Review: Harley Quinn Vol. 4: The Final Trial trade paperback (DC Comics)

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Sam Humphries' then-nascent Harley Quinn run hit a snag a couple volumes back, but it improved with the third volume and with Harley Quinn Vol. 4: The Final Trial, clearly this series has found its new groove. Typically, that comes with only one volume left for Humphries, but should the next creative team have the same mandate for tying Harley closer to the DC Universe, this fourth volume is the model for how to do it.

With no small amount of fourth-wall-breaking and comics within comics, The Final Trial manages to be funny and satirical, both irreverent and relevant when it comes to the ongoing "Year of the Villain" event, and also moving and emotional in the way that shows just how far Harley has come from her one-note origins. Were this even Humphries' finale, I'd happily say he stuck the landing, and one can only hope that the actual ending will live up to what came before.

[Review contains spoilers]

At its most basic, The Final Trial involves Harley at her mother's deathbed, passing the time by reading Harley Quinn comic books by Harley's friend Meredith Clatterbuck. That both Harley's comic (that we're reading) and Harley's comic (that Harley's reading) both take place in the DC Universe (with some correspondence with one another) is all part of the charming magic trick that's underscored Humphries' run, tying Harley closer to the DC Universe while maintaining its independence by having its cake and eating it too. Since the New 52, Harley's series has always been implicitly outside continuity; now it's self-referentially inside and outside continuity at the same time.

And no part is wasted, neither the Harley faux-comic book's legitimate ties to "Year of the Villain," nor that it's also able to take the piss out of "Year of the Villain" (and comics events in general) at the same time, nor the "real" Harley dealing with her mother's illness and death and her family's subsequent grief. All the while, the "real" Harley reacts to the "comics" Harley being offered increasing riches by "Year of the Villain"'s Apex Lex, including — in a scene worthy of Adaptation or an Italo Calvino novel — when the "comics" Lex seems to reach out of the page to offer to cure the "real" Harley's mother's cancer. That comes to naught, but for anyone who's dealt with tragedy while wishing real life could be as magical as fiction, the moment is a smart inhabiting of the reading life.

Even subsequent to that, Humphries has a particularly strong issue in Harley returning home for Thanksgiving with her father and three brothers, only to find that no one shares her holiday mood. Other writers would have gone for a happy ending, but Humphries, I think, shows more the reality of grief — that the family doesn't get together, that mourning can tear families apart (I can only assume Humphries will patch things up between Harley and her surviving family members before this run ends). Wonderfully and absurdly, that's set against the "comics" Harley and Booster Gold questing to "kill all Crises," which drops them between the pages of Final Crisis, Infinite Crisis, and finally Crisis on Infinite Earths, with art by Dan Jurgens and Aaron Lopresti, among others. It's an embarassment of riches, apropos of nothing for this series' 67th issue, and it's this kind of thing at random that's distinguished Humphries' run.

Mark Russell contributes two stories at the end, one a McDonald's send-up that, in my opinion, felt a little sillier and therefore funnier than his previous "Pettergate" story (though that one was also nicely sharp). Second and most important is the Harley Quinn's Villain of the Year special, also this kind of brilliant not-quite-in/not-quite-out of continuity in which Harley hosts a villains' award ceremony (complete with costume changes) while she and Apex Lex hunt a threat to the villains. This is an astounding piece, not only because of DC's willingness to laugh at their own crossover event within the confines of their own crossover event, but also because the award-winners were voted on by fans based on actual categories. That is, references to Bane, Rogol Zaar, the Batman Who Laughs, Oracle, and others are really fresh; this is almost a kind of sampler book or "year in review," of the type I wouldn't mind DC doing annually even without an event to inspire it. The complete alternate scenes at the end of the book are a real treat.

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There are few books out there like Harley Quinn Vol. 4: The Final Trial, smart and experimental storytelling that can have you laughing one page, crying the next. It's notable for instance that after a long sequence where the "real" Harley sits in a hospital room and the "comics" Harley follows Apex Lex across the animated DCU, the book then turns for two issues to the "real" Harley battling the Lords of Order and Chaos in some sort of nether dimension — that there's normal in the normal half and weird in the fantastical half, but then there's also outrageous weirdness in the normal half, too, such that one never knows what's coming next. Yes, I'll say it, Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti's Harley was one type of comic and Sam Humphries' Harley is another, but as good as the former was, I'll be darned if this latter run doesn't perfect some territory that the earlier never got to. Eager and a little bummed for Humphries' final volume.

[Includes original and variant covers, alternate scenes]

Summary
Reviewer
Collected Editions
Review Date
Reviewed Item
Harley Quinn Vol. 4: The Final Trial
Author Rating
4.5 (scale of 1 to 5)
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