Tuesday, September 19, 2017

On Harley Quinn 25th Anniversary Special #1

If you're struggling with the math--or, like me, marveling at how fast time seems to pass once you reach 40--it should perhaps be noted that DC Comics is celebrating the 25 years that have passed since Harley Quinn's first appearance on Batman: The Animated Series in 1992. She wouldn't actually debut in comics until 1993, in an issue of cartoon tie-in comic Batman Adventures, and she wouldn't join the DC Comics Universe proper until 1999's Batman: Harley Quinn special. Perhaps because of the character's non-standard path--originating in a cartoon adaptation of the comics, then gradually working her way into the comics--it's appropriate that the Harley Quinn 25th Anniversary Special tackles various versions of the character.

I'm actually a little surprised at how slim a package it is though, given the character's seemingly exponentially growing popularity. It's just a $4.99 floppy, with four short stories totaling 32 story pages and six pin-ups. In terms of size and number of high-profile contributors, it's not much bigger than any of the many Harley Quinn one-shots and special issues DC put out when it was clear that they had a hit on their hands with the post-Flashpoint, second volume of Harley Quinn (Because DC relaunched all their titles during their "Rebirth" initiative, however, we are now on our third volume of a Harley Quinn ongoing series, although the creators and direction have remained the seam between the second and the third).

Of those pin-ups, my favorite is definitely the one contributed by Babs Tarr, who draws her own hybrid Harley with her old Gotham City Sirens co-stars Catwoman and Poison Ivy.
Tarr's an amazing talent, and particularly good at drawing sexy ladies. The issue is almost worth five bucks for her pin-up alone. The others are by Annie Wu (whose image prominently features Harley's pet hyenas, engaged in helping her wreck a psychiatrist's office), Bengal, Dustin Nguyen and Greg Tocchini, Kamome Shirahama (Looking at these reminded me of the old Gallery one-shots that DC used to publish, but have long since abandoned; I imagine with the price of comics now being what it is, it would be harder to make those seem like they were worth whatever the publisher sold them for, but I used to really enjoy seeing so many different artists' takes on particular characters in 1992's The Batman Gallery, 1994's The Sandman: A Gallery of Dreams and A Death Gallery, 1997's JLA Gallery and so forth).

The first of the four stories is set firmly in current continuity, and is by the regular Harley Quinn writers Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti, with Conner also drawing it, something that happens far too infrequently (although, truth be told, the Harley Quinn monthly and its spin-offs have all generally had pretty good art, certainly better than that of your average DC Comic).

I had a hard time getting through this story, having skipped it the first time through the book and having to try two more times before I read it. As much as I like Conner's art, when it comes to Conmiotti's Harley comics, I am not a fan. This one has their character Red Tool--pronounce it "Deadpool," but with an "R" instead of a "D"--right there in the first panel, and when I see him my eyes roll so hard it makes reading comics somewhat difficult for a while afterwards. He is in a two-page framing sequence with Harley, between which is a "lost scene" from their 2015 Harley Quinn Road Trip Special co-starring Poison Ivy and Catwoman, probably most notable for all the great artists who contributed to it (like Moritat and the too-rarely-seen-at-DC-these-days Bret Blevins and Mike Manley).

Killing time before killing some dudes, Harley tells Deadpool Red Tool about how Vegas casino owner Yosemite Sam offered the three of them an ell-expenses paid stay in one of his hotels, and they got thrown out of it.

Harley's co-creator Paul Dini scripts the next story, "Birthday Blues," which seems to be set in The Animated Series continuity, or at least adjacent to it. Rather than being paired with Bruce Timm, the noticeably absent other creator of the character, Dini is working with regular Harley Quinn artist Chad Hardin. It's a pretty fun little story with the meta angle of Harley celebrating her 25th birthday, and how The Joker and Poison Ivy are involved in said celebration. There's a twist within a twist at the end, and as short as it is, those twists serve to pretty perfectly define all three characters and their relationships.

As great as it would have been to see Timm or someone who worked on Batman Adventures draw this, it was actually really interesting to see Hardin drawing the costumes from the TV cartoon, adapting the designs into his own style, which is very different than that of Timm (And, if you've spent as many hours of your life as I have on that show, it's fun picking out which designs from which season Hardin chooses, and to what extent; his Catwoman, for example, is wearing a costume that looks like a compromise between that of the first season and her more recent Darwyn Cooke-designed comic book cat suit. The Joker has the hairstyle and pointy-nose of TAS's redesigned Joker, but not the weird eyes; Killer Croc looks as he did on the cartoon, but with spikes. And so on.)

The most surprising stories are the two that follow. The first of these is by writer Daniel Kibblesmith and artist David Lafuente (a great artist who I really wish I could see more of, preferably on a regular, ongoing basis). Entitled "Harley Quinn & Friends In...Somewhere That's Green!", it is perhaps a little too timely in its reference to a deadly hurricane bearing down on the city (New York here, not Gotham).

Gal pals Harley and Ivy are in a grocery store to get supplies, when Swamp Thing grows out of the produce stand. He needs Ivy's help because of her connection to The Green, and Harley basically invites herself along. The Swamp Thing/Harley Quinn rapport was interesting enough that I kind of wish DC hadn't cancelled Harley's Little Black Book, as I wonder if it was fun watching those two interact because the short space here meant Kibblesmith could squeeze in all the potential good bits, or if the characters really could have the chemistry to carry a whole over-sized comic story.

If nothing else, Kibblesmith gets Swamp Thing in a raincoat and rain hat for a few panels; that's awesome.

As I mentioned, I really liked Lafuente's art, but it was especially good in this story, which had enough of a comedic tone that he could fill the backgrounds with loose, cartoony, caricature-like drawings, and go pretty wild with Swamp Thing. (Colorist John Rauch deserves some props here too, particuarly given his way with Harley's hair.

The final story was probably my favorite, and it came from the unlikely team of writer Chip Zdarsky and artist Joe Quinones, who are more Marvel guys than DC guys at this point (much to DC's detriment, if you ask me!). Entitled "Bird Psychology," this is the first story in the book to involve Batman, and, of course, Robin.

It's set somewhere...unclear-ish. Harley's look here is unique to this story, not lining up with that of TAS, The New 52, or the Margot Robie-in-Suicide Squad inspired "Rebirth" redesign. There's a Robin heavily involved, but the costume doesn't really give us any clues; it looks closer to Tim Drake's original than any other design, but then, the TAS Dick Grayson's suit looked a lot like Tim's comics costume, and the post-Flashpoint Dick also wore a more Tim-like costume...this one has some of the weird elements of Dick's New 52 Robin get-up but, like Harley's costume, is unique to this story (Based on the dialogue, in which Harley intuits that he's an orphan, it is probably meant to be Dick). The Joker and Batman both look like their TAS selves or their post-Crisis, pre-Flashpoint selves, but neither of them is too terribly easy placed in any particular milieu by their duds alone. All that said, the red skies, the black buildings and the particular designs and costuming of Commissioner Gordon, Harvey Bullock and Renee Montoya all definitely suggest that this is supposed to be a Quinones-ized TAS story.

This is, in broad strokes, a Batman and Robin vs. The Joker and Harley Quinn story, in which the superhero and his archvillain do battle, assigning their sidekick and moll to fight. The Joker underestimates Harley as per usual, and she ends up choosing to do good and play hero on the sly, because as crazy a bad girl as she might be, she's not, like, evil. Harley, and, to a lesser extent, Robin, are the focus of the story.

As well constructed as Zdarsky's plot is, it was the little elements that I really dug; he does a fine job of making The Joker seem like a completely insane criminal without having to, like, dwell on his homicidal tendencies. The story just cuts from The Joker at his work bench, plotting, to his plot already in progress, where Batman and Robin are fighting goons in adult pajamas, The Joker is wearing an old timey night shirt and night cap with sheep oven mitts on his hands, and there's a giant, angry Batman Tsum Tsum with a mouth full of striped missiles...? The creators do a pretty good job of nailing '90s Joker, particularly TAS-style Joker, where he could be menacing, scary and completely insane, without also having to be, like, Freddy Krueger or whatever.

Quinones is a fine artist, and this particular script allows him to pack in all sorts of great details; every available space of The Joker's hideout has an Easter Egg to some previous Joker story from some previous medium in it.

So while I didn't love all of this, the good in it definitely outweighed the bad, and it's certainly a reliable purchase for the casual Harley Quinn fan.

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