Harley Quinn is my favorite comic book character. In fact, she is THE reason I got into both Batman and DC Comics. I have a very sizable collection of Harley Quinn statues and merchandise, I’ve followed the character in every one of her appearances, and I know more about her history than should be healthy for a person.
However, that doesn’t mean that I’m not very critical of how the character has been handled for the past 6 years now, if not longer.
The rapid changes the character has gone through in a relatively short amount of time are one thing, but another thing is the fact that DC has been offering up SO MANY different versions of the character that she’s become (by my perception) very ill-defined, and her fanbase is fractured as a result. Looking at the comics alone, one comic might portray Harley as a sex object who likes to hook up with whoever she happens to be sharing a panel with. The next might portray her as a serious fighter and leader of the Suicide Squad. The next might portray her as a silly, plucky, looney toon. The next might portray her as a mentally ill child who speaks in lullabies, but is somehow able to take on the trinity of Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman (looking at you, Heroes in Crisis). She appears as a Justice League member whenever DC wants to push their heroes, but she appears amongst the villains when DC wants to promote an event with their rogues. Tell me, DC Comics, who is Harley Quinn really!?
As such, I usually can’t recognize the character I first loved – the Joker associate who offered up a lot of tragedy and vulnerability beneath her happy/mischievous front. However, like a lot of people, I’m still emotionally attached to this character…so I keep checking out her new comics.
I was interested in Stephanie Phillips’ run of Harley Quinn, first of all, because I wanted to see how a sole female writer would handle the character. I also was interested in seeing Harley return to her Gotham roots after she’s spent almost 10 years confined to the Suicide Squad, Coney Island, and pretty much everywhere BESIDES Gotham.
This series begins right after the events of Joker War, where Harley is bound and determined to make up for the sins of her past and prove herself a hero (and a newly established member of the Bat-family – sort of) to all the people of Gotham that she’s wronged in the past. So… how does it all fare so far? Well, I’ll start by what I like about the series.
- Harley’s back in Gotham again. That’s a big deal for me because, like I said, Harley has mostly become unrecognizable to me in most mainstream comics. Part of that was her being separate from the Batman lore most of the time, taking her back to being an actually Batman character again is a good step.
- Similarly, I like the element of the comic in which Harley is trying to help other former Joker henchmen who want to reform. It’s another element to the story where you can clearly trace it back to Harley’s roots, and that’s another thing that makes the character more recognizable to me.
- Better dialogue. This is a big one for me. Harley Quinn used to have a very original and defined voice as invented by Paul Dini and Arleen Sorkin, and it’s a voice that I used to be able to read and hear in all of her comics. Ever since Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Connor’s run on the character, though, they gave Harley a new voice which I might only describe as “over-done baby talk.” If you don’t understand what I’m talking about here, well, I’ll show you an example of dialogue from Paul Dini’s Harley Vs. the Palmiotti’s:
See what I mean? One is the Judy Holiday type of voice Arleen Sorkin made up, with just a little inflection here and there to indicate an accent. Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti added SO MUCH inflection to the accent that, not only did it give off an entirely different voice, but it became entirely unintelligible at times. And I’ve found other writers since that run that have either tried to do some variation of this over-done baby-talk voice (Sam Humphries for example) or have gone their own way and created a brand new voice for Harley that seems to be their idea of what a crazy person sounds like (see Tom King). Either way, Harley’s classic voice has, sadly, been lost.
With Stephanie Phillips however, while she doesn’t bring back the traditional Harley voice, she does make Harley sound more or less like a real person again, with dialogue I can actually understand without a million speech inflections. It’s a very welcome change of pace.
Unfortunately, that’s where my praise for the series must end.
Let me be clear, I have no problem with taking a character from Batman’s rogues gallery and giving them a redemption arc. It’s been done with pretty much every Batman villain at this point, including the Joker (see Going Sane). Harley herself has had good stories exploring the potential for her redemption in the past (Detective Comics #837). The problem is, these stories were meant to show different sides to the characters we wouldn’t normally see; they were not meant to be permanent. For example, it’s one thing if we see the Riddler “going straight” for an arc (which we did just before the New 52 began). But, it’s another thing if DC were to say “the Riddler is now permanently a superhero,” or even worse, “the Riddler is now a member of the Bat-family.”
With Harley, part of the problem is that turning her into a superhero or a member of the Bat-family is just taking her too far away from the character I recognize. Also, while DC has been very inconsistent with the character over the past few years, they have been banging the wall of “Harley Quinn’s a superhero now” a lot. There was already an arc during Sam Humphries run about Harley needing to prove to Batman that she’s reformed now, after I thought she had been hero for some time at that. Then when the Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy miniseries began later in the year, they acted like Harley had been a villain all this time and was *just then* starting to reform. Then comes the end of the Joker War arc and this series, and it once again feels like we’re starting the arc of Harley Quinn’s reform, when DC’s been trying that for years and not really going anywhere with it.
It’s odd because as fractured as the Harley Quinn fanbase is, I don’t know virtually anyone who likes the idea of her as a superhero, and I especially don’t know anyone who wants her to be a part of the Bat-family. I mean, it’s pretty hard to change people’s mindset that Harley is a Batman enemy when most media and merchandise throughout her history AND most media and merchandise today keep advertising her with the idea. With that in mind, I’m not really sure why the comics division of DC keep insisting on this direction. It hasn’t really added much to the character beyond moving her away from her more iconic, mischievous, personality while still offering her up as an insane clown-themed character with little depth, nuance, or definition beyond that.
Of course, there are little things, at first, that Stephanie Philips does to make her take on “Harley Quinn becomes a hero” to be a bit better. There are a couple of moments where Harley shows some self-doubt that give her a little bit more humanity. But these moments are a few and far between with Harley continuing to act like a lunatic completely lacking self-awareness for her insanity, and wondering why the people of Gotham haven’t accepted her in the midst of her behavior, like when she throws a temper tantrum in a coffee shop over Hugo Strange not giving a “real apology” like hers was on TV, and she wonders why she’s thrown out. Harley just continues to act like a wired child throughout most of the series, which is how you could generalize her in most comics these days, and it doesn’t make her likable when the comic is also trying to tell us this is Harley’s good turn and we should be rooting for her. This is especially a problem when Harley shows signs of not being as “reformed” as she’d like us to believe (see the panel below where Harley discusses the mayor’s wife), but these moments are never addressed in the series.
What’s strange is Stephanie Phillips ends up making her original character “Kevin,” Harley’s new sidekick, out to be more sympathetic in the book, probably because this is a new character written from scratch who doesn’t have all of Harley’s confused characterization and history to deal with. He seems to be a dim-witted, yet good hearted fellow who was pressured into doing some terrible things, but he weirdly seems to feel more remorse for his actions than Harley does. It’s really odd to have a supporting character show more nuance than the protagonist.
Other writing elements in this series: Stephanie Phillips begins each issue with someone (usually Harley) giving a long-winded inner monologue that serves as an analogy for whatever’s going on in each issue. I suppose these inner monologues are supposed to add some depth to Harley in the series, but they honestly come off as forced and tiresome after a while. They seem to reveal more of a lack of understanding as to who Harley Quinn even is (though I don’t entirely blame Stephanie Phillips for that). For example, the issue where Catwoman comes in begins with a monologue about how Harley has always been uncomfortable around cats, and I have no clue where this idea came from other than Phillips needed to write *something” for the opening.
The worst of these monologues happens in issue #9, where Harley remembers her past and recalls that she has never been fearful of anything… except clowns.
This point is absolutely insane… so insane I haven’t seen any kind of “Harley Quinn fan,” no matter which version they are a fan of, who doesn’t see this as ridiculous. The problem I’ve had for years is, Harley really SHOULDN’T be using the Harley Quinn persona anymore if she wants to reform, especially if she wants the people of Gotham to trust her again. She only became Harley Quinn for Joker in the first place, and DC has spent years either ignoring this fact, or trying to come up with some sort of excuse for Harley to remain Harley Quinn, because they never want that silly clown personality to go away. In the midst of all that, how can you give Harley more reason to NOT want to be Harley Quinn when you say she’s now afraid of clowns?!
It’s points like this that show a real lack of research and understanding from the creative team when it comes to this character, and dare I say it, it just comes off as lazy. But laziness seems to abound in this book in more areas than just that. Infamously in Issue 12, there’s a moment when Harley crashes a flaming, exploding train over a bridge, while still on the bottom of the engine, but a couple panels later she crawls up wet on the train trestles, no questions asked. She apparently now has the god-like ability to survive extreme crashes without a scratch and also possesses super speed to be able to climb giant train trestles within seconds.
The final tidbit I’ll say about the writing is that I do appreciate that Stephanie Phillips generally steers clear of a lot of the crude humor other writers such as Jimmy Palmiotti, Frank Tieri, and Sam Humphries have saturated their takes on Harley Quinn with. Stephanie Phillips writes Harley Quinn as a book that would pretty much be kid-friendly even… if it weren’t for some very random sexual humor and implications that come out of nowhere and frankly, would just be better left out of the book, like when she implies Joker used to like to have threesomes in the bathroom, or… whatever I’m supposed to believe was going on in her relationship with Poison Ivy.
The problem here is merely tone. Don’t have a book that reads and feels like it’s for all ages and then slip stuff like this in, although this has been a problem I’ve been having with a lot of DC books post-Dan Didio era, and it seems to come down to editorial not doing a great job of saying, “hey, maybe that doesn’t need to be in the book?”.
This then brings me to my biggest overall point about the book, and how I’ve felt about DC editorial’s handling of this character in general. DC’s had Harley Quinn on a pedestal as one of their biggest cash cows, but I often get the feeling that there’s a real lack of care behind the scenes in which she appears. We’ve spent years with so many different and contradictory versions of the character, with her history and personality often getting confused or lost. Now, even with a comic that brings her just a little closer to home and has some elements I like, I still can’t help but be frustrated that we are stilling banging a brick wall with the “hero Harley” arc yet again. It’s like this series is a train going full speed in a direction many people are either not on board with or have grown tired of, and it just doesn’t do enough to change my mind about this course, along with having some pretty frustrating continuity and tone errors as well. I really wish DC would put a bit more effort into the character again, take time to really look into what more fans would want and what might actually give the character more depth.
Artwork: Riley Rossmo is pretty well-known for having controversial artwork at this point. Under normal circumstances, I’d like to believe that all artwork has its place. My problem is just that Riley Rossmo’s art is totally unfitting for a Harley Quinn book. In my opinion, comic book artwork should reflect the character it’s portraying, and I see what DC was thinking in attaching an unconventional, wacky art style, to an unconventional, wacky character. The problem is that Harley Quinn is more than that. Throughout her history she’s always had artists that can draw her with a cute, attractive art style that matches her character. This has been true for artists such as Sam Basari, Amanda Connor, Terry Dodson, Bruce Timm, etc. This IS a consistency that the character has always had, and it’s part of what has made her appealing. In fact, some people like Harley and buy her comics just for the aesthetics and nothing else. That’s why it’s a serious misstep to bring aboard an artist who draws Harley’s face like a wart the entire time. Of course, it’s not just Harley; every character is drawn with a warped, jagged face and body. It’s simply ugly artwork to me, and that’s the last thing a Harley Quinn book should have.
Not only is it unattractive to look at, but it makes the sequence of events hard to follow in each issue. Rossmo does make some unconventional choices with his page layouts, like positioning a panel or a tier at a slant to give the book a sort of wild-amusement park feel, and that’s very fitting. But often times I’d look at a page and just see so much going on, and so many mangled, ugly looking faces, it made it harder to pay attention and be drawn into the story.
When I pick up a comic, the artwork should draw me in, even if the story doesn’t, and Riley Rossmo’s art constantly tells me to look away, the way you might want to look away from an ugly animal or fish. I know that sounds really, really harsh, but it’s the best way to describe my reaction to the book. The effect was a night and day difference with the couple of issues where Laura Braga filled in. Her art-style is cute and easy to follow, which is perfect for a Harley Quinn book. It’s beyond me why DC hasn’t let her take over the book as the main artist when people (on the internet at least) have been very vocal about Riley Rossmo’s art being a turn off, but perhaps that’s just another example of how DC really doesn’t care what happens with this title.
Ivan Plascencia’s colors are the one saving grace. He goes with either soft, pastel colors (see above, there are lots of light blues and purples, and it matches with Harley’s pastel dyed hair) or a lot of punchy, exciting colors. Compared to Rossmo’s style, these are good color choices for the sort of vibe a light-hearted Harley Quinn book is going for… but it’s not enough to save the series for me.
- Seeing a female writer take on Harley Quinn interests you.
- The story of a dopey, but lovable, ex-Joker henchman named Kevin sounds good.
- Harley’s continuous journey towards reform draws you in.
- Riley Rossmo’s art is your taste (if it is, let’s talk).
Stephanie Phillips’ Harley Quinn takes some steps in toning the character down and tying her closer to her roots, but it’s ultimately a shallow, repetitive read with plenty of character and continuity errors that make it on par with what DC’s been doing with Harley Quinn for years now.
Disclaimer: DC Comics provided Batman News a free copy of this comic for the purpose of this review.