Harley Quinn Breaking Glass by Mariko Tamaki and Steve Pugh
DC INK, pb, £12.99
Reviewed by Sarah Deeming
With nothing more than five dollars and the contents of her backpack in her possession, 15-year-old Harleen Quinzel is sent to Gotham City to live with her gran. When she arrives, she finds her gran has died, but the landlord, a drag queen called Mama takes Harleen on, welcomes her into the larger drag queen family and ensures she’s fed and schooled. Harleen thinks she’s found a place to become her true self. But her happiness doesn’t last long. Gotham is undergoing gentrification and Mama’s cabaret is next on the list. It seems Harleen is going to lose her new friends, her home, everything until two options are presented to her, use her best friend Ivy’s approach of campaigning through information and protests, or turn to the anarchist Joker who is out to break Gotham one corporation at a time.
There is a flurry of superhero/villain re-origin stories, so it isn’t surprising Harley Quinn was identified as perfect for a fresh update. Where I struggled with this story was how far from her original story Breaking Glass has gone. Doctor Harleen Quinzel was the Joker’s psychiatrist in Arkham Asylum who was manipulated and twisted until she was Joker’s puppet. Without the Joker, she wouldn’t have become Harley Quinn, but Breaking Glass suggests she would have gotten there on her own. I understand this, it gives her agency, control over her own actions rather than being Joker’s puppet, but it also detracts from her complex, and sad, relationship with Joker. She is already a compelling character as a fallen psychiatrist who mistakenly believes she is loved by a man who is incapable of love.
Aimed at teenagers, this is a reinterpretation of Harley Quinn’s origins focused around a high school and her awakening to the injustices of the world, racism, sexism, homophobia and wealth divides, all things that teenagers have to wrestle with on a regular basis. It is a coming of age story with a naïve and plucky protagonist who is instinctively accepting of all people regardless of race, age, gender, or sexuality. Harley Quinn is a little too good to be true even with her quirky little characteristics.
Steve Pugh’s art is perfect for this story. Realistic pop art, he captures Harley’s bright, energetic spirit, so she bursts off the page, as well as the sinister nature of some of the darker scenes. Clean and easy to follow, it’s accessible for its intended audience for whom this may be their first experience of a graphic novel. The colours are not as bright as it could be, but then my copy was an advanced reader copy, so that could have changed by the final print.
This may not be one for the purists, but for newcomers to the Batman universe then it is an intriguing start, rebranding her as a feminist antihero, fighting for the rights of the little people in her own anarchistic way.