It’s been a while since I reviewed the main Harley Quinn book. I had basically become so weary and frustrated with criticizing the glaring problems with DC’s handling of the Harley Quinn character, only to see no positive change on the horizon. No one seemed to be discussing the book anymore either, which added to my frustration. I think people have generally become disillusioned by Harley Quinn in mainstream DC Comics, which is understandable. Harley isn’t a very likable, relatable, or readable character anymore, but once again, DC isn’t doing anything to change that.
But guess what? Through it all, I still care about poor old Harley Quinn. I don’t think she’s a character that should be misused forever.
Will this final arc put the character to good use after all? Let us see.
The Artist Harley Should’ve Had
Well, there are a few good elements sprinkled throughout the book. It’s a relief to finally have a good artist drawing Harley Quinn. Matteo Lolli draws the characters and locations of Harley Quinn so that they look cartoonish, but also 3-dimensional. Lolli’s characters are also very expressive. I love that he has gone with a cute look for Harley, even giving her soft pink cheeks.
I must say, I didn’t expect Kevin to look so horrifying as a 3-dimensional character, however. His massive double-chin with a smiley face on it is no longer hidden by Riley Rossmo’s ugly, warped artwork. It was a bit surprising. It just goes to show how poor the art on this title has been up to this point. I couldn’t even tell what one of the main characters was supposed to look like until now. Someone like Matteo Lolli should’ve been the main artist on this comic from the very start.
The Multiverse Storyline
As for the story arc, well, there’s really not much to it. The “Multiverse” has been the big gimmick in superhero media for the past few years, so this is DC’s attempt to give Harley her own Multiverse storyline. Basically, someone is out to kill all the Harleys in the multiverse, and it is up to Harley to stop this. There’s very little plot progression for half of this arc, with one entire issue focusing on Harley arguing with Damian Wayne over her use of the Lazarus Pit (a plot point that is never revisited). Another issue is spent with Harley interrogating Victor Zsasz, which also goes nowhere.
When we finally did get to meet the “other Harleys”, I thought that that was where the fun of the comic could begin, and it was fun to see the different cameos from different iterations of the character. Unfortunately, most of the “Harley variants” weren’t much more than mischievous sprites for Harley to catch. This took place for only one issue as well.
For whatever reason, the only Harley variant Stephanie Phillips gave any time to is “Old Lady Harley,” using her as Harley’s companion for the latter half of the story. This was incredibly confusing to me. Old Lady Harley was from a flopped comic book series of the same name released a few years ago (meant to be an Old Man Logan parody with Deadpool-inspired humor). No one particularly liked this character, especially since her entire gimmick was “modern day Harley with crass old lady humor.” It didn’t work then, and it doesn’t work now. Why focus on her above all the other versions of Harley that were available?
Everything Wrong With the Harley Who Laughs
The main villain behind this story is a new character called “The Harley Who Laughs.” For anyone paying attention to comics these past few years, this is obviously meant to be the female counterpart of the character “The Batman Who Laughs.” However, “Harley Who Laughs” is flawed by her very concept. The point of The Batman Who Laughs was supposed to be “What if Bruce Wayne was the Joker?”, hence the name. So, shouldn’t Harley Who Laughs be “Batgirl Who Laughs” or “Batwoman Who Laughs?” However, we aren’t given any backstory for who Harley Who Laughs really is. The only thing we are told about her is that she wants to kill all the Harley Quinns throughout the multiverse so that she will be the only one. Why does she want to do this, and why now? It’s never explained.
Harley Who Laughs is a lazy, shallow character who doesn’t even fit with the concept of The Batman Who Laughs. She’s clearly only here to give the series a quick sales boost from speculators curious about a new villain with a recognizable brand.
At times the real villain of this comic doesn’t feel like Harley Who Laughs, however. The real villain feels like Harley Quinn herself. She continues to be written with loud, grating dialogue and jokes that feel mandated and unfunny. However, Harley’s lack of likability is kicked up a notch for this arc when she inexplicably starts acting more and more selfish. She wastes her money, takes advantage of people, and treats her only friend Kevin terribly. She even seems to go back on her stance of trying to be a hero because she hasn’t gotten the respect out of it like she wanted. So Harley’s motive for being a superhero isn’t to save lives, but to get people to like her? How am I supposed to sympathize with her?
The best part in the comic occurred when Kevin finally called Harley out for her vapid and selfish behavior. Kevin really is the only human and relatable character in this entire series. Harley is the main character though. I want to be able to root for her. I can’t do that when she’s being written like a caricature of a 5 year old.
The Disaster Ending
For all the problems this arc has had, nothing could have prepared me for the ending. Let me ask you, can a horrible ending tank an entire arc and anything that may have been good about it? I think it can. The ending is where the story has to stick its landing and hold up everything that came before. Well, this ending makes everything collapse in on itself.
What happens is this: Harley Who Laughs brings in a Poison Ivy out of no where to use as a hostage, supposedly. No, not the Poison Ivy, just a Poison Ivy. All the Harleys argue over whose Ivy it actually is while Harley Who Laughs keeps saying she’s going to kill them all, while NOT threatening to do anything to the Ivy variant. Where are the actual stakes here? But after this, it gets really crazy.
Jumping the Shark
In order to defeat Harley Who Laughs, the main Harley suggests that they find the Ivy Who Laughs. Why? So that Harley Who Laughs can be defeated by finding true love, of course. Do you think that sounds a bit out of left field? Do you think that the idea of an Ivy Who Laughs goes completely against the concept of The Batman Who Laughs? Well, Stephanie Phillips expects you to. That’s why she uses Harley to break the fourth wall to essentially tell the audience that coming up with anything better is not in her contract.
The “plot” of the comic continues like fast-forwarding a DVD. Lots of random events skim past where Harley and company travel to a dark castle, fight a bunch of Joker-like monsters, and then engage in an even bigger fight off screen, all to rescue “Ivy Who Laughs.” All the while, Harley, who really seems to just be Stephanie Phillips talking, keeps narrating about how rushed and cheesy she knows this all is. She asks the audience if they think Ivy Who Laughs will be worth any royalties down the line. She mentions her frustrations over not being able to use a certain T.V. show reference for fear of being sued. At one point, it’s even said that the comic better wrap up soon before Mermaid Harley “jumps the shark”. There’s no hiding what’s going on here.
Please Don’t Do This
I’d like to offer some advise to anyone who wants to write fiction: if you’ve written something you know is bad, or you’ve just become lazy with your work, don’t TELL your audience that. I think some writers do this because they think they will be criticized less if they themselves admit their work is bad. What this really does though is remove any benefit of the doubt the audience might have given them. It’s like admitting to the audience that you don’t care about your work, and you don’t care what the audience is getting either.
The Final Resolution?
Of course, there’s also the problem of how this final issue chooses to wrap up this run. The whole series has been based around Harley trying to become a hero in Gotham. I’d expect the final pages to reveal where Harley stands with that now, especially since this arc made it seem like she was walking back on it. We get no clarification on where Harley is affiliated now, however. The final word from the comic is that all the Harleys in the universe are connected by having a Poison Ivy. Poison Ivy is Harley’s home.
First of all, Harley does not need Poison Ivy to exist as a character. Second of all, Ivy had all but one actual appearance in this entire run. So how can the ultimate resolution to this series be that Harley loves/needs Ivy? It feels like more pandering to me. DC seems to be becoming increasingly more dependent on that relationship to try to generate interest in Harley as a character, which is ironic after they spent so many years trying to build Harley up as someone who can sell by herself.
Why is This Comic Like This?
To me, it’s very clear why this finale is written so badly. It has all the markings of a writer that wants to finish up her obligations as quickly as possible so she can get out the door. I’ve said for a while now that Stephanie Phillips seems to have lost interest in writing Harley, so it honestly doesn’t surprise me. Writing for Harley Quinn solo comics is a pretty thankless task considering no one seems to be very happy with where she is as a character, yet DC won’t allow writers to try anything different with her.
There’s a Problem…
Just before I received the last issue for this run, I had been listening to the new podcast: Harley Quinn and the Joker: Sound Mind on Spotify. I had my reservations about the story going in, but I ended up loving it. It was a well-told, intelligent story with great character development, voice acting, and decent set-up and pay off. Changes were made to the characters of Joker and Harley. However, I was won over by those changes because they worked with the story being told. It provided interesting new versions of the characters and their relationship. It’s clear that the people behind the podcast really knew and cared about what they were doing.
Imagine the whiplash I felt going from that production to this. From top notch talent that cares about their work to a creative team that clearly does not.
Over the years, DC’s portrayal and over-saturation of Harley has been excused by “well, she sells.” I’ve heard that even from people who abjectly hate the character. However, Harley hasn’t actually sold well in mainline comics for a long time. Harley was selling in the 20ks on average under Sam Humphries. I remember thinking that seemed pretty bad for a character DC seemed to push as hard as Batman. Then Stephanie Phillip’s run on the character sunk sales to new lows. Harley spent most of this run unable to make it into the top 100 comics. I even heard multiple comic shop owners say they had to stop ordering the book altogether. Interest was that low. Imagine having a character some people seem to think is DC’s “fourth pillar,” yet some shops can’t even carry her books because no one cares about them!
Fixing the Problem?
If someone were to ask me how to fix Harley Quinn, I would say to take a break from a solo book. In fact, give her a break from appearing in comics all together for a couple months. Then, I would release a mini series, or a one shot, or even an arc in Batman, presenting a better version of Harley Quinn. I would suggest doing something similar to the Sound Mind podcast I listened to, where the traditional elements of the character were combined with the more assertive direction. That would be a proper evolution for Harley’s character. Allow Harley to have some depth again. Give her humor that’s actually clever rather than loud and forced. With all that, you’d probably have readers interested in Harley once again.
Instead, DC refuses to make any changes to how they handle Harley. More Harley Quinn books are green-lit when sales don’t justify them. DC tries to give her solo book temporary boosts by switching creative teams or using variant gimmicks. They do not, however, make changes to address the real problems with her writing and direction.
- Kevin is your favorite Harley sidekick.
- You wanted to finish out this run.
- You’re curious about The Harley Who Laughs
Stephanie Phillip’s terrible Harley Quinn run ends with a whimper. This nonsensical arc is seems to confirm that no one behind the scenes cares about this book. I really wish DC would just end this series all together. I’d rather that my favorite character did not have a monthly comic at all than be used this badly.
Disclaimer: DC Comics provided Batman News a copy of this comic for the purpose of this review.