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“This Is Gotham, After All:” Discovering Harley Quinn

As a die-hard Catwoman fan, I’ve never given Harley Quinn a fair shake. For starters, that voice. I like my villains sultry, dignified and more solemn than ridiculous, and for me, Harley was never any of these things. But then I started reading the Gotham City Sirens, and have been introduced to a side of Harley I never knew existed.

After reading Gotham City Sirens: Union, I went on to read a dedicated Harley trade: Preludes and Knock-Knock Jokes  by Karl Kesel, Terry Dodson and Rachel Dodson. I had a hard time getting into it, at first. The art is a little more goofy than I typically like, and it was difficult for me to sympathize with Harley in the first story when she is just hopelessly devoted to the Joker, despite his attempt to kill her (watch He’s Just Not That Into You, girl!). But with the second and third story, where Harley works for Two-Face and then throws her bad-girls-only slumber party, I noticed there was something much deeper happening than just Harley being heartbroken, pissed off and trying to find new friends.

Preludes and Knock-Knock Jokes is about redefining Harley in a way that liberates her from being Joker’s gal Friday, but not totally reinventing her from the ground up. It is the working through of her change, complete with downfalls and triumphs. With each new story in the trade, we get a death and rebirth of Harley: she begins with a conception of herself (she is Joker’s gal, she is Two-Face’s right hand, she is one of the DC bad girls, et cetera), and by the end, this definition becomes shaken and Harley establishes a new status quo for herself — which will once again become shaken, then re-evaluated, and re-established.

It is a process of definition that is reminiscent of the carnivalesque, but which operates more fully in a realm of slapstick comedy.  In Preludes and Knock-Knock Jokes we see Harley trying to define herself apart from Joker. The first narrative arc in the trade is about her still fighting for Joker’s respect–  as he is trying to kill her, though. The conversations Joker has with his henchmen behind Harley’s back illustrate Joker’s view of her: he is in a position of power over her, as both her boss and lover, and looks down on her as less than his equal. She is the side-kick, the love interest, but during the events of Prelude and Knock-Knock Jokes, we see Harley stepping farther and farther away from this. Traditional structures of power are dissolved to become more inclusive. She proves herself time and time again of being able to hold her own with Joker and his henchmen. Harley can be seen as a serious villain if how we think of villains is being shaken up. This is done through humour (and if the name wasn’t a dead give away, Preludes is filled with great one-liners), to show that within these realms, what we know of power positions are social constructs, rather than innate ones.

The first two stories show Harley going through the motions of previous power dynamics: she was Joker’s girl, now she’s not, so she tries to repeat the experience working for Two-Face. This fails, and leads to the turning point in Preludes: the bad girls of DC slumber party. These are voices that are normally on the back-burner, or relegated to a sidekick/love-interest position taking over to establish a new, if temporary, order. It is in this new space where all typical structures are levelled that Harley can test the new idea of herself as an independent woman: not as the Joker’s lover or as Two-Face’s number two, but as her own woman operating for her own desires. It’s not fully the carnivalesque, because it is focused on crharleyslumberpartyeating a new, lasting Harley, but if we use this lens, we can see how the slumber party story partially operates as the chaotic carnival realm where Harley’s whole world, and self-conception, is entirely shifted and shaken, allowing for her final death and rebirth.

Beyond that, so much of what happens during Preludes is mobilized through Harley’s own insistent humour. In the last story, we see Harley and her Quinntets attempting to rob Wayne Manor. At the same time as the Riddler and his henchmen are trying to discover the secret passage that has been rumoured to exist in the Manor. Oracle, unable to signal any of the usual Bat-family, sends out an SOS to anybody, and, true to the slapstick nature of Preludes, Big Barda comes to the rescue. The whole situation is constructed to make us laugh, with Harley and her henchmen squaring off against Riddler and his henchmen, and telling ridiculous one-liners and riddles.

But here’s the kicker: even Big Barda is getting in on the jokes, showing that despite the fact that Harley, her Quinntets, the Riddler, his lackeys and Barda are all working against each other, they’re also all fighting on the same terms. No one — whether a god, henchman or person with a body ramped up by Poison’s Ivy special concoction — is put in a more privileged position than any others. Harley only triumphs by working alongside Barda. It is a moment of inclusivity that allows for the terms of existing in this realm to be changed: Harley isn’t just the fool. Not any more. She’s become a major player on her own terms.

The point is to show that Harley can hold her own with any of the Bat-villains, but also that nobody in Gotham is exempt from becoming such a nefarious foe. The final story, with the showdown between Harley, the Riddler and Barda, shows that while thesoneofus1e individuals are exceptional in their own infamous ways, they are also not entirely unique in Gotham. As Harley’s old professor says, “This is Gotham, after all — where even the Sisters of St. Jude’s carry concealed weapons.”

If we stretch the carnivalesque lens a little bit farther, it seems like this is the underlying sentiment behind Preludes and Knock-Knock Jokes: it’s not just Harley who can redefine herself, but anybody in Gotham is capable of rising up to the challenge. As we can see when Harley is being hauled off to her cell in Arkham Asylum in a flashback during Preludes, she shouts “ONE OF US,” rallying all the inmates to join in the chant.

And they do, and ultimately, this exposes the real fear of living in Gotham city. Not the villains or inmates of Arkham Asylum, but the fact that anybody can rise up and become an infamous Bat-villain. Gotham City is the site of the literal carnival, after all, where Dick was able to join the ranks of Gotham’s finest heroes. And for me, this is what we can see happening underneath all the drama and jokes of Preludes: Gotham City is the only place where such a process of redefinition for Harley — or anybody – can occur.

Committed: Back Issue – The Liberated Ladies Issue

If you wrote a magazine just for me, designed to plug into my brain and force me to purchase, it would have to be the “Liberated Ladies” issue of the new Back Issue magazine. Devoted to the in-depth examination of just a few of the strongest female superheroes in comic books, as well as interviewing three of the most identifiable women working in comic books – I had to read it.

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She Has No Head! – Superhero Fashion Week Edition

A very fashion forward Rogue by Nuno Alves for Project Rooftop

It was fashion week in New York City this past week and that, plus my love of Dean Trippe’s wonderful superhero re-design website Project Rooftop had me thinking about the great hits and misses of superheroine fashion.  So in honor of Fashion Week and Brian’s month of Top Fives I thought I’d do a nice light post about some of my favorite female superhero costumes…really just an excuse to post a lot of fantastic images.

I kept the list to five…but then added about a million honorable mentions…because, well, because I’m a terrible editor…the secret is out.  Oooh, and if you think I could keep my big mouth shut about a few costumes I think are in desperate need of an update…you’d be wrong…they’re at the bottom (where they belong). Bwahahaha!

Onto the list!

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She Has No Head! – Two Chicks Talk About Comics And Stuff

Hmm...someone is definitely missing...

There’s been a lot of women in comics related chatter all over the internet the last week or so and most of it is at least a little frustrating.  So I reached out to fellow a fellow blogger – creator of the crazy popular and yet fairly recent DC Women Kicking Ass Tumblr blog, Sue – for a chat.  Sue has made a huge mark for herself in less than six months – becoming a serious resource for images, commentary, and information, especially as it relates to women and superheroes.  As some of this week’s news related directly to Sue’s petition to DC regarding the ridiculous DC 75th Anniversary logo which bizarrely leaves out Wonder Woman, I thought Sue might have some thoughts on this week’s craziness and beyond.  The following is an edited version of our two plus hour conversation on yahoo messenger…

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Committed: Byrne’s Superman

In 1986, when John Byrne’s revamp of Superman came out, I was so excited. I was a teenager, and I suppose my taste was pretty cheesy at times. That’s my excuse anyway, because I know that once I had The Man of Steel miniseries in my sweaty little hands, he seemed to be so busy coming up with updated rationales for everything, that he skimped on any kind of character development or compelling creativity… It left me feelings deflated, and I didn’t get my bounce back till Byrne did his double magic act, taking on both Action Comics and Superman. Continue Reading »

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