Today, Spencer and Patrick are discussing Harley Quinn Valentine’s Special 1, originally released February 11th, 2015.
Spencer: Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti had a rough road ahead of them when tasked with refashioning Harley Quinn into the star of her own comic book. A villain protagonist must walk a fine line, being sympathetic enough to earn the audience’s affection while still villainous enough to avoid losing the spark that drew readers to them in the first place. Conner and Palmiotti’s approach to Harley Quinn has often involved pitting their villain protagonist against people even worse than she is, having her stand up for animal rights, and giving her a sort-of family in the form of her tenants; judging from sales numbers, it’s been a successful tactic, but has Harley become a better person in the process? Despite being a holiday special, that’s the question at the heart of Harley Quinn Valentine’s Special 1, and it’s a surprisingly rich question to ask, even if the answer is a bit unclear, and the question often muddied and buried within the oversized issue’s many tangents and asides.
Yeah, this is an unwieldy beast of an issue, dense and busy and remarkably uneven. The actual plot revolves around an environmental crusader who kidnaps Bruce Wayne and holds him for ransom, hoping to use the money to open a marine sanctuary. At the same time, a smitten Harley Quinn steals enough money to bid on (and win!) a charity date with Bruce, and when he’s kidnapped, goes all vigilante in order to rescue him. It’s much more complex than it sounds, especially when the narrative veers off onto strange tangents, such as dream sequences or Harley’s heist.
Actually, Harley’s heist is probably the best example of this issue’s strange digressions. The robbery is only important to the plot as the source of Harley’s bidding money, but for a scene with such a simple purpose, it gets a surprising amount of space devoted to it (five whole pages!). There’s a lot of fuss made about Harley’s righteous indignation over her victim’s unethical business practices; while making her victim a heartless banker who even Batman is happy to see get beaten up is likely Conner and Palmiotti’s attempt to keep Harley sympathetic even while pulling off a home invasion, they end up giving a lot of attention to those social issues despite them, ultimately, having little to do with the story. Harley’s banker beef is quickly forgotten, the fate of the Carp’s sanctuary is left unresolved, and these complex social issues are literally reduced to buzzwords thrown around without any attempt at commentary or jokes!
Tangents or not, though, the dream sequences work much better — in fact, they’re easily my favorite parts of the issue. Both dreams run on an exaggerated Looney Tunes logic that suits Harley’s particular brand of chaos far better than her reality; much of this is thanks to Ben Caldwell’s super cartoony artwork, which fills Harley’s dream with an anarchic energy and imbues even her most violent moments with a touch of humor. This is actually rather vital, as one of my biggest criticisms of Harley Quinn is that it often relies on long scenes of mindless violence with no real purpose or humor to them — it’s a tendency this issue may even acknowledge, for whatever that’s worth.
Batman’s dream is even more fun — Conner and Palmiotti are clearly having a ball playing with the various tropes surrounding the character, be it his souvenirs, “Fireworks Spray”, or his many, many love interests.
I don’t know what I love more about this panel — Bruce’s ridiculous number of canonical love interests, the absurdity of “taking diction in my sleep”, or the fact that Amanda Conner is attempting to establish herself as one of Bruce Wayne’s love interests.
Conner and Palmiotti actually write an impressive Bruce Wayne, zeroing in on his relationship with Alfred and especially his more charitable side, but it’s also clear that Bruce’s purpose in this story is mainly to help show how Harley has (supposedly) changed and grown since moving to Coney Island. Likewise, the Carp’s role as an antagonist almost solely seems to be to demonstrate how Bruce is willing to forgive and try to reform criminals (in fact, as soon as this is established the Carp is discarded and forgotten entirely), and Conner and Palmiotti throw in multiple references to Bruce’s surprise at Harley’s new methods (be they targeting corrupt criminal businessmen or just her now having friends).
This all leads up to Harley’s rescue of Bruce, which, despite its futility, is a moment that was clearly meant to be at least a little bit heroic; besides Harley’s best attempt at a typical heroic “I must do this alone” speech, there’s also the fact that Harley rescued Bruce more to save him than to punish someone, which is a step up from her typical violent “justice”.
Batman — and the issue itself — seem to be a bit unclear about how heroic this actually makes Harley, though. Is it better for Harley to be left in charge of her own building — dealing with at least some sort of real world responsibility — as opposed to mixing with potentially corrupting Gotham loonies? Do the people and animals she saves make up for the laws she’s broken and the innocents she’s accidentally attacked? To be honest, I’m not sure if Connor and Palmiotti are asking us to examine how much of Harley’s actions we can actually condone or simply reestablishing Harley’s level of morality going forward. So, has Harley become a better person? Probably, but I don’t know if that’s saying much.
Patrick, I’m amazed by how many ways this single issue replicates the experience of reading Harley Quinn monthly. It can reach moments of sheer hilarity (almost all of the Batman dream stuff) but just as often falls into repetitive, uninspired jokes (the Titanic references; the horny old man); it can often be surprisingly poignant (Harley and the whale), but is just often brainlessly crude (the horny old man again!). It can be quite a mixed bag, and since I know you haven’t read Harley Quinn in a while, Patrick, I’m curious to see what you got out of this issue. Does it manage to redeem Harley any for you? And hey, did you love Bruce’s Bat-shaped thought bubbles as much as I did?
Patrick: Bruce’s bat-think bubbles were cute, and Harley’s blinged-to-shit engagement ring is flat out bonkers.
Every now and then, it’s clear that the creative team is having fun, as in the detail above. The logic might not really hold up — this is supposed to be Bruce’s dream, right? Why would he imagine a big dumb bat diamond? He’s classier and more discreet than that. But it’s still a fun idea and an even funnier image, so props to the artist Aaron Campbell for going for it.
Over all, I have to echo Spencer’s feeling about this thing being uneven. It’s almost as though Conner and Palmiotti are interested in telling a story they know their readers don’t want to read. Spencer included that panel above where Harley mercifully spares us from yet another dream sequence, but like, we still have two of them in the issue. So what’s the deal? Are we supposed to enjoy them or hate them? Conner and Palmiotti don’t seem to have a lot of confidence in the narrative device, and explicitly explain the point of these sequences to audiences that might not be familiar with their work.
My god, that’s a huge amount of text to explain what a motherfucking dream sequence is. I don’t understand who this lengthy explanation is for. Beaver slams the creative team, and then goes on to slam “this month’s latest pointless crossover,” which is an alarming number of comics coming out of the Big Two lately (especially come April). I’m having a hard time understanding why Conner and Palmiotti would break the fourth wall (on multiple occasions) just to alienate the readers to their faces. What am I supposed to do here? High-five Beaver and tell him I never liked reading those silly cash-in books either? All while admitting that the book in my hand is an equally opportunistic cash-grab?
Sorry to get worked up — and sorry for throwing around “cash-grab”. Comics are a business, it’s all grabbing for cash in one form or another (and the cash ain’t even that great). I’d be a lot less upset by this issue if it had any kind of genuine perspective to it. Spencer mentions a lot of social issues that get brought up in this Valentines Special, but none of them express anything beyond the narrative we all know and accept. And even at that, none of those issues are dramatized at all. Let’s take that home invasion, as an example. This is Bernie Madoff — cleverly disguised here as “Barney Runoff” — who’s the punching bag we like to blame for the financial collapse in 2008. Sure, the guy is a fucker, but he’s also serving 150 years in prison, so, like, we got him guys. The target is so broad (and so already-nailed) that the criticism has absolutely no fangs.
I also just can’t get behind this characterization of Harley Quinn. Spencer posits that Conner and Palmiotti are looking to challenge our conceptions of just how villainous she is, but they simply don’t go far enough toward making her relatable. Back at
Madoff’s Runoff’s house, Harley shatters a priceless Ming vase just to get under his skin. Why not steal it? Why not donate it to a museum? Why not sell it? Why not anything other than destroying a culturally significant antique? She’s self-justified because it belongs to someone that everyone says it’s okay to hate. But taking down an opponent is not the same as doing the right thing — not by a long shot. Which leads me to the moment that destroys the entire reality of the issue for me:
Again, maybe we’re supposed to hate this other woman because she has the spare mil’ to throw around at a CHARITY AUCTION, but this is an outrageous act of violence you wouldn’t even expect of Deadpool. I guess that’s my biggest beef with this issue, and the reason I stopped reading this series: neither the jokes nor the non-jokes land with any kind of honesty. If there was any integrity to this story, Harley would get more than a few strange looks after murdering this woman at a fancy gala. But nope! This kind of non-commitment to reality makes me think the whole series is a Harley Quinn dream, and I don’t like hearing about anyone’s dreams. Y’know: because they’re boring and don’t make sense.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to DC’s website and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?