Thursday, October 10, 2019

The Sound Of Breaking Glass

I think that it is time to jump back into the reviewing game, because I have missed doing it. Let's talk about one of the new young adult original graphic novels that are being put out by DC Comics, in this case Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass. This is a poignant story that redefines the character of Harley Quinn in ways that make her interesting again. In this review I will look at the new original graphic novel (OGN) that I picked up the other day.

This is probably not something that I would have picked up, if I hadn't seen some of the previews for the book. I am not a fan of the current interpretation of the character that is rooted in her dysfunctional and harmful "relationship" with the Joker. I don't consider those sorts of relationships to be healthy, or the kinds of relationship goals that anyone should be shooting for. I do like the power of the Harley Quinn character, but I hope that when we get to the next phase of young creators in comics that someone will recast the character in way that doesn't make it an extension of something harmful.

Mariko Tamaki's involvement as the writer went a long way towards my interest in this book. Previously I read her Supergirl: Being Super and loved how she updated and modernized the character in a way that caused her to be her own character and not just the extension of a male character. If you haven't read Being Super you really should, particularly if you are a fan of the Supergirl television show. Along with Steve Orlando's Rebirth run on the DCU Supergirl comic, Being Super is a favorite contemporary interpretation of the character of Supergirl. Tamaki brings a similar approach to Harley Quinn in this story as well. All of the familiar elements of the Harley Quinn story are there: madness, destruction and The Joker, but Tamaki puts the elements together in a way that makes them feel like they are new again.

Harley is her own character in this story. Her origin is not dependent upon someone else being the agent of change, nor is it the outgrowth of a dysfunctional take on romance or a relationship. The Harleen Quinzel that comes to Gotham City in this story obviously has issues with mental illness, which cause her tendencies towards violence. Harleen is raised by a single mother, the assumption is that her father has died, but she is telling her own story and it is obvious that she is an unreliable narrator. Harleen is sent to Gotham by her mother to live with her grandmother in the city, but that goes wrong, too, because when she arrives in the city she finds that her grandmother has recently died. The assumption is that Harleen is sent off because her mother cannot handle the escalating violence of Harleen, but the story doesn't put a lot of emphasis on that because Harley doesn't put a lot of emphasis on that part of the story. Her violence is her's to own.

Breaking Glass is an origin story for Harley Quinn, and one that I would easily accept as canon. This story is the sort of thing that I look forward to as the future of this character. The teller of the story of the transition from Harleen to Harley is Harley herself, and even as an unreliable narrator we get the parts of this story that are important to her.

When Harleen comes to Gotham, and discovers that her grandmother is dead, she is taken in by Mama, an older gay drag performer. Mama's performance space is the ground floor of the building, and Harleen is quickly introduced to Mama's fellow drag performers, who become Harleen's first friends in Gotham (and it seems, her first friends ever). The costumes, makeup and pageantry of the drag performances are the vessel that allows the introduction of the largeness of the worlds of super-hero comics entry into this story. Super-heroes, and villains, are another form of drag that allows people to project the reality of their personalities onto the world around them, but writ larger than life. It is the performers who make up a persona for Harleen, based on her love of harlequins and clowns, and give her the drag name of Harley Quinn.

Steve Pugh's art throughout the book is phenomenal and is integral to relaying the story. Harley's narration often falls back onto fairy tales, and Pugh's art responds with a whimsical quality that reflects when her mental state is less grounded in reality. However, when reality comes crashing into Harley's fairy tale like a brick through a glass window, Pugh's art becomes more gritty and realistic, and drives home the dichotomy of the world as Harley views it, and the world within which she resides. The use of color in the book is a storytelling tool as well. Much of the time the color in a scene is monochromatic, mostly shades of blue but scenes with Ivy are often rendered in green as foreshadowing. When Harley is angry, or in a more extreme mental state, scenes are more colorful and explosions of red enter into the color palette.

There is no colorist credited in the book, so the assumption is that Pugh colored his own art.

In the mainstream comics Poison Ivy has become an important part of the Harley Quinn story. In many ways, her relationship with Ivy is the closest to a healthy romantic, or sexual, relationship that the character has had since becoming Harley. In Breaking Glass, Harleen and Ivy are classmates, and Ivy is one of the only people that she is able to connect, and become friends, with. There isn't a romance, but the relationship with Ivy is the only one that Harleen develops outside of the drag performers. In an echo of her mainstream characterization, Ivy is an activist who wants to save their neighborhood, and her moral compass does help to balance out Harleen in places. Harleen brings the influence of her friends' drag performance into Ivy's political activism, bringing along a super-hero coding in the masks and costumes.

Outside of some of Harley's drag performer friends, Ivy is also one of the few people of color in the story. Her political activism is her reaction to the outsiderness of how she is treated by society. When the principal brings both of them into his office at one point, he refers to Harleen as Ms. Quinzel, while he refers to her as Ms. Ivy. If this story gets a sequel that leads to Ivy's villainy, I think that this treatment is what will lead her away from humanity, and towards plants.

Breaking Glass is a solid comic, well written and with art that both grounds the story and allows it to soar with the flights of Harley's mind. Everything that should be in a Harley Quinn story is there, and the character does it without being the extension of another, male, character. Her relation to the Joker is antagonistic, rather than romantic, and it gets to where the relationship between the two characters tends to be in contemporary stories, but without the middle steps of a romantic relationship between her and the Joker. This makes Harley's story a stronger one, because it stands upon its own feet. Hopefully, one day soon, we'll see a similar take on Harley Quinn in the mainstream comics that gets away from the dysfunctional and harmful romantic relationships, but until that happens we will have Breaking Glass to use as a model for how Harleen Quinzel became Harley Quinn.