Harley Quinn: The Animated Series: The Real Sidekicks of New Gotham Special review

The team behind Harley Quinn: The Animated Series: The Eat. Bang! Kill. Tour return, as well as some of the writers from the show, for an anthology series. Instead of filling in the gaps between seasons, these stories are meant to flesh out the side characters of series and give them a chance to shine. It’s an admirable goal, though it is met with mixed results. Most of the time however, the characters’ voices are perfect and it feels like a natural extension of the show, despite the stories’ shortcomings.

Tawny Young and Guests in “Tawny Tawks!”

Tawny Tawks is less of a story and more of a framing device. Almost all of the characters from the anthology appear on the “show” to talk about what happened in their story after it ends. It allows for some closure and commentary on the vignettes. It’s very self-aware too, subtly breaking the fourth wall on multiple occasions. Tawny mentions the popularity of their “coverage” of the Eat. Bang! Kill. Tour, and how that allowed this “show” to get made. She even expresses hope that they get renewed for a fifth season (presumably talking about Harley Quinn: The Animated Series). Most of this story appears as short snippets following each of the other stories. so I’ll talk about them there to avoid a very disjointed summary here.

Score: 6.5/10

Harley Quinn, Poison Ivy, and Vixen in “Double Date”

Just as during the Eat. Bang! Kill. Tour, Vixen and Elle’s relationship here continues to be portrayed as aggressively positive. In a series that gets so much of its drama from emotional conflict, it can be nice to see a couple where they are consistently happy and healthy. Vixen even expresses care and concern for Elle’s disability in a normalizing way, which is a very important kind of representation. It’s also a very sexual relationship without ever feeling like it’s pandering to cheesecake and titillation. Admittedly it can get a bit overly saccharine at times, with the two expressing their love for each other in pretty much every scene. What conflict does exist primarily centers around Vixen’s attitude towards Elle’s friendship with Harley and Ivy.

Elle sets up a double date with Harley and Ivy, after having gotten to know them during the Eat. Bang! Kill. Tour. Vixen, being a hero, has understandable hesitations about being friends with the criminals Harley and Ivy, despite Elle’s insistence that they’re not so bad. This touches on an ongoing conflict in the show, which is how exactly Harley sees herself on the hero/villain spectrum. Ivy has always eschewed the villain label, preferring “eco-terrorist” and she continues to do so here. However, as of the latest episode at the time of this comic’s release, Harley emphatically identifies as a villain, which conflicts the “anti-hero” label she uses here.

Tee Franklin’s Harley Quinn: The Animated Series tie-in comics have regularly had a habit of softening Harley and Ivy’s image, being unwilling to let them ever do anything bad. This is most apparent when their date is interrupted by a robbery by White Rabbit, and Harley goes out of her way to save an innocent bystander at risk to herself. She even labels herself “Superharley” as her new heroic moniker. It leans heavily into a portrayal of Harley that feels out of line with the show.

The action in this comic never feels very important, but it serves as a nice break from the relationship scenes. Vixen’s scouting mission with Batman gives her a chance to show off some more of her animal powers and remind the reader how capable she is. Batman’s characterization as a paranoid micro-manager is the kind of on-point parody that we come to expect from the series. My only quibble is that the story frames his lack of trust as an instance of misogyny, which feels out of place from how he’s been portrayed by the show/comic in the past.

Overall it’s a light, fun story that focuses on the positivity and sentimentality of the characters’ relationships. The art offers an exaggerated version of what can be found in the animated series that blends well with the expressiveness of the characters in the story. If you liked the Eat. Bang! Kill. Tour then you’ll like this.

Score: 7/10

Tawny PS: It’s clear that Tee Franklin wrote both stories here, because the tone never skips a beat and it almost reads as one continuous story. The epilogue continues to talk about how much all the characters love each other, and the audience is ecstatic to affirm that love. Positivity all around. As a small technical error note, the speech bubbles on the second page of this section are misaligned with the page, so they spill over into their adjacent gutter space.

Batgirl in “Identity Crisis”

Identity Crisis, which is a title I must have seen used in at least half a dozen different comic book stories, focuses on Barbara trying to balance her work as Batgirl with her life as a college student. It nails her characterization pretty well. Most importantly, Barbara is a huge nerd, and it oozes out of her in every scene. She uses her role as Batgirl to organize a litter cleanup campaign, spends an all nighter studying for an exam despite being top of the class, and is eager to the point of bordering on obsessive. Despite the new art style, I was able to consistently read the character in the voice from the show and it never felt out of place. I also appreciated the nod to Oracle by having her comment on the fact that no one is monitoring Gotham’s digital space.

This is the first time that the art in this series has differed so much from what is in the show, but it still works. Erica Henderson’s pencils are far more simplified and almost childish than Max Sarin’s in the normal series. If you’re at all familiar with her work on The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl then you know what to expect here. It adds a level of playfulness which fits with the tone the story is trying to convey. That’s not to say that the art is always so innocent and child-like. The fight scene towards the end of the comic is exciting while still keeping up a number of visual gags that keep it light.

My primary problem with the story rests with the execution of the conflict in the back half. In it, Barbara needs to attempt to hack into Wayne Security as part of her cybersecurity course. The way that this is represented in the comic is by showing Barbara physically in the digital space while solving puzzles like sudoku and Rubik’s Cubes. I understand that actual hacking is not very interesting to depict in a visual medium like comics, (though some stuff like Mr. Robot are able to make it work) but the problem with this specific approach is that I don’t think it fits what it’s meant to represent. By showing the hacking as solving games that are designed with a “solution” in mind, it implies that the security was designed to have a way to beat it. It’s almost like a video game more than anything else.

That’s a very minor nitpick, but the representation becomes a problem as the comic goes on. Barbara mentions that she hasn’t “seen” her friend for a couple levels of the simulation-like world of the hack, and notices a mysterious figure lurking in the shadows. She decides to don her Batgirl suit and starts fighting the intruder. Given that they’re just typing code at their computers, I have no idea what this is supposed to represent. Like I said before, the fight scene is well done, but as I’m reading it I have no idea what is actually meant to be narratively happening. Full disclosure, I have a background in software engineering so this probably bothers me a lot more than it will bother other people, but I think it breaks immersion when the visuals aren’t clearly connected with what they’re meant to abstractly represent. The final reveal of the villain is also not great, and feels like an underdeveloped Anarky knockoff due to his sudden and unclear decision to want to take down Wayne Security for vague reasons.

Score: 6/10

Tawny PS: The Tawny section is largely a follow up on this newly revealed villain of “The Calculator” and attempts to prove his hacking bona fides by showing that he knows Batgirl’s secret identity. His plan to reveal it to the world is stopped by Clayface turning into Barbara and standing next to Batgirl because it’d be “funny”. Honestly this felt a little contrived and out of character so that they could quickly resolve the conflict and move on.

Clayface in “Showtime!”

Showtime is another story whose art is very distinct from what’s in the show, however unfortunately I don’t think this time it manages to still fit the story it’s meant to tell. There is a constant disconnect between the tone implied by the exaggerated, almost Merrie Melodies-esque artwork and the melancholy subject matter in the story. The artwork actually reminds me of the old Sam & Max comics from the 90s, and had this series taken a similar slapstick, wise-cracking approach I think it would have worked out really well. What we get instead is a plot focused on Clayface being depressed, exploited, and dealing with abandonment issues. It’s got a few genuinely good gags like one that subverts the setup for a mobster Italian stereotype joke, but they are not the focus.

Clayface himself feels very out of character in this story, which is unfortunate because he’s one of my favorite parts of the show. Instead of his usual, theatrical self who always looks on the bright side of things, he is consistently depressed and almost pathetic. Even the way he’s drawn adds to the effect. In place of the big toothy grin and loud presence, his “disguise” looks like a schlubby middle-aged man. At every turn he is stepped on, chewed up, and spit out, which just comes off as sad more than anything else, and is the exact opposite from what I would expect from a story focusing on the character. The twist at the end only compounds the problem.

Spoiler

A girl who helps Clayface escape his humiliating gig is revealed to be his estranged daughter, Annie. I actually immediately suspected her to be such, given that her appearance is almost identical to Annie from the excellent episode Growing Pains in The New Batman Adventures. There, similarly to here, Clayface creates a small spawn from himself to help him, and that offspring slowly gains sentience. However, since none of that context exists in that universe, what happens in the comic is that it dumps a bunch of exposition on the reader where we learn that Clayface created her to help his acting career and then just forgot about her. Despite the depressing and somewhat clunky introduction, she’s developed well and I wouldn’t mind seeing her show up in the future; it’s a compelling angle to Clayface’s character.

Score: 5/10

Tawny PS: The characterization is almost night and day between how Clayface and Annie are written in the main story vs here. Despite my occasional objections, Tee Franklin really understands the characters, and their dynamic feels much closer to how I would expect them to appear in the show. Framing Annie as a rebellious teenager contrasted with a well meaning but foolish/oblivious father is great for comedy, as is tying it back to Clayface’s arm from the first season.

Dr. Psycho in “Wild Ride”

Dr. Psycho has been absent from the show since the end of season 2, which has been a shame because he was always a highlight. It makes sense given how the season ended, and it was a natural departure for the character, but it’s definitely great to be able to see him again here. Jimmy Mosqueda does a great job capturing the voice of the character. His neurotic, self-obsessed attitude is on full display as he’s forced to cope with sharing custody of his son with his ex-wife Giganta. He is unable to empathize with anyone’s struggles that aren’t identical to his own, and even when he does he makes it about himself. Not all of the characterization in the story is perfect; Joker’s voice doesn’t sound perfect for instance, but it’s not so much of a big deal given that he’s not the focus.

The way that he connects with his son (if you want to even call it that) is incredibly entertaining while still highlighting the character contrasts. The fact that Psycho just doesn’t “get” Herman until he realizes that they share the same powers works perfectly, yet manages to deliver a genuinely touching moment between the two of them. The movie homage sequence that leads up to that realization is a bit shallow, but it’s short enough that seeing Psycho, Joker, and King Shark run from famous slasher monsters does not overstay its welcome.

Wild Ride keeps its scope fairly tight, and thanks to that it’s able to give a satisfying vignette that focuses on the relationship between Dr. Psycho and his son. Psycho’s return is more than welcome, and Mosqueda is more than able to capture what made him so entertaining in the show. PJ Holden’s art is reminiscent of the show’s art style, but takes on an almost cubist style that reflects the psychological warping present in the story.

Score: 7/10

Tawny PS: The Epilogue takes a serious turn, and addresses the instances of psychological and sexual abuse that Psycho inflicts on his family. It talks about the fact that what is represented as a joke here is a very real situation for many people, and even lists the national sexual assault hotline (1-800-656-4673) for those who may be in similar situations. I’m usually against such a tonal whiplash, but it feels appropriate to talk about here, especially for a series that makes such a point of portraying positive sexuality.

Mayor Joker in “Two Jokers”

Two Jokers follows up on the show’s recent decision to make Joker the mayor of Gotham City by having his old friend “Joker” stop by for a visit. This other Joker is an actual comedian and is an amalgamation of various movie portrayals of the character. He looks like Joaquin Phoenix’s character from the movie Joker, and introduces himself with “well, hello beautiful” from Heath Ledger’s dialog in The Dark Knight. Our Joker on the other hand makes a number of visual references to famous Joker comics such as the laughing reveal panel from The Killing Joke and cutting up smiling fish, similar to The Laughing Fish in Detective Comics #475.

As you might guess from this dichotomy, this story is very metatextual, and asks what the “correct” way to portray the Joker should be. They fight over the fact that our Joker has changed too much, drawing attention to how big of a change becoming a father and a mayor is for the character in general. You almost sense that Jamiesen Borak is writing about real arguments among fans, but using the Jokers as representatives. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t do much with the interesting premise. Aside from a quick fight and then deciding that maybe change can be good, the story doesn’t explore its thesis. This is by far the shortest story in the collection at only 10 pages, but I still think the time could have been utilized better. Though, I did quite enjoy the fact that they were able to bond over how much they hated what is clearly meant to be Jared Leto’s Joker from Suicide Squad.

Score: 6/10

Tawny PS: The Tawny Tawks following this story doesn’t actually attempt to tie it in to the larger talk show conceit. Instead it ignores the Joker story entirely and wraps up the show as a whole as the other guests start getting into a fight. It’s a decent wrap up for the collection, but it feels odd that this one story is the only one disconnected like that.

Recommended If…

  • You want to see more of the side characters from Harley Quinn: The Animated Series
  • Character relationships are a part of the show that you enjoy
  • You’re a fan of lighthearted, simple stories

Overall

Harley Quinn: The Animated Series: The Real Sidekicks of New Gotham Special is a decent collection of short stories focusing on some of the characters from the show who don’t always get a chance to be the center of attention. None of them are going to be your favorite story featuring the characters in question, but they’re a nice and entertaining extra helping for fans of the show and of Harley Quinn: The Animated Series: The Eat. Bang! Kill. Tour.

Score: 6.5/10


Disclaimer: DC Comics provided a copy of this comic for the purpose of this review.