Review: Harley Quinn Vol. 2: Keepsake hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

With Harley Quinn Vol. 2: Keepsake, I reiterate my earlier opinion: this is surely the Harley Quinn that DC Comics has wanted, even if it’s lacking among the Harley Quinn comics echelon. Knowing as I do both that Stephanie Phillips run on Harley is coming to a close and that the very Bat-environment that provided the opportunity for the continuity-tied Harley came to a premature end, I’ll be fascinated to see what happens next (a couple volumes hence). Is super-connected Harley an experiment that’s run its course, or will DC double-down and keep going?

In terms of Keepsake itself, despite that really most of this book is lost to the “Fear State” event, I thought Phillips did better than the first time in her characterization of Harley and Harley’s supporting cast du jour. But clearly Keepsake is a bit player in someone else’s story, even self-referentially, and at times there’s not even enough plot to keep this from devolving into a basic action comic (even if nicely rendered by Riley Rossmo). The curse of Harley Quinn comics, perhaps, is that we’ve seen them done so well, but over such a short period of time comparatively, that less astute takes are immediately obvious, and that continues to be the case here.

[Review contains spoilers]

Following the classic Amanda Conner/Jimmy Palmiotti Harley Quinn run, each successive iteration has touted closer ties to the DC Universe, even if those haven’t always manifested. And it makes sense, of course, just the same as it does for DC to put Batman in everything — if characters like Batman and Harley Quinn sell comics, all the more logical to involve them in events where they can be a gateway to the rest of the DCU. Phillips' Harley Quinn Vol. 1: No Good Deed, spinning directly out of Batman Vol. 2: The Joker War, finally had the Harley title positioned where DC seems to want it, and Keepsake is the culmination, with a three-part direct tie-in to the “Fear State” event.

[See the latest DC trade solicitations.]

I say “direct” because indeed, while Harley’s “Fear State” story is three parts, there’s an issue of Catwoman taking place between the first and second parts, and the third leads out to a Batman issue (hopefully the issues themselves did a better job directing the reader than the trade does). This is more inclusion than the Harley title’s had in recent memory, even as Harley’s role is devoutly interstitial — the first part is what we used to call a prelude, tying in to “Fear State” only in the final pages, while the other two parts focus on Harley’s sidekick Kevin as much or more than Harley herself.

As fourth-wall-breaking as the Harley title is already, even the narrative seems to recognize it’s also-ran status in the crossover. “Maybe you should have been here an hour ago like the other villains trying to destroy Gotham,” Harley quips where her nemesis Keepsake arrives on the scene. “We already did the whole big fight sequence and it was awesome.” It’s not much of an endorsement of Harley’s place in things, though I appreciate the honesty. (How insignificant Keepsake is in terms of the crossover at least mitigates slightly how much later the book came out than Batman Vol. 5: Fear State proper.)

I’ve no qualms about how scene-chewing Harley’s foe Keepsake is; that’s been table stakes for most of Harley’s foes all along. In fact, I rather like what seems to be developing as Phillips' structure for these books — in Volume 1, Hugo Strange was the villain, but with Keepsake in the background; in Volume 2, Keepsake is active, but Verdict supports him for part of it; and Volume 3 is, of course, subtitled “Verdict.” (Also, a gory implication involving Verdict and an ice cream scoop suggests Verdict might be a more serious villain than Strange or Keepsake, which I wouldn’t mind either.)

I was disappointed, however, to find that despite Keepsake’s name being Eli and his working with Hugo Strange, he is not Eli Strange, the briefly seen-and-forgotten son of Hugo from the New 52 Detective Comics. I’d have been impressed if Phillips had resurrected that deep cut, though for all we know she meant to and plans changed along the way.

We don’t get too much about Harley’s “Joker War” support group participants nor the freed former members of Keepsake’s mind-controlled “Caucus of Corruption,” but — perhaps because one is very large and muscle-bound — I did get distinct Gang of Harleys vibes. It remains of course to see who sticks around and what Phillips does next, but big, wacky supporting casts have been a Harley Quinn hallmark, and these plus Kevin and Solomon Grundy are a clear opportunity to add some depth to the title. (I adored Phillips side-stepping a continuity hole from another title where Grundy was apparently killed, but he appears here because, he growls, he simply “got better.”)

But somewhere in “Bad Math,” about the only two issues here where Phillips gets to tell her own story unencumbered, I began to worry whether Phillips had enough story to tell. Keepsake’s plot goes on for a while — after the villain is seemingly killed, he’s resurrected and attacks for a third time — and Phillips pads too many pages with Harley fighting Keepsake’s pumpkin-headed robots, verily all filler and no content. Even as there’s a nascent supporting cast here, no one has any real subplot or storyline outside Harley’s own, and so more than once the book simply devolves into superhero Harley in fisticuffs with generic henchmen, a far cry from funnier and more nuanced earlier incarnations.



A final trade-waiter’s complaint about Harley Quinn Vol. 2: Keepsake is that the Harley Quinn 2021 Annual takes place before the events of the book, but my copy had it stuck at the back. In the first pages of this volume Harley even references the events of the annual, and I wondered if I’d forgotten something before I realized when the events happened and where the annual was. A particularly disconnected annual can, and perhaps should, be shunted out of the way of the main story, but here the annual is quite connected, and that’s a miss on an editor’s part.

[Includes original and variant covers]


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