Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass: A beautifully illustrated spin on a famous anti-hero

Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass by Mariko Tamaki & Steve Pugh Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass by Mariko Tamaki & Steve Pugh

Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass by Mariko Tamaki & Steve Pugh There are currently four of these similarly-themed graphic novels in publication, which seemingly exist in a bid to attract a new generation of readers to DC comics. Each one takes a famous DC heroine (or anti-heroine) and explores what life might have been like when they were still just teenagers. So far we’ve had Princess Mera, Selina Kyle/Catwoman, Harleen Quinzel/Harley Quinn and Raven (who granted, has always been depicted as a teenager).

None of the books have any narrative links to later depictions of these characters; they’re all standalone stories which don’t seem to be compliant with any other continuities — and that’s especially true here in Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass. Fifteen-year-old Harleen Quinzel is sent by her mother to live in Gotham City with her grandmother, but the by the time Harleen gets there, said grandmother has already passed away.

Luckily she’s taken in by a drag queen called Mama, who lives above his cabaret club. Attending Gotham High, Harleen soon makes friends with Ivy Du-Barry, a student who fights for any number of causes — from trying to diversify the film club to saving the community from gentrification.

For the first time in a long time, Harleen feels happy — which is of course the universe’s cue to start messing with things. As Ivy and her family campaign to save the neighbourhood (including Mama’s club), Harleen is drawn into the circle of a strange man calling himself the Joker, who wants to fight the corporations through violent means.

Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass by Mariko Tamaki & Steve Pugh Harleen already has a criminal record, but she can’t say she’s not tempted to take this man up on his offer. Kane Corporations has their hold on this neighbourhood, just as surely as its son John Kane dictates what gets watched in the film club, and Harleen is sick of it.

What follows is a politically-charged storyline that covers everything from what the film club watches (John’s father pays for the licensing fees, so he gets to decide what gets shown), to the way Ivy (who here is portrayed as black girl) is spoken to by authority figures. No doubt there will be some who complain it’s too heavy-handed, but I thought it was an interesting and timely depiction of a community facing a wave of gentrification and the gross unfairness that comes of a few wealthy elite.

It also fits in well with Harley’s character as her naturally anarchic spirit struggles to find the right way to deal with the obstacles in front of her. There are some complaints that this story doesn’t bear much resemblance to the characters or situations on which they’re based (Joker and Ivy in particular) but that’s the entire POINT of these books. They take the personalities and aesthetics of the original stories and makes something new from them, while still containing some familiar beats.

Steve Pugh’s artwork is incredible, and perhaps the biggest selling point of Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass. Everyone is realistically depicted, and Harley in particular is so cute and vulnerable that your heart goes out to her. There are some clever touches throughout — for instance, the Kane family all have creepy Joker-like smiles, and the colouring is fascinating: daily events are in mint-green or cool blues, Harley’s flashbacks are fiery orange, and whenever the Joker turns up, the sky turns bright red.

It’s not perfect: though Mariko Tamaki does a good job at capturing Harley’s unique speech patterns, her overuse of the word “boogers” to describe jerks gets annoying, and for some reason Bruce Wayne spends this book wandering around campus in a cap and hoodie. He eventually gives a donation to the community that might save it, which isn’t a satisfying solution to the problem. Apparently the only way to fight rich people is to have another, even richer person on your side.

But I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this, especially since I’ve never been a massive fan of Harley Quinn. Yet Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass took the best parts of her personality, de-aged her into a teenager, and put her in a story that had real stakes, beautiful illustrations, and something interesting to say.

I wasn’t expecting this to be my favourite of the four currently published books in the series, but it was.

Published in 2019. Outspoken, rebellious, and eccentric fifteen-year-old Harleen Quinzel has five dollars to her name when she’s sent to live in Gotham City. Harleen has battled a lot of hard situations as a kid, but her fortune turns when Gotham’s finest drag queen, Mama, takes her in. And at first it seems like Harleen has finally found a place to grow into her most “true true,” with new best friend Ivy at Gotham High. But then Harley’s fortune takes another turn when Mama’s drag cabaret becomes the next victim in the wave of gentrification that’s taking over the neighborhood. Now Harleen is mad. In turning her anger into action, she is faced with two choices: join Ivy, who’s campaigning to make the neighborhood a better place to live, or join The Joker, who plans to take down Gotham one corporation at a time. From Eisner Award and Caldecott Honor-winning author Mariko Tamaki (This One Summer) and Eisner Award-nominated artist Steve Pugh (The Flintstones) comes a coming-of-age story about choices, consequences, and how a weird kid from Gotham goes about defining her world for herself.

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REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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