how she’s willing to give up being the angel of retribution. Not just when she offers it up in exchange for her mother’s life, but when she eventually chooses to quit. The last time she had incredible powers like this, she used them to distract herself and run away from her problems. Here she has that option, but chooses instead to focus on living her life to the fullest, like her mom wants. She’s moving forward and willing to look life full in its face even without her mom there to guide her.
I talked a little bit about some great moments in the art, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t highlight the fact that Basiri and Hi-Fi did such a great job with backgrounds in this issue. The realm of the Lords of Order and Chaos is dark with just about nothing going on, which could make for some really boring backdrops, but together I feel like they took the challenge and ran with it.
The scenes where Harley is fighting the Lord’s are full of vibrant color and action, and don’t require any kind of backdrop to make them pop. Then, when the story shifts to something more quiet and in-between, we’re treated to a simple white background. This both creates a visual shift that calms Harley and prepares readers for Harley’s mom to show up. When she does, everything shifts into green: lush plants spring up around them, and they’re back on that island that’s been so central to this arc. The scenes shifting in subtle ways like this allow for readers to really focus on the characters. I think it was the perfect way to enhance everything that was going on.
But there was one thing in the issue that really bothered me: the use of Harley’s comic book inside the story itself. Many times, I feel like the inclusion of Harley’s comics in her story are clever and add to the narrative. This time I think it made the ending feel confusing.
It brings up a problem I’ve had with the comics Harley totes around. Sometimes it’s very obvious they are telling fictionalized versions of the story. Other times it’s not so clear how they impact things. This is one of those times, as I’m not sure if it’s indicating a side story branching off Harley’s quest to get away from memories and live her life to the fullest, or if it’s just there as a lead in to the next issue.
I understand that the Year of the Villain arc has to be injected into the book, but why do it in a comic inside the story? Why is Booster Gold with Harley? What is even going on? Is it our Harley who’s going to deal with this crossover, or her comic self? For an issue that’s done a lot of things right, this ending felt very out of the blue and frustrating.
To me, this is one of the strongest issues in this series, not just because it helps so many pieces of the narrative fall into place, but because it allows the story to linger on the emotions it’s building, without going too over the top and goofy. This is the balance I’ve been looking for in Harley stories, and I’m really glad to see it showing up at last. Here’s hoping that even if we go back to goofy things, that balance stays strong.
- You wanted to see the story take a more serious focus (at least for the moment)
- Harley growing and changing is interesting to you
- Subtle, long-form storytelling is your thing
This conclusion to the Trials of Harley Quinn arc was a really great wrap up not only to the Trials themselves, but to an arc about Harley growing as a character. It was also wonderful to spend more time with Harley actually facing a problem head on, and being able to work through her mom’s passing. It’s not the end of her growth, or even the end of her struggling with losing a parent, but I think it’s a strong step in helping strengthen who she is, and how she interacts with the world.
DISCLAIMER: Batman News received an advance review copy of this book from DC.