Harley’s mouth falls agape as she begins to process the devastating news. Despite their best efforts, her mother’s cancer is spreading rapidly. The moments following the doctor’s last words stretch out for what feels like an eternity as a forlorn silence settles over the room. Suddenly, her mother’s boisterous cackle abruptly fills it, slicing the dramatic tension like a flaming sword of retribution through the unjust. Desperate for help, the Clown Princess of Crime’s pleas are met only with a new setup.
“Didja hear the joke about the Great Clown Pagliacci going to the Doctor – Crap! I screwed up the punch line.”
Sam Humphries’ work always has this unexpected way of drawing me into the narrative. Upon my initial reading, it is always his use of humor that draws me into the story. With each new issue, I come across a line of dialogue that sticks with me as I finish the book. Sometimes, this dialogue is laugh-out-loud funny, and I find myself quoting it to my friends the next time that we are all together. Most often, these lines evoke a sense of familiarity. Inevitably, I find myself doing some research into this line of dialogue, resulting in the discovery of another wonderful layer to the story. It is Humphries’ ability to create depth through weaving complex themes from works like Kafka’s The Metamorphosis with Harley Quinn’s brand of fourth wall shattering humor that makes this series so enjoyable.
With Harley Quin #63, Humphries frames his story with Rorschach’s joke from Watchmen. What is so excellent about this joke’s inclusion is how it is used in the story. Humphries does not retell the joke; he allows Harley’s mother to butcher it in a way that makes the line appear less important than it should to the overall narrative. Make no mistake, he has set his sights on answering, “Who watches the Watchmen?” or perhaps more appropriately, “Who makes the clown laugh?”
Throughout the story, we witness Harley coming to grips with her mother’s condition, and her own mortality, as she faces off against DC’s incarnation of Death. This conflict is an excellent choice for Harley’s next trial as it ties to a common fear of Death while providing an opportunity to answer Rorschach’s joke. Following a nostalgia-fueled romp through a soon-to-be-demolished video store, Humphries’ resolution to this conflict is pitch-perfect.
As Death arrives to claim Harley’s soul, she finds herself completely powerless. Harley can’t smash Death into a pancake with her hammer as she can with her other, more corporeal enemies. Instead, she finds strength in her mother’s words, “See, you can laugh at times like this.” As she faces her untimely demise, Harley summons the strength to laugh. Much to our entertainment, she guffaws and chortles in the face of Death until it ultimately realizes the error of its ways. With this resolution, Humphries’ provides an answer to the question, “Who makes the clown laugh?” When faced with adversity, we are always able to find strength in our heroes, loved ones, and friends. This powerful message is one from which I think everyone can benefit.
Thankfully, this entire conflict was a complete misunderstanding as Death was only meant to claim the video store. One of the things that I love about Sam Humphries’ writing in this issue is how vaguely he writes Death’s dialogue. Throughout the issue, Humphries’ work leads us to believe that Death is pursuing Harley’s soul. The humorous preservation of the final punchline provides additional levity for the comic. It is only after re-reading the issue that Death’s intended target is more apparent.
In terms of narrative, I would be remiss if I did not mention how this issue ties into “Year of the Villain.” From Harley’s crossed eyes replacing Lex’s on the cover to the inclusion of a new comic by Meredith Clatterbuck, I love how this issue pokes fun at DC’s line-wide event. The self-aware humor used here is much needed for anyone suffering from chronic event fatigue.
“All things must pass. Even beloved franchises.”
Otto Schmidt’s artwork does most of the heavy lifting as we witness Harley come to grips with her mother’s condition. One of my favorite pages throughout the entire issue involves Harley passing through the crowd of people on Coney Island. There are no words to punctuate the moment. Otto Schmidt nails Harley’s closed body language as it illustrates that she is isolated from everyone. The use of color to represent this isolation is perfect. Although everything else is in idyllic sunset hues, Harley remains in a cold black and white. This beautifully illustrates her emotional state. Additionally, the powerful six-panel page does an excellent job conveying the stages of grief as well as the rate in which Harley is experiencing them.
With a blend of meaningful themes and fourth wall breaking humor, Harley Quinn #63 perfectly answers the question, “Who makes the clown laugh?” Humphries’ ability to create depth through weaving complex themes with Harley Quinn’s brand of fourth wall shattering humor makes Harley Quinn incredibly enjoyable. However, it is the subtle inclusion of meatier themes that elevate this work. Additionally, Otto Schmidt’s artwork does an excellent job conveying the titular character’s range of emotions.