HARLEY QUINN #1/ Written by AMANDA CONNER & JIMMY PALMIOTTI/ Art by CHAD HARDIN/ Colors by ALEX SINCLAIR/ Letters by JOHN J. HILL/ Published by DC COMICS
To say Harley Quinn has suffered at the hands the New 52 is an understatement. In fact, the beloved and fan favorite character hasn’t starred in a tremendously successful or well-received series since she first appeared in comics 14 years ago. Now, headlining her first book since 2003, husband and wife duo, Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner, are hoping to change all that.
After the rather abysmal treatment the character’s seen in the pages of Suicide Squad, the opening pages of Harley Quinn #1 elicits a big sigh of relief. Opening with Harley relocating to Coney Island, all her possessions piled haphazardly and hilariously atop her motorcycle, she spots a dog being ignored and mistreated by its owner. This immediately kicks her into homicidal mode as she attacks the dog’s owner with a whip (a gift from Selina, perhaps?) and frees the pup.
Things only escalate as she drags the man by the neck behind her bike, but Conner and Palmiotti use this to establish Harley’s moral boundaries. She’s a villain, there’s no way around that, but say unlike that awful Villain’s Month tie-in where she murdered children because she was bored, here she’s given a more sympathetic though still twisted motivation for her actions. This is the line Conner and Palmiotti will be teetering on for their entire run: how do you keep your main character, a villain, a sympathetic enough figure your audience won’t hate them. It’ll be tricky, for sure, as Harley has no qualms killing when it suits her needs.
Giving us a Harley who is flawed but still lovable relies heavily on the humor, too, which Conner and Palmiotti nail. Harley should never act or be taken too seriously, to her everything’s a joke. Yet, where The Joker’s humor is sadistic, Harley’s must be innocuous. This again ties into that need to balance her murderous outbursts with moments of sincerity, which Harley Quinn #1 manages to pull off. The whole roller derby sequence, for instance, is delightful because it appears Harley has finally found an acceptable outlet for her frenetic and often violent energy.
Speaking of The Joker, Chris Sims over at Comics Alliance recently wrote an enlightening piece detailing the difficulties of establishing Harley separately from her puddin’. These issues may plague Harley Quinn in the future, but right now Conner and Palmiotti are giving Harley a whole cast of characters all her own. Moving her to Coney Island, separating her from much of the established DC Universe, and giving Harley her own problems, goals and ambitions is a step in the right direction towards Harley standing on her own two feet.
Even more of a pleasant surprise than Conner and Palmiotti’s knack for “getting” Harley is Chad Hardin’s artwork. Not once is Harley drawn in an overtly sexualized or exploitative manner, even when she’s lounging on her rooftop clad only in a bikini! It’s a real feat considering her somewhat scant costume. On top of that, Hardin’s attention to detail is top notch. The backgrounds are littered with callbacks and gags, like Harley’s iconic jester cowl at the very top of her precarious motorbike packing or a panhandler with a sign asking for help paying off student loans. There are two chase scenes, one on the motorcycle and another while at roller derby, and both sequences move fluidly without ever letting up on the action. But where Hardin really excels is in his handling of Harley’s ever-changing facial expressions. Her mood can alter at the drop of a hat and Hardin easily expresses what Harley’s feeling from one moment to the next. Never once does she look like a stock female comic book character, with bedroom eyes and pouty lips.
And as if this review wasn’t bursting with enough praise, colorist Alex Sinclair and letterer John J. Hill deliver some of the best work around. Harley Quinn #1 is an exceptionally colorful book. Everything is bright and everything pops, but it’s never distracting, just fun. The lettering comes in to play whenever Harley talks with her stuffed beaver friend, or rather, hears a voice that’s then attributed to the beaver. It’s only another example of how she’s not quite all there, and Hill does a great job distinguishing the two voices, as well as Harley’s frequent, emotional outbursts.
Harley Quinn #1 was a greatly, though cautiously, anticipated book. Thankfully, the creative team hits it out of the park with their first issue. Time will tell if the series can live up to what’s begun here, especially as Harley juggles her new life with the inevitable baggage from Gotham that will follow.