For many the 90s are considered one of the worst era for comic books. Between Dark Knights falling, Men of Steel dying, clone sagas and Rob Liefeld’s love of pouches, it seemed that storytelling was sacrificed to accommodate the emergence of the concept of the super-star artist and unless your comic was extreme, nobody would care about it. It wasn’t all bad, however, as the 90s also gave us sublime Batman: The Animated Series and with it, the introduction of Harley Quinn. Harley’s origin story; Mad Love is a seminal piece that examines her relationship with the Joker and shows how the bright young psychiatrist was driven to madness. It’s a powerful work that tragically portrays a type of relationship that is all to prevalent within society and it’s something that every comic fan should take the time to read. Harley Quinn’s popular has sky-rocketed since the publication of that story, leading to her incorporation into the main DC universe, joining the ranks of Task Force X aka the Suicide Squad and the launch of her first ongoing series in 2o14. Harley’s ongoing series is one that has received quite a bit of controversy with many claiming that has sacrificed some of the characters’ nuance for the sake of transforming her into DC’s Deadpool. With upcoming her live-action film premiere in Suicide Squad, it was inevitable that DC would seek to push a number of Harley-centric titles. Thus, Harley Quinn and Her Gang of Harleys, a story about a former-sidekick’s sidekicks, but is it a shameless cash-grab or does it speak the legacy and pedigree of the Clown Princess of Crime?
In the character’s latest solo outings, Harley has emancipated herself from the shadow of the Joker and established herself in a new city as a hero for hire. Her escapades have gone onto inspire many copy-cats; the titular Gang of Harleys, who she recruits as both her side-kicks and hired muscle. The story revolves around a kidnapping plot that forces the Gang to prove themselves without their fearless leader and while, I’d like to say hilarity and hi-jinks ensue, neither would be a fair and accurate representation.
With Harley Quinn taking a backseat in favour of focusing on her gang, one would expect these characters to be somewhat endearing or be presented in a way that makes us want to learn more about them. The issue provides a quick encyclopedic summary of each member’s background, but nothing really distinguishes them from each other outside of their costumes which amount to little more than Power Ranger variants of Harley’s own design. The characters joke about being reduced to their stereotypical roles as the “Hindu” Harley, the “Jewish” Harley or the “Black” Harley as an interesting attempt to subvert expectations and engage in a bit of meta-commentary on how the internet reacts to certain changes to established characters. The problem is that these characters lack any sense of depth and present us with very little for the reader to care about. It’s all well and good to talk about these characters overcoming those labels that the fan-base may give them, but you have to actually follow through on that vision and present us something more than a roster of one note misanthropes. The only character who distinguishes themselves is Coach, an Oracle-like mentor, whose dry wit keeps the book bearable and shows herself to be one of the few competent members of the team. If the goal of the book was to prove that the Gang of Harleys were interesting in their own right, then DC may be shocked to learn that this first issue made me long for Harley-centric scenes so I didn’t have to deal with them anymore and could otherwise pretend they didn’t exist.Perhaps we could deal with shallow characterisation if the book delivered on the comedic twist its parent series has become known for, but sadly this isn’t the case. There is singular amusing joke throughout this entire inaugural issue and it centers around a confrontation between Harley and the “Hipster Mafia”. The concept of such a criminal gang is funny, but it’s ruined by each of the Harleys resorted to cheap potshots at Hipsters that as unoriginal as they are humourless. These jokes weren’t funny back when the anti-Hipster movement was at its peak a few years ago and not even the combined charm of Jimmy Palmiotti and Frank Tieri can change that.
The interior artwork is the book’s strongest element with Mauricet continuing the strong work begun on Harley’s core title. There is a lovable cartoonish quality to this artwork that gives it a dynamism and an energy that many books lack. For a character with such a dark past, this is an incredibly colourful book that truly pops and reflects Harley’s new outlook on life. The costume designs for Harley and her gang are par for the course with the post-New 52 re-design. There is a slight tweek that makes them more evocative of what we’ve seen from the character in the various Suicide Squad trailers and that isn’t a bad thing. Harley’s ability to change up costumes, while retaining certain core features makes each issue of her solo series unique and this is no different here.
We have a strong creative team at the helm, there simply isn’t an excuse for the mediocrity that Harley Quinn and her Gang of Harleys demonstrates. There is scope for an interesting tale about why Harley inspires people both within and without the comic that speaks to the reasons why the character was popular enough to escape the confines of the show in which she first appeared. Why is it that so many people cosplay as Harley? Why is it that Mad Love connected with us so strongly? Why has she endured and found an eternal place within the popular consciousness? These are questions that Harley Quinn and her Gang of Harleys should be examining, but it seems uninterested in asking, let alone answering. Such reflection wouldn’t deny the series opportunities to be humourous, but it would ensure that the story was one that keeps readers’ interest. The final page hints at further thematic exploration along those lines, so I’m left with a modicum of hope for future issues. Presently, I’m baffled by this book’s purpose other than to expand DC’s growing line of Harley books. If this is part of the joke, then I just don’t get it and I’m left with but a single question. Who are these clowns?