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Smashing the Patriarchy (Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass Review)


Writer: Mariko Tamaki

Artist/Colourist: Steve Pugh

Letterer: Carlos M. Mangual

Publisher: DC Comics

Rating: 9/10

When I first heard about DC’s line of YA graphic novels, one of the titles that I was most anticipating was Mariko Tamaki’s Breaking Glass. It was easy to imagine how characters like Catwoman and Teen Titan’s Raven could be made appropriate for younger audiences, but I struggled to imagine a portrayal of Harley that would be suitable. It seems, with each new release from DC, Harley’s been losing clothing and pointlessly over-sexualised - did the Rebirth costume really have to be so skimpy? She’s a character who, thanks to movies like Suicide Squad, has become infamous among teenagers who idolise her and aspire to be like her. Harley’s abusive relationship with the Joker is continuously glamorized, leaving parents everywhere with the lasting thought: is this character a healthy influence on my child? However, Tamaki’s take on Harley Quin is a game-changer.

Breaking Glass presents a retelling of Harleen Quinzel’s transformation into Harley Quinn – an origin story that differs greatly from the classic tale we know (aka Mad Love). We’re introduced to Harleen in her school years, as her mother sends her to Gotham to live with her grandmother, who unfortunately passes away before she gets there. Enter Mama, the building manager with a big heart, who swoops in and saves the day, allowing Harleen to stay in the apartment. 

The queens, now Harleen’s dazzling drag family, are one of the biggest influences in her transformation into Harley Quinn, teaching her the art of drag makeup and costumes. This makes for some stunning visuals from Steve Pugh, who throws in lots of Easter eggs for long-time fans of Harley. All of the clown imagery used to foreshadow the plot is spooky as hell, and I love it.

One of the key side-plots follows the group of drag queens who perform in the building, led by Mama. Tamaki explores LGBTQ+ rights, portraying discrimination and hate crimes as the queens fight to stay in the building they’ve performed in for so many years. One scene I particularly appreciate takes place in a diner– Harleen’s out having ice cream with one of the queens (Daniel), when a stuck-up mother with her three children starts unfairly criticising them, resulting in a not-so-nice interaction. 

Not many writers would focus on including such detailed accounts of discrimination in a DC title – it’s great to see more narratives that actually educate younger readers on situations like these, as well as the importance of standing up for yourself.

Poison Ivy is also re-imagined in this story, acting as a good influence on Harleen and also standing out as a strong character – she’s opinionated as hell and it’s so refreshing! Ivy is a badass feminist activist, who teaches Harleen many vital lessons about inequality and female rights. The duo even start protests against the sexist leader of the school Film club, where they dress as clowns. 

Tamaki and Pugh’s take on the Joker is quite unique...There’s clearly some influence from Bob Kane’s Joker design in the original Batman comics, as well as Jack Nicholson’s portrayal. These visuals are combined with some original ideas to create a look that I can only describe as a street artist trying to disguise himself on a low budget. When he first popped up, I had to stop myself laughing at the fact that he looked like he’d glued badly drawn facial features to a plastic bag. However (and that’s a big however), considering that the characters are school-aged, it works – though I doubt anyone will be rushing out to cosplay the guy anytime soon!

Harleen, now self-identifying as Harley Quinn, is presented with a mountain of ethical dilemmas. Tamaki uses Ivy and Joker to represent two potential - and majorly conflicting - choices for Harley, and she must choose what course of action to take. One of my favourite scenes in the entire book is an empowering moment where Harley rejects a skimpy costume she’s offered and instead opts to make her own, which combines influences from Batman the Animated Series with Pugh’s own vision. 

Tamaki’s dialogue is so well written, perfectly capturing characters’ voices and personalities. Some of the one-liners and catchphrases she came up with for Harley were so ridiculous, but so clearly fitted the fun-loving nature of the character that I could just imagine it being belted out in her trademark Brooklyn accent.

Steve Pugh’s artwork is breath-taking. Clear, gestural strokes are embellished with gorgeous greyscale blue-toned watercolours, with red accents used to draw attention to lettering and certain scene structures. 

Pugh uses colour as a narrative tool – flashbacks take on darker orange hues, and as the story progresses, we’re introduced to a palette of pinks, purples and vibrant cyan. There’s something remarkable about an artist who’s not afraid to play with colour. 

Filled to the brim with references to other DC arcs, bizarre clown imagery and a collection of impeccably constructed characters, Mariko Tamaki has done the improbable and totally rebranded Harley Quinn. She’s transformed a character who’s often viewed as nothing more than an over-sexualised sidekick into an entertaining activist, whilst also embellishing her story with numerous lessons about women’s equality, gay rights and racism. 

I never thought I’d read a Harley Quinn story that I felt was appropriate for younger readers, but this is the one. Full of diversity, Tamaki’s take on Harley Quinn spins every situation into a positive. So ethically written, I’d expect nothing less from such a legendary queer writer. Is my interest in Harley Quinn...restored?

#HarleyQuinn #DCComics

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