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Do DC’s graphic novels for young readers get a passing grade?

Do DC’s graphic novels for young readers get a passing grade?
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Every two weeks, Big Issues focuses on newly released comic books of significance.

This week, they are Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass, written by Mariko Tamaki (This One Summer, X-23) with art by Steve Pugh (The Flintstones, Animal Man) and letterer Carlos M. Mangual (Nightwing, Batman And Robin) and Superman Of Smallville, written by Art Baltazar & Franco (Aw Yeah Comics, Tiny Titans) with art by Baltazar, two graphic novels that represent new high points in DC’s current initiative to connect with young readers. Note: This review reveals major plot points.

For decades, comic books were written off as frivolous entertainment for children. The rise of underground voices, the popularization of the graphic novel format, and the darkening of the superhero genre gradually shifted public perception so that comics weren’t just for kids anymore, but now publishers are desperate to reach that young demographic. While sales for the overall book market are relatively flat, sales of graphic novels for juvenile readers grew 33% in 2018. Massive book publishers like Scholastic, Macmillan, and Random House have all gotten into the kids’ graphic novel game, and comic publishers are making a concentrated effort to attract middle-grade and young adult readers.

DC Comics is pushing harder than most, launching two new graphic novel imprints: DC Zoom for middle-grade readers and DC Ink for young adults. Not counting the pre-existing DC Super Hero Girls series, there have been seven new releases across Zoom and Ink since March: Super Sons: The Polarshield Project, Dear Justice League, and Superman Of Smallville from Zoom; Mera: Tidebreaker, Under The Moon: A Catwoman Tale, Teen Titans: Raven, and Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass for Ink. Both lines have grown in quality with each new release, but they got off to a rocky start.

DC Zoom technically launched with the continuation of DC Super Hero Girls, but the first Zoom debut was the underwhelming Super Sons: The Polarshield Project, a basic team-up of young heroes with awkward scripting and unusually sloppy lettering. Michael Northrup and Gustavo Duarte’s Dear Justice League is a huge step up, a very sweet introduction to DC’s flagship team with animated artwork that accentuates each hero’s distinct personality. The clever concept has each member of the Justice League responding to a message from one of their kid fans, breaking the narrative into short standalone chunks that are easy for young readers to digest. Having the heroes interact with audience surrogates humanizes them and invites readers to continue spending time with these characters, and as more of these graphic novels come out, there will be more options for readers to explore.

After getting to know an adult Superman in Dear Justice League, kids can spend time with a Superman closer to their age with this week’s Superman Of Smallville, following Clark Kent as he starts his superhero career in middle school. Created by the team behind Tiny Titans, one of the most charming kid superhero comics of this century, Superman Of Smallville offers a light-hearted origin story that presents Clark as a headstrong pre-teen fighting against the restrictions placed on him by his justifiably overprotective parents. Baltazar’s simplified art style has proven appeal with kids, and the creators have a talent for integrating cartoon comedy into superhero action, making for a very breezy, pleasant read.

With both imprints, the titles improve when the creators have more experience with the comic-book medium. Super Sons and the first three Inks books are all the comic-book debuts of their writers, and you can still feel them working through the learning curve as they transition from prose into a visual medium. Kami Garcia fares best with her work on Teen Titans: Raven, trusting her artist, Gabriel Picolo, to carry a lot of the emotional weight with his artwork. Picolo has become a fan art superstar with his illustrations of the Teen Titans hanging out like actual teenagers, and Garcia gives him a story that downplays the fantastic elements of Rachel’s demonic backstory and focuses on putting her in a recognizable high school environment.

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High school is a prominent setting across most of the DC Ink books, with Mera: Tidebreaker being the sole exception. Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass does the most with the location, rising above the typical mean-girl conflicts to pit Harley against the menaces of misogyny and bigotry. Breaking Glass is far and away the strongest of the seven Zoom and Ink titles released thus far, with creators who have a long, storied history with the medium. Mariko Tamaki is an award-winning writer of both personal graphic novels and licensed monthly comics, and Steve Pugh has been drawing creator-owned and corporate comics for nearly 30 years. Tamaki excels when she has complete freedom to reimagine superhero concepts—as she did with 2017’s outstanding Supergirl: Being Super—and Pugh shoots into the stratosphere with his artwork, experimenting with lighting, texture, and palettes to give Breaking Glass a unique aesthetic.

It’s only been four months since the release of Mariko Tamaki’s last YA graphic novel triumph, Laura Dean Is Breaking Up With Me, and she delivers her best superhero work with Breaking Glass, a zany, exhilarating, intensely political coming-of-age story about a liberated young woman waging war against gentrification and the patriarchy. The teenage Harleen Quinzel is reckless and more than a little unstable, but she also has a burning drive to fight for the people she cares about, with no concern for any laws she breaks in the process. Harley is one DC’s biggest personalities, and this creative team aggressively drives that point across. The book is narrated by Harley and she really likes to talk, but this actually propels the story because she has such a playful worldview and frenzied voice.

The narration is very active, and there’s a quick early moment that firmly situates the reader inside Harley’s head. After introducing herself and one of the people that rode the bus with her to Gotham City, Harley focuses on a random stranger before remembering that he’s not part of the story and should be ignored. It’s a funny bit that details Harley’s mental process as she responds to stimuli, zooming in on the new thing that pops into view and then rapidly dismissing it. It’s also the first panel that doesn’t feature Harley, opting for a first-person point of view that shows the reader exactly what Harley is seeing in the moment. This book is full of small character touches that bring a lot of dimensions to the supporting cast, including a group of queer performance artists and a new take on Poison Ivy as a young black activist whose family owns a community garden threatened by new neighborhood developments.

And then there’s the Joker. Any take on Harley has to feature her clown prince in some way, and Tamaki’s interpretation is an avatar for a generation of young white men who openly relish their privilege and engage in destructive behavior because there won’t be any consequences. This Joker is a spoiled brat who wants the whole world to listen to him when he’s unwilling to engage with any opinions that conflict with his own. His sense of entitlement fuels his intolerance, as well as his desire to see the world burn so he can watch the show from a safe position high above the rabble. He’s total scum, but Harley is still a teenage girl vulnerable to the charms of a young rebel who takes drastic action. Luckily, there are other rebels that Harley cares about much more, and when the Joker’s actions put Harley’s chosen family in danger, she immediately turns on him.

The presence of graphic novels in libraries and classrooms is a big reason why they’ve grown in popularity with younger readers, and Breaking Glass is full of teaching opportunities, whether that means delving further into the political subject matter or the craft that goes into the script and artwork. It opens doors to discuss how gentrification impacts marginalized communities, the ways institutionalized bigotry feeds white privilege, and the role that masks and performance play in creating queer identity and community. Students can write a research paper detailing how Tamaki’s take on Harley, Ivy, and the Joker compares to previous interpretations, or an analysis of recurring color themes in Steve Pugh’s artwork.

The DC Ink books have gone through a very interesting color progression. Mera’s palette is restricted to washed-out teal and orange, and Under The Moon sticks to monochromatic blue that goes gray during flashbacks. This flattens the linework and limits the expressive use of color, giving these two titles a drabber look. Raven features painted spot colors across a wider spectrum, with David Calderon using color to indicate moments of heightened emotion. A romantic night of Rachel walking through the streets of New Orleans with her new boyfriend is colored with a soft blend of purple, blue, and green, a palette that returns when Rachel is hanging out with her friends. These two moments are depicted in pages with no text, prime examples of Garcia’s willingness to let the visuals reinforce relationships on their own. Red is reserved for Rachel’s demon father, Trigon, who reveals himself in a splash page that powerfully establishes his dominion on his daughter’s soul.

Red is also Harley’s signature color, and it saturates the Gotham City sky in Breaking Glass, visually tying her to the environment that she’s trying to save. Everything about Steve Pugh’s art in Breaking Glass is phenomenal—the diversity of body types and facial features in his character designs, the layouts and compositions that immerse readers in the environment, the detail and expression of his linework—but the coloring is what makes this book look like nothing else. Flashbacks are colored with a fiery palette that emphasizes the rage in young Harley’s soul, which she channels into violent attacks on the people who disrespect her and her family. Pugh controls the tension with the colors, filling the page with soft pastels when Harley’s with friends and leaning into red/blue contrast when she’s with the Joker.

This week’s new DC Zoom and Ink releases have the imprints realizing their potential, just as they are about to shutter. This summer has been a rollercoaster for DC with the announcement that it will be streamlining its different lines, cutting Vertigo, DC Ink, and DC Zoom imprints and organizing content under three labels for different age ranges: DC Kids (8-12), DC (13+), and DC Black Label (17+). Given that DC had just launched Ink and Zoom and recently finished a Vertigo 25th anniversary celebration, this decision put the publisher’s long-term planning in question. Vertigo had been struggling for a while so the writing was on the wall there, but eliminating Ink and Zoom after titles had already debuted with the branding was especially puzzling.

Having those clearly defined channels makes it easier for retailers, librarians, educators, and consumers to find the books that are appropriate for different age groups. The Ink and Zoom branding is still present on new releases, so maybe the market’s response will change DC’s plans to phase out the imprints as it gears up for its huge slate of upcoming graphic novels for young readers. And the market is responding very well. The Ink and Zoom books are in the top 10 of Diamond’s graphic novel sales charts for each month they debut, and given the popularity of Harley Quinn and Superman, that trend is likely to continue with August’s debuts.