Note: Anyone expecting a serious critique of the merits of Harley Quinn may want to move along. This is a personal piece on what the comic means to me, so suck it.
One Wednesday a few months back:
“What the hell?
I’ve got tears in my eyes! This comic is breaking my heart!
This is serious lump in my throat time and I’m actually close to tears and all over a comedy comic about a kooky character who’s essentially a psychotic, former serial killer!
How the hell did I get to this stage?”
Flashback to early 2016 and I’m on the verge of being done with following comics. Secret Wars has ended and while reactions from fans and critics have been positive I’ve found the whole series a wretched reading experience. Convoluted to levels that I feel I need to study comics quantum theory to make any sense of it, Secret Wars is indicative of everything that’s turned me off Marvel with it’s cynical big event cash grabbing to it’s obvious build to another reset button. But it’s greatest sin is that I care nothing for any of the characters or their fates, maybe Secret Wars is great writing and story telling but I long for the days when I felt an emotional attachment to the comics that I would eagerly look forward to being released every month.
As always salvation comes from the most unlikeliest of places, which in this is the bargain box of my local comic shop.
Amongst the 40p an issue haul (so cheap they’re practically free) of Black Canary and umpteenth Spiderman spin offs I found a random issue of the Power Girl and Harley Quinn mini series. Reading cold it’s a typically ridiculous odd couple team up with the duo finding themselves of all places outer space. It feels like the random, no stakes or lasting relevance storyline that most mini series have nowadays. Except there is something that surprisingly entertains me and that is the one liners and appealing persona of Harley Quinn.
Harley Quinn first appeared not in the pages of DC comics but on the Batman animated show as a girlfriend sidekick to the Joker in a 1992 episode “Joker’s Favour”. She became a recurring character in the series and was given the origin of a psychiatrist assigned to treat the Joker who ended up falling in love with him. She became a popular and guest starred in a number of DC’s animated series, but aside from the comic tie ins based on the animated world she would not appear on the pages of the actual DC comic universe until 1999 where a darker edged Harley appeared , retaining her wise cracking and playful antics but with a more dangerous vibe and strikingly disturbing edge in her relationship with the Joker.
My random encounters with Harley in the comics left me with an impression of her as a colourful, decent Batman villain who’s appearances always made a mark but did not inspire me to follow the character beyond that. Her addition into the New 52 remake of the Suicide Squad was welcome and her violent demeanour was a natural fit with the all action comic. And while she was my favourite aspect of the series I didn’t feel the need to check out a series dedicated to her murdering, psychotic adventures.
But the Harley I encountered in this Power Girl team up comic seemed different, more light hearted, crazy in a kooky way rather than psychotically murderous and for the first time she seemed actually likeable.
These feelings were confirmed when I decided to check out the first collected edition of the regular Harley Quinn series that had started in 2013 (actually the second Harley Quinn ongoing series) and produced by the husband and wife team of Amanda Connor and Jimmy Palmiotti. At best I was hoping for a Deadpool style enjoyable anti hero romp, what I found was one of the most personally rewarding comic book experiences I’d had for years and a character who I was soon to think was adorable.
The Harley Quinn in this series is massively different from her other incarnations, even from her concurrent appearances in the on going Suicide Squad. How it fits in timewise with the rest of the DC universe is unclear, there are mentions of her time in the Suicide Squad which is clearly in her past, leading to the conclusion that the series takes place some years in the future. However the overall tone of the comic (including the portrayal of the many DC heroes and Villains who have guest starred) and with little effort made to tie it any events or continuity of the DC Universe leads me to treat this as a sort of else world’s title (the highly successful Rebirth brand while starting the comic back at number one has left the series mostly untouched).
After a debut issue that sets up the fourth wall breaking nature of the series where Harley falls asleep and auditions a slew of artists for who gets the regular gig to draw her comic, a new more caring Harley quickly becomes evident. Arriving at Coney Island to take charge of an apartment block left to her by a deceased inmate at Arkham, she witnesses a pet dog in distress at the hands of an uncaring oblivious owner. Tears form in Harley’s eyes along with an atom bomb of rage and she subsequently steals the dog, drags the owner through the streets like he was doing the dog and ends up causing a massive pile up on the Brooklyn Bridge.
This sets up an ongoing theme for the series where Harley has a big heart and constantly stumbles along a path of redemption trying to do good but her poorly thought out schemes often having hilariously disastrous results. Her apartment block is soon filled with an army of pets she and Poison Ivy rescue from being euthanized at an animal adoption centre, along with a stuffed, half burnt beaver that only she can hear talk which leads to plenty of “beaver” related double entendres (which hilariously it’s later revealed she is totally unaware she is doing).
Harley’s unlikely new life as landlord introduces her to a whole cast of colourful characters such as the members of the freak show and burlesque troupe who run shows from her building, the roller derby team that she joins, her own crime fighting team the “Gang of Harleys” and more recently an unashamed Deadpool parody called “Redtool” who has proven to be more than a one note gag and though the two bicker and antagonise each other proves a touchingly loyal and caring companion.
Don’t worry if all of this sounds like Harley has been sugar coated and has lost her edge, because she can still go berserk with ultra violence when the need arises. She shows little mercy for any of the bad guys who get in her way, such as the line of hitmen who try to collect a bounty on her head in the early issues and get despatched with knives to the throat, mallets to the head, forks to the heart (in a re-enactment of the Han Solo and Greedo scene from Star Wars) and one unfortunate even gets fed to her newly acquired dog family. In one issue it’s hinted that she kills a rude airline desk worker and shoves her corpse into a drawer and her brutal no holds barred bouts of Roller Derby have been known to end with fatalities.
Even her day job as a care assistant at her nursing home sometimes leads to violence. When a depressed resident complains how she’s neglected by her family who never visit an appalled Harley goes on a crusade. She tracks the family down and kidnaps, tortures and lectures them on how bad they’ve been treating the elderly lady. Only to discover the family visit her every week but the lady can’t remember because she has Alzheimer’s and an embarrassed Harley realises she hasn’t read her patient’s files.
Harley Quinn is an absolutely delightful read and Harley herself is adorable. It’s a mix of slapstick comedy, fourth wall breaking and humour that ranges from the dark and on the boundaries of good taste to the playfully sexual due to Harley’s flirty nature. The comic also lampoons it’s own decidedly cheesecake style art (which incidentally once led to me being harangued at work by some of my colleagues for reading what they considered to be a sexually lascivious and tacky, seedy comic), starting the Road trip special with a splash page of scantily clad Harley, Catwoman and Ivy sunbathing while Harley admitting to the reader the page was drawn to catch the attention of potential new readers.
Connors and Palmiotti have built up a self contained mini universe and insured that every issue is crammed with laughs, action and an amazing amount of story and dialogue (if value for money can be equated to time spent reading than Harley Quinn is a steal) and not once have I felt ripped off or disappointed with anything close to a filler episode.
Harley Quinn succeeded in reigniting my love for comics, more than just providing me with an entertaining read a couple of times a month it also drew me in to this gloriously self contained story (totally independent of crossovers) and I actually grew to care about Harley’s fortunes as she builds a new life for herself and her family of misfits, cheering her triumphs and sometimes worrying about her choices.
Then there’s the Joker, a character who is cause for excitement when appearing in any other comic, yet when he guest stars in Harley Quinn he’s a source of great discomfort. I seriously feel uneasy in any scenes with Joker and Harley since Harley admits she’s never sure if he is completely out of her system. Just as her friends Poison Ivy and Redtool are always wary with how Joker is able to manipulate and get inside her head. While this is not the frighteningly violent Joker of the Batman comics, he brings a subtle, sinister threat of manipulation and I get nervous in scenes where the two are alone.
The absolute highlight and probably the best written element of Harley Quinn is the relationship between Harley and recurring guest star Poison Ivy. Built on a loyal friendship and sisterhood that has become intimate, there is a genuine sweet warmth to their relationship which is handled beautifully by Amanda Conner so as not to come across more playfully romantic and sweet rather than exploitative. There is a wonderful chemistry between them and the excitement that Harley feels with her friend’s arrival and the sheer contentment and happiness over her presence just floats off the page.
Which is what made issue 8 so absolutely heartbreaking and drove me to tears (I never had a man point to lose in the first place).
It was a fun issue with Harley and Ivy taking a vacation together and having no real threat to overcome other then embarrassment at the nudist element of the island and seeing their elderly friends in the all together. Then came the finale, where on the last day of the holiday Harley asked if Ivy would move in with her and what followed was two pages and twelve panels of the most moving scene I’ve read in comics for years.
The love, pain and heartbreak was conveyed perfectly as Ivy regretfully tells Harley that as much as she wants to she cannot leave her environmental crusade to commit herself to Harley full time. It’s an incredibly tender scene, full of pathos and ironically from two characters known to be villains made possibly by a glorious combination of imagery and dialogue. It’s a bittersweet ending after spending the issue seeing first hand the obvious love and affection between the two and with Harley lamenting the problems with vacations is “They always have to end.”
On the final page there is a moment where Harley is surrounded by her friends welcoming her home and embracing her. Her attention is fixed in the plane flying off in the distance and carrying Ivy away and as she longingly watches a tear runs down her face. It’s absolutely gut wrenching.
And this is why I love this comic so much, because it actually made me feel something. Giving me a moment when I knew I had been drawn into this world and made the character more than just ink and type on a page, something I can relate to and I know something that will stay with me for years to come.
Like when Jean Grey said goodbye to Scott Summers as she killed herself to save the Universe.
Like when in Preacher when Tulip about to be shot in the head begged “Can’t I kiss him goodbye?”
Like when the Executioner stood alone at Gjallerbru.
Or when Wolverine led the X-Men off to their deaths and asked the world to remember them.
These lump in the throat moments are personally for me are what I need to make me invest long term in a series. I need more than clever, intelligent writing. I need something to entertain me with laughs and action but also can touch my heart and make me care about Harley, Ivy, Tony, Redtool, Egg Fu and even the Beaver.
Harley Quinn does that and why it has become my favourite comic and shown I can still fall in love with comics again.