Comics Vixen: Harley Quinn Vol. 1, Hot in the City
I realize that I’ve been mainly rotating my reviews between Image Comics (my fave!) and Marvel, with one brief nod to DC’s film efforts. So I’m going to break the pattern and stick with DC for a moment here. I talked about Suicide Squad the movie last time, so I think it makes sense to shift lenses to DC’s comics themselves.
Specifically, again, I’m going to talk about Harley Quinn. I know it’s “basic” or whatever to like her now, but I do. (We should never listen to folks who judge other people’s fandoms, anyway.) I identify with her. There’s a lot to unpack there. But more importantly, I want to give her a fair look outside of the film adaptation. In the film, we see a lot of relationship-Harley, although as I argued, the most important moments happen when she’s not with her psychotic lover. In The New 52, which was a DC relaunch that started in 2011, we’ve gotten a lot of non-relationship Harley, which is where I think she’s at her best.
I might also feel sorry for DC, just a little bit. DC movies, by and large, are not good—at least not on the level of Marvel movies. They’re fine if you have fairly low expectations (and I usually do). But The New 52 comics suffer largely the same fate. They’re okay, sometimes. Mostly, they’re not great. But I really appreciate the direction they brought Harley in, at least in this particular trade paperback. So here you go, DC—a bit more positivity from me before I move on to other publishers again.
For me, it’s all still fresh and new and interesting because I’m still fairly new to comic books, so there’s a lot I don’t know. For example, I’ve always wondered about Harley’s super-light skin, but never before realized that it’s attributed (at least sometimes?) to a permanent skin-bleaching treatment. From what I know, this is attached to the origin story in which she fell, jumped, or was thrown into (depending who you ask or what storyline you reference) into a vat of acid. It’s not my favorite origin story, but it is the latest one. What’s much more interesting is the deepening character development, though. I love the perpetual theme of Harley’s love of animals, which is heavily focused on in this book. It’s nicely complemented by bestie Poison Ivy’s love of plants. What could be better than two environmentally-minded women living in the city, making life work through ingenuity and sheer ruthlessness?
I should give a basic, spoiler-free rundown of the plot here. Through some kind of inheritance, Harley comes into possession of a New York City penthouse, but she’s gotta figure out how to pay all the necessary bills attached and make life work as a single girl in the city. It affords an opportunity for playfully gorgeous backdrops from Coney Island to Central Park, for some great Harley and Ivy fashion, and for a silly, unattached series of plotlines that manages to feel cohesive in the end.
One of my favorite brief moments is an adorable scene where Ivy wakes up in bed with Harley after a girls’ night out, surrounded by animals they rescued. The girls’ relationship may be platonic, but it’s still #relationshipgoals. Ivy cares about Harley in a way the Joker never did. There’s a reason why she’s around in this comic, and the Joker isn’t.
I think DC had to remove Harley from her relationship in order to provide the character development necessary to keep fans interested, but whatever the motivation, it’s a good thing. There’s so many brief, wonderful moments here. “It’s so cool how they let the animals roam free and party at night,” Harley says in a scene that takes place at the zoo, with her arms draped around a zebra. “Hmm…Do you remember if we closed the gate behind us?” I love her usage of slang and syntax, most of which is too over-the-top for me to write with a straight face, so I’ll let you discover it on your own. Lots of comic characters fall to a fate in which they all talk the same, but Harley’s word choice is so memorable. She’s vulgar, irreverent, immature, annoying…she’s fun.
And although she’s always scantily clad, I find all her outfit changes endearing. I like when comic book characters aren’t always dressed the same; it shows a little more personality. These idiosyncrasies, even when clumsily executed, show us that DC is really trying to give Harley autonomy. And they insert some lovely meta self-criticism in one scene that involves a DC editorial meeting…but I won’t spoil it for ya, readers. I haven’t picked up any of the books from the 2016 relaunch, DC Rebirth, but I hope they continue in a similar vein. I like this take on Harley Quinn.
Harley is a perennially popular character because she has the complexity, issues, and downright weirdness that many female comic book characters historically lacked. Yes, it’s a bit absurd that DC made her their fourth pillar of characters. But it’s a simple effort to cater to fan favoritism. There’s a reason for that favoritism: she is a more real and relatable character than a vast swath of the popular superheroes and villains who exist on a higher pedestal. Harley Quinn isn’t highbrow, but she is interesting, and she has depth.
A lot of The New 52 was trash, but this trade paperback is worth reading. I hope DC keeps trying. And I hope, eventually, they manage to get it right. But they are pushing in the right direction.