Character development in the superhero genre is harder than you would think. With numerous writers and artists presenting the cape and cowl crowd over and over again, it’s hard for radical changes and development in a character to really have lasting power. Sometimes, these changes are not done for the right reason or are just complete failures.
I would say Batman’s increasing sociopathic tendencies in recent times in order to increase his “badassness” and make him more “relatable” would be a fine example of this. These are the kind of things we’ll most likely look back upon in a decade or two with an embarrassed sigh, wondering how a decision like this was ever approved by supposedly competent editors. But other times, there are creative choices that just feel like natural and intelligent developments that only respect the history of the character, but employ enough understanding to evolve them in a natural and logical progression. These are the kind of decisions that will (hopefully) stick and become the new status quo.
Writers Amanda Connor and Jimmy Palmiotti’s treatment of Harley Quinn is definitely in the latter category. The two writers take former Joker hench-girl and fan favorite and give her the opportunity to go on bizarre and entertaining adventures without the Joker, all while still respecting the personality already established by previous writers. Harley’s new adventures are thus not only extremely entertaining, but also feel both respectful of the character’s history and passionate enough about Harley to actually want to see what she is capable of.
In fact, the presentation of Harley is probably the highlight of the issue. For the unaware, Paul Dini and Bruce Timm created Harley Quinn for Batman: The Animated Series as a female henchman for the Joker. Neither Timm nor Dini expected the immensely positive fan reaction to Quinn’s bubbly personality, and soon they decided to give her a backstory in a very famous Batman tale called “Mad Love.” It was revealed that Quinn’s real name was Harleen Quinzel, a former psychologist who wanted to use the inmates of Arkham Asylum–Gotham City’s asylum for the insane (or notoriously hard to handle) criminals–as a subject matter for a tell all book. She soon became fixated on the Joker, who emotionally manipulated her into falling in love with him. Her abusive relationship with the Joker was the crux of Quinn’s character for the longest time, and while Quinn’s cheerful demeanor and occasional moment of depression kept readers quite fond of her, she never really evolved or moved on. Readers always knew she would be back as Joker’s abused girlfriend, it was only a matter of how long we had to wait.
Palmiotti and Conner, however, have cast off this whole idea from the get go. Harley is now completely independent and amazingly past her obsession with the Joker, and simply wants to live a normal life…or, given her own psychotic tendencies, as normal of a life as she can manage. And, strangely, that seems to be enough to make an interesting story. Harley’s personality is absolutely infectious, keeping readers on her side no matter what she does or what hijinks she gets into. The draw of Harley seems to be based in the fact that despite her past, she’s not really a bad person. Easily trusting, overly excitable, and a bit empty headed, yes, but she never truly conveys herself as “evil”. Palmiotti and Conner truly try and convey that Harley really is trying to be a good person, but her mind is so warped through her experiences with the Joker that her actions often are absurd and shocking to our “normal” sensibilities.
This issue, for example, deals with Harley trying to get an old woman’s family to visit the elderly woman at the nursing home where Harley works. Harley greatly sympathizes with the old wxoman’s lonely plight and becomes dead-set on getting the woman’s family to visit. Her solution? Crash through the house in a bulldozer, beat the family senseless, put them in a trunk, and bring them to the nursing home. Only…she forgets that they’re in there and decides to get lunch. Moments later, she finds out that she was late for a game with her roller derby team and decides to apologize by hitting the other team with her car. Yet, despite the shocking descriptions, it never feels like Harley is acting out of malice. She’s almost like a child who doesn’t know any better. To her, this is a completely acceptable solution. And to make a character this violent and absurd still sympathetic is an impressive feat.
The writing is not perfect, however. There seems to be some “big bad” behind the scenes that has hired every assassin in the city to try and hunt down and kill Harley, but it fails to draw any interest or engagement from both Harley and the reader, not only because it seems simply outrageous that anyone would go to such lengths to kill Harley, but also because such a plot feels more like your typical hero fare as opposed to the unique and more entertaining daily routine that is seen in the other ninety percent of the comic. To put it frankly, I’m simply more interested in how Harley lives and thinks than seeing her go on a cliche adventure. It’s nice that Palmiotti and Conner only keep this concept relegated to only a few pages and leave the rest for Harley’s antics, but you know that they will eventually have to devote a bunch of issues to resolving it, and I’m already filled with dread about it.
Also, while Harley herself is a continuous stream of perfect humor, most of the side characters are more of a miss when it comes to humor. The family Harley kidnaps seems like a bunch of stereotypes that weren’t even funny when they first debuted: a cheating father who is obsessed with his train set, a mother who sells “personal massagers” to her equally undersexed housewife companions, and a spoiled kid obsessed with video games. Once again, Palmiotti and Conner seem to realize this and try and keep them with as little panel time as possible, but the fact that they get two whole pages in a fourteen issue story is more than they deserved.
On the artistic side, Stephane Roux is absolutely stellar and perfectly complements Palmiotti and Conner’s equally fantastic writing. As opposed to many other mainstream comics these days, Roux presents a world with variety of body shapes, sizes, and even levels of attractiveness. He’s amazingly talented at drawing expressive faces, and was probably the best choice for drawing the expressive and emotional Harley. He can draw her beautiful and sultry in one panel, and disturbing and jarring the next, all with a level of subtlety that can go unnoticed by a casual reader. I’m not exactly thrilled with Harley’s new “Bikini Bowl” costume or white skin, but since that was never Roux’s decision, he can hardly be blamed. In fact, I would say the way he draws Harley (as well as her characterization) strangely justifies her skimpy costume. Her wild movements and acceptance with her own sexuality make her bizarre wardrobe choice a perfect extension of her personality. I still don’t like it, but I can understand why it’s there.
As I have kept reading this series and have greatly enjoyed the route Palmiotti, Conner, and Roux have chosen, I’ll admit: I’m hooked. I must admit that when I heard Harley was getting her own series, I was a bit disappointed. I felt many other heroes and villains, like Booster Gold and the Riddler, would have been much better story material, but this has quickly become my favorite DC series right now. It’s not perfect, but the character’s evolution, characterization, and even the comic insanity of Harley’s daily routine have enthralled me much more than any typical apocalyptic situation that Superman or Batman could face.
Photo: Daniel Varghese/The Georgetown Voice