Harley Quinn 30th Anniversary Special #1 review

“If you expect disappointment then you can never be disappointed,” said Zendaya’s M. J. from Spider Man: No Way Home. It’s some pretty cynical advice, but it is advice I wish I had taken when beginning to read this book.

I was looking forward to this anthology all year, literally. I was hyped when the announcement came out. I checked eBay regularly to track all the covers. I checked the news every once in a while to see if any previews had come out. When I finally was able to read this comic, I was hyped up to heaven and immediately dropped everything to read it all in one sitting.

It was not long before my hype dissipated into disappointment, before I felt a sensation inside me that I have not felt towards any comic I’ve reviewed in my time at Batman News: anger. Not just regular anger, but Gordon Ramsey on a bad day at Hell’s Kitchen kind of anger.

This comic is not just a bad collection. It doesn’t just reinforce that DC Comics has no idea what the Harley Quinn character should be or what she should represent. There are some absolutely vile things in this comic that I could not believe were published by DC. I have not been this upset at a comic since I accidentally bought a Marvel trade that included the “Rape of Ms. Marvel” storyline.

Don’t worry, I fully intend to back up my opinions, and I hope that every writer, every editor, every artist, and every consultant involved with the release of this book reads this review and hears what I have to say.

“Uncommon Bonds” by Jimmy Palmioti and Chad Hardin


I want to start off by saying that I appreciate the thought of pairing various writers and artists who worked on previous Harley Quinn books for this anthology. It could be seen as a trip down memory lane for some. Moreover, I do think that Chad Hardin is a good artist for this story. His character designs are colorful and expressive. I also like how letterer Dave Sharpe gave certain characters are given differently designed speech bubbles (like Red Tool) to make it all more fun.

That said, if you’ve read one Jimmy Palmiotti Harley story, you’ve read them all. His dialogue for Harley can only be described as overdone baby talk, where there are so many intentionally misspelled words and speech inflections, it’s absolutely unreadable. What makes this worse is that this story is wall-to-wall with this dialogue taking up so many of the panels. I found myself tempted to skip over it multiple times before forcing myself to try to discern everything that was being said.


Then there’s the humor, and with Jimmy Palmioti that’s always puns and sex jokes. His most recurring joke for Harley is the fact that she owns a “stuffed beaver.” For those who don’t know, “beaver” is a rather dated slang word for “vagina.” So when Harley mentions anything about her “beaver,” you know what it’s really supposed to mean. At one point, Alfred finds Harley has sneaked into his bed as she exclaims “thanks for spending so much time with my beaver.” What am I supposed to take from that? It’s an example of disgusting, degrading, sexist jokes that only appeal to the lowest common denominator.

Then there’s the plot itself, which shows Harley trying to hang out with Alfred, and they have long conversations before Harley helps Alfred fight some villains. I was questioning in my head the whole time why Alfred was allowing a crazy person with a murder record to drink tea with him and caper about Wayne Manor, even if she is supposed to be reformed. But that’s another element to Palmiotti’s Harley. He changes anything from DC canon at will to fit his story. This has caused confusion over his run for years as people couldn’t figure out if it was supposed to be canon or not.

I’m going to be 100% genuine here. It’s not just that I don’t see Jimmy Palmiotti’s Harley as “not actually Harley;” I don’t think it’s a good character, period. She’s really just a vehicle for Palmiotti’s perverted style of humor. The big defense for his version of Harley has always been “she sells.” Well, she did sell well, many years ago, but unlike other famous comic book runs, I never hear anyone talk about the Palmiotti Harley Quinn run anymore, except for a recent Reddit thread where people were negatively reminiscing about how perverted the series actually was. A lot of things sell well, initially, either because of brand recognition or the whims of audiences, but they can be forgotten completely or thought of negatively (The Lion King 2019 and Suicide Squad 2016 are good examples of that). So I don’t look at Palmiotti’s work with any gratitude. The only thing I think he contributed in the long run was a bad precedent whereby now, every writer who tackles Harley Quinn is projecting a different voice for her and changing her personality to fit their story, something we are going to see on full display in this comic.

Anyway, not a great story to kick of this book. 3/10



“Cease and Desist” by Rafeal Scayone and Rafeal Albuquerque


After trudging through a Jimmy Palmioti Harley story, we get into a Suicide Squad one where she takes on a much more serious voice and personality. I’m not saying this more dramatic Harley is bad, in fact it’s very refreshing to read normal dialogue after the Palmioti story. I’m just rehashing the fact that the identity of Harley Quinn is completely changed from writer to writer.

Despite the more readable dialogue, however, this story is a mess. It’s a tale that is attempting to present the paradox of Quinn’s morality. While being forced on a mission for Amanda Waller, she comes across a group of kids who need her help and decides to rescue them. I don’t mind the idea here; I think it works to characterize Harley as having a soft spot for kids. What doesn’t work is the scene where a fellow squad member, “Fifteen,” reveals he is about to be blown up by Amanda Waller. Instead of trying to save him, Harley treats the situation with callousness and jokes.

So what am I to take from this story? Was it meant to prove that Harley is a hero at heart? Because you can’t do that and have her treat death so casually at the same time. This is not writing Harley as complex or fun, it’s just writing her as a mess. Even “insane” characters need to have logic behind the writing. You can’t just have Harley react to things on whims and expect the audience to feel something for her.

The artwork was a bit inconsistent, too. I liked the moodier blue and yellow colors used in the story, but some of Harley’s faces looked garbled and weird. Sometimes her body appeared to be a bit “box-like” as well. It gave me the sense of rushed work. 4/10

 

“Submissive” by Stjepan Sejic.


Buckle up, this is the worst story in the entire comic. It may be one of the worst things DC has ever allowed to be published, period. In fact, I’m still reeling from the reality that this WAS allowed to be published in an official, mainstream, DC comic.

The story is called “Submissive” by Stjepan Sejic, writer of the acclaimed Black Label book Harleen. Knowing of Sejic’s X-rated material which he has done outside of his work for DC, I expected “Submissive” to include some sort of kinky sexual innuendo no doubt (I’m not naïve), but I was wrong. There’s no innuendo in this book. Every dirty thought Sejic has about these characters is on the page, in what he has referred to as a “fun” story.

The story goes that Harley is having temptations of returning to Joker again. Selina Kyle deduces of Harley that her attraction to Joker is not based on love, obsession, or dependency, but because Harley has a bondage “Daddy kink.” Yes, that’s in the comic. Selina Kyle says this and she and Harley go on to explicitly talk about “domintatrixs” and fetishes in a mainstream, premium format, DC comic.

So then, Harley goes out to prove Selina wrong and that she can be assertive. Selina conspires with Poison Ivy to manipulate Harley back into her relationship with Ivy by tying her up with tight vines so that Harley falls into a masochistic fetish trap with Ivy instead of Joker, to which Harley does while moaning.


You read that correctly. I’m not making this up. I would never make something like that up.

This comic is nothing but porn brought to you by Stjepan Sejic. It’s like he collected his various NSFW fantasies and drawings from his social media, put them in a comic meant to be published, and no one said no. I felt absolutely gross after reading this story. It’s the kind of thing that makes you wish you never opened the comic in the first place. I am still absolutely floored that DC editorial not only allowed this to be published, but didn’t even put it under the adult Black Label. You want kids to find and read this junk, DC?

This is not who any of these characters are: these are merely who the characters are from the dirty dark mind of a perverted writer who did not have better editors telling him no. I’m well aware there were dirty elements and overtones to Stjepan Sejic’s Harleen, but those were contained to jokes, or a moment. Here, the grossness is the entire story, and it’s right out in the open. This has made me look back and appreciate that former DC editor Andy Khouri held Sejic back as much as he did for Harleen.

What made this comic even more salt in the wound is the fact that we once again have the relationship between Harley and Ivy, the relationship that as been romanticized to hell and back by its fans and DC Comics, turned into a blatant BDSM fantasy fetish yet again. I cannot believe that the same company that shut down their original “no restraints, no rules” plans for their Black Label imprint over the mere shadow of male nudity in Batman: Damned allowed this comic to be released and put out in stores with no withdrawal (and its going to reprinted in an upcoming trade as well).

Oh yeah, and this story has the best artwork in the entire book. Sejic is a master at choosing when to give a multi-panel page to drive his exposition and a whole spread to drive home an emotional moment (which, given the content, made the experience worse). I do love it that Sejic keeps to a red, black, and white color scheme to Harley since it looks so much better than the mismatched pink and blue. But trust me when I say the awfulness of a story will kill any goodwill towards the artwork.

I hope Stjepan Sejic never writes a Harleen sequel.

This story should not have been released. 0/10



“How to Train Your Hyena” by Stephanie Phillips and Riley Rossmo

I can’t say I was thrilled to get more Stephanie Phillips and Riley Rossmo Harley Quinn, after it took so long to switch out Rossmo as an artist on the current solo title. I can’t say I loved this story, but the dialogue and plotting are better than in any other Stephanie Phillip’s Harley that I’ve read in quite a long while. It’s a simple, focused story about Harley rescuing her hyenas, and even Phillip’s signature inner-Harley monologue is on-topic and relevant to the story, regarding her relationship with her two pets. I still do not love Rossmo’s overly wacky art, with overly complicated panel layouts, but I appreciate the little pink hearts and clubs he makes fly around to emphasize Harley’s love for her long lost pets.  5/10



“Criminal Sanity” by Kami Garcia and Mica Sauna

I thought it odd that we were getting a story from Kami Garcia. She never truly wrote Harley for Joker/Harley Criminal Sanity. She wrote her own “hardened psychologist chases evil serial killer” story and attached Joker and Harley’s names to the characters.

On its own, however, this story isn’t bad. It also doesn’t add much to Kami Garcia’s original story either. We just get to see more of Harley’s anger and remorse at her best friend being killed and her proving herself to the GCPD that she can be of use to them as she tracks down Poison Ivy. I definitely do enjoy it whenever the psychiatrist angle of Harley is explored, but again, she’s so hardened in this story that she still isn’t Harley at all. It is yet another writer using Harley’s name for the protagonist of their own story. That said, I would still rather read this than some of the other tales in this book, since Kami Garcia writes like a normal human being and is good at setting a tone for her story.

The artwork also helps with that tone. It’s incredibly well-detailed and realistic for a story that wants to explore the real life horror of serial killers. However, I wish that the colors had been kept to back and white as much of the original series did. It would help to give it a “film noir” feel, and I think that would have enhanced this short prelude. 6.5/10



“Sirens Soiree” by Paul Dini and Gulliem March

Paul Dini did an interview sometime back that stood out to me. In it, he explained that he did not want to be one of those creators who goes against what a company wants to do with one of his characters. Mentioning Harley by name, he explained that’s why he tries to agree with whatever they want to change about her, and even changes a bit of his own writing to match the current version.

Therefore, Harley in this story has some dialogue that sounds like the classic Paul Dini version and some that’s matching Palmioti’s version (like Harley’s use of “sammiches”). It’s a shame, because Dini’s Catwoman and Ivy are completely on point for how he’s always written them. Dini’s Harley is universally beloved, with many people I know wanting to pick up this anthology just for a Paul Dini Harley Quinn story. He has no reason to try to pollute his version with the flaws of current day Harley.

This story has a fun premise with Harley wanting to have a house warming party for the other Sirens, even though it kind of stretches the idea that Batgirl and Wonder Woman would be invited and that they would be willing to sit down for a few drinks before arresting everyone. It’s also wonderful to have Gotham City Sirens artist Guiliem March back on board. I’ve never been a fan of March’s “pointed chin” Harley, but I like the white backgrounds of the comic contrasting with all the colorful party antics and characters.

It’s also nice to get story callbacks to Dini and March’s Gotham City Sirens run, with Gaggy Gagsworthy finally making a reappearance to attack Harley. Unfortunately, this happens just so Harley can remind everyone how she’s grown and realizes that the Joker is bad and that she’s a better person now (all while still using that old Joker clown theme). Dini’s done this a lot in his recent works like in the Mad Love prose novel, Detective Comics #1000, etc. It’s almost like he’s apologizing for his previous work on the character for Harley being “Joker’s girlfriend.” To that I say, there’s absolutely no reason to apologize for the way the character was. Most people who are fans of Dini think that Harley was better that way. I’m certainly not seeing her as a better character now as I’m trudging through this anthology. I wish Paul Dini would remember who his readers actually are. 6/10


“A Legend is Born” by Sam Humphries and Erica Henderson

I still can’t believe I’m going through a revolving door of characters that happen to be called Harley Quinn, with different voices and personalities in each and every story. Here we have a short tale that’s supposed to cast Harley as an actual jester, making her way through RPG style quests.

The dialogue is absolutely abysmal. It’s not just terrible because Sam Humpheries is trying to mix his loud, screaming Harley voice with stereotypical medieval talk: “Hear me ye big and stankey one!” The dialogue is also often portrayed in giant red letters with exclamation marks just to really sell how loud it is supposed to be. I truly would like to ask Sam Humphries if he enjoys writing Harley this way. Does he find that cute, funny, or entertaining? Because I don’t know anyone else who does. It destroyed what could have otherwise been a fine concept.

The artwork by Erica Henderson has a cartoon network Adventure Time look to it. Not my preference for Harley, but it serves the story they were going for. I liked little things like stars appearing in Harley’s eyes out of excitement. It’s amazing how the artists seem to put more effort into these stories than the writers. 4/10



“The Last Harley Story” by Rob Williams and John Timms 

This is one of the few stories in the entire collection in which I found anything to like. Written by former Suicide Squad Rebirth writer Rob Williams, it details Harley’s last moments and thoughts as she is finally killed by Amanda Waller. We get flashbacks of a dystopian world Amanda Waller had created where everyone is controlled by her tech, therefore, there is no crime. Harley, crazy person as she is, rebels against this, embarking on a criminal life that leads to her death. It’s not a bad concept, but once again the characterization is still off. Rob Williams inserts lots of cringey fourth wall breaks for one thing, with Harley telling the audience at one point that she must make sure she doesn’t waste their time with her comic in this down economy. There’s also a brief reversal near the end where Harley tries to save the day and declares herself a hero…

It reminds me of the end of Suicide Squad 2016, when Harley resists and chooses to defeat the Enchantress and save her “friends” despite not being given any character development in that direction for the entire movie. Flipping Harley from one contradiction to the next is not complex characterization, once again, it’s just a mess.

The art by John Timms is wonderful, though. The action is incredibly well drawn and intense, and I appreciated the minor visual jokes like Harley stealing a bag that says “LOOT” or an Easter egg of the Joker as a homeless clown. 6/10



“Troop Harley Quinn” by Cecil Castullucci and Dan Hipp

I was rather confused by this story when it began. Harley’s voice isn’t bad, but she’s portrayed as a whiny little girl who is desperate to join the Gotham’s Women’s Club, saying she should be the star member. She is rejected, of course, but insists that she must join because she’s actually a “good role model to young girls.” Then the rest of the story is Harley teaming up with the girl scouts to effect change and “smash the patriarchy.” I mean, it’s a bit hypocritical to call Harley Quinn a role model to young girls after the kind of content we’ve experienced in this comic so far, isn’t it? I also don’t feel comfortable that this story, which feels like it’s meant for very young kids, is in the same collection as the Sejic story. The artwork, while pretty well executed, also has this patchwork, cotton-textured look to it that re-enforces the feel that this is for kids. Who is this character for, DC? 3/10



“Harley’s World” by Mindy Lee and Terry and Racheal Dodson



Here, we finally get a story where Harley Quinn is written as herself. Mindy Lee and Terry Dodson are writing Harley’s voice better than even Paul Dini here because they are not trying to mimic the vapidness of the newer version. She’s got that 1940’s Brooklyn gangster twang to her voice, but it’s not overdone to the point where it’s annoying. The artwork also depicts Harley with a cute, yet sassy expression that matches her character.

There isn’t much plot to the chapter itself, it’s just Harley traveling through a circus that represents various moments of her life and relationships in a surreal fashion. It’s still not great, and I absolutely did not need another sequence praising how wonderful the Harley/Ivy romance is after what I’ve been exposed to in this comic. Still, I would probably put Mindy Lee and the Dodsons on the list of who should actually be writing Harley. It took us ten stories to find a creative team still capable of that. 8/10

 

So, Why the Disappointment?


So my hype for this comic evaporated. I had hope for this anthology because usually when writers are free from the constraints of whatever is going on in the mainstream books, they come up with fairly decent stories for Harley. What I got instead is a comic that reinforces everything wrong with DC’s stewardship of Harley Quinn. The best stories here are simply not as bad as the worst stories. The worst stories fly way over just being badly written and into being utterly repulsive. It’s really heartbreaking for me, because I know what this character means to other people. They are not invested because they can’t get enough of Harley’s high-pitched voices, skimpy outfits, or (recently) dirty jokes. Harley was meaningful to people because she presented a rare female character that was allowed to be vulnerable. It meant something to have that kind of character to relate to. But she’s in the hands of people now who don’t seem to care.

But there’s been a self-righteous excuse for the handling of this character. Time and time again, I’ve heard creators and editors incessantly pat themselves on the back for how they’ve handled Harley, simply because they divorced her from the Joker. Well, congratulations, I guess? You removed the very conflict that gave Harley her depth and sympathy and made people relate to her. In exchange, you can’t even keep a consistent personality for the character across any of your stories. There is nothing to relate to anymore. There is just vapidness. You got rid of the dreaded Joker/Harley relationship so as not to “romanticize abuse.” Then you went ahead and stuck her with Poison Ivy, to which you’ve allowed multiple writers to turn into a relationship filled with cheating, manipulation, and now, sadomasochism. Dani Fernanadez used her Pride Month story this year to display her sex bondage fantasies with Harley and Ivy (the only Pride month couple that had that, I might add). Stephanie Phillips has written countless implications of Harley and Ivy’s relationship fetishes including that they may role-play as a father and son. And now we have Stjepan Sejic writing Harley and Ivy, explicitly, as a bondage porn relationship. All the while DC continues to release merchandise, promotions, and puff pieces declaring Harley and Ivy’s relationship to be “true love.” You’ve taken the Harley Quinn character, who was meant to be a cautionary tale against abusive relationships, and you made her romanticize abuse. That’s what disgusts me the most.

A person can grandstand about how wonderfully progressive they are with the changes they have made to this character, but your true colors get revealed by the actual content of these comics you release. DC writer Tim Seeley once said in a ScreenRant article: “We’re aware of how toxic, and unromantic, and un-idealized their [Harley and Joker’s] relationship was. Nobody should want to have that in our story.” I’m sorry, should we want stories talking about how Alfred “spent a lot of time with Harley’s beaver.” Or stories romanticizing Harley and Ivy’s S&M style relationship instead? The mere depiction of Harley with Joker is what’s a bridge too far for DC editors, but everything else is ok?

Because listen to me, there is not at all a wide audience for this stuff. There never was. But, unfortunately over the past 6 years, I’ve watched the Harley Quinn character go from a fan favorite to one of the most vocally hated comic book characters. She’s gone from just breaking out into the mainstream to being a character no one talks about anymore. She’s gone from being a bestselling solo character to one that can’t even get into the top 100 list of comic books sold. All the while we have Harley Quinn Black Label books like Batman: White Knight that do well simply because people are looking for a better version of the character than is offered by mainstream comics. I do not know what is going to get through to DC editorial at this point. It’s like, no matter what happens, something doesn’t register with them. What is it going to take for them to realize that they made a mistake with this character?

Before I sign off, I’ll leave one last analogy for everyone to consider. There’s an episode of DC’s own Teen Titans cartoon called “Car Trouble.” In it, Cyborg has this car that he absolutely loves to the nth degree, and no one else can understand why. Then the car gets stolen by some low-lifes who take it for a joyride, abusing the controls. They put a new coat of paint on it, crash it, overdrive it, another supervillain steals it for himself, all to Cyborg’s absolute horror and turmoil as he tries to save the car that was important to him. Eventually, the car becomes completely corrupted by a third villain that gets into the circuits and turns the car evil. To which, Cyborg finally says “it’s not my car anymore,” and has to destroy it. He had something incredibly important to him destroyed and tainted by people who could not care less. The only good thing is that Raven wound up understanding him and helped him rebuild the car by the end of the episode.

Does anyone think that will happen with Harley Quinn? I don’t know. 

Recommend if..

  • You wanted one of the very nice variant covers that was made for this special.
  • “Harley Quinn” is important to you as a name and not a character.
  • You’re info the Fifty Shades of Grey novels and what to see Harley and Ivy go down that path.

Overall

For what it’s worth, I told everyone I knew that was going to buy a copy of this comic to avoid it. I myself saved about $20 on it. It’s not worth it. Even with the couple of stories that show a little sign of the actual Harley Quinn character, you’d be better off just looking at older material.

Score: 2/10


DISCLAIMER: DC Comics provided Batman News a free copy of this comic for the purpose of this review.