By Jarrod Jones. It’s become apparent to me that the sleek sophistication of Bruce Timm’s artwork and the wily character strength of Paul Dini’s written word are now artifacts of a by-gone era, where comic books were still widely considered to be fodder for children and pockmarked teenagers. It’s been twenty years since Batman: The Animated Series subverted those archaic notions and effectively helped to change what sequential art meant to the wider world, and from that horribly beautiful alchemy Harley Quinn was born.
By now, there aren’t many of us who aren’t acquainted with the tale: a hopeless victim of Stockholm Syndrome, Quinn was once Dr. Harleen Quinzel, and opportunistic would-be pop psychiatrist who used her feminine wiles to enter the halls of Arkham Asylum, where she manipulated her way into an on-going series of therapeutic sessions with the asylum’s most dangerous patient, The Joker. And once the Clown Prince of Crime dug his grimy nails into the unwitting doctor’s psyche, Quinzel became Quinn. It’s a story that’s not so much tragic as it was inevitable.
From those beginnings, Harley Quinn endured as much abuse from her ruby-lipped beau as she did frequent bouts with the Batman, creating an incredibly rapturous fan base and transcendent inter-media appeal. It wasn’t long before she was introduced into DC Comics’ continuity and given her very own on-going series. But once she was released from the tether of The Animated Series, the character began to suffer a dilution of her potency, as many writers attempted to recreate the magic that came so naturally to Dini and Timm. Over the years, that dilution has only progressed. These days, Harley Quinn is hardly recognizable as the person she once was.
That’s probably a deliberate move on the part of DC Comics, and it’s an understandable one: how long could stories be told of a woman held under a perpetual sway of a domineering and dangerous man? Taking Harley out from under the control of The Joker was always the right move, especially if she was to be expected to carry her own book. Distancing Harley entirely from her ex-boyfriend (and from the overall Bat-books), as Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti have done with their New52 title Harley Quinn, meant that most – if not all – of the melodrama from Quinn’s life would be jettisoned in favor of wanton violence and absurd, directionless havoc. When you think about it, that may feel like a progressive, organic change, but it certainly doesn’t feel right.
And with her new, Arkham City-inspired duds – featuring a corset, hot pants, and go-go boots – Harley Quinn is no longer The Joker’s chief “hench-wench”, but a whirling danseuse with a penchant for blood-letting and nonsensical non-sequitors (“nutbucket“, “skunky-trunked chicken-hag“, and “crapazoids” are but a few witticisms among Harley’s more colorful vocabulary). Co-writer and cover artist Amanda Conner obviously has a great love for the character: her gorgeously rendered covers depict the former Dr. Quinzel as goofy, strong, manically sensual, potentially dangerous, and incredibly proud. When one gives a casual scan of the comics shelves, Harley Quinn stands out, as instantly iconic as Superman and as viscerally appealing as Batman. Conner should always draw Harley Quinn.
If only that energy could be brought into the book itself. Once the cover is opened, that majestic effervescence is lost in a murky, lurid haze of gross-outs and self-aware irreverence. Any complexity she once had is long gone in these pages, and Harley’s first Holiday Special (which also happens to be her third special of the year, including the Valentine’s Day Special, and her Invades Comic-Con International: San Diego special) is a testament to the manically undefined nature of the character. Inside are found four separate incarnations of Harley: the Quinn as we know her in the New52 (when she, y’know, isn’t vamping in Suicide Squad), Quinn as cheesecake (in two pin-ups by Billy Tucci), Quinn as a spritely bobble-headed thing (as illustrated by Brandt Peters), and Quinn as close to her Animated Series origins as DC editorial will probably allow her, gorgeously illustrated by Darwyn Cooke.
The first installment, “Bad Toy”, meanders ceaselessly to fill its seventeen pages, lingering on sequences that effectively depict how all over the map Quinn is as a character: one moment she’s letting the mascara run over the loss of potential new pets, the next she’s tying a parking attendant to the grill of a stolen Hummer in her search for a pug she’s adorably named ‘Aboo’. That path of destruction leads her to the swanky suburb of Forest Hills, Queens, where she breaks into the home of a dozing family, helps herself to some spiked eggnog (’cause, ’tis the season), and gets confused as a gift for a rambunctiously awful little girl named Cindy.
It’s never clear what Harley is supposed to be confused as, but apparently she’s everything Cindy has always wanted. Bribed with six thousand dollars to play with the little girl for a couple of days (and tasked by her father to soon after anger the girl), Harley and Cindy rip the household apart, eat candy canes until they barf (twice), creepily bathe together, and have a heart-to-heart about forgiveness. In between making all this up as they’re going along, Conner and Palmiotti attempt to create some pathos for Harley by injecting some pseudo-psychobabble into her vernacular, creating a strangely glaring contrast against the heaving cleavage artist Mauricet supplies our vile vixen. Everything that doesn’t work in “Bad Toy” perfectly illustrates everything that doesn’t work for Harley Quinn as a series overall.
Conner and Palmiotti’s pandemonium works far more ably when projected through a more abstract prism, and artist Brandt Peters makes the out-right silliness of the awesomely-titled “Get Yer Cheer Outta My Ear” easier to digest. (There’s simply no other way to depict a ugly-sweater sporting Humbug than to have Peters illustrate it.) As insane as most of this special undoubtedly is, “Get Yer Cheer” is easily the most out-there, and the gorgeous art and wack-a-doo writing style are befitting for year-end holiday issue. There are no nagging questions about continuity (are Humbugs a part of the DCU? Who cares?!), it’s just pure, unfiltered fun. (Watching a mall Santa give Harley a wet willy with a candy cane is forever tattooed in my psyche.)
As the writers’ work excels with a far more outlandishly cartoony bent, so too does Darwyn Cooke’s work in “Killin’ Time” make Holiday Special a book worth reading. The way he visualizes Quinn does a service to fans and to the character herself: Harley’s facial expressions shift from devious to gleeful to melancholy to manic without ever becoming needlessly sensual or garishly overwrought. Cooke’s skill as a cartoonist is on full display here, and it’s easily the strongest offering the comic has. If the rest of the book (to say nothing of Harley Quinn as an on-going) was handled with as much controlled chutzpah, Quinn might actually one day find a coherent voice. As it stands, “Killin’ Time” stands as a window through which we see the true potential Harley Quinn has always had.
Digging too deep into the subtext of a holiday special negates the point, I know. But DC seems so confident that they can print Harley Quinn in whatever comics they deem worthy, throwing her in everything from gimmicky annuals, superficial holiday issues, and team books that hold zero reverence for the character with impunity. As long as she is allowed to wreak havoc in a world without substance or consequence, without holding dear to who she is, where she came from, and what makes her interesting, Harley Quinn ceases to be a meaningful part of the DCU. Instead, like Marvel’s Deadpool, she becomes a lampoon unto herself. And there’s nothing funny about that.
Written by Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti.
Art by Mauricet, Brandt Peters, and Darwyn Cooke.
Colors by Dave McCaig, Brandt Peters, and Darwyn Cooke.
6.5 out of 10