Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass – Mariko Tamaki, Writer; Steve Pugh, Artist
Ray – 8.5/10
Ray: The DC Ink books so far have two things in common – they all star popular DC heroines (Mera, Catwoman, Raven), and they all radically reinvent the hero’s origins so there’s no possible way to tie this to continuity.
In many ways, they feel like a teen-girl-centric take on the Ultimate Universe from Marvel, although there’s no evidence yet that this is a shared universe and the creator-driven format of these OGNs means that’s likely to continue. The pattern continues with Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass, a dark, provocative, and often hilarious story featuring a teenage Harleen Quinzel as the makes her way through a Gotham City we rarely see.
It’s also one that’s populated with a fabulously diverse bunch of LGBTQA characters who will enter your heart and make you want to see more of this corner of the DCU.
The divergences from continuity start early – while in the comics Harley had a normal childhood on Staten Island, here she’s the daughter of a poor single mother who has been struggling to make ends meet her whole life. When Harley’s mom gets a job working on a cruise ship, she has to send Harley to live in Gotham with her grandmother who she’s barely met – and apparently Harley’s mom didn’t know her too well either, because she never found out that the grandmother died a few weeks back. Instead, Harley finds Benny, a gregarious plus-sized older gay man who owns the building and moonlights as a drag performer. “Mama”, as he likes to be known, agrees to let Harley stay in the building if she stays out of trouble instead of calling social services, and Harley winds up becoming the unofficial kid of Mama’s troupe of holdout performers in a fast-gentrifying neighborhood.
Let’s get this out of the way, Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass is a VERY political book. Maybe more so than any others DC will ever put out. It’s pretty clear that DC did not give Mariko Tamaki many editorial guidelines here, and she ran with the creative freedom.
This is a book that takes on gentrification, political corruption, the juvenile justice system, racism at school, diversity in the media, and microaggressions by allies. If you expected a lighter read like most Harley stories, you might be surprised – while Harley’s trademark mile-a-minute meta narration is still intact, this is a book about a girl who grew up hard and learned how to fight back. The humor is there, but this is a book people will probably enjoy more if they can relate to Harley and her friends’ experiences than if they relate more to the more privileged characters.
The scenes at Mama’s cabaret are the book’s best. Artist Steve Pugh, his art done in the classic DC Ink style limited color palette, does an incredible job of depicting the emotion and power of music without a sound being uttered. The scenes at Gotham High feel a bit more limited – much like with the recent Catwoman: Under the Moon OGN, the attempt by these books to make everyone attend the same high school feel a bit tropey. The character who’s likely to get the most attention in this book besides Harley herself is Ivy Du-Barry, a biracial young activist who quickly becomes Harley’s best friend as they protest an exclusionary film crew and try to save Ivy’s father’s community garden. I know a lot of people will view this as a race-bent Poison Ivy (like many fanartists have created), but let me soapbox for a second.
I view this character as very similar to Michelle Jones in the recent Spider-Man movies. It’s become a trick to create a new non-white character and give them “hints” of being another, popular white character without actually taking the jump into racebending that character. Just calling a character “Ivy” doesn’t make her Poison Ivy, arguably the most important character in Harley Quinn’s world and (in my opinion), her one true love. I do like Ivy Du-Barry – I think she’s a great character who speaks a lot of truth, including calling out our oblivious protagonist at points, but I wish she had been Pamela Isley, and that character’s absence from this story does keep it from being a true definitive Harley Quinn story.
The book does have one major weak point, and that’s its villains. I’m going to get into spoiler territory here. For most of the book, the only real villain is smug privileged bully John Kane (who runs said exclusionary film club) and his parents, the powerful businessmen who are trying to force Mama’s apartment building and club out of business so they can bulldoze them for high-priced condos. But there is a Joker in this book, and he shows up fairly early on to tempt Harley to escalate her pranks and petty revenge against the Kanes into large-scale resistance and arguably terrorism.
This is a very different Joker from any we’ve seen before. He’s masked, and he’s also lucid. He has a very clear political motivation, one that parallels Anarky more than it does any version of the Joker. Or so we think. The big reveal at the end of the book completely upends the character and also creates a version of the Joker that just isn’t Joker at all. I feel the same way about this character as I do about the awful-looking movie that recasts him as a sad comedian – explaining the joke ruins the joke. Joker isn’t an origin story, Joker is chaos. I’m also not fond of using “Kane” as the name for the evil corrupt family in this story – that’s Martha and Kate’s name, and it’s a legacy of helping Gotham. It’s also the name of the most famous Jewish family in the DCU.
While the central plot does lack in some areas to me, I was won over incredibly easily by this version of Harley – especially the scenes of her as a preteen filled with righteous rage – and her diverse supporting cast of gay men of various ages and body types. This isn’t a book that looks like anything else DC has put out. It’s rough, it’s hard-edged, it’s sarcastic, and it’s a celebration of the misfits who have been forced to the fringes of society and are ready to fight to keep the little slice of life they’ve carved out for themselves.
Towards the end it takes some darker turns, dealing with the prison system and the way the legal system screws over those without resources, but it ends on an optimistic note that shows Harley ready to walk her own path. I don’t know if this is my favorite of the line so far, but I do think it’s the most essential read for anyone who hasn’t seen themselves represented in DC Comics yet.
To find reviews of all the DC issues, visit DC This Week.
Disclaimer: GeekDad received this comic for review purposes.