It’s been about 10 years since the first ongoing series of popular Batman: The Animated Series export Harley Quinn published its 38th and final issue, so she was due — if not overdue — for another shot, particularly given that DC Comics’ current strategy means publishing a certain number of books each month, and the market seems to be rejecting a lot of those. Looked at in that light, then, this week’s Harley Quinn #1 was something of an inevitability.
The character certainly hasn’t been idle all that time, of course: She was a frequent presence in the Bat-books, shared the 2009-2011 Gotham City Sirens with Catwoman and Poison Ivy, briefly joined the Gail Siomone-written Secret Six and, with the New 52 reboot, she received a new origin story and costume in the pages of Suicide Squad. And, of course, she appeared at least briefly in various Batman cartoons during that time, as well as in the extremely popular Batman: Arkham video games and the more recent Injustice: Gods Among Us.
Certainly the character is popular, and while different fans probably like her for different reasons, the important factors seem to be that 1.) she’s a lady, 2.) she’s a sexy lady, and 3.) she offers the same sense of anarchy and dark humor as her sometimes-boyfriend The Joker, but without the depravity. More often than not — particularly in the comics and cartoons — she’s as much antihero as villain, a safer alternative to The Joker, whose evil serial killer portrayal is no so deeply embedded into the character that it can be difficult for creators to walk him back toward any more lighthearted portrayals.
But here we find a problem with the New 52 Harley Quinn, who doesn’t look or act much like the original. She doesn’t have the all-ages parameters that the cartoons — and their comics adaptations — enforced on her, nor is she the relative innocent she was in her previous series, where she was portrayed as Catwoman often is, a bad guy who’s not that bad. Her New 52 costume and portrayal seem more heavily informed by her scantily clad video game counterparts, and most of her New 52 appearances have been pretty adult in nature, even if they were portrayed in a somewhat-juvenile fashion: There was the weird sex scene with Deadshot in an early issue of Suicide Squad, the scene where she lay the Joker’s flayed-off face over a bound Deadshot a few issues. Later, during the book’s “Death of the Family” crossover, there’s an instance in which The Joker paralyzes her and simulates fellatio with a straight razor, and then a horribly violent fight ensues in which they bite chunks out of each other.
And then in September’s Harley Quinn “Villains Month” one-shot, which was technically Detective Comics #23.2, she kills somewhere between dozens and hundreds of innocent children in an exploding video game/terrorism plot.
The challenge for the creative team of her new book — co-writers Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti and artist Chad Hardin — then is to somehow find a happy medium between the former all-ages recovering Joker moll and the sexed-up, maniacal killer from the T+-rated New 52 Suicide Squad for a rated-T-for-Teen ongoing in which she’s to be a sympathetic protagonist. After an interesting, attention-getting start in Harley Quinn #0, in which a fourth wall-breaking Harley discussed who should draw her upcoming series with the disembodied voices of the writers while an all-star jam cast of artists drew a page a piece, their strategy becomes apparent in this, the first official issue of the new series: They plan on making her DC’s Deadpool.
There’s little sign of a story in this first issue, as so much of it is devoted to gags that didn’t strike me as inspired, original or funny, and to setting up the premise of the series.
As was covered in the last few pages of the zero issue, a former patient of Harley’s, from when she was still psychiatrist Dr. Harleen Quinzel, has left her a sizable piece of Coney Island property in his will. As this issue opens, she has all of her possessions packed in a gigantic sack tied to the back of her motorcycle, and is on her way to her new digs, conversing with a taxidermied beaver (which is funny because, while it’s an animal, it’s also a slang term for vagina!) that talks in a special “crazy” font, not unlike the voices in Deadpool’s head, that only she can hear. (Because she’s crazy! Get it?)
On the ride, she crosses paths with a hipster parody — thick-rimmed glasses, waxed mustache and a trucker hat, which I would assume even hipster parodies had stopped wearing at this point — talking on a cell phone, and dragging a dachshund on a leash behind him, apparently oblivious to the fact that it’s not walking (this scene was a little less clear than I would have liked, given how upsetting an issue animal cruelty is; there’s no indication whether he’s actively abusing the dog, or if the dog just doesn’t like having him for an owner or … what, exactly).
Harley administers justice by stealing his dog and then dragging the hipster behind her motorcycle with a bull-whip to an off-panel death. When an assassin targets her, she stops (resulting in the death of an innocent bystander) and savagely beats him with her prop hammer, eventually knocking off his head; it soars away like a gory comet, a tail of blood chasing it.
The mode then is ultra-violent slapstick, a character who operates on cartoon logic in the “real” world, unconcerned that those she interacts with aren’t themselves cartoon characters. Think DC’s Lobo, particularly during his 1990s heyday, or, more recently and relevantly, Marvel’s Deadpool.
When she arrives at her destination, she meets her neighbor, an apparent Danzig parody named Big Tony, and the mysterious lawyer who told her the premise of her new comic in the last pages of Issue 0. The latter proceeds to dump information about the comic on her for a few pages: To keep the building, Harley will have to serve as landlord and secure gainful employment to take care of back taxes. She does this by re-assuming her Dr. Quinzel identity and applying for a job. How exactly an infamous serial killer and terrorist with a public identity could get away with this isn’t addressed; perhaps it’s not common knowledge that the Dr. Harleen Quinzel who disappeared from Arkham Asylum at the same time as The Joker is the same person as Harley Quinn, who started appearing alongside him immediately afterward?
Then she puts together a new costume (see the cover) to try out for a local roller-derby team that not only pays its participants, but is willing to make exceptions for extreme violence because of its entertainment value. Luckily for Harley, this team also wears red and black.
And finally, a second person tries to murder her, alerting Harley that a hit has been put out on her. So that’s where the series is going: Harley is going to be a psychiatrist by day, roller girl by night, and supervillain/landlord to a Coney Island building full of quirky characters, for however long that lasts.
It’s not a terribly promising start, and certainly a disappointment after the fun zero issue (although that book’s uniqueness was what made it fun). But while the portrayal of the character and the tone of the book are hardly inspired (I’m not a fan of Lobo or Deadpool, so seeing their shticks appropriated by Harley Quinn didn’t exactly thrill me), while none of the gags really landed, while the plotting was too obvious and while it contained more than a few holes for readers who take things like the integrity of the DC Universe seriously, there have certainly been much worse first issues since the New 52 launch. Even one that featured this very same character!
The humor is all rather forced by the plot and scripting rather than emerging organically from the character’s dialogue (the way Tom Taylor’s Harley is funny in the Injustice comic, for example), but I suppose a mediocre comic with a bad sense of humor is better than a mediocre comic (or a bad one) with no sense of humor.
As for the art, I would count myself among one of the many who wished Conner was penciling the interiors in addition to providing cover art and co-writing the comic, which might further the book’s potential as the New 52, supervillain answer to the DCU, superhero comic that was the Palmiotti co-written Power Girl. It’s well worth noting that, depending on the degree of realism deployed, Conner’s art may have helped sell the book as something sillier and cartoonier (imagine if Harley conked the guy with a hammer and he simply saw stars, like those on the cover).
Hardin is a talented artist, and he does a fine job on the characters of the book, filling the foregrounds and backgrounds of the panels with interesting-looking figures in a variety of shapes, sizes and, most interestingly, degrees of realism. He doesn’t just draw superheroes in civilian clothes throughout the book, for example;, he draws real people — or at least his versions of real people — plus the one super-character. The problem is his artwork is so realistic, and so close in style to so much of the rest of the New 52 line, that it brings with it a high degree of seriousness; the violence is thus more visceral, and easier to flinch at than laugh at.
That may have been what Conner and Palmiotti were going for, of course, but judged as a whole, it seems more likely they’re constructing a sort of violent comic-book sitcom with a Deadpool-esque character, rather than attempting to present their Harley as a character who is scary and dangerous because hers is a diseased, cartoon brain in a live-action world of bone, blood and flesh.
It’s not a very good comic book, but I’m fairly certain it will be a very popular one.