So we’ve got a bunch of funnybooks to discuss, but it seems I’ve gotten distracted by Harley Quinn. First, though, here’s a little discussion of Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane…
Action Comics 1007
by Brian Michael Bendis and Steve Epting
The better of the two Superman books continues to be better, as Brian Bendis pulls the trigger on the Leviathan storyline he’s been developing in the background of this book since he took it over seven months ago. Now, this will evidently be resolved in some big crossover series, which is almost always a terrible way to tell a story, so I don’t know why I’m excited for it. But here I am, kind of excited.
Part of that excitement, I think, is caused by Bendis’ take on Jimmy Olsen. Which is funny, because I wasn’t incredibly happy with it at first. But with this issue, I think I finally see what he’s doing with him. He’s got that competent-but-kinda-clueless Millennial Male thing going on. He kind of stumbles into incredible adventures, getting in and out of trouble with maddening skill and a good bit of luck, but he seems just a bit bewildered by it all. We recently discovered that he’s been doing the equivalent of “Netflix and Chill” with Talia al Ghul, for instance, and this issue…
…we find him developing a serious thing with a member of the Kobra Cult. Which then gets wiped out in a mysterious energy attack that leaves their secret meeting place a smoking crater. This is the basis of a great running gag, where Jimmy turns to Clark Kent for advice on these things, but Clark doesn’t pay attention because he’s too busy using his super-senses to investigate the Red Cloud. He should probably start paying closer attention to his pal, though: we later see the same energy attack used to take out the Metropolis office of the DEO. So things are clearly getting serious, and Jimmy’s holding valuable clues.
He’s not a complete idiot, though, because he knows he’s onto something, and doesn’t know who he can trust with it. He doesn’t give Perry White his photos of the Kobra event, for instance, because while he does trust Perry, he doesn’t know if he can trust the mysterious new owner of the Daily Planet. Which is wise, as it turns out, because we know something he doesn’t: the Planet’s been bought by the woman behind the Metropolis Secret Mafia. And I’m pretty sure she’s ultimately working for Leviathan.
Y’know… Now that I’ve laid it all out like that, I’m actually kind of pissed that all this stuff’s going to get shunted off into a freaking cross-over. Because that, as I said above, never works. There’s just too many cooks involved in those things. The politics of Corporate Spandex writing demand that all the various people whose books may be affected get their say, and by the time they’re done, the original story’s been warped out of shape, scuttling the trajectory of the book the story came from in the first place.
I mean… Unless you’re Grant Morrison. He pretty much ignores all that extraneous bullshit, and writes what he wants. But that ain’t how Bendis works. He’s a firm believer in the “writers’ room,” and his cross-over stories inevitably suffer for it.
So we have that to look forward to.
This issue also delivers a major shock: Lois Lane tells her father that she’s married to Superman. Which means that, yes, General Lane… a powerful man who kind of hates Superman, and has at various times in the past been tasked with controlling if not outright destroying him… now knows Our Hero’s secret identity. This is pretty huge. Lois explains her reasons for doing it (she doesn’t want their relationship to devolve into what Clark has with Jor-El), but… Uhm… I don’t get the sense that she’s talked this over with her husband, like, at all. And her dad…. Doesn’t respond well.
I really like that scene. Bendis is writing one of the most interesting Lois Lanes I’ve ever read. She’s impressive, but far from perfect. She has all the spunk and willingness to take risks (sometimes foolhardy risks) that defined the Golden and Silver Age versions of the character, backed up with more smarts and a less frivolous mindset. She’s still got that right-brained writerly hot mess thing going on sometimes, though, and (as we’ve seen over in Superman) she’s not always comfortable with the depth of her husband’s heroic legacy. She struggles, and that’s okay. That’s good. Not every risk is going to pay off, after all.
We’ll have to see where this particular risk takes her. This wasn’t the reaction she was hoping for, clearly, but she’s counting on her father’s love for her, and for her son, to keep him from doing anything rash. Whether that’s a good bet or not remains to be seen.
So there’s still a lot to like in Action Comics. Even more this issue, which features the art of Steve Epting. And though I get the feeling that this is his “I don’t own this, so I’m only putting a certain amount of effort into it” style, it’s still some damn pretty funnybooks. We’ll see how much of story gets sacrificed in the name of the almighty cross-over, but for now… This is really good Superman. And I’m glad to be reading it.
Heroes in Crisis 5
by Tom King and Clay Mann
We’re back to focusing on the mystery plot this issue, so I didn’t enjoy it much. And I didn’t enjoy it for many of the same reasons I didn’t enjoy it in earlier issues. So I’m not going to repeat myself.
There is an interesting development in that mystery, though: Wally West’s corpse is five days older than it should be. Which may point the finger of guilt his way in the Sanctuary massacre. Or it may not. But there is this interesting page of a red-gloved hand picking a rose out of the water:
We don’t see who that is, but it’s probably significant that Wally wears red, and the very next panel is where Booster explains the time discrepancy. So… Considering the very effective work King did with Wally West in the Lee Weeks issue… And considering how very much Wally seems to be a man who has nothing left to live for… And considering that time travel, for him, is just one run on the Cosmic Treadmill away… I do have to wonder what he got up to in those five extra days, and whether this whole thing wasn’t some kind of complicated suicide attempt.
In contrast, I found the Sanctuary Tapes pages in this issue less compelling than some of the previous ones. There’s one with a character called Solstice, who I’m not familiar with, and another with The Protector, who we learn had a raging drug habit while he was out there doing all that “Just Say No” stuff back in the 80s. So that was both funny and sad. There’s also one where Commander Steel deals with his multiple deaths and resurrections, and it almost works, except that King’s given him a weird speech pattern that I think is supposed to be “old-fashioned,” but which instead weaves drunkenly between “Old Soldier,” and “19th Century Irishman.”
The issue opens with a Booster Gold therapy session, in which we learn that his trip to Sanctuary was the result of the mess he made in that recent story where he screwed around with Batman’s timeline. Which is either nice set-up or follow-through, depending on which idea he had first. I suspect the Batman story was set-up for this one, to be honest, but I kind of hope not. Because that makes the whole thing feel a little too calculated. Like King only wrote that story to give Booster an excuse to be in Sanctuary in this story. And that lessens both stories for me, somehow.
If the rest of the therapy scenes left me cold this time out, though, the closing one did not:
Woof. I’ll give King this: he is not afraid to tackle the more problematic aspects of his characters. And Harley Quinn: Abuse Victim is a very sticky problem, indeed. It was probably best dealt-with, for my money, in Paul Dini and Bruce Timm’s Mad Love, in which the Joker throws Harley out a window in a murderous rage, nearly killing her. She wakes up in the hospital, and then…
Now, that’s a pitch-black comedy take on the relationship. It’s ugly, but it works really well… as long as Harley’s just a Batman villain. Because Batman villains are often magnificently broken figures, and being in love with the freaking Joker definitely gives Harley the tragic flaw she needs to fit into that camp. Hell, it elevates her into the upper echelons of great Bat-Villains.
It also elevates the relationship between her and the Joker to operatic heights. It’s a tragic, self-destructive love story in the noir tradition. Harley knows better, but can’t help herself. And the Joker… Well, hell. The Joker is the Joker. An evil murderous clown and consummate con artist who doesn’t love anybody… except maybe Harley. He’s never killed her, anyway, and that’s more than most people who’ve met him can say. And that tension between them, that question of whether he really loves her or not, ultimately makes both of them more interesting characters.
But the dynamics of that relationship change once you start presenting Harley as a hero.
Or… whatever she is.
Who Maybe Doesn’t Kill People?
As Much As She Used To?
Let’s just call her a protagonist.
And as a protagonist, she needs to move past the abusive relationship, because she needs to be defined on her own terms. Now, if you keep things light, the way they’ve generally done in Harley’s own comic, you can do that without dealing with the uglier aspects of abuse. In that book, she’s broken up with the Joker and moved on, rather definitively…
…but her comic’s still mostly about the jokes.
Jokes let you get away with a lot.
But King’s not making jokes here. He’s treating Harley as a victim of abuse. And there’s nothing funny about that at all. So where does that leave us? With a Harley Quinn who’s trying to heal, which is probably a good thing. Lots of little girls love Harley, after all…
…and it’s good that their hero isn’t getting beaten up by her boyfriend anymore. Overcoming that kind of adversity makes her stronger, and a far better role model. Plus, you know, if Harley were a real person, that’s the outcome you’d want for her: get help, heal up, and kick that green-haired bastard to the curb.
But Harley’s not a real person. And I don’t think I’d want little girls reading Heroes in Crisis.
So where does this leave the adult readership? It leaves us with a far more serious take on a character who’s seeking help and getting stronger. She’s escaping the abuse and moving past the abuser.
But the problem is, she can’t move past the Joker and also remain Harley Quinn. Because Harley Quinn is who she became when she remade herself in his image. To actually escape him, she’d have to go back to being Harleen Quinzel, criminal psychologist. Or she’d have to become someone else, someone whose identity is not entirely based around being someone the Joker might want for a girlfriend.
The more comedic take on Harley can ignore all that. She kicks the Joker’s ass, and it’s done. But what King’s doing here goes deeper, and demands a deeper exploration. If she remains Harley Quinn under this take, it means something. But that’s not a bad thing. Because then, she’s ended the relationship, but she can’t let go of the identity. Maybe she’s still tempted by the Joker, even though she now understands that’s the worst thing in the world for her. She seems to have bleached her entire body white to be more like Mistah J, too, so there’s always going to be a physical reminder of her abuser. So that’s some good tragic hero stuff to play with, if you’re going to do a serious dramatic take on the character. I could see some interesting Harley Quinn stories coming out of that.
I do have one problem with it, though: It diminishes the Joker. Sure, he’s a psychotic madman with countless murders to his name. And murder is certainly a worse crime than assault. But it’s also more grandiose. As a murderous clown, the Joker is a magnificent villain. But if he’s a guy who beats up his girlfriend… That’s just contemptible. And writing him that way does him a disservice.
Which, now that I’ve written it out, sounds a little like a “blame the victim” argument. But HOLY CRAP that’s not what I’m saying at all. I’m not blaming Harley for getting hit. I’m blaming the writers for putting these characters into the situation to begin with.
And that’s the problem with Harley: abuse is baked into the concept, and if you explore her very deeply at all, you’re going to have to deal with it. So on the one hand, I applaud King for not ignoring this very serious issue. But on the other hand, I kind of regret what that exploration does to a pair of characters who might have been better off if they’d been allowed to remain a little less real.
I can’t give a bad grade to a book that made me think that hard about characters I like that much. But I also don’t want to give it a good grade, because I didn’t enjoy the reading all that much. So I’m just not gonna give it a grade at all.
Of course, I also can’t really follow that.
So I’m calling it a day.