Here it is. Our first White Knight spin-off comic, with lovely art by Matteo Scalera and written by comics newcomer Katana Collins — who I like already, because 1) she’s written novels with titles like “Soul Stripper” and “Beefcakes,” and 2) her name is Katana.
It’s been two years since the events of Curse of the White Knight. Bruce is locked up. The Joker is dead. Harley Quinn is raising twins, and not loving it. Good thing there’s a strange new serial killer in town, and the GTO sure could use the consultation of a former-supervillain.
In this issue we don’t get to see much story-wise outside of setup for the upcoming procedural shenanigans, smattered with a hearty helping of flashbacks. But the setup alone has the potential to pay off brilliantly. Why you ask? Because WKP: Harley Quinn is one of the first stories in recent Bat-memory that is a genuine mystery/whodunnit. The premise of a former supervillain consulting with the police to catch a killer with a bizarre m.o. is marvelous, and the flashbacks provide a solid emotional core to drape all that setup and mystery.
Something that might work against the aforementioned fun premise is the fact that WKP: Harley Quinn contradicts/retcons Harley’s origin from the first two White Knight books. Time will tell if this is a good thing, but it might annoy some folks. Equally as worrisome is the fact that Curse of the White Knight may have written this story into a bit of a corner by offing most of Batman’s rogues gallery. Much more often than not, shelving the time-tested heavy-hitters for OCs has been a losing bet. Don’t believe me? I submit, as evidence, the past 15 odd years of Bat-books.
For every original villain introduced with a modicum of staying power, there are dozens that land with a thud before evaporating into obscurity. For every Professor Pyg, there’s a Swagman, a Le Bossu, an El Flamingo, or a Phosphorus Rex. For every Court of Owls, there’s a Dealer, a Roadrunner, an Anchoress, or a Mr. Bloom. Am I saying this is the sole reason Bat-comics hardly ever crack 200k units sold anymore? Not really. But if I were a young’un, or even a not-so-young’un, and I had just devoured BTAS/platinumed an Arkham game/marathoned the Nolanverse, and found myself craving more Batman-y goodness… only to crack open a comic and see none of the creepy-cool rogues I’d come to enjoy — but El Freaking Flamingo? See my point?
Worries aside, the strong premise might just be enough to carry the series, even if many of the most interesting players have been scratched from the storyboard. I’m fairly hopeful.
Full disclosure: I wasn’t excited about this book at all. I thought White Knight was a lot of fun and Curse of the White Knight was also pretty groovy. And it’s not that I don’t like Harley Quinn. I do. I’ve been a fan since I was a wee little thing watching BTAS reruns. It’s just that… sometimes it hurts to be a fan. Sometimes you get burned. Or, if you’re a fan of this particular henchwoman turned anti-hero, you get burned about as much as a vampire addicted to tanning.
Sure, some Paul Dini penned stuff and her bits of Injustice were decent. And, sure, the surprisingly-good self-titled animated series probably got me, and many others, through some of the worst bits of lockdown. Doesn’t make up for all the countless iterations of her written as a dime-store Deadpool (scratch that, penny-store, since Deadpool is a dime-store Ambush Bug). That is, when she isn’t being beaten, abused, tortured, or shot — all while somehow still being the posterchild for cheesecake. I still wince a little when I see there’s a new Harley Quinn thing, and yet here we are. This version of Harley has been one of the strongest characters in the White Knight series. White Knight gave her a depth and nuance rarely seen since the character hopped from screen to page. Not only that, it gave her agency. She made decisions. She made plans within plans. Curse of the White Knight continued to build on that depth, culminating her arc by having Harley simultaneously mercy kill her beloved and put down her greatest enemy.
That said, even this far into the universe, I’m still not completely sold on dividing Harley in two. Was it a flashy magic trick? Sure. But it threatens to take the best parts of a character that has evolved over years of trial and error and saws it into anti-hero Harley and, er, a Neo-Joker (ugh), flattening both. Brings to mind that old parable of King Solomon and the baby. No legitimate parent would want their baby cut in half. For better or worse, where Harley truly glimmers in the White Knight series is in her interactions with other characters. The better: her relationships and interactions with both Jack and Batman are fleshed out and interesting. Worse: Nearly the entirety of her character is in relation to the two men in her life — she has little to work with outside of that.
As for other characters, this continues to be the most epigrammatic iteration of the Joker in years, maybe ever. White Knight’s Joker/Jack is not only three dimensional, but many of Jack and Harleen’s interactions (specifically from this issue’s flashback) make my heart ache. All without dipping into any fetishization of abuse or attempting to excuse or redeem a character who is literally, and intentionally written to be, the worst. Characters outside of Harley and Jack aren’t given much to do in this issue. Bruce and Duke drop by for some plot-progressing conversations and we are introduced to a couple of new characters. But again, it’s all setup so far.
Sean Murphy’s art was one of the highlights of the first two books. It should be a hard act to follow. Should be. Matteo Scalera’s ink washes are gorgeous. Dave Stewart’s use of pastels and occasional splashes of vivid primaries make everything pop with mood and feeling. Everything together gives the art a vibrant, Pixar meets Godfather aesthetic that makes this comic a joy to gander at.
The art is particularly wonderful at showing character emotion:
And at location establishing panels:
A good establishing panel can go a long way to cut down on confusion by showing us the scene’s geography and the spatial relationships between the characters and objects. Panels with different perspectives and angles without a panel to establish the environment as a whole can become disorienting, especially in panels involving action or combat. Even in pretty tame scenes like the one above, having a panel of each environment creates more of a sense of place and a dash of psychological realism that sucks you into what’s happening in the scene.
I did find some of the panel layouts/page flow a little disorienting. Above being a standout example. As you can see from the diagram I created using super sophisticated eye tracking equipment I definitely have, my eye was drawn immediately to the left (the lavender line), it being large, detailed, and more interesting — but the panels, for some reason, seem to be meant to be read from right to left like a manga (the red line). But, also, from left to right again. But, also, as well, the word balloons, being in english, read from left to right. Okie dokie.
~ You like the White Knight series.
~ The “police procedural, but with a twist!” genre is your jam.
~ You’re a fan of Harley Quinn.
~ You wish Pixar movies had more mobsters and/or serial murder.
If I were rating White Knight Presents: Harley Quinn in the context of all four current issues, it’d have a higher score. But alone, even if it does have the potential for an enjoyable mystery, issue #1 is mostly a by the book setup with enough heart and great art to elevate it. Regardless, if this were a police procedural streaming series, I’d watch the crap out of it. I’m intrigued to see where the mystery goes, and how clever of a caper/whodunnit it develops into.
Disclaimer: DC Comics provided Batman News with a copy of this comic for the purpose of this review.