Mariko Tamaki and Steve Pugh’s graphic novel Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass (2019) reintroduces the DC comics antiheroine Harley Quinn as a teenage girl who arrives in Gotham after a childhood full of poverty, familial strife, and an already long rap sheet. As she begins to find her place in the world and discover more about who she wants to be, Harley learns valuable lessons about fighting for what’s right amidst profound structural injustice. Despite the superhero genre’s tendencies to imply that villainy is aberrant to the societies superheroes swoop in to save, Tamaki and Pugh reimagine Gotham as a society much like our own, riddled with the everyday inequities that come from the intersections of white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, and heterornormativity. As such, Harley cannot solve the problems she or her loved ones face simply by blowing stuff up, however much she would love to do just that. One of the more compelling ways Pugh demonstrates Harley’s process of self-discovery in relation to her growing awareness of intersectional injustice is through a focus on eyes and eye-related imagery. Although discussing every instance of this visual motif in Breaking Glass is beyond the scope of this post, I want to discuss three ways Pugh makes use of eyes that are particularly indicative of Harley’s learning journey.
According to Marni Stanley, the teen girls in Tamaki’s books are frequently depicted as watchful in order to underscore their adolescence, i.e., they watch the older teens and adults around them to try to gather information about the world and to observe how to behave in certain situations (2017). In Chapter Three of Breaking Glass, Pugh gives Harley this same watchful demeanor as wealthy white developers come to tell Harley’s found family that they will shortly be evicted from their homes. On page 64, for example, Harley is shown from the back at the top left of the page as she and her chihuahua friend look in towards the center of the panel where the Kanes deliver bad news to Harley’s caregiver, Mama (Figure 1).
In the middle of the page Pugh draws Harley and the chihuahua in close-up at eye-level, a view that Randy Duncan and Matthew Smith suggest focuses on “affect displays (emotions indicated by facial expressions),” and “[creates] identification with the characters and a sense of involvement in the action” (2009, 143). The transition from the top panel, with a view of Harley’s back, to the middle panel which focuses on her face, thus aligns the reader’s gaze with Harley’s; we are meant to witness the scene as she does. The close-up on Harley and the chihuahua’s faces in the middle panel also convey their observational postures. The dog’s face is encapsulated to show the bottom portion of its upright ears, its wide eyes, and its snout, implying that it is actively listening, watching, and sniffing—all of the mechanisms by which dogs gather information to determine the safety of a situation. Slightly behind the chihuahua we see Harley’s face which is similarly encapsulated to show her eyes, ears, nose, and the top half of her mouth, which seems to be agape. Harley’s eyes are angled upwards towards the faces of the adults and caption boxes of her inner monologue indicate that she is examining their eyes. In the panels below, Pugh draws extreme close-ups (angles Duncan and Smith argue are used to draw attention to particular details) of the eyes of Mama and Mrs. and Mr. Kane. Reflections of light in Mama’s eyes and shading around his eyebrows make his eyes look vibrant and intent. A relative lack of light reflected in the Kanes’ eyes, and their frozen faces give them a disengaged, unfeeling appearance, and considering their purpose in the scene—to displace an already marginalized community—this makes them very sinister indeed. Cumulatively, the page illustrates how Harley learns through observation that a veneer of civility ultimately cannot hide the inhumanity of those who seek to uphold white supremacy through gentrification.
In addition to detailed depictions of eyes, Pugh also makes use of eye imagery to emphasize themes of social justice in Harley’s coming-of-age story. For instance, the shopfront of Mama’s drag club features two large eyes (Figure 2). Drawn in an iconographical style, the eyes have vertical pupils and are lined heavily with eye makeup and thick lashes. On the one hand, the eyes advertise what’s inside the club by evoking the kind of exaggerated makeup drag queens wear on stage. As theorist Judith Butler has argued, drag or ‘parodic repetitions’ have the potential to be disruptive or subversive of hegemony, particularly mechanisms of gender normativity (1990: 187–88). Drag is also linked to resistance by the drag queens who clarify for Harley how they think of themselves and their art. Harley is instructed, for example, to call a group of drag queens “a mutiny,” a noun referring to a group of people who rebel against authority (Tamaki, Pugh, and Mangual 2019, 30). On the other hand, the shopfront eyes arguably have a kind of skeptical or wary expression to them owing to the shape of their pupils and being partially closed. In the context of the gentrification plotline described above, the eyes on Mama’s building can therefore be read as a sign of skepticism of the kinds of “improvements” white wealthy developers like the Kanes promise.
Relatedly, the queer character Dali also serves as an example of how Pugh combines eye imagery with drag culture to imbue Breaking Glass with an anti-oppressive ethos. Other than her caretaker Mama, Harley is closest to the character whose stage name is Hello Dali. Dali acts as a kind of mentor to Harley, educating her about the culture and history of her new community. While Dali does wear different drag costumes throughout the book, the one that Harley sees first is perhaps most emblematic of Dali’s political commitments (Figure 3). As Harley peeks backstage at Mama’s club, she sees Dali being helped into a costume that includes a headpiece with two large horns, a split open cranium, and six eyes arranged in two vertical columns. Dali also wears a ruffled skirt that has multiple eyes along its border. The nightmarish appearance of Dali’s costume with its many eyes, combined with Dali’s name, can be read as an allusion to surrealism. Specifically, while Hello Dali is a play on the musical title Hello, Dolly!—pointing to the theatricality of drag—it also refers to Salvador Dalí, one of the most prominent Surrealists. The Surrealists aimed in their art and performances to eschew rationalism and realism in favor of freeing the unconscious, channeling the power of the imagination, and ultimately, mobilizing creativity in pursuit of revolution. The liberatory aspect of Dali’s monstrous eye-laden performance is underscored by Tamaki’s dialogue. In a particularly poignant moment during which Dali is helping Harley to see who she will become, Dali declares “we are artists and creators. We must relish our power to resist the world order, which lies in our ability to ignore their rules and impose our own” (Tamaki, Pugh, and Mangual 2019, 44). This message is not lost on Harley who eventually forges her antiheroine identity by combining the matrilineal and queer creative traditions that have informed her journey and by ignoring the kinds of patriarchal norms that have dominated her character history.
While these are just a few brief examples, I hope to have made clear how Pugh’s art powerfully contributes to the ways Breaking Glass may be read as an anti-oppressive superhero text. For further analysis of the book’s liberatory potential, please look for my article “Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass: Reclaiming Harley’s Past to Determine her Feminist Future,” in MAI: Feminism and Visual Culture in the spring of 2023.
Butler, Judith. 1990. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York; London: Routledge.
Duncan, Randy, and Matthew J. Smith. 2009. The Power of Comics: History, Form & Culture. New York; London: Bloomsbury Academic.
Stanley, Marni. 2017. “Unbalanced on the Brink: Adolescent Girls and the Discovery of the Self in Skim and This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki.” In Graphic Novels for Children and Young Adults: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Michelle Anne Abate and Gwen Athene Tarbox, 191–204. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.
Tamaki, Mariko, Steve Pugh, and Carlos Mangual. 2019. Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass. DC Comics.
Bio: Sam Langsdale (she/her) is an independent feminist scholar whose work focuses on the cultural politics around representation of gender, sexuality, and race in visual culture. Her research on comics has appeared in peer-reviewed journals and award-winning edited volumes. She is particularly proud of being the co-editor of the multi-author book Monstrous Women in Comics (University Press of Mississippi). Her forthcoming monograph From the Margins into the Gutters: Searching for Feminist Superheroes is under contract with The University of Texas Press. You can read more about Sam’s work here: https://www.samlangsdale.com/
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