While Harley Quinn’s stuffed beaver waxes cynical about the formula that the series’ specials have fallen into, the story itself is a hilarious and welcome spin on Harley’s classic attraction to Bruce Wayne and repulsion of Batman. The plot revolves around a scenario that couldn’t pander any harder to Harley’s sensibilities; the opportunity to bid on a date with Bruce Wayne with the proceeds going to an animal shelter, but Conner and Palmiotti take full advantage of the story to delve into both Harley and Bruce’s subconscious minds as they ponder what a relationship together would look like.
Harley’s sequence, drawn by Ben Caldwell, unforgettably plays out like Jen and Sylvia Soska reimagining Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. It’s a pastel funhouse of over the top wealth and decadence inhabited by a permanently shirtless Bruce Wayne who indulges Harley’s every extravagant and ultra-violent whim. Until the topic of children comes up and things take a turn for the truly nightmarish in which Harley goes to every conceivable length to kill a version of Bruce more persistent than a plate of green eggs and ham. Caldwell is pitch perfect for his assignment, drawing a wonderfully absurd Bruce that appears as a wildly distorted Adonis and building an equally absurd world around him complete with a prancing unicorn and cartoonishly gruesome violence as Harley plays polo by swinging a mallet at convicts purchased for the occasion. The plasticity and ridiculous fun of Caldwell’s figures hit their peak as the debate around children breaks down and both Harley and Bruce screw their faces up into expressions worth of a Tex Avery Looney Tunes short.
Bruce’s dream, taking place while being held hostage by the world’s most specific eco-terrorists, takes on a much more predictably lucid feel with Aaron Campbell taking over on art. Where Harley was pre-occupied by thoughts of motherhood, Bruce finds himself mostly concerned with burying his past as a playboy once the shock of having not only married Harley Quinn (with a gigantic bat shaped diamond encrusted ring not far off from the two finger monster nOir produced in their DC comics themed collection) but replaced both Robin and Alfred with her. It’s probably a wider metaphor for Bruce’s fears of an actually serious relationship taking over his entire life, but if you want hard hitting psychological analysis of Bruce Wayne, dig back through your longboxes for an issue of Grant Morrison’s Batman run because we’re here strictly for the Clown Princess of Crime. What really drives the humour in Bruce’s dream sequence is how utterly banal his deepest concerns turn out to be. The whole thing is the typical straight male nightmare of having to transition from bachelorhood to marriage; his wife is making changes to his habits, she’s trying to get rid of all his tacky junk, and he never sees his best friend anymore. Elevated to Gotham City levels of absurdity, this gets translated into Harley “firing” Alfred by locking him in the trunk of the Batmobile, installing herself as the new Robin, and ordering him to get rid of the Batcave’s ridiculous decorations like the dinosaur and giant penny. The argument could even be made that the only serious downside of the scenario was the Batmobile getting plastered with bat guano while Alfred was out of a job. Campell is equally suited to his assignment as Caldwell, establishing the sequence as truly Bruce’s by imbuing it with a realism and lucidity beyond that of the issue’s “normal.” There’s a wonderful dissonance between his grounded style and the sheer ridiculousness of the script that includes Bruce spraying Harley with “fireworks spray,” but much like Caldwell, one of Campbell’s most effective contributions is the animated facial expressions, something that frequently falls by the wayside in more realist comic art.
The overall story functions as an interesting kind of counterpoint to the classic BTAS episode Harley’s Holiday in which she sets out to do everything right after being discharged from Arkham and gets dragged back into old habits seemingly as much by circumstances outside her control as her own whims. The Valentine’s special goes the opposite route by rewarding Harley for her usual methodology of doing the right thing in the worst way possible (robbing a lightly fictionalized version of Bernie Madoff) by giving her not just a date with Bruce Wayne, but an opportunity to rescue him from kidnappers (at the worst moment possible). In what is either an oversight or a sign of things to come, Harley attends both the auction and her date without the blonde wig or make up she typically dons for public appearances as Dr. Harleen Quinzel. While on her date with Bruce, she talks up the work she does with her patients as Dr. Quinzel, the kind of thing that he loves to see in villains he attempts to rehabilitate and surprisingly enough, when Bruce follows up with her later as Batman he seems to take her progress at face value. On the surface, Harley is certainly well settled with her day job and has more than her share of mundane responsibilities as landlady of her building, but the less that he knows about her putting a hit out on herself in her sleep or fooling an amnesiac Power Girl to think they’re a crime fighting duo, the better. Every couple deserves a secret or two.
Speaking of couples, Poison Ivy isn’t absent from the issue, and while it’s nowhere near as central as she deserved to be I would invite disappointed readers to swap the cover of the Valentine’s issue with the Annual’s and marvel at how the latter story changes tone when the cover has lots of floaty hearts on it. While Ivy’s overall role in this issue is mostly to support Harley in her quest for a date with Bruce and tag along on their honeymoon in Harley’s alternate dream sequence, Cupid’s arrow hasn’t strayed too far from target. When asked if she’s jealous of Harley’s pursuit of Bruce, Ivy replies that jealousy isn’t really her thing. Ironic for a woman with green skin, but it’s the kind of casual reminder that Harley’s recent pursuit of menfolk doesn’t alter the clearly queer tint to her relationship with Poison Ivy. I’m willing to accept Bruce as the booby prize for what his presence does for the story and Harley’s character development, but my inbox also remains open for alternative takes where Harley and Ivy ride off into the sunset after murdering him on their honeymoon.
Written by Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti
Drawn by John Timms, Ben Caldwell, Aaron Campbell, and Thony Silas with colours by Caldwell, Paul Mounts, and Hi-Fi
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.