Monday 11 May 2015

The Comics Ramble: Harley, is that you?

Left to right: likely Bronze Tiger; Captain Boomerang who isn't called Captain Boomerang;
apparently Enchantress; definitely Katana; almost certainly Rick Flagg; claims to be
Harley Quinn; heavily marketed as Deadshot; take your pick of Blockbuster, King Shark
or Killer Croc, cos I dunno; and what I am assured is El Diablo and not a zombie. 
Oh, I could rant about this image for hours. It'd be an easy post, a post you've likely already seen elsewhere because I am slow as hell with these things and we all know how it goes. I could point out how this image started a forty-comment long Facebook conversation between myself, three other comicbook geeks and an ICT teacher whose Google Fu is worryingly good yet there were still two character we couldn't identify. I could draw all the standard comparisons between the DC-Warner and Marvel-Disney approaches. I could make all manner of hyperbolic, nay histrionic, statements about how DC's obsession with looking like adults does nothing of the sort.

But I'm not gonna. I'm tired of being angry, about this and so many other things, so I'm going to try and unpick something interesting (if still highly critical) out of this image. You might remember when the photo of the Leto Joker hit I said that when they released a publicity shot of a halfway decent Harley Quinn then I would permit myself to hope.


Now, I don't want to use the phrase “slutty schoolgirl fantasy” out of politeness... but I suspect the phrase probably came up in a design meeting or two at Warner, is all I'm saying.

Harley's been a lot of things over the years: a gangster's moll; an abuse survivor carving out a life for herself; an arch-manipulator capable of using everything from her education to her own mental condition to twist others around her finger; an anarchic free spirit running an apartment building for some very odd tenants... that's a lot of different interpretations. I've seen her “be” a lot of different characters in a lot of different media, so what is it about this version that screams “Not Harley!” to me?

Hell, I don't even mind the whole “Property of the Joker” line on the back of her jacket. I mean, it does combine with the Joker's “damaged” tattoo to make me wonder exactly how many show don't tell violations this film will have (does Will Smith have “sniper” written somewhere on his rifle, I wonder?) but when introducing Harley to a whole new audience its probably important to start with her in classic The Joker's Girlfriend mode and work up to the later interpretations we comic fans all know and love.

(I'm giving you credit here, Warner Bros., so please make her more than a beaten woman and prove me right, okay? That shit's okay as a starting point in the story, not as a whole character. Please don't make me cringe through continuous scenes of abuse with no pay-off. Please don't make me explain those scenes to the many co-workers who come to me after every comicbook movie with trivia questions. Don't do that to me. Thank you.)

No, my essential problem with this costume is it looking nothing like a harlequin. It actually seems to have escaped everyone's notice when designing this thing that Harley's name is a pun. Even this monstrosity...
makes reference to that fact in its use of colour. Even though its the least Harlequin-esque of her costumes it conveys a few important visual cues about her personality: the red and black are a bold contrast, noticeable, its a performative costume that she wants to be noticed; its more blatantly sexualised than her more usual look but that still draws attention to her physicality and Harley is a very physical character; the white skin (bleached in this version, usually make-up in others) references her link to the Joker and serves to make her stand out even further.

Movie Harley has a bit of slap on her face, almost invisible given the lighting of the picture, and we return to one of my initial problems with the image as a whole: who are these guys? There's not much visual information conveyed about these characters: some are clearly soldiers, some are in civvies; there's a mummy hiding in the rear to be as indistinct as possible; a relatively on-model version of a very minor hero; there's Will Smith being all marketable; and our subject for today: what appears to be a bad modernisation of Sandy from the final act of Grease.

Yet I can see what they're going for here once I scrape away my confusion about who's who and look at this as marketing. Let's just take the bull by the horns and compare this cast to the Avengers: there are more women on this team and its more ethnically diverse even than the post-Age Of Ultron Avengers. That message just gets drowned out because so few of the characters have good visual identifiers and its the geek media who are meant to share this around and go “Look! Look which characters they're doing!”.

And yet here I am confident the woman in the middle is Harley Quinn only because she's the blonde. There should be more to work with than that. 

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