Mariko Tamaki and Steve Pugh’s graphic novel Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass follows a young Harley Quinn (or Harleen Quinzel) as she tries to take on the company that’s destroying her neighborhood and the new home that she’s found. I am not an avid reader of superhero comics, so my knowledge of the genre is limited, but Breaking Glass is nothing like what I was expecting. So what does it say about Harleen and heroes in general? Many spoilers for the book will follow.
Even though I know next to nothing about Batman, I know that Harley Quinn is supposed to be a villain. And even cast in a sympathetic role, she’s far from the image of the ideal superhero. She isn’t needlessly violent, but she’s vengeful, setting fires and breaking windows, fighting villains using the same techniques they’ve used to try to hurt her. She commits crimes without any sense of remorse, with excitement, even, which makes her a bit frightening, and yet she helps those around her, causing pain to the people who hurt her family, her friends, to try to improve their situations.
Harleen’s life is glamorous, but not in the same way as Batman’s. She comes to Gotham searching for her grandmother, but instead finds herself living with a group of drag queens that become her new family. Her position is quickly put into jeopardy, however, when a wealthy company attempts to take over her neighborhood in order to build a housing complex. The nature of the housing complex is clearest in two incidents: the first is the appearance of a white woman and her children who criticize one of the drag queens, Dali, for basically just talking while not being straight, and the second is a sign showing several white, identical children standing in front of a building. The issue becomes clear: the company wants to drive out anyone who doesn’t fit with the “ideal” image of middle-class whiteness.
Gender is also an issue. One of the comic’s subplots involves Harleen’s best friend, Ivy, who goes after their high school’s film club for being sexist and racist. The issue of gender appears again later, when the Joker gives Harley a revealing cheerleader outfit to serve as a sort of villain costume, which Harley rejects. The Joker sees her as a prop, which he demonstrates again when he betrays her. His plan circles partially around doubting her abilities, but also on the fact that people will feel better pinning the blame on her rather than a wealthy boy.
All these pieces come together to demonstrate intersectionality, that the struggles of all the characters tie together and come from the same source, and all these characters behave in heroic manners to help themselves and each other. Ivy protests for what she thinks is right, drawing attention to the issues affecting her through peaceful methods. The drag queens are resilient, battling forces trying to drive them away and continuing to live their lives in defiance of their enemies. Harleen is far from perfect, not a clear hero like her allies. She’s a wildcard with a tendency toward violence that she can get away with where the others can’t, and whether her approach helps awaits to be seen.
What kind of hero does this make Harleen, or any of them? Do other heroes protest? Their methods are big and flashy, obviously successful where the drag queens and Ivy’s success is uncertain, difficult, and a drawn-out battle rather than a fast one with many explosions. Harleen’s approach seems closer. She goes out and fights the enemy but doing so isn’t necessary helpful. Based on this comic, what will the next batch of superheroes look like? Are figures like Batman really that relevant anymore? (I can’t say, I’ve never read anything with Batman in it). Harleen blurs the line between villain and hero, because she really could be either, but this blur appears to represent a new look at the world of superheroes, a new categorization that moves away from treasuring white, straight male heroes to something more.