I have read a few of the YA graphic novels that DC Comics has published the past couple of years (you can check out my two reviews here and here), but this one really took me by surprise by how much I liked it. I don't mean that I underestimated the talent who collaborated on this book, as writer Mariko Tamaki is one of the best writers working in comics today, and I have enjoyed artist Steve Pugh's work for decades now.
Dear readers, I suffer from what I call "Batman fatigue." I used to love the character, and there was a time when I felt it was the greatest superhero creation ever. But after decades of reading some great stories, I have gotten to the point where there is just too much Batman out there for me. Sure, I admire writer Tom King's meta-commentary comics when I have read them, and works like The Dark Knight Returns, The Dark Knight, Batman: Year One, Batman: The Animated Series, and the 1966 Batman TV show are some of my favorite things ever. But I am over the umpteenth "final battle" between Batman and the Joker, and I am sick to death of the latest "most ultimate, extreme version ever" that has driven the comic books over the past two decades. Plus, I have some issues with Harley Quinn, who has come a long way, but whose origins truck in some pretty toxic masculinity and decades of abuse in her relationship with the Joker.
What impressed me most about this book was how well it imagined this whole universe that I found not only fresh and riveting, but that also left me gasping for more when the book ended. That is no mean feat.
Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass re-imagines Harley Quinn (or Harleen Quinzel, as she starts out) as a troubled youth who was sent to live with her grandmother in Gotham City, only to end up living with a large Asian drag queen named Mama and her coterie of drag performers. 16-year-old Harley goes to school, gets into trouble, but also befriends a girl named Ivy, here conceived as a mixed race, activist teenager with a Black father and Asian mother. Ivy is an environmentalist who finds solace in the community garden, but the entire neighborhood is threatened by aggressive gentrification perpetrated by the Kane Corporation (who are a sort of evil version of Starbucks). She and Harley also also have a major beef with Gotham High's Film Club, which is run by their classmate, elitist jerk John Kane.
Ivy presents one option of using social activism to combat this injustice, but Harley also meets a masked stranger who calls himself the Joker who offers an alternative course of action, to use terror and bomb and burn the city. None of these changes comes off as ham-handed, but they are rather nuanced, logical, and thematically apt. Also, this books turns the convention version of these characters on their heads, confronting issues of toxic masculinity, classism, racism, incarceration, and misogyny head-on.
The story and themes are augmented by the artwork, which is incredibly detailed, so that the entire city and its motley cast of characters comes alive. There are a few key players who are important throughout the book, but the backgrounds, crowd scenes, layouts, and setting also loom large and add so much personality and ambience. This book is fantastic, an incredibly smart, moving, and suspenseful reworking of overdone characters. If this is the future of mainstream comics, sign me up please.
Like I wrote above, both of the main creators involved with this book are accomplished comics veterans. Tamaki has won a ton of awards, including multiple Eisners, being a finalist for the Printz Award (twice!), and a Caldecott Honor. She is known for the graphic novels This One Summer, Skim, and Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me. Pugh's most notable works in the US have been multiple runs on Animal Man, drawing the Saint of Killers mini-series, and a recent run on the utterly great The Flintstones mini-series (For real. Go read my review.). Both creators speak about their collaboration on Breaking Glass in this interview.
All of the reviews I have read about this book have been very positive. Ray Goldfield wrote that he felt "it’s the most essential read for anyone who hasn’t seen themselves represented in DC Comics yet." Kirkus Reviews summed it up as "a riotous read." Publisher Weekly observed, "Harley is a relatively breezy character whose questionable ethics often mirror those closest to her, and pairing her with a found family of drag queens and community organizers directs her chaotic whimsy toward a social justice bent."