Harley Quinn is in desperate need of reinvigoration as a character in comics. Her run by Stephanie Phillips and Riley Rossmo was one of her shortest yet, clocking in at under 30 issues. The other various titles DC keeps releasing for Harley haven’t been doing too well either.
Will Tini Howard be the one to right the Harley Quinn ship? Let’s take a look!
Bat-family No More!
A few changes do seem to have been made to Harley’s characterization here in response to the many criticisms readers have had with her recent portrayals. First off, the direction of “Harley Quinn as a wannabe superhero involved with the Bat-family” is done. In fact, this comic acts like the events of the previous run didn’t even happen, aside from a brief appearance by Kevin.
Yes, Harley is back in solid antihero territory. From my perspective, I did enjoy seeing Harley act more like her mischievous self again. It’s helped by Sweeney Boo’s excellent art. She gives Harley a wide range of facial expressions that can go from cute to downright maniacal. The artwork overall in this comic is fantastic. It’s definitely in the style of anime which allows for bouncier characters like Harley to be cartoonish, but doesn’t take away from more sinister characters like Two-Face. The coloring, also done by Sweeney Boo, might be the best part. Bright choices of pastel greens, pinks, blues, and other colors draw the eye to the page and set the light-hearted tone of the comic. (Can we please get rid of Harley’s pink and blue hair though? Seriously, the pastel colors completely clash with the red and black color scheme).
Probably the number one complaint I’ve had with Harley’s characterization in my reviews has been her dialogue. Ever since the Palmiotti/Connor run, writers have tried to give Harley utterly unreadable dialogue that makes her sound like a caricature of a three-year-old. Luckily, that’s not what Tini Howard does. She more or less makes Harley sound like a normal person. Unfortunately, despite that improvement, the dialogue here isn’t great. There are a few too many poor attempts at crude humor and bad puns. I think that Tini is trying to base Harley off of the Kaley Cuoco version from the HBO Max Harley Quinn show. (Harley even uses her nickname for Poison Ivy – “Ives” which comes from that show).
I wish I could use the upcoming issue of Batman and Joker: Deadly Duo as a better example for Harley Quinn dialogue. Marc Silvestri remembers Harley’s actual soprano-style voice, but he also doesn’t over-exaggerate it. He has the skill to make Harley’s playful dialogue witty rather than annoying. Still, it’s refreshing to have Harley sound like a normal person, rather than using overdone baby talk.
Harley’s Dependency on Poison Ivy
Another aspect of this comic that is similar to the HBO Max Harley show is Harley’s relationship with Ivy. Harley is borderline obsessed with Ivy now. She talks constantly about how Ivy’s her girlfriend, and she’s coming back, and her girlfriend is Ivy, and here’s some more signature lewd references to Ivy, and did Harley mention that she has a GIRLFRIEND?!
In a lot of ways, Harley as a character has become co-dependent with Poison Ivy, just like she once was with the Joker. What worked with Harley’s obsession with Joker, however, is that it was portrayed as a BAD thing. It was silly, but also sad, to see how she’d throw herself so passionately at a serial killer as if he were Prince Charming. It’s what created sympathy for the character. On the other hand, there are plenty of dysfunctional relationship issues with Harley and Ivy, but they are always side-stepped in favor of the narrative that Harley and Ivy represent the perfect relationship. Too much of that sugar is going to get pretty old pretty fast.
Is Harley Relatable?
As for the overall story of the book, there are many plot threads that are introduced, but I’m not sure where they are all leading. Basically, Harley’s mental issues have caused her to act out, resulting in her arrest. In order to avoid jail time, Harley takes a community service job as a teacher, making use of her background as a psychiatrist.
I appreciate the idea here, since it would seem to bring back some of Harley’s other facets as a character that have been brushed away over the years. Unfortunately, Tini still writes Harley as a very shallow character, boiling her personality down to her “craziness.” As such, I still found it hard to relate to her as a character despite the conflicts that were being introduced.
The Fishy Part
The comic didn’t really lose me, however, until…
During a fight with Two-Face at Harley’s school, she pulls a fish out of thin air (literally) and defeats him with it. Harley wonders where the fish came from. Then, a goddess appears who gives an exposition dump about how she and her family have come from another dimension and are more powerful than stars. She tells Harley that if she pulls the fish out from the multiverse again, earth will be destroyed.
I, uh, eh?
This is where the comic really became jumbled for me. It’s like Tini Howard didn’t really know what to do with the story, so she threw in this big world-ending threat in hopes that it would create some interest. Creating a plot point that is random and over the top is not the same as creating something entertaining, however.
Is Harley Best Used This Way?
Now I am going to make a statement that might be shocking. I’ve either read or followed all of Harley’s solo series. I’ve always been there for whatever new book DC has put out for her ever since I was introduced to the character. But I have to tell you: I don’t think Harley actually works as a solo character. That sounds crazy, right? Considering Harley’s had about 4 solo runs at this point. But hear me out:
Harley’s popularity initially came from media apart from comics where she was portrayed as a supporting character, or co-star. However, all that comic books have ever done is try to make Harley a standalone character. The problem there is that Harley was never given motivation to support herself that way. Her motivation was to win Joker’s affection, but you can’t very well write a protagonist with that goal. So, DC has tried to divorce Harley from that, but that still doesn’t give her motivation as a solo character. It’s actually taken away the flaw in Harley’s character that made her sympathetic in the first place.
Why “Solo Harley” is Difficult
You can’t write Harley as a nihilistic villain on her own. The audience can’t root for that. You can’t write her as a superhero either, that’s too far away from the character that readers recognize. As an anti-hero, she still lacks position and purpose in the DCU. Writing slice-of-life stories with a crazy character only goes so far. So writers tend to bounce Harley from one thing to the next until it’s clear they’ve run out of ideas. They force the run to keep going because Harley MUST have an ongoing book. Funnily enough, the only time Harley has sold really well as an ongoing character was when she was riffing off of Deadpool, but that has run its course. (I’ll also note, it wasn’t long before the Harley Quinn show became the “Harley and Ivy” show. Harley is not that interesting by herself, at least not for long).
So, maybe it’s time to take a step back with Harley? I say that not just for the character’s sake, but for the writers as well. I keep getting the impression that they don’t actually know what do with her. I’ve been looking at the future solicitations for this run, and I still can’t really decipher what it is actually supposed to be about.
The best Harley stories I’ve ever read are either the ones where she is a supporting character or where she’s the star of a self-contained story. There, you can explore aspects of Harley’s character without the pressure of keeping it going indefinitely.
I didn’t find the back-up, written and drawn by Erica Henderson, to be much to write home about. It’s about the importance of Harley relying on her allies, Ivy and Catwoman, but there’s not much story to it. The artwork is in the vein of Steven Universe. It’s well-drawn, but I don’t think it is fitting for Harley Quinn. Still, maybe this venue of short back-ups could bring about some of the great self-contained Harley Quinn stories I’ve been referencing.
- You love anime style artwork in American comics.
- Crazy random Harley antics never get old to you.
Despite some improvements, Tini Howard has given her Harley Quinn run a relatively weak start. Will the artwork and Harley’s return to crime draw people back in? Or is it finally time for DC to turn away from a Harley Quinn ongoing book? That’s probably not what DC wants to do. If “Harley Mania” is over for now though, we’ll see what the future really holds for the character.
DC Comics provided Batman News a copy of this comic for the purposes of this review.