Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass kicks off a line of stand-alone stories from DC Ink, a new imprint of DC Comics aimed at young adult readers. While the story and characters take their inspiration from existing DC content, Breaking Glass does not fit into established the comics canon or current comics universe from DC’s main titles. The graphic novel reimagines anti-hero Harley Quinn (Harleen Quinzel) as a high schooler with a troubled life and a unique way of viewing the world. Harleen is new to Gotham, sent by her mother to live with a relative while her mother works to support them both. She faces challenges from day one with her living situation and new school; things eventually escalate until Harleen finds herself pitted against forces like gentrification, patriarchy, and inequality, and must work out the best course of action, legal or otherwise.
As a Batman fan and as someone who enjoys Mariko Tamaki’s work (such as This One Summer and Skim), I was excited to read this comic. At its core, Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass is an alternate origin story for the character that pays tribute to her other iterations through both the content and the artwork. Much like in her main DC canon story, Harley finds herself caught between reimagined versions of Poison Ivy and the Joker. Ivy is cast as a vocal, smart, and strong activist against all forms of inequality and corruption, and as Harleen’s best and only friend at school. Harleen doesn’t know the Joker’s identity behind his mask, but feels pulled toward his direct, immediate, and often violent methods of addressing perceived unfairness.
There’s a lot in this title to appeal to a wide range of readers, whether they have previous knowledge of the character or not. I enjoyed the reimagining of most of the existing Batman canon characters, especially Ivy, who I think very much benefits from the changes. I had mixed feelings about Harley’s characterization. I do appreciate comics in which Harley leans more toward quirky than the vaguely-defined and problematic “insane,” and this comic achieves that. However, in the original canon, Harleen is an accomplished and intelligent psychiatrist, while the Breaking Glass version struggles with school work and demonstrates a lot of ignorance about the world around her. This may have been a deliberate decision to make her more relatable to readers, but I have seen a lot of DC de-aging and infantilizing their female characters (and a lot of stories that infantilize Harley or ignore her intelligence), and could do without this aspect. The story is told with first-person narration from Harleen’s perspective, and while there were a few moments that made me cringe or seemed to be trying too hard, overall the voice Tamaki develops for the character works well.
The artwork by Steve Pugh is excellent, and the shading work gives the characters real dimension. The use of color was strategic and pleasing, with lots of black/white/grey palettes and minimalism against which colored details could really stand out. There were plenty of visual references to things like Harley’s well-known harlequin-style costume. I was also very relieved that Harley and Ivy, two characters very frequently sexualized and objectified, were presented much more respectfully, like actual human beings—especially important considering their young age in this book.
It was also a relief to see a mixed-race Ivy and Harleen’s adoptive family of drag queens. DC has not always excelled in the area of representation, so a bit of diversity was a nice addition. The comic does well addressing important modern issues like gentrification and privilege, and the only young, white, male billionaire in the book is not at all admirable—quite a difference from the usual Batman dynamic. Difficult questions about the world are raised, and the book doesn’t necessarily answer them, which I see as a positive in content aimed at teens.
On the whole, Breaking Glass is both appropriate for and likely to be enjoyed by the age group it reaches out to. Readers don’t need to be previous fans of Batman or Harley Quinn, and high school-aged or young adult readers will probably find Harley and/or Ivy relatable and interesting. This is an alternate origin story with modern sensibilities, bringing the characters into the world today’s teenagers think about and encounter on a regular basis. Harleen grappling with morality and the right way to fight injustice is compelling and a good topic for people of any age, but may resonate especially with those who are just beginning to consider the inequity and unfairness in the world.
Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass
By Mariko Tamaki
Art by Steve Pugh
DC Ink, 2019
Publisher Age Rating: Young adult
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Character Traits: Multiracial
Creator Highlights: BIPOC Creator, LGBTQIA+ Creator