Harley Quinn: Preludes and Knock-Knock Jokes
Collects: Harley Quinn #1-7 (2000-1)
Released: January 2008 (DC)
Format: 192 pages (hardcover) / color / $24.99 / ISBN: 9781401216283
What is this?: Harley Quinn, the Joker’s devoted sidekick, gets her own series.
The culprits: Writer Karl Kesel, penciler Terry Dodson, and inker Rachel Dodson
Harley Quinn is an odd choice for a series lead. When DC launched her eponymous comic in 2000, she was a female sidekick who had slightly faded in prominence after the cancellation of Batman: The Animated Series, where she was created. But Karl Kesel was named the writer, and the Dodsons — Terry on pencils and Rachel on inks — were dispatched to create, create, create.
The series lasted 38 issues, but it took five years after its cancelation for the first collection, Harley Quinn: Preludes and Knock-Knock Jokes, to be released. I wondered if that delay was because of lack of confidence in the character or in the work itself.
The tone of Preludes is confusing. On one hand, you get the corny Silver-Age alliteration and exclamations that marks it as a silly throwback. On another, there’s Dodson’s eye candy, posing women in uncomfortable positions to accentuate the more salacious aspects of their bodies. And then, if you cover your eyes with both hands and look through the fingers, you occasionally get glimpses of panels that are reminiscent of the B:TAS style, reminding readers why they liked Harley in the first place. It makes it difficult to determine what Preludes is about.
Nominally, it’s about Harley gaining independence from the Joker. The first arc has her falling out with her “puddin’,” then she has her all-female slumber party, and finally she embarks on a solo criminal career with henchmen called “Quinntets.” The first few issues are rough. Kesel’s dialogue is atrocious, hearkening back unironically to the worst of the Silver Age, and the plot itself doesn’t make Harley all that likeable, enduring abuse from men who don’t have any regard for her: she’s more of a doormat than a character. Harley comes across less “mad” or “manic” than “deluded.” Kesel’s characterizations feel slightly off as well, although I have trouble putting my finger on why. All of this taken together caused me to consider putting this book aside a half dozen times within those first three issues.
The slumber party issue is painful to read. I’ve been harder on DC than Marvel for their T&A art — probably because I’ve read more of DC’s female books — but this is the reason I do so. I have no idea who thought it was a good idea; it’s as if someone in DC editorial (I don’t know who) thought an issue of Terry Dodson drawing females in various stages of undress (but almost uniform skin-tightness of their remaining clothes) was a necessity. And Dodson does not stint, not bowing to quaint concerns like “balance” or “weight distribution” to get his characters into poses that will appeal to a certain demographic. Not that the problems end there. There’s little humor and no fun in the issue; the characters grate, especially Harley’s mooning over the Joker and her subsequent declaration of independence. I also can’t fathom why President Luthor’s staffers Hope and Mercy would attend, given that, you know, it would look bad for their employer if they were seen with notorious criminals, and the invitation was something less than secure. The entire issue is a dud.
But after that issue, the book turns a corner. Harely working with her gang is more fun, Kesel’s horrible dialogue gets turned down a notch, and Preludes begins to have a purpose again. Issue #5 is a strangely affecting story of a thug who thinks he has a resemblance to the Joker and is shot in his futile attempt at living the life of a near double to the Joker. The final two issues, with Harley and the Riddler both trying to rob Wayne Manor with their gangs, is actually interesting, although I’m not sure about Big Barda’s characterization. The running gag about the gang continually losing their fifth member is also funny. It’s not an elite comic, by any means, but it is entertaining.
The more I see of the Dodsons’ work, the less I like it. The faces look more and more alike, the women’s figures are uniformly shapely, and I’m tired of hands that look like flippers. I understand why their work is popular, and the Dodsons can tell a story, but I’ve had enough of pencils and inks that seem to be primarily interested in women’s physiques rather than the story.
The penultimate issue also seemed to have a strange miscommunication, emblematic of Preludes’ inconsistent tone: Craig Rousseau does some fill-in work in a more cartoony style and draws an incapacitated character with smudges on the face and planets and punctuation circling her head — injured, but not seriously. On the next page, Dodson draws her with blood coming out her eyes, nose, and mouth and with broken glasses, a considerably more serious (probably fatal) injury.
Preludes is a frustrating book; its inconsistencies are too large to overlook. I want to reward the promise of the final arc, but I can’t ignore the tone-deaf writing in the first half. The Dodsons draw very pretty pictures, but I won’t look the other way when it comes to the cynicism of someone at DC in regards to audience taste. Good, bad, who knows? The faults are large enough that my inclination was to rate it very low, but I have to admit: Preludes and Knock-Knock Jokes is a perfect title for the first Harley Quinn collection, and that moves it closer to mediocrity.