Review: Harley Quinn Vol. 4: Task Force XX hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

DC published the issues in Stephanie Phillips' Harley Quinn Vol. 4: Task Force XX weekly during one of the months of Dark Crisis. Though not so related that you couldn’t enjoy Task Force XX without reading Dark Crisis, the story takes place believably parallel to those pages, when plenty other books were content to ignore Dark Crisis until after it was over.

Though the book is far from the best Harley Quinn has ever been, and hampered considerably by the art, it’s a kicky action flick particularly in view of it again as having been released weekly. I was also impressed with some deep Suicide Squad cuts that Phillips peppers in, signaling more thought at play than the blithe premise suggests. I was put in mind at times (speaking of deep cuts) of the ye olde “Superboy: Watery Grave” from the classic Karl Kesel/Tom Grummett series; both were Squad-esque stories told outside the traditional Suicide Squad cover, and that’s a fun perspective in this moment between Suicide Squad series.

[Review contains spoilers]

We are sure full circle, from the New 52 days when the first rule of Harley Quinn was “don’t talk about how Harley can be in Suicide Squad and Coney Island at the same time,” to Harley referencing her Squad time here when former Batwing Luke Fox recruits her for his team. There’s a remarkable un-Squad aesthetic to the story — villains, yes, on a suicide mission, yes, but all of them getting paid by a benefactor with their best interests more or less at heart. If somewhat less dramatic, it would be an interesting paradigm to see explored in a Squad title proper — villains doing good for a paycheck, at least, rather than resentment and fear of being killed.

[See the latest DC trade solicitations.]

Again, I’m most impressed with how Phillips makes this a Squad story and ties it to the greater DCU. The villain Dreadbolt is killed early on and remains dead-dead; no other character dies, but at least there’s an actual body count, evoking the John Ostrander days. And not only does Phillips have both Bronze Tiger and Lashina in tow, two from the Ostrander days, but Bronze Tiger is even confronted with some of that history — really, when’s the last time a DC comic ever mentioned Flo Crawley?

As well, the story turns on a bit from Justice League vs. Suicide Squad (let’s not even try to figure how that’s still in continuity), not to mention a significant tie to Dark Nights: Metal. And though Luke Fox doesn’t factor into Dark Crisis, crowded out by his brother Jace, Phillips gives a sensible explanation for what Luke might be doing during this time and even brings in Lucius Fox, forwarding some of the Fox family drama we’ve seen over in I Am Batman. Ditto aligning Killer Frost with her arc from Steve Orlando’s Justice League of America.

All of these continuity notes demonstrate to me the amount of thinking that went in to fashioning this story. That’s useful, because at other times the story feels rather boilerplate, as when a nondescript military force fires a missle at the Task Force’s spaceship simply because they don’t know what it is, something the plot needs but that doesn’t necessarily make sense. It’s the same with the military just showing up with guns drawn at Luke’s house a short time later.

Phillips' Harley Quinn is comedic, in the sense that Harley and crew are continually tossing out one-liners, but never actually funny. Jokes about Bronze Tiger’s 1980s fashion sense fall flat, for instance, because neither can we really see Tiger’s costume clearly nor does a jacket and pants suggest the '80s (there may be a disconnect between writer and artist here). Harley making a “one small step” joke when she steps out on to the moon, talking about the moon made of cheese, or narrating a faux “captain’s log” all seem obvious fare, and Task Force XX never rises above it.

Georges Duarte contributes most of the book’s art, what seems like it might be his only work for DC (having done more at Marvel et al.). There’s a cartoony influence that indeed is tonally right for Harley Quinn, but the book sometimes lacks detail when it counts, and certain instances — a character dropping a coffee mug at the end of one page and it crashing to the floor at the start of the next — suggest needed refinement in comics storytelling. Toward the end, artist Simone Buonfantino mimics Duarte well, but with jagged, unfinished lines that make the art seem less polished in the finale.

The previous volume, Harley Quinn Vol. 3: Verdict, was the high point of this series so far, bringing with it unexpected gore and cogent mystery; I’m not necessarily looking for seriousness in a Harley Quinn comic, but the best of previous runs have balanced humor with emotional stakes. Notably, though the villain Verdict is present in Harley Quinn Vol. 4: Task Force XX, Stephanie Phillips does really little with her, a significant waste of potential after that last volume. It’s clear again that Phillips put some thought into this Squad-outside-the-Squad story, and that I appreciate, though in total it doesn’t quite seem this book can quite overcome the run’s intrinsic shortcomings.

[Includes original and variant covers]

Rating 2.25


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