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Friday, July 29, 2016

Cover Story - Top 15 Harley Quinn Covers

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We’re currently a week out from Suicide Squad, DC’s latest attempt to salvage the flaming wreckage of their cinematic universe.  I could go on and on about how bizarre it is that the people with the biggest stable of superheroes imaginable keep consistatly getting one-upped by the likes of Ant-Man and Thor (seriously, 9 years ago who outside the comics fandom even knew those guys existed?) but that’s not the point of this particular column.  No, we gather together today because there’s nothing topical happening this week related to comics but I have a compulsive need to make this show link to something.  

As such, we’re getting a head start on Suicide Squad by looking at the career of its most prominent member in the advertisements: Harley Quinn.  Originating in the Batman animated series of 1992 before immigrating to the comics and taking up residence there for 20 years as her character evolved from tragedy to comedy to something close to DC’s Deadpool.  So, let us celebrate this glorious harlequin of comics and dive into the shallow end to get the cover story on the top 15 Harley Quinn comic covers.

We open with a tie from her late ‘90s/early 2000s comic.  This list is going to lean pretty heavy on that era, mainly because that’s when I first got into reading mainstream comics and, as far as I’m concerned, comics will never be that great again.  In this case, however, I’m not going to break these covers down individually because I’ve gathered them all here to show a unique trend of how the book chose to slot Harley into various scenarios.  

The central thrust of the 2000s comic was framing Harley as a kind of anarchic comedy character along the henchwoman circuit, having her stumble roadtrip style through the mythos and stories of various other characters and these covers serve as a really great example of the way the book would do that.  

The best of the bunch is probably the Superman cover, mainly because it changes up Harley’s action and visual design the best but I have a serious soft spot for the Two-Face and Riddler logo designs, especially that big drive-in/diner type backdrop that adds a glitzy Las Vegas showbiz vibe to the comics.  

That’s something that was endemic to the Harley Quinn of the era, a vaudevillian flare for the villain life that made the underworld of DC comics really come alive in a great way.  One last thing before I go, across the boards these covers are a great use of cover to convey tone and focus, from the washed out shades of Two-Face to Riddler’s neon green to the bright white and blue of Superman; stand out stuff.

For those not in the know about Harley Quinn, when she first premiered she was just a background character because writer Paul Dini had wanted one of the Joker’s hench-people to be a woman.  In 1994 Bruce Timm and Paul Dini actually fleshed out her personality and origin in a groundbreaking comic entitled Mad Love, which was later adapted into hand’s down the show’s best installment.  The comic is one of the best Batman books of the ‘90s and part of that is how secretive it was about the very mature subject matter.  

The Batman multimedia empire had skewed defiantly older throughout the ‘90s but this was a story that touched on domestic violence, abusive relationships, and the tragedy of dependence so dressing it up as just another kid’s comic was a pretty clever move.  Even so, that in no way makes this cover unimpressive, as the visual symmetry created by Batman and Joker’s respective landings perfectly mirrors the symmetrical pattern of Harley’s outfit.  Also I really like the little stream of piranhas running from Harley to Batman, that’s a nice touch.

Moving over the modern era now with this installment from DC’s Bombshells comic.  If you don’t know it, Bombshells is a 1940s alternate continuity comic that focuses on recasting the various super women of DC comics in the style of ‘40s pin-ups or “bombshells.”  

For a comic that spun out of a figure line it’s a pretty great read and has garnered a lot of popularity and interest for its fun characters, balanced tone, and well-meaning artwork.  This is the only cover to feature Harley Quinn but it’s a pretty great cover for her to appear on.  

It’s actually a great visual joke as the very term “bombshells” comes from the US military’s habit of painting beautiful women on the side of their equipment before launching into battle, most notable bombs and shell casings like the one Harley is currently riding on.  

This kind of cover design for Harley is thoroughly of the now and very recent attempts to reclaim Harley as something other than a tragic clown, casting her as more of a happy go lucky scamp, someone in over her head but too lovably zany to ever be worried about and just amazing enough to make it through no matter the odds. 

Well, this cover is an absolute delight.  This is part of what I mean about the 2000s comic’s emphasis on humor as filtered through the bizarre lens of super villainy as showbiz.  Harley deciding to franchise her own look and character into a whole team of Harleys is a dynamite comedy premise that fits well into the characters blend of aesthetics.  

It’s about applying the ideals of showbiz like expanding your act, building a brand, taking gigs with different bands etc. to the world of super villains, finding comedy in the absurdity that being a super villain would demand in a world with actual constraints.  

What’s more, the multiple Harley Quinns concept feels very sitcom-esc, that’s a genre that borrows heavily from over the top stage work and has always been a big influence on Harley’s shtick.  I’ve heard her called “evil Lucille Ball,” which definitely fits even if I’ve always seen her as more of a Fran Drescher type, but even then Drescher’s biggest influence was always Lucille Ball so call that a generational comparison. 

So glad we got Bizarro in this list, nobody fits into Harley Quinn’s unique world of high energy weirdness and D-list criminal shenanigans quite like Bizarro.  We also get the first cameo by Poison Ivy, though this is from the era when DC was still pretending Harley and Ivy were just gals being pals, mainly because back then gay acceptance was really rare and even the slightest hint of non-hetero-normative stuff garnered the anger of the masses. 

Bizarro is actually a pretty solid fit thematically and visually for Harley.  Something that’s really great about this comic is the way it uses Harley’s symmetrical checkerboard suit for design inspiration and that very much fits with Bizarro’s weird, inverse Superman costume.  What’s more, they’re both characters that work well for tragedy as well as comedy, though this cover is obviously leaning towards comedy.  My favorite little gag on this cover has got to be the crowbar bent like Bizarro’s face, that’s really Looney Tunes.

Speaking of Looney Tunes, I don’t think there’s a more complex or anarchic cover in this entire list and I love it, I have no idea what’s supposed to be happening but I absolutely love it.  Actually, this cover is a really good indication of how much the Batman animated series served to influence the Harley Quinn comic and a lot of the Batman sensibilities of the time.  For instance, this basic image of Harley and her Hyenas is pretty iconic of the show but it’s the background details that really sell it.  

Both the mobsters on Harley’s right and the cops on her left are completely anachronistic, drawn from a thoroughly ‘20s bent.  Meanwhile, Killer Croc emerging from the sewers is drawn and colored in the style of the animated series.  

That cartooniness seeps into the rest of the cover as well, with stuff like the ninjas dropping from above or the hilariously jokey bomb being thrown at Harley.  It’s a great example of how often her comic turned into a cartoon and how fun and enjoyable that could be. 

Dipping again into the modern era, this cover comes to us courtesy of the very bizarre comic Harley’s Little Black Book.  It’s a weird little mini-series that was basically just an excuse to throw Harley into the lives of various DC heroes with humorous results.  By this point in her history Harley has pretty much morphed full on into DC’s Deadpool, she’s whacky and anarchic and fully aware of her fictional status to the point that it basically gives her an invulnerability shield.  

Whenever a character reaches that point the only thing left to do with them is throw them willy-nilly into the comics of other characters and let them wreck comedy havoc, in this case through a hilarious re-enactment of Attack of the 50 Ft Woman.  I do really love the idea of Harley ending up a giant monster because she’s taking a whack at Superman’s corner of the DCU (pun completely intended) although it does leave me with one major question.  

I can accept Harley can just become giant because she wills it but where did she find that giant mallet?  Did someone just have that lying around?  Because in the DC Universe that kind of carelessness is just asking for trouble. 

While most of these covers will be comedy oriented there are two serious covers and this is the first of them.  Honestly, this cover wasn’t that creepy at the time but in light of recent trends it’s gotten a lot more chilling.  That’s the case sometimes with this kind of material, it seems more harmless and relaxed during its initial inception only for the world to shift around it and suddenly be a much more outwardly terrible place.  

Back in ’03 this kind of thing was creepy but thoroughly confined to the realms of fiction and the dustbin of history.  But now, thanks to social media and the more widespread proclivity of news stories the idea of creepy, obsessive stalkers has become one of the bigger bogeymen of the 21st century.  

It’s especially apt for Harley given how often everyone, even DC Comics themselves, likes to fetisihize her brutal and toxic relationship with the Joker, as if her damaged and submissive nature makes her somehow more appealing.  It’s a seriously disturbing image that works as well as it does BECAUSE it’s using Harley Quinn, turning the characters intrinsic baggage into a real strength. 

Another cover from Harley’s Little Black Book and hands down the Internet’s favorite Harley image, though not for quite the reason you’d think.  While it’s true that Harley coming out as bisexual was partially for titillation it’s also made her recent run of stories pretty successful with queer comic fans as her relationship with Poison Ivy has ended up one of the most healthy and supportive romances in comics.  

Like I said, there’s no real getting around the fact Harley being bi is meant to excite male readership and further her slide into Deadpool-ism (let us not forget the merc with the mouth is supposed to be pansexual in the books) but just because that’s the origin doesn’t mean the final result is lessened.  In this case it’s honestly a pretty charming cover that definitely works with both characters.  My favorite part is how exasperated Wonder Woman looks at these antics, like she’s kind of annoyed but mostly unsurprised there’s yet another person in love with her. 

Diving back into the 2000s comic we get another shot of Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn’s tag team.  Like I said, the two were always meant to be in a romantic relationship during the time but DC was too nervous about the backlash to have them be anything more than very, very close friends.  

I chose this cover to showcase as it’s one of the few other covers from that era to feature the two’s team-up and I really like the idea of them stopping mid road trip to deface a Superman sign.  I do wonder why the two are riding on Harley’s motorcycle instead of just using Harley’s planet powers but then again they seem happy about the arrangement so who am I to judge.   

The other big reason I chose this issue to talk about is the depiction of Metropolis in the background.  If you look, Metropolis here is full up with flying cars and space ships and even the Daily Planet’s globe has been replaced with a holographic one.  That’s because at this point in DC Comics’ history Metropolis had been infested with hyper-advanced technology in the wake of a bizarre comic event meant to tie-in to Y2K.  

It was a weird concept meant to capitalize on the city’s occasional nickname “The City of Tomorrow.”  We tend to memory hole this particular bit of weirdness today but I’ve got a real soft spot for bizarre gimmicks like this. 

And now we come to the second serious cover and by far the most unnerving one of the bunch.  Children and guns is the perfect visual combination for putting your audience directly on edge, the kind of visual shorthand that hits the reader like a punch to the gut and leaves them immediately staggered.  

Children with guns might have some wiggle room but images like this have and always will be incredibly chilling.  Like the previous serious cover, this is from much later into the Harley Quinn comic (it was coming up on its 3rd year at the time) when the creators were looking to do some more serious stuff with the book.  

That’s why the cover art changed from the very vibrant and curvy visual style to this much more washed out and angular design, especially in terms of the way the individual characters are drawn.  Though it’s not stated anywhere on this cover, I do like the underlying idea of this cover that this little girl has pulled a gun on Harley Quinn because Harley is a violent criminal on the run from the cops, I mean when you live in Gotham City you can never be too careful right?

Despite coming out in 2004, this particular comic was another revamp of the 1990s Batman animated series template.  That was one of the interesting things about DC’s animated universe; even though the original Bat show concluded in the mid ‘90s the brand persisted well into the mid 2000s and brought the various tie-in comics with it.  In fact, some of the later Batman tie-in comics are some of the best you’ll read, including a great run by Spider-Man scribe Dan Slott in which the Penguin is elected mayor of Gotham City. 

As for this cover, I really like the way it repurposes the sequential flow of comic art through the lens of a film reel, that’s really clever.  It’s another Harley/Ivy cover too, which is of course a plus, and I really do love the way that it features Harley fawning over her girlfriend.  

It sells the idea of these two as a super villain couple especially, with their bonding and together time being based around beating up superheroes and committing crimes.  Off topic but man can Poison Ivy punch or what?  I mean, she knocked Batman’s tooth clean out in that last panel, that’s a hell of a right hook.

Firstly, this cover gets mad nerd props for remembering that Superman’s hair is every bit as invulnerable as he is.  A lot of authors tend to forget that Superman’s invulnerability extends throughout his entire body but it’s one of my favorite weird facts about him that he needs to heat vision his own hair to keep it in check.  It’s just a nice little bit of normalizing weirdness, an extra hurtle that Superman has to clear to help him seem a little less aloof. 

That out of the way, this cover is absolutely fantastic.  It’s the capstone to the Superman/Harley Quinn covers that have punctuated a 3rd of this list and easily the best one for how well it uses Superman to invert Harley’s standard comedy set-up.  Rather than being a shot of her annoying him and casting Superman as the straight man of the duo, the twist is that Superman’s incredible power basically makes him invulnerable to Harley’s shenanigans.  This is more or less the same gag Superman writers like to pull whenever Mr. Mxyzptlk pops up but it works just as well for Harley Quinn and the physical comedy of this cover’s a great indication of that. 

I think my favorite jokes on hand here are all the little throwaway gags littering the background.  If you look down at the floor it’s covered with broken scissors and shattered razors from Harley’s previous failed attempts to cut Superman’s hair, while the newspaper he’s reading seems to boast its own bizarre surrealist comedy.  Overall it’s just a great twist on expectations and a really great one-panel comic.

Back to the modern series now with my favorite DC super woman Power Girl.  I know the gag of Power Girl is that all dudes love her for her two enormous talents but honestly there’s a lot more to like about her than her cup size.  

She was one of the standout heroes of Geoff Johns Justice Society comic, eventually graduating to run the JSA and her solo series was a pretty comedic and whacky subversion of the “sexy superhero” gimmick in its own right, similar to the classic She-Hulk comics.  

In a lot of ways, she and Harley Quinn are a perfect combination and I really like her exasperated look in this cover.  Power Girl playing the stick in the mud to Harley’s antics is pretty fun but I like the idea that even though she’s kind of annoyed by it PG is still playing along with Harley’s shenanigans.  

The cover, overall, speaks to the more friendly relationship held between the heroes and Harley Quinn in the modern era and the way she’s much more of a comedic nuisance than anything else. 

One of the hardest things for comic book fans to accept is that things change.  That’s the story of comic nerds at this point, that we can’t deal with characters shifting race or gender to reflect a more modern reality or that any switch to accepted canon results in, at best, a torrential flood of online anger.  

It impacts everyone in fandom and I’m no stranger to it, most specifically I’ve been anti the idea of Harley Quinn as a Deadpool-esc character of anarchic self-aware comedy from pretty much the word go.  I thought that Harley should only be used for tragedies and stories about her toxic relationship to the Joker and that anything else was just trying to appropriate her damaged and submissive personality for gross sex appeal.

But, the more DC pushed this idea the more accepting I became of it and the farther we got from Mad Love the more I had to accept that Harley Quinn in 2016 doesn’t mean what she did in 1994, much the same way Godzilla now doesn’t mean the same thing he did in 1954 or Spider-Man doesn’t mean what he did in 1962.  Characters shift and progress as does the world around them and, like it or not, Harley Quinn in 2016 is a hyper-cartoony self-aware bisexual comedy hero that breaks the 4th wall, that’s who she is now and this cover sums that up perfectly with her literally breaking the 4th wall.  

We’re tempted to insist a character shouldn’t change because we don’t want to see them shift from what we knew them as when they first entered our lives but that’s the nature of comic books as a medium.  There will always be some new story to tell, a new facet of the character to be explored, a new person to take up the mantel, that’s why these characters last for decades and, in Harley Quinn’s case, I’d hate to think of her getting 30 years into her role in comics and still just being Joker’s abused girlfriend: she’s more than that. 

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