This entry is a prime example of how quickly and effectively Conner and Palmiotti can shift gears from outlandish humour to chilling violence as Mason Macabre and the mayor’s wrath over his son’s murder returns to the forefront. Things kick off in typical screwball style with Harley and Cy’s niece Hanuquinn heading out to confront Zena for his kidnapping after buying Harley enough time to change into an appropriately rockabilly inspired outfit for their showdown at a bowling alley by claiming to be in New Jersey while actually at home on Coney Island. Adding to the growing list of things I appreciate about Conner and Palmiotti’s Harley Quinn is that she understands the necessity of having an outfit properly matched to the occasion.
Despite that plotline resolving itself with Cy and Zena hooking up again and the rest of the issue concerning itself with Harley’s feelings for Mason, there are very firm and welcome reminders that Harley Quinn is DC’s queerest book in the “not gay as in happy, queer as in fuck you,” sense. Harley teases how much fun she’s having when Hanuquinn is trying to push her up to the window of the bowling alley by her ass, but it’s Harvey Quinn who gets the bulk of the focus on queer issues this month as he goes with Harley to the prison in their attempt to break Mason out, running into his own past in the same facility and getting revenge on a guard for what was likely a sexual assault during his incarceration.
It’s incredibly important to note that in a series that plays with a lot of innuendo and boundary pushing humor and specifically an issue that culminates in heavily eroticized violence, they choose not to make light of prison rape and instead lampshade the very real threat of violence and exploitation that queer men face in the prison system in a way that restores agency to the implied victim. I’m not particularly invested in Harley’s relationship with Mason, but I absolutely applaud how it’s being plotted. Last issue we got the clearest and most explicit condemnation of the dynamics of The Joker and Harley’s relationship when she tore up a doll of him that a member of the Harley Gang was sleeping with and this issue we get a very clear and explicit depiction of just how much Conner and Palmiotti are working to reverse that dynamic with Harley and Mason while staying well within the transgressive identity they’ve nurtured for her over the course of the last two years.
We’ve seen a few times, in the last year especially, instances where Harley has tried to reverse the dynamic of Ivy coming to her rescue with hilariously disastrous results, most notably when she went to Arkham to bust Ivy out in the most recent annual, and again in the dream sequence that cast her as a pirate queen trying to rescue a mermaid version of Ivy from a rival ship crewed by Batman and the rest of his rogues, but we’re getting it played straight as an arrow with Mason in recognition of the very different power dynamics in play. Harley and Harvey arrive to the prison just in time to interrupt a vicious beating being administered in the showers, escalating it into the most gruesomely violent sequence of the series so far, leaving everyone but Harley and Mason dead, and the latter too critically injured to risk moving.
Harley is presented with the toughest position she’s been put into yet, forced to leave him there and put her faith in the outside police getting him the proper medical care while she beats a hasty retreat, but the most significant sequence is her promise to come back for him sealed by a very bloody makeout session. Conner, Palmiotti, and Hardin are pushing the envelope to its absolute breaking point with this intersection of sex and violence, but they’re doing it with a keen eye and a firm hand. This is a blockbuster franchise for DC gaining more and more momentum every month towards the release of the Suicide Squad movie and they’re profiting from that by telling the most volatile and desperately needed stories they can.
Something that I pride our entire team here on is that we’re as harsh as we are savvy critics when it comes to LBGTQIA representation. We’re going to scrutinize it when a creator says a character is queer without any kind of history or context of legitimate representation, we’re going to call it out when a legitimately queer history is disputed, and we’re going to take the time to break it down when the best intentions still result in needlessly alienating and painful language. Which is why I take such a strong stance on supporting this title. One of the most pernicious lies that Harley Quinn stands in clear opposition to is the idea that characters ought to “just happen to be gay.” Hypothetically, it gets positioned as being a route to get away from the noxious stereotypes that inform a lot of characterizations, but what it really does is privilege a narrow band of performances of queerness that heteronormative audiences are comfortable with.
What a comic like Harley Quinn does is demonstrate how queerness, in the sense of same gender attraction, is part and parcel of Harley’s otherness and many of the people she surrounds herself with. When the Harley Gang was first assembled, Conner and Palmiotti began by introducing the core members, presenting young women who wanted protection from and retribution for sexism and racism, joining Harley because normative power structures were unwilling to respond to their needs. With Harvey being foregrounded this issue we see that the prison guards abused their power over him to victimize and emasculate him because of his queer identity, no doubt playing a significant role in developing the outsider perspective that inspired him to join the Harley Gang as well. These are all reasoned and compassionate portrayals of otherness that make Harley Quinn an inclusive space for readers who feel marginalized and don’t want to assimilate into the structures that are at the root of that marginalization.
In a certain sense, the series also works to destigmatize same gender attraction by eliminating the assumption of heteronormativity from a lot of the incidental interactions, like this issue where Harley asks a prison guard whether he’s hitting on her or Harvey and he lasciviously replies “both.” It’s absolutely night and day from the typical Deadpool humour framed in a way that that sets up the laughs coming from him making people uncomfortable with his flirtations or behavior that breaks gender norms. All that kind of thing does is reinforce those stigmas, while in Harley Quinn the humor is all about subverting the expectation of heteronormativity.
It cannot be said enough that Chad Hardin is an absolutely essential element of the title’s success in these areas. It falls on him every time to clearly and unambiguously communicate the tone and pitch that will define how the story is received. In a venue where the readership is hypersensitive to crass and exploitative depictions of queer female sexuality, the necessity of having an artist like Hardin who can communicate the level of emotional honesty and physical nuance that he delivers consistently on Harley Quinn is paramount. It’s the same kind of nuance called for in properly framing Harvey’s interactions and framing them as engaging honestly and intelligently with the abuses he faced in prison and the maintenance of his agency and personhood this issue as well as communicating the correct power dynamics between Harley and Mason that so clearly differentiate it from her abusive past with The Joker.
As brilliant and necessary as the work that Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo are doing on Batman is, it’s readily apparent and easy to point to their tackling of issues like the militarization of police forces and the catastrophic harm that institutionalized racism is causing to black children. It’s a much steeper -and perhaps even more rewarding- hill to climb to bear out the value of sharp and necessary satire delivered as transgressive humour.
Written by Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti
Drawn by Chad Hardin with colors by Alex Sinclair
Lettered by Tom Napolitano
Cover by Amanda Conner and Paul Mounts
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Emma Houxbois is a fiercely queer trans woman from the wilds of Canada, most recently spotted in the Pacific Northwest. She is a two time IWC Women’s World Champion and has written about comics for the web since 2005 for sites including Playboy, Bitch Media, and Graphic Policy.